The headlines out of the talk by Johann Rupert, Executive Chairman of Compagnie Financiere Richemont SA were big ones. Speaking at the Financial Times Business of Luxury conference, he said what keeps him up at night is the destruction of the middle class and coming mass unemployment driven by technology. That will lead to class warfare. The other big news was he invited Kering and LVMH to take an equity stake in the Internet shopping platform he is creating by merging his stake in Net-a-Porter with Yoox. In 55 minutes, those two points alone are quite a boatload, and in fact, it was interesting most of the follow-up questions in the audience were from reporters pursuing those topics.
Having had the chance to view the entire talk thanks to Youtube.com and the FT posting it, I thought it would be of interest to cover other points he made, which to me were also valuable, and I hope you will find worthwhile as well. Below is my summary of key points.
- His viewpoint: His view is as “insider outsider.” While outside South Africa he is know for luxury goods, in his homeland he is known for the bank he started in the 1970s that today employs 32,000 people, and diversified holdings in finance and medical. He was the first importer of Apple computers to South Africa in the mid-80s and he started a mobile phone company he sold to Vodafone. He has owned a business that lays underwater cables. It’s a bit of an unusual perspective as I often find top executives across various industries have grown up in the silo of their industry, coming to the top spot, sometimes without leaving their narrow segment, be it cruises, watches or airlines.
- How he got involved in luxury: His entrée into luxury in the ‘70s was at a time “luxury wasn’t sexy.” It was a period before the Internet, mobile phones and even portable music – the Sony Walkman. Entertainment was Studio 54. While there is debate about how much he paid for a stake in Cartier at the time, $7 million or $9 million, it was a deal that many other’s passed up. “You couldn’t fill up a room like this in 10 years.” He said there was simply no interest. “Automobiles were a serious business. Luxury was a joke.”
- Why the financial crisis? The problem with financial institutions running rampant dates back to changing from partnership structures to corporations. With the corporate structure came leverage. He said working in a partnership structure, “The partners regulated us. If you messed around, the partners went bankrupt. Trust me, you didn’t need regulation.”
- How To Fix The Financial System: The current problem is “not the free market system. It’s the lack of the free market system. If they allowed (companies) to go under, people wouldn’t have these one way bets. But we kept on supporting (and) interfering.”
- Are his products overpriced? Addressing whether pricing is inflated, he relayed that a customer told him, if you look at the cost of an A. Lange & Sohne watch, and look at how much labor it takes, it costs less on a per hour basis than getting your oil and spark plugs changed.
- How is the pace of change changing? Change will be exponential. The difference between walking 30 real yards and walking 30 exponential yards is a trip to the moon and two roundtrips around earth. “What’s happening today with artificial intelligence isn’t science fiction.” It will create structural unemployment where jobless that are no longer employable. Hundreds of millions of jobs will be impacted. The jobs that will be impacted by the robot revolution go beyond what’s apparent, such as driverless cars. He says while hairdressers and florists will flourish, diagnostic doctors will be replaced by robots. “It’s going fast than I every thought. Everything will be squeezed into faster and faster.”
- Technology behind the scenes is critical: He paid homage to former CEO Norbett Platt for his leadership in data management. “We know where our stuff is, and we know what it costs us at all times.”
- How he manages his brands: “We have maisons that are centuries old. Our role is to protect their DNA and brand equity because if we can have desirability and brand equity we have pricing power…One of the greatest compliments you can give me is that we don’t innovate at all. We remain so true to the brand you don’t notice (yet) 25 percent of the products must be new, but you need to stay within the DNA. If you don’t stay within the DNA it won’t sell and won’t retain value.”
- Will the $17,000 Apple watch displace his luxury products? The answer is a resounding no. He tells about when Cartier executives eight years ago proposed to make a mobile phone. His response was that phones are thrown away. People keep Cartier, even the box. They don’t throw it away. He also asked, for your wife’s birthday or daughter’s 18th birthday, will you buy her an Apple watch or something she will remember the rest of her life. He said, he likes the Patek campaign about passing down your watch to the next generation.
- Marketplace challenges: “We have lots of competition from mispriced capital. When people misprice something it’s abused. It starts with landlords who take us to the cleaners, especially in Asia.”
- What he is doing to keep luxury creative: “We’ve amalgamated luxury and luxury can’t be ubiquitous…We need style, design and creativity…Taste, design, culture and luxury goods are strengths of Europe.” New UHNW/Super Rich have forgotten their money quicker in the past, and they didn’t stop past the culture part en route. The craftsman who make luxury items sometimes feel affronted in the ways they are being asked by today’s luxury customer to apply their skills. In June, he will announce a platform with Net-A-Porter and Yoox that will enable “the little artisans who sit in the little village” so they remain employed in the second machine age.
- The minnow and the whale: Luxury is still a small business. Richemont at $5 billion Euros is a hiccup compared to Apple, IBM and other players. The costs of big data are huge and too much for any single player.
- Why Switzerland is a good place to do business: There was a vote at his factories in the French part of Switzerland. Should workers get extra paid holidays? The Swiss workers said, no, we have enough. The French workers said they were crazy. “Do you not like working in a place like that” Swatch didn’t just fall out of the sky.”
- Is luxury buying coming back in China? There are 90 million people in the Communist Party out of over 1 billion population, so as a minority, the crackdown of corruption in the party “is a very wise thing to do.” However, the normal status symbol of a mistress “or four” is coming back, “which is great for our business. The Chinese are smart, work like hell and save. There are more men than women…They have to be very generous with the women.”
- On the global luxury market: “We have five engines and five continents. Coco Chanel said money is money. It’s only the pockets that change…Oil prices go up, sales go up in the Middle East. We just have to remain true to the brand equity.”
- What books should read? The Second Machine Age and Robots Will Steal Your Job.