There is a strong whiff of tobacco on Christophe Navarre’s breath, clothes, and in the company car taking him to one of his most important appointments of the month: the LVMH executive meeting hosted by his boss, Bernard Arnault, President and CEO of LVMH, Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy.
The executives gather regularly for a meeting and lunch to report how their respective operations have contributed to the world’s leading luxury goods group, whose revenues reached 20 billion euros ($28.3) in 2010. As the company’s wines and spirits “czar” who heads Moët-Hennessy, LVMH’s second largest division, Navarre knows his performance will come under close scrutiny.
Navarre’s rule is to never smoke when he is stressed, but that rarely happens, partly because the stress level is bearable for him at LVMH. The Belgium native averages two or three cigars a day, lighting up the first—and, in his mind, the best—one around 10 a.m. That’s when the urge strikes him to reach for “something not heavy, with finesse and little aftertaste” like the Hoyo de Monterrey Epicure No. 2, Juan Lopez Seleccion No. 2 (Robusto), or a Montecristo Open Eagle. “For some, the best smoke is in the evening, after the meal. For me it is around 10 a.m.,” he explains. “That’s when I have the best capacity to taste. It’s the same thing with spirits. At Hennessy Cognac, the maître de chai always said, ‘if you are going to taste eau-de-vies, do so in the morning because your taste buds can recognize all subtleties.’”
Navarre reports feeling “aligned” with the LVMH world ever since 1997, when he left the world’s leading beer company, Interbrew, to become president and CEO of Cognac-based Hennessy & Co. Navarre was attracted to LVMH because he had heard of its entrepreneurial corporate culture.
Navarre was sold, remembering that he’d been told he was expected to run his business as if it were his own. “It was a short, 30-minute job interview—meetings are always short with Bernard Arnault—but I felt then what I continue to experience every day: that he is a great entrepreneur. I didn’t have the impression that I was entering a group with a bunch of bureaucrats who relied on organizational charts. And I said to myself, ‘I am unbelievably lucky because I will run a company and somehow leave my mark on it.’ ”
One day, just before he was about to sign his employment contract, Navarre read a surprising article in the Financial Times that reported that Hennessy was going to be sold. “So I call up the head of Moët-Hennessy, Pierre Letzelter, to ask him what the hell is going on,” he says. “I had already heard rumors about Bernard’s supposed lack of interest in the wines and spirits business. Pierre’s response? ‘Don’t worry, Christophe. [He] would never do that.’ ”
That assurance appeased Navarre. “I have nothing against the Brits, but I don’t want to work for them,” he told Letzelter.
Navarre began to manage Hennessy as if it were his own company, earning his boss’s trust as the years went on. “To gain his confidence, you must say what you do, and do what you say,’’ notes Navarre, who doubled Hennessy’s sales before being promoted as president and CEO of LVMH’s wine and spirits division in 2001. He runs LVMH’s wine and spirits division with the take-no-prisoner enthusiasm of a conquering general.
Navarre relates to the corporate philosophy that finishing second isn’t allowed. “When you enter a race, being number two is not an option—all that counts is being on top. That’s why I want Moët-Hennessy to be a company under pressure day and night, 24/7. I like to think of it as positive pressure. And you know what? It works because people like the adrenaline and they want to give the best of themselves. It’s like being a Formula 1 racer who will try it all to go three hundredths of a second faster per round because he senses that he can win the race—that objective allows him to multiply his capacity. It’s the same in business. Some people in the group call me a ‘cowboy.’ But I will never change because I believe in such a mentality to be successful in business.”
To this day, news reports surface regularly about LVMH’s “impending plans” to sell Moët Hennessy. “But as I tell everyone, we are still here,” Navarre says triumphantly. In fact, just the opposite has happened—LVMH has acquired more brands. Under Navarre’s leadership, LVMH has invested in Millennium, the producer of Belvedere vodka; bought Glenmorangie, a prestigious single malt whisky house, for a reported 300 million British pounds; and launched 10 Cane Rum and Chinese white spirit Wenjun, among other new ventures. “People said we would never buy another brand. But each time we ask for an investment, he does it, as long as we can demonstrate that it fits with the Group’s strategy,” states Navarre.
The battle for Glenmorangie in the fall of 2004 was a vintage LVMH action, according to Navarre. “We had to fight for it,” he recalls. “We thought we had the deal wrapped up, but we were surprised to learn someone else made a bid. That’s when I had a close-up look at Bernard Arnault in action.”
As Navarre tells it, “I was in Hong Kong when I got a call. ‘Look, congratulations, Christophe, we will be the owners of a formidable malt whisky. The deal might happen tonight.’ I jumped on the first plane back to Paris. Upon arrival, I learned that someone was making a higher offer.”
The surprise bidder was Pernod Ricard, the French drinks company. “At one point, Bernard asked me to join him in his office, where he worked the phone. ‘This deal is mine,’ he said to one interlocutor. ‘I am the one who worked on it and made it happen.’ Five minutes later the deal was done. He didn’t have to raise his price. What I saw was a display of raw power and, above all, his strong will.”
Persistence and determination has paid off in Navarre’s own successful career at LVMH. “So far, so good,” Navarre says with a smile, adding that Moët Hennessy reported record results in 2011 (although he won’t provide details until the formal announcement in early February). Results were already very positive in 2010, when Navarre’s wines and spirits division reported 3.3 billion euros in revenues, making it the second largest contributor to the LVMH group behind the perennial cash cow, Louis Vuitton, which accounted for the lion’s share of the 7.6 billion euros worth of sales reported by the group’s fashion division that year.
Navarre isn’t some corporate clone in the LVMH world. At 53, he is a broad-shouldered extrovert with a jutting chin, a voluble, friendly, back slapping kind of guy with a rumbling and seductive baritone voice. He is also padded like a former athlete turned bon vivant (“I don’t do enough sport. In fact, I don’t do any. I am like Churchill, I prefer to smoke cigars,” he told me once, drawing on a Juan Lopez).
A workaholic who averages four or five hours of sleep a night during extended periods, he carves out downtime during intercontinental flights. “For instance, I can sleep 12 hours when I travel to Japan. The phone is off and I create a void, a kind of zen zone.” He is frequently in Miami with his family where they have a home. “I wish Europe was more like America, where you can be ‘reborn’ after a failure, and where you are encouraged to feel that you can reach a higher goal the next time around.”
Navarre knows his passion for cigars isn’t shared at the top of LVMH pyramid, not as a pastime, or for its potential as a business. Navarre has suggested that LVMH should produce luxury cigars if the opportunity presents itself. “One day, when Cuba opens up, I would like us to buy a plantation, but Bernard will not do it,” Navarre relates. Undeterred, he says he will buy one on his own one day. “I will do it out of passion, because it is my dream to make a cigar. I am certain you can double prices easily, and sell a cigar for $60, if the quality is really exceptional. When Cuba opens up, I’ll do everything I can to buy a farm in Pinar del Río, which obviously makes the best tobacco.”
Beyond personal chemistry, Navarre shares a bond with his boss—a competitive streak and taste for winning or, as Navarre likes to point out, its corollary: beating the enemy. Basically, they view business as a war.
“Bernard is a warrior and so am I,” the cigar aficionado says. “We share a life philosophy. When I say ‘warrior,’ it’s because we are businessmen, and business is like a war. And one of the problems I find with managers these days is that they are no longer warriors. And because they aren’t warriors, they don’t win. If they were warriors, they’d have only one goal: to win.”
It’s emblematic that the sculpture of an ancient Chinese warrior dominates Navarre’s office. His fighting spirit was shaped during military service in Belgium where he was an elite air commando. “Every morning at 6 a.m. we lined up bare-chested and in camouflage pants, replying, ‘Yes sir! Yes sir!’ Just like in the movies,” he recalls. “Then we’d jump out of planes, and the guy behind you was responsible for fixing your parachute so it opened automatically. You didn’t look over your shoulder to check if the man had done his duty. You just jumped.”
A lifelong smoker, Navarre has always stuck to cigars except during two periods: As a boy, after serving Mass on Sundays, he’d sneak out with his comrades after service to puff on Menthol-flavored cigarettes, and in the army when cigars were too expensive for his modest pay and he accepted the rations of cigarettes given out to the soldiers. “Even as a boy, I never got sick smoking cigars, unlike my friends who were ill just with cigarettes,” recalls Navarre, who once bought a huge, cheap Belgian cigar and hid it like a treasure in the basement of the building where he lived.
However, his “Eureka” moment—when he discovered the taste of truly great cigars—came when he was 17. One night he took a break from cramming for university exams in Liège, Belgium, where he would earn a degree in business administration, and joined his father and a friend after their meal at a fine restaurant that featured a superb collection of Havanas. The friend was smoking an enormous Cuban cigar.
“Do you enjoy smoking a cigar now and then?” the friend asked.
When Christophe nodded yes, the man called for the humidor. “And without looking, he plunges his huge hand—I can still see it, the arm is like a crane—into the humidor, grabs a bunch of cigars and hands them to me. ‘Here, you will study better with those,’ ” Navarre remembers.
Once he returned to his room, he took a closer look at the gift: Château Margaux, Château Yquem, Dom Pérignon. “I didn’t have the faintest idea about their pedigree,” he says of these Davidoff-made Havanas. “It was my first contact with the cigar Nirvana.”
Early in his career, when he couldn’t afford such fine cigars, he smoked cigars from Mexico and Sumatra. Since then, his collection has expanded. “I am privileged to have about 150 Dom Pérignon cigars in my cellar,” he says. “But I am desperately searching for Château Margaux from Davidoff because for me, it is the gold standard, the greatest quality possible. Even in London hotels with great collections you can find Dom Pérignon and Château Yquem but not Château Margaux.”
Navarre’s passion for cigars has brought him immense pleasure throughout life. “The cigar is a symbol of well-being, for the epicurean, for people who feel good. I’ve never met a cigar smoker who wasn’t a man of quality. I weight my words: Never.”
Per-Henrik Mansson is a freelance writer based in Switzerland.