Bill Gates, Bernard Arnault…these business owners who overtake their opponents

Bill Gates, Bernard Arnault...these business owners who overtake their opponents

It was in April 2015. In an email sent to employees on the occasion of forty years of Microsoft, its co-founder Bill Gates returned to his beginnings with his friend Paul Allen (who died in 2018) by evoking their presentiment that computers were going to invade our daily life. “It was a bold idea and a lot of people thought we were crazy to imagine this possible. ” Crazy ? It’s the least we can say. If he left the head of his group for a while to devote himself to his charitable foundation, Bill Gates can boast of having been the first to build a digital empire, still dashing today with 168.1 billion. dollars in sales and 36.5% net margin! More profitable than Google, Facebook, Amazon and even Apple…

An unparalleled flair, a lot of audacity, a conviction anchored in the body. The history of the creators of Microsoft is symbolic of that of these bosses who marked the history of capitalism by their quality of strategist, taking their opponents by storm like an army chief in rival territories. “What brings them together is this ability to follow their intuition and unfold their ideas even if no one believes in them,” underlines Sylvain Bersinger, economist and author of several volumes on this topic (Legendary EntrepreneursEnrick B Editions).

In terms of strategy, students in management school often learn the main principles to which these leaders have recourse: specialization of the activity or diversification, integration or outsourcing. But even more, it is their ability to create a new market and to impose their rules on it that characterizes them.


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Back to Bill Gates. Passionate about computers from high school, this son of a good family left his studies at Harvard to create, in 1975, Microsoft (contraction of microcomputer and software) with his high school friend Paul Allen. As the first microcomputers appeared, the two partners anticipated that tools would be needed to run them. They have already developed a first program for the manufacturer MITS and will know the consecration in 1980 with IBM.

Wanting to launch personal computers, this multinational was looking for an operating system and contacted Gates. Inflated, it will provide one, not designed internally but bought from a small computer company and adapted to become the famous MS-DOS. Clever, he does not sell the program all at once but only the right to use it against royalties on each machine sold. A jackpot, because IBM’s sales exploded in the following years. Better still, having obtained the right to retain the copyright from its partner, Gates was able to offer MS-DOS to other manufacturers, strengthening its grip on the PC market. “In digital, developers do not want to adapt their software for many platforms, explains Olivier Ezratti, former Microsoft France who became an independent consultant. If you impose your system at the start, a virtuous circle begins because everyone follows you. »


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After MS-DOS, Gates also experienced the same success with Windows and then with its office solutions (Office), to the point of foreclosing the market and being accused of monopoly. Even today, Microsoft still controls 74% of the market for PC operating systems, far ahead of the second, Apple (15%)… Very strong on computers, Gates did not however know how to repeat the magic formula on mobile phones and the Internet. “Here, Apple and Google have been able to impose themselves with the same logic of a platform favored by developers”, analyzes Olivier Ezratti.

It is not only in high-tech in the United States that we find entrepreneurs with pioneering strategies. See ready-to-wear in old Europe. For the general public, the Italian brand Benetton created in 1965 by Luciano Benetton and his family remains associated with its colorful wool sweaters and its provocative advertising campaigns. But its success in the 1980s and 90s was based on an original system similar to that adopted by current web-based matchmaking platforms. “Luciano Benetton invented the virtual company with intensive outsourcing,” emphasizes Frédéric Fréry, professor of strategy at ESCP and author of a book on the history of the company.


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The creation of collections? Freelance designers selected by invitation to tender in addition to in-house stylists changed every four or five years to guarantee creativity, under the leadership of Giuliana, Luciano’s sister. The making ? 80% subcontracted to small independent factories located not far from the headquarters, in Veneto, with only quality control and dyeing being done in-house. Commercialization ? Up to 7,000 independent stores without a franchise contract, the clan only being remunerated with a margin on the sale of products. After leaving the management of the company in 2012, the patriarch (now 87 years old) has returned since 2017 to try to find the DNA of the brand, very impacted by the textile crisis for twenty years. But if the model ran out of steam and had to evolve significantly, it will have enabled Luciano and his family to become extremely wealthy and to invest in multiple assets (fast food, airport and motorway concessions, real estate, etc.), clothing representing now a small part of the empire.


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Another maestro of the economic model, a French one, Jean-Claude Decaux has reinvented the advertising display market. To the point of becoming the world number 1 in outdoor advertising, established in more than 3,500 cities around the world with nearly 960,000 advertising spaces available. At the origin of this gigantic network, Jean-Claude Decaux, the father of the current leaders, died in 2016. In 1964, this autodidact who had created his small advertising display company in Beauvais (60) could have been ruined after a law heavily taxing advertisements on the roads. Legend has it that one rainy day in Paris, he noticed the pedestrians soaked on the sidewalk, waiting for the bus unprotected.

Hence his idea of ​​offering municipalities shelters for public transport users. He imagines a new model: he is responsible for maintaining this street furniture and is financed through advertising. With this visionary find, the young boss did a double blow by reassuring towns reluctant to invest (Lyon was the first to sign), while offering advertisers new media to showcase themselves. After the bus shelters, Decaux then declined all kinds of street furniture (information panels, city maps, public toilets, etc.) and services (self-service bicycles) most often financed according to the same principle, first in France then abroad under the aegis of his sons.

Arnault Arnault, CEO of LVMH, built an empire by multiplying takeovers and defined the new grammar of luxury

“He’s an American icon that’s becoming a bit French. In November 2019, the CEO and owner of the LVMH group, Bernard Arnault, was quite proud of his latest war prize. The famous American jeweler Tiffany & Co. has just fallen into his hands against a check for 16.2 billion dollars! The biggest acquisition in history for this luxury giant, built from scratch for nearly forty years by this formidable businessman. His first shot at poker?

In 1984, this young polytechnician convinced his father, a construction entrepreneur, to invest a good part of the family fortune, with the help of the State, in the acquisition of Boussac, a moribund textile group in the North but which owns a nugget: the Dior fashion house. It was the start of a vast policy of buying back prestigious brands (rather than creating them), even if it meant engaging in epic battles with the owners, starting in 1989 with LVMH, born shortly before, from the merger of the trunk maker Louis Vuitton with the spirits company Moët Hennessy. Fashion, wines, jewelry, perfumes… The targets identified are primarily sleeping beauties (Guerlain, Givenchy, Céline…) with a prestigious history on which to capitalize.


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Bernard Arnault then knows how to revive them thanks to a grammar of luxury that he masters better than anyone. Recruitment of rising creatives (John Galliano, Marc Jacobs, Hedi Slimane, etc.) to whom the boss associates a confirmed manager. Organization of increasingly spectacular haute couture fashion shows, coupled with massive advertising investments to inspire dreams. Combining tradition and creativity, these brands with very controlled production will then go up in range and in price, even if the bulk of the turnover is achieved thanks to leather goods, (relatively) accessible and sold throughout the world. Starting with Asia where the “new rich” in search of social status are not lacking.

Last cardinal point: the control of distribution with a maniacal choice of points of sale in the most prestigious streets or malls. “This control allows it to offer an optimal customer experience, but also to control the labels and avoid any devaluing discounts or sales”, explains Jean-Noël Kapferer, professor emeritus at HEC.

The exercise to ward off those who can harm you by Guila Clara Kessous, executive coach

“The big bosses manage the strategy of their company. But each employee must be a strategist for his career. Take inspiration from the sociogram method of sociologist Michel Crozier, by mapping the people around you at the office with their positive or negative powers: capacity for nuisance, technical expertise, information… You will be better able to detect your allies and avoid tension. »