Serge Weinberg
1951–

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Chairman and chief executive officer, Pinault-Printemps-Redoute

Nationality: French.

Born: February 10, 1951, in Boulogne-Billancourt, France.

Education: University of Paris, Institut d'études politiques, law degree, 1971; École nationale d'administration, 1974–1976.

Family: Married; children: two.

Career: Home office of France, 1976, civil servant; 1976–1977, official representative to general manager of administration; office of the prefect, Haute Normandie region; 1977–1979, subprefect and chief of staff; 1979–1981, chief of staff to delegate in charge of national and regional development; 1981–1982, chief of staff to the budget minister; FR3 Television Network, 1982–1983, deputy managing director for finances; Havas Tourisme, 1983–1986, general manager and chief executive officer; Banque Pallas, 1987–1990, managing director of Pallas Finances; Pinault Group, 1990–1991, chief executive officer; Compagnie francaise de l'afrique occidentale; 1991–1995, chairman and chief executive officer of Compagnie de distribution de materiel electrique (known as Rexel after 1993); Pinault-Printemps-Redoute, 1995–, chairman and chief executive officer.

Address: Pinault-Printemps-Redoute, 10, Avenue Hoche, 75381 Paris Cedex 08, France; http://www.pprinteractive.com.

■ Serge Weinberg became chairman and chief executive officer of France's Pinault-Printemps-Redoute (PPR) in 1995, leading the widely diversified retailer's head-long charge into the luxury market by engineering PPR's takeover of the Gucci luxury-goods empire. The victory, however, turned bittersweet when Weinberg crossed swords with Domenico De Sole and Tom Ford, who together had rescued Gucci from the brink of bankruptcy in the early 1990s. Angered by Weinberg's attempts to assert his control over the house of Gucci, De Sole and Ford both left the company in early 2004, leaving PPR with the Gucci brand but without the creative geniuses responsible for its recent success.

Serge Weinberg. © AFP/Corbis.
Serge Weinberg. ©
AFP/Corbis
.

The abrupt departure of De Sole and Ford put a crimp in Weinberg's strategy for PPR, which was based on moving the retailing giant into increased concentration on the luxury market. Moving quickly to repair the damage done by the departure of the flamboyant designer Ford, Weinberg brought in a quartet of unknown designers to replace him at Gucci. It was, however, a move viewed with skepticism by fashion industry observers. Defending his move, according to Newsday , Wein berg said, "The star is the brand. Before becoming a star, Tom Ford worked inside Gucci for several years and was totally unknown" (March 10, 2004). Even more surprising was Wein berg's selection of Unilever ice-cream executive Robert Polet to replace De Sole as Gucci's president and CEO.

PPR GOT ITS START IN TIMBER BUSINESS

In many ways, PPR's foray into the luxury-fashion market seemed an unlikely route for a company that had its beginnings as a timber-trading business in the early 1960s. Founded by Francois Pinault in 1963, Pinault Group focused on timber for the first quarter century of its existence. It began to expand aggressively into other lines of business in the early 1990s. One of its first moves outside the timber and construction business came in 1990 when Pinault acquired Compagnie francaise de l'afrique occidentale (CFAO), an African trading company that then specialized in the distribution of electrical and electronic equipment. Pinault's entry into the retail sector came in 1991 with the acquisition of Conforama, a chain of home-furnishings stores. The company became Pinault-Printemps in 1992 shortly after its acquisition of au Printemps, a major Paris-based department-store chain. That same year it also acquired a majority share in la Redoute, a mail-order retail operation. When la Redoute was merged into the group in 1994, the company's name was changed to Pinault-Printemps-Redoute. By 2004 the company, under Weinberg's direction, had virtually eliminated all traces of its beginnings in timber and construction and was focused on the general retail and luxury-fashion markets.

The son of workers in the French garment industry, Weinberg was born on February 10, 1951, in the Paris suburb of Boulogne-Billancourt. As a teenager he dreamed of a career as an actor but began to look elsewhere after a disappointing turn as Cyrano de Bergerac in a school production. After graduating from secondary school, Weinberg enrolled in a prelaw program at the University of Paris. In 1971 he received his law degree from the Institut d'études politiques in Paris. Looking to find a post in government, he next studied at France's well-known École nationale d'administration (ENA), which is the training ground for civil servants from around the world.

BEGAN CAREER AS A CIVIL SERVANT

After completing his studies at ENA in 1976, Weinberg took a job as an entry-level civil servant with the French national government's home office. Later that same year he was named the official representative for the home office's general manager of administration, a job he held until 1977 when he went to work as subprefect and chief of staff in the office of the prefect of the Haute Normandie region. In 1979 he was named chief of staff to the delegate responsible for national and regional development. Two years later Weinberg was named chief of staff to French budget minister Laurent Fabius, a leader in the French Socialist party. Weinberg left government service in 1982 to take a job as assistant general manager for finances with the FR3 television network.

After his brief stint in the television business, Weinberg in 1983 went to work for Havas Tourisme, a leading French travel-agency company, as its general manager and CEO. He left Havas at the end of 1986 and began work at the beginning of 1987 for France's Banque Pallas. He was named manager of Pallas Finances, the bank's subsidiary responsible for mergers and acquisitions. During his years with Pallas Finances, Weinberg first became familiar with the African trading company CFAO. In 1990 he left Pallas to accept a job as general manager of CFAO at almost the same time that Pinault acquired the trading company. The following year he left CFAO to become chairman and CEO of another Pinault subsidiary, Compagnie de distribution de materiel electrique (CDME), which in 1993 changed its name to Rexel.

TAPPED TO REPLACE BLAYAU AS CHAIRMAN

By the mid-1990s Francois Pinault had clearly identified Weinberg as a strong leader, so in 1995 when the chairman of PPR, Pierre Blayau, resigned after a disagreement with Pinault over management strategy, Weinberg was tapped to replace him. Over the next fews years the new PPR chairman continued to expand the company's retail operations on a number of different fronts. In 1995 PPR launched its first Web site, the online home of its Redoute catalog operation. In 1996 the company launched Orcanta, a lingerie chain, and its Fnac Web site, an Amazon.com-like online vendor of books, music, videotapes, DVDs, travel, and gift items. PPR moved into the Scandinavian mail-order market with its 1997 acquisition of Ellos.

In 1998, under Weinberg's leadership, PPR moved into the office-supplies market with its acquisition of Guilbert and its Niceday subsidiaries. Through its Redcats mail-order business, the company expanded into the American mail-order market by acquiring a 49.9 percent share in U.S.-based Brylane, the remaining shares of which were acquired in 1999. In 1998 PPR also launched a sporting-goods retail chain called Made in Sport.

Weinberg's big leap into the luxury market came in 1999 with the acquisition of a 44 percent share in the Gucci Group. At the outset, Gucci welcomed PPR as an ally in its battle to fend off an unwelcome takeover attempt mounted by LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton, the world's largest luxury-goods company. To expand PPR's share of the luxury market, Gucci, which was headquartered in the Netherlands but operated mostly from its offices in Florence and London, in 1999 acquired Yves Saint Laurent, YSL Beaute, and Sergio Rossi. Gucci in 2000 added Boucheron and Bedat et Compagnie. In 2001 PPR won control of Gucci when it increased its holding in the luxury-goods company to 53.2 percent. Meanwhile, Gucci continued its expansion in the luxury market with the 2001 acquisitions of Balenciaga and Bottega Veneta. It also signed a partnership agreement with up-and-coming designers Stella McCartney and Alexander McQueen.

SPLIT DEVELOPED OVER STRUGGLE FOR CONTROL

The honeymoon between Weinberg and Gucci's De Sole and Ford was relatively long-lived, lasting from their two companies' first involvement in 1999 until 2003. When the breakup finally came, however, it was extremely bitter and acrimonious. Even as PPR was gathering up the rest of Gucci's outstanding shares to give it virtually total control of the company, Weinberg faced off with De Sole and Ford in a battle over who would determine the future direction of Gucci. Weinberg prevailed but in the process lost the two men who had rescued and revitalized Gucci over the previous decade.

While many observers of the luxury market questioned whether Gucci would continue to grow and prosper without Ford and De Sole, Weinberg seemed confident that the resurrected fashion house would provide PPR with a dynamic center for its expansion into the luxury market. Despite the naysayers, early indications were that Weinberg might succeed. In Gucci's fiscal year 2003 fourth quarter, the luxury-group's sales climbed 3.8 percent. Almost all of these sales were recorded after Ford and De Sole announced their intention to leave on November 4, 2003.

GUCCI ACQUISITION OPENED NEW MARKETS

In late April 2004 Weinberg, interviewed on France's Radio BFM, said that PPR's entry into the luxury-goods market, via its acquisition of Gucci, had given the company far greater access to international markets, such as Asia, in which it previously had little or no presence. He vigorously defended PPR's new focus on the luxury market, which he said represented "the strategic intention that we have had since 1999." Weinberg said the Gucci acquisition had also given PPR a number of retail outlets in the United States, where its presence had been previously limited largely to home shopping. "The luxury goods market is growing three times faster than the rest of the economy," he said. "It is a global market" (April 30, 2004).

Weinberg was married and the father of two sons. Away from his responsibilities at PPR, he also served as president of the Institut de relations internationales et strategiques (IRIS), a Paris-based think tank dedicated to research in the fields of international relations and strategic issues.

See also entry on Pinault-Printemps-Redoute S.A. in International Directory of Company Histories .

sources for further information

"Blayau Exits Pinault-Printemps Post," WWD , July 7, 1995.

Brown, Heidi, "Jacques Welch?" Forbes , September 3, 2001, p. 70.

"A Costly Luxury: Pinault-Printemps-Redoute and Gucci," Economist , February 8, 2003.

"Facing the Music: Pinault-Printemps-Redoute," Economist , February 23, 2002.

"First Quarter 2004 Sales: Outstanding Sales Performance in the First Quarter," http://international.pprfinance.com/frontint__sectionId-631969034319531250_Controller-FicheProduit_View-anglais_Productid-632180412261718750.html .

"4 Designers to Replace Tom Ford at Gucci," Newsday , March 10, 2004.

"Gucci Group Appoints New Chief Executive Officer," http://international.pprfinance.com/frontint__sectionId-631969034319531250_Controller-FicheProduit_View-anglais_Productid-632181334652500000.html .

"History," http://international.pprgroup.com/print.aspx?sectionId=631842993973750000 .

Menkes, Suzy, "Divorce, Gucci-Style: The Spin and Counterspin," International Herald Tribune , March 8, 2004.

Murphy, Robert, "A Legend Unfolds," WWD, November 5, 2003.

——, "An Inside Look at PPR," WWD , September 9, 2002.

——, "PPR Sales Drop in Quarter," WWD , April 21, 2004.

——, "Weinberg Quells PPR Debt Fears," WWD , July 19, 2002.

Robinson, James, "France's Pinault Tightens Belt as Luxury Goods Lose Their Shine," Sunday Business (London), September 2, 2001.

"Serge Weinberg, Chairman of the Management Board of PPR: Extract-BFM 30/04/2004," April 30, 2004, http://en.pprlive.com/index.php?action=article&id_article=42089&print=1 .

"Serge Weinberg, Chairman of the PPR Management Board: Comments on the Group's 2003 Sales," http://en.pprlive.com/index.php?action=article&id_article=23782&print=1 .

Shamoon, Stella, "My Gamble with Gucci," Mail on Sunday (London), February 1, 2004.

"Weinberg Rebuts Tom Ford Comments," WWD , March 8, 2004.

Weisman, Katherine, "Weinberg Sees Luxe and Web Adding Dollars to PPR's Coffers," WWD , May 24, 2000.

—Don Amerman



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