Consider this a case of Hermès versus Louis Vuitton that doesn't involve trying to figure out which $3,000 designer handbag to buy.
The conflict now playing out fittingly in the world's capital of high-end fashion, Paris, took a dramatic turn Tuesday when Hermès International SCA (EPA: RMS) confirmed it has filed a complaint with the Autorité des Marchés Financiers (AMF), the country's securities regulator, in a row that has been simmering for the past year.
LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton SA (EPA: MC), the Paris-based multinational apparel and accessories company controlled by Europe's richest man, Bernard Arnault, has been incrementally upping its stake in its smaller competitor for months. LVMH now owns over 22 percent of Hermès and controls 16 percent of its voting rights, according to the latest estimates. It began acquiring shares in 2010.
LVMH, born in 1987 after a merger with Luis Vuitton and Moët Hennessy, competes directly with Hermès in the high-end market for handbags, scarves, ties, perfumes and jewelry. A takeover would not only be a jewel in LVMH's crown; it would also get rid of an adversary in the market.
The 52 stake-holding members of the Hermès clan became so concerned over LVMH's moves they announced intentions to form a holding company in January 2011 to protect 50.2 percent of the company's stock, allowing them to retain a majority vote. A challenge by French minority shareholders' association ADAM was overruled by the AMF, which said the family could move forward with its plan.
But this is Paris, not New York, and neither company is banging battle gongs over the dispute. Both sides have been relatively quiet. The Hermès family stated after the AMF ruled in their favor that they only wish to "strengthen the independence" of the company.
The complaint, which was filed in July but was only revealed publicly on Tuesday, "is the logical consequence of the questions raised by the terms of LVMH's entry in the capital," a Hermès spokeswoman told Reuters.
Details of the complaint have not been divulged, but it's clearly linked to what the Hermès family, which owns most of the company's shares, believes is Arnault's attempts to swallow the company and fold it into LVMH's luxury-goods empire.
Speculation that LVMH was positioning to take over Hermes pushed up Hermes' stock price by nearly 63 percent in 2011. The price touched an all-time high of €290.90 ($365.89) in February. As recently as 2009 Hermes was trading in the €70 to €100 range with the previous all-time high touching €112 in October 2008. For 52 members of the Hermes family that control most of the company's shares, this speculation has done wonders for their portfolios.
Sales, too, have been doing well. On Friday Hermès raised its 2012 sales guidance. It now expects its annual sales growth to be 12 percent. Last year it reported €2.8 billion. Estimates by Thomson Reuters put 2012 sales at €3.3 billion.
Hermès shares closed down 0.13 percent to €229.90 in Paris on Tuesday while LVMH was down 0.54% to €129.30.