LVMH luxury goods group president Ravi Thakran tells us how his path to the top was paved with his parents’ support
Ravi Thakran has the type of high-profile, influential and entrepreneurial role that even the most ambitious, hardest-driven business school graduates only dream of.
From a base in Singapore, he oversees operations as group president in South and Southeast Asia and the Middle East for LVMH, the world’s largest luxury goods company, with its portfolio of 60-plus elite brands and retailers — including, of course, Louis Vuitton and Moët Hennessy — and annual revenues of around US$40 billion.
At the same time, though, he is managing partner of L Capital Asia, a private equity affiliate which invests in up-and-coming consumer lifestyle brands across the region. Over the last five years, for instance, it has given backing to retail and entertainment ventures, enabling each of these businesses to branch out and achieve an exponential rate of growth. Their modus operandi involves identifying high-potential companies, taking a controlling stake, and then improving the marketing, branding and design strategies.
In mid-August, it saw the opening of trendy nightspot Cé La Vi in Hong Kong’s Lan Kwai Fong entertainment district, the latest step in a scheme to take the club’s name, standards and distinctive design concept to leading cities around the world.
“We have some bold expansion plans for the next five years, with Dubai and Taipei already in the works,” says Thakran, who notes that growing “lifestyle consumption” in Asia’s middle classes is now one of the key drivers of the global economy. “So far, we have invested in 22 companies and, in each case, we aim to add value across the spectrum by focusing on micro aspects of the business. That goes from product design and quality to packaging, PR storytelling and the art of selling.”
No doubt, Thakran first encountered some of these principles in the mid-1980s when completing an MBA at the Indian Institute of Management (IIM) in Ahmedabad, which is consistently ranked among the world’s top business schools. Later, when Tata Group posted him to London to boost sales for their tea business, Thakran had the opportunity to reflect on the value of branding and, from an office directly overlooking the gardens of Buckingham Palace and over contemplative drinks at the nearby Horse and Groom pub, just how far he had come.
“I might have been working for the number one company in India, but for someone who had never seen an ATM or a parking meter, it was a different world.”
Originally from a small rural community just outside Delhi, his mother, a teacher, and father, an agricultural extension officer who advised farmers, were aware that the surest way to support their children’s success was to move to the city and invest all they could afford in their education.
“I only fully realised how much they sacrificed and how hard they worked to put us through school when I became a parent myself. What I do now cannot compare with that,” says Thakran, who learned his first words of English in grade six and, at first, grappling with the change from Hindi, was firmly rooted to the bottom of his class. “I had to take extra tuition for every subject and hated the 30-minute bus ride to school but, looking back, I see what a selfless journey my parents made. They would have been happy if I was a postman — a respectable government job — but their real ambition was that I should be the first person from our village to go to college.”
Subsequently, having won academic distinctions, Thakran had the chance to read English literature at university. But, following parental advice and the path taken by an uncle, Thakran opted to study veterinary science in Chandigarh, north of Delhi, but he also became deeply involved in student politics. As a leader of the communist group on campus, he was caught up in the idealism of the time, championed such causes as cheaper food in the canteens and generally better living conditions fought for social change. “I fought for the students and for other groups such as sanitation and laundry workers and cleaners,” he says. “In fact, I was in the fourth day of a hunger strike when I had my interview for the MBA at IIM.”
His future wife, the daughter of a professor, had suggested the move, saying that success in business offered a surer route to the “good life” than a PhD or a career as a vet.
That proved to be sound advice.
To gain broader experience after his time at Tata, Thakran held senior management roles with Swatch and Nike before joining LVMH and rotating from Hong Kong to Shanghai and then back to Singapore.
“Along the way, I have learned a lot and contributed a lot,” he says. “And now, while continuing to bring international brands to Asia, the parallel objective is to use our knowledge and expertise to help Asian enterprises build successful brands, which they can then take overseas.”
Apart from his immediate goals, Thakran has a long-term plan to return to India to work on social issues. “One day, I would like to go back to India to work on social issues,” he says. “The final part of my journey will be back there working with some of the poorer people. I never forget my humble roots and always feel it is important to keep my feet on the ground,” he says.
This article appeared in the Classified Post print edition as Grounded for greatness.