But for all its catering to the well-off consumer, Mr. Thomas has tried to bring a measure of democracy to Hermès. About five years ago, he dropped the practice of putting customers on waiting lists for products.
“If you want a Mercedes, they will tell you nine months. At Hermès, you say five years – it’s ridiculous … People think we organize the scarcity, but we don’t.”
Rather, the company is limited by the number of artisans it can train to make its wares – there are 3,000 today in 12 workshops in France, he says. Still, a customer who orders an exotic yellow crocodile skin bag will probably have to wait a while. “You cannot grow a crocodile faster than nature.”
His biggest challenge has been having to moderate the company’s growth “in order to accept zero compromise in the product quality,” he says. “It’s very tempting to accelerate the growth with this company because it’s like a very powerful engine.”
But he also has pushed unlikely new projects, including backing Shang Xia, a Chinese brand which aims to challenge the view that Chinese-made goods are poor quality. He will remain as chairman of Shang Xia when he retires from Hermès.
He even oversaw the development of a vast, $130-million (U.S.) ecologically sustainable yacht – something of a floating mansion – in partnership with shipbuilder Wally, which Hermès has now abandoned after selling none. “We have significant profitability, so we can afford some audacious moves,” he says. “It was very good for the image of the company. Image is always a balance between modernity and tradition. Life is always a balance – the yin and the yang.”
Age: 66. Born June 16, 1947.
Graduate of École Supérieure de Commerce de Paris.
In 1973, joined Pernod Ricard Group, where he held the positions of secretary general of the subsidiary JFA Pampryl, director of finance and administration of Pernod Ricard and managing director of Pernod Ricard Great Britain.
In 1989, joined Hermès International as managing director. From 1997 to 2000, he was chief executive officer of the beauty company Lancaster Group. From 2000 to 2003 chief executive officer of William Grant & Sons Ltd.
In 2003, he rejoined the Hermès Group as managing director and was named chief executive officer in 2004.
In his own words:
“The customer of Hermès is not coming to a Hermès store to find an average product. They come to find something exceptional: A, because it’s expensive so people are not going to pay crazy prices for things which are average. B, because they trust Hermès for making unique things, in terms of quality.”
“From time to time when I see, for instance, in our warehouse, the selection of the hides and I say that we are crazy – we are so demanding, in terms of quality, that from time to time it’s a little bit too much. But I think that’s basically the ethics of the company. I don’t want to change it.”
“You have different ways of being an entrepreneur, you can create your own company or manage the company of others. You know this job of Hermès is quite exciting, it’s one of the most beautiful jobs I could dream of and, believe me, it’s not only administration, it’s quite entrepreneurial.”
“Being an entrepreneur is not to have the idea yourself, it’s to encourage people to have ideas... Entrepreneurship is a spirit in a company, it’s not a man. It’s like innovation – you don’t innovate because you have a creative guy in the company, innovating is a spirit which has to be shared by a company.”
“I think the rule of families is quite essential in business development. I see myself as an entrepreneur to develop the company and today Hermès is much better equipped after my 10 years of leadership to cope with growth in the years to come than it was before. We were unable to grow when I rejoined and today we are. We were facing supply chain problems and things like that. We have fixed lots of these areas.”