In his 45 years in an industry known for its “creatives” and its catwalks, Roger Farah has stayed mostly in the shadows. As second-in-command at Ralph Lauren for more than a decade, the life-long retailer earned respect in the sector but limited recognition outside it.
As chairman of Tiffany, however, the 67-year-old has been thrust into the limelight. Mr Farah has become the public face of the US jeweller in a spat with French luxury group LVMH that has pitted him against Bernard Arnault, Europe’s richest man.
Mr Farah gave the go-ahead almost a year ago for Mr Arnault’s business to buy Tiffany for close to $17bn. The deal would make the New York-based brand known for its robin’s-egg blue jewellery boxes part of an empire that spans Louis Vuitton clothing, Moët Hennessy champagne and Givenchy perfume.
But as the pandemic took hold, it became apparent that Mr Arnault wanted to renegotiate, culminating in LVMH saying this month that the French government had called on it to postpone the transaction to help Paris in a trade dispute with Washington.
The Tiffany chairman, however, is having none of it and has taken to the courts to force Mr Arnault, whose tough negotiating tactics have earned him the nickname the “wolf in the cashmere coat”, to stick to the original terms.
“We have a contract, heavily negotiated. Our expectation is they’ll honour their word and the contract,” he told the Financial Times. “I have great respect and admiration for what [Mr Arnault] has built. Many of the brands are iconic in the industry. But I don’t have a lot of respect for the current scenario.”
Mr Farah has nevertheless signalled that he wants to depersonalise the fight with 71-year-old Mr Arnault, with whom he has had no previous encounters. “I happen to be chairman and I certainly represent the collective opinion of the board. But I certainly don’t see this as Bernard Arnault against Roger Farah,” he said.
Allies say the attitude is typical. “He doesn’t let his personal emotions get in the way,” said Frank Aquila, attorney at Sullivan & Cromwell who advises Tiffany. “He’s very dispassionate about it . . . He shook on $135 [a share] and so he believes that’s what it should be.”
Mr Farah notched up an early legal win this week when a Delaware judge ruled Tiffany could bring forward its case. Tiffany had complained that a lengthy court process and protracted failure to complete the deal could force it to accept a lower price. Even so, the court battle proper is not due to take place until January.
Mr Farah’s calm words aside, the matter has become increasingly acrimonious. In court documents, LVMH accused Mr Farah and other directors of having overseen “shortsighted acts of mismanagement” at Tiffany. The group had an operating loss of $105m in its first quarter, LVMH said, but its board left executive bonuses and board attendance fees unchanged. “Farah and the other members of Tiffany’s board and management chose to prioritise their own interests . . . over the company’s long-term health — at LVMH’s expense.”
Mr Farah is no stranger to conflict. After joining Ralph Lauren in 2000, he led an initiative for the company to buy back its licences, prompting contractual wrangling with franchisees.
His push for the company to exert more control over its distribution and brands ultimately paid off and Mr Farah won praise on Wall Street.
Despite such successes, which helped drive up Ralph Lauren’s share price during his tenure, the company’s eponymous patriarch never named him chief executive.
In 2014, Mr Farah joined privately owned fashion label Tory Burch as co-chief executive, and once again provided business nous in partnership with a more creative founder. He became a Tiffany director in 2017 and was elevated to chairman later that year.
Mr Farah grew up in Tenafly, New Jersey, and studied economics at Wharton, graduating half a year early to join Saks, where he learnt how the retail business works from the bottom up as a buyer. To get ahead, he worked six-day weeks and pored over scores of corporate annual reports.
Increasingly senior positions followed, and Mr Farah was named chief executive of Federated department stores, operator of Bloomingdale’s, aged only 33. He joined rival RH Macy’s in 1993, a move that was the subject of a legal dispute.
Mr Farah was later wooed by Woolworth, where he shed different store formats and focused the company on sports shoe retailing. Today, the business is Foot Locker.
Mr Farah has been co-ordinating Tiffany’s strategy in its showdown with LVMH during the pandemic from his home in Greenwich, Connecticut.
Married for 41 years, he has two children and recently became a grandfather.
Outside work, he is a keen golfer but has also been known to go motor racing with his son Matt Farah, a YouTube star. Yet the low-key elder Farah is no adrenaline junkie. “It’s more as a supporter of his interests, than that I like death-defying situations,” he said.
The battle with LVMH is likely to offer more than enough excitement in the weeks ahead.