This is the boss. At the age of 51, the chairwoman of the Executive committee of Edmond de Rothschild has made her mark by erasing her status as “wife of...”. She has achieved her aim of bringing together the Group's different brands.
Ariane de Rothschild, Chairwoman of the Executive Committee, Edmond de Rothschild
The invitation is irresistible. On Thursday 24 November, Baron Benjamin and his wife, Baroness Ariane de Rothschild, will receive guests at their hotel in Paris, just a stone's throw from the Champs-Elysées. The menu will feature gems from their own properties: great bottles of Médoc or Rioja, brie à la moutarde - a speciality from the Ferme des Trente-Arpents - and dishes designed by Julien Gatillon, Michelin 2-star chef from the restaurant 1920 in Megève (Haute-Savoie), which is owned by the family.
Social events are not really the cup of tea of the two Swiss residents, but the occasion demands it. This one will mark the unveiling of the new name of the holding company that groups together the non-financial businesses (golf, restaurants, hotels, wines, etc. - all within the “Style” division) managed in parallel to the Edmond de Rothschild Group, which operates in private banking and asset management. Benjamin - 18th on the Challenges list of wealthiest families in France - inherited this package on the death of his father, Edmond, in 1997.
The secret has been closely guarded, but it's a fairly safe bet that the name “Edmond de Rothschild” will now be stamped on the Style division, which has until now been known by the rather unclear name “Société française des hôtels de montagne” (SFHM). The project to unify the brands, led by Ariane de Rothschild across all of the group's business lines, has thus been achieved. “Benjamin was relying on people. Ariane put the brand first”, says Johnny El Hachem, managing director of Edmond de Rothschild Private Equity.
Because it's Ariane de Rothschild, aged 51, who is the boss. Benjamin prefers to devote his time to his passions: sailing, cars and hunting. Paris raised its eyebrows when the owner's wife was appointed, on 14 January 2015, chair of the Executive Committee of Edmond de Rothschild Group. There were cries of “blasphemy!” when, two months later, she targeted Paris-Orléans (which became Rothschild & Co), led by the well-respected David de Rothschild, for unfair competition, accusing the cousins of monopolising the iconic name.
"It was business, nothing personal"
“I heard it all, about my so-called ‘parachuting in’. ‘It's a storm in a teacup, it'll pass’ or ‘Her poor husband, she must have driven him mad’... says Ariane de Rothschild, somewhat sarcastically. “The truth is, I only discovered the bank two years ago. I have been a director since 2008. I’ve also learned a lot working in the Group's other business lines. And I didn't go after Rothschild & Co because I got out of the wrong side of bed one morning. We had been talking about the issue of the brands with them for years. It was business, nothing personal."
When Ariane Langner met Benjamin de Rothschild at the beginning of the 1990s, she was working on the Paris trading floor at AIG Trading, a subsidiary of the US insurance company. She was not an ordinary young woman. Of French and German parentage, born in El Salvador, she grew up in Latin America and Africa, as her expat father took on different assignments working for chemicals company Hoechst. She speaks French, German, English, Spanish and Italian, with only a slight accent in all those languages.
Benjamin did not have a conventional upbringing, either. The only son of Edmond and Nadine de Rothschild - the comedienne- turned-queen of good manners - founded the Compagnie Benjamin de Rothschild, which specialises in financial hedging products, in Geneva, in 1987. His business, a huge success, counts AIG among its suppliers. »
It was at this time that he met Ariane: it was love at the bank. “Ariane wasn't familiar with this very regulated world, which was so very different from the extraordinary freedom she had enjoyed previously. But it wasn't by chance that she fell in love with this Rothschild”, says his friend Firoz Ladak, who was at college with him in Kinshasa, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Four children later - all girls - their mother got bored with being at home... “I gave up work after the birth of my first daughter. It was my choice. But once all my children were at school, I was going round in circles,” she admitted. And in explanation: “Even though I invested so much of myself in the Style division, I really wanted to get back to the world of financial management. I told Benjamin: ‘Either I work for you, or I go elsewhere.’ He suggested I join the banking entities in the group. "
Starting in 2008, Ariane de Rothschild sat on the supervisory committees of the banks in Paris and Geneva, chaired by her husband, among elderly gentlemen who were hardly delighted. “She very quickly understood that the banking profession had to change. When you come in to a very conservative group as a woman, with revolutionary ideas, it shakes things up a bit”, said Hugo Ferreira, formerly of the Compagnie Benjamin de Rothschild and a close friend of Ariane.
Ariane de Rothschild has strong convictions when it comes to the bank.
No doubt, the old guard took her for a “blonde”, with her designer shoes and her collection of stuffed hummingbirds. They were missing something: there was no “Baron” any more. Ariane de Rothschild had enough pugnacity for five - she and her four daughters. “What am I going to leave my children other than a bank account? That's what is driving me. I believe in setting an example,” she says.
She cares little for standards, preferring to set her own. Her family gives, in good years and in bad, between 15 and 20 million euros to twelve foundations, in areas ranging from ophthalmology to education, and in 2005 Benjamin's wife decided to “professionalise” the family's philanthropic activities in order to make them more efficient. She also decided to offer the management of these entities to her childhood friend Firoz Ladak, a Muslim banker.
This was unimaginable for the descendants of the famous Jewish benefactor. “Ariane crossed social, cultural and religious boundaries”, said Firoz Ladak. Moreover, unlike her mother-in-law Nadine when she married Edmond, Ariane did not convert to Judaism on her marriage to Benjamin. “This was a question of being honest with myself. I am an atheist. But the fact that I didn't convert doesn't mean that I am not committed to the Jewish community" she claims.
Ariane de Rothschild has strong convictions when it comes to the bank, as well. But little tact. Since 2008, she has worked tirelessly to bring together, in an integrated group, the Swiss, French and Luxembourg units, which so far have operated like so many independent villages. In 2012, she appointed Christophe de Backer, formerly the head of HSBC in France, as the first head of a Group Executive Committee. Three years later, she thanked him and took over the reins herself. “When you believe in something, you have to go after it. I cannot give a more powerful sign of the involvement of shareholders”, she says.
And heads continued to roll. Although members of her entourage admire her greatly, she terrifies some people, to the point that her employees’ faces close up when her name is mentioned. “She has never managed a team. She makes schoolboy errors. Bad recruitment choices. At the beginning, it was a bit like the last person to speak was always right, but she's made progress”,
confides this colleague. “She wanted to lead too many projects from the front”, adds another ex-employee of the firm.
She has no fewer than three PAs to manage her diary. “She, and nobody else, chose the decorator and the workmen,” for the construction of an ultra-luxurious hotel in Megève, reveals the manager of the Style division, Alexis de la Palme. “She comes up with new projects every day. But she will take ‘no’ for an answer. If we did everything she asked of us, there would have to be more than 24 hours in a day”, says Johnny El Hachem, with a smile.
At the same time, she has not been spared some bitter blows. The end of bank secrecy in Switzerland, the drop in rates that sapped margins in the industry, but the worst was the involvement of the Luxembourg subsidiary in the scandal of the 1MDB (1Malaysia Development Board) - this Malaysian sovereign fund - victim of the misappropriation of funds - that affected even the actor Leonardo DiCaprio. On 29 June, a raid was carried out in the premises of the private bank Edmond de Rothschild in Luxembourg by 90 police officers, according to the daily newspaper Luxemburger Wort.
On 4 July, at a meeting held at the Pavillon Gabriel in Paris, Ariane de Rothschild admitted to her teams how much she had been affected by the scandal. However, at the last meeting, held in September in Geneva, it was as though nothing had happened, according to witnesses: she is moving on, and looking to the future.
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