WALL STREET JOURNAL | MAX COLCHESTER & CHRISTINA PASSARIELLO
PARIS—Louis Vuitton's CEO-in-waiting, Jordi Constans, won't be the first consumer-goods brand manager who jumps over to the luxury-goods business. But when he arrives at the French luxury fashion giant, Mr. Constans is likely to face a culture shock.
Known for yogurt and bottled water, his former employer, Groupe Danone SA, has a dressed-down style, where executives rarely wear ties, in contrast to the sleekness found at Louis Vuitton, an empire built on status-symbol handbags. At Danone, the informal "tu" form of addressing people—rather than the more formal French "vous"—permeates even the chief executive suite.
LVMH employees are decorous, and it is considered a plus for job candidates to be well-versed in classical music. As for Mr. Constans, he's a keen electric-guitar player.
On Wednesday parent company LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton said Mr. Constans, a relatively unknown Spanish executive, will work with current Louis Vuitton chief executive Yves Carcelle for a year before taking the reins of the fashion brand.
The 47-year-old Mr. Constans declined to be interviewed for this article. LVMH declined to make Mr. Carcelle available to comment.
The business-school educated Mr. Constans is likely to bring a more modern touch to proceedings at Louis Vuitton. Mr. Constans replies to email promptly and personally. Mr. Carcelle's secretary prints out his emails for him.
In an interview on Danone's website from January 2010, Mr. Constans describes the food maker's culture as "humble" and "constantly questioning ourselves." Speaking in French with a slight Spanish accent, he says the qualities he encourages in his employees are "openness, rapidity and agility."
At Danone, Mr. Constans piloted the dairy division through the financial crisis by slashing prices on its best-selling products to boost volumes. He also polled consumers about how they liked his yogurts and worked with bloggers.
During an April speech to students at the IESE business school in Spain, his alma mater, Mr. Constans laid out his philosophy on innovation. He highlighted "avoiding the production of useless items" and said economic crises are an "optimal time to innovate," according to the IESE. "Innovation comes from a good conversation," the IESE quoted him saying on its Web site. "You never forget a good conversation."
Investors will be anxious to see how that philosophy meshes with selling $1,000 handbags in China. Indeed, many experts are fretting that Mr. Constans doesn't have an extended track record in emerging markets.
"Louis Vuitton has done an excellent job in boosting distribution and the brand's image in Asia," said Robert Burke, president of Robert Burke Associates, a New York-based luxury-goods consulting firm. For Mr. Constans, "it will be a steep learning curve."
Louis Vuitton, which is the flagship brand of the LVMH luxury goods empire, generated around €6 billion ($8.21 billion) in sales in 2010. Around 60% of Louis Vuitton's revenue came from Asia, according to research by HSBC. The entire company had 2010 revenue totaling €20.3 billion.
Filling Mr. Carcelle's shoes will be a challenge, analysts say. The 63-year-old spent the last 21 years transforming Louis Vuitton from a French trunk maker into a global handbag brand with operations stretching from Shanghai to Rio de Janeiro. Mr. Carcelle fine-tuned Louis Vuitton's image to keep it up-market yet affordable for aspirational shoppers, while ensuring an efficient distribution and production network.
The amiable Frenchman is also famed within the company for his ability to combine work and play. Mr. Carcelle has been seen partying late at night with designer Karl Lagerfeld and quaffing champagne early in the morning after news conferences about yachting races. But Mr. Carcelle is known for working long hours, starting at the crack of dawn to catch his colleagues in Japan; his three assistants work in shifts to keep up. During the weekends, he often zips down to the south of France where he owns a vineyard and a country house he has decorated with contemporary art.
Despite the cultural differences between Danone and LVMH, it was widely expected that Louis Vuitton would look outside the company when its current chief executive Mr. Carcelle retired, analysts say.
"The choice of a replacement outside the world of luxury is not such a big surprise," says HSBC analyst Antoine Belge. When talking about which brand he wanted Louis Vuitton to be compared to, Mr. Carcelle "never gave the name of another luxury brand and instead cited brands like Apple," Mr. Belge adds.
The conversion from consumer to luxury goods can come with a stigma. After French retail group PPR SA hired the unknown director of Unilever's frozen foods division to run its high-profile Gucci Group luxury division in 2004, Robert Polet's moniker as the ice cream man haunted him. Mr. Polet left Gucci earlier this year.
That said, LVMH has heavily recruited outside of the luxury business, hiring experts from the automotive industry to help fine tune their production line and luring Procter & Gamble Co. PG -0.62% veteran, Antonio Belloni, to become their managing director.
Mr. Constans zipped up the ranks at French food company Group Danone SA during a 21-year stint that saw him move from marketing the dairy brand in his native country of Spain to become the head of the dairy products division world-wide this past January. Until then, he split the role with another executive and focused on mature markets, such as France and Spain.
Mr. Constans helped market a number of Danone's marquee brands, which include Activia yogurt.
For Danone's yogurts that purport to have health benefits, such as Actimel and Activia, marketing those brands has required tip-toeing around regulations. Health authorities have shot down Danone's health claims—that Actimel boosts the immune system and Activia aids digestion—and Danone has challenged those rulings. But in the meantime, Mr. Constans has steered Activia and Actimel's advertising to campaigns that avoid specifically making health claims.
Not all of his product launches were successes. He tested a yogurt that purported to boost bone density, Densia, in France before pulling it from shelves when consumers didn't bite.