Louis-Dreyfus Widow Chairman Ousts Men Running Commodities Giant
When Margarita Louis-Dreyfus took her 13-year-old twins on a weeklong trip to Brazil for school break in October 2010, it wasn’t a beach-filled vacation.
She and the boys donned coveralls and hard hats. Then they toured the ports, plantations and juice factories of their namesake company, Louis Dreyfus Holding BV, in a crash course on the world’s biggest cotton and rice trader.
It was uncommon terrain for Margarita. A self-described indifferent student, she says she studied law at Moscow State University and thrived on that city’s culture while shuttling home to get an economics degree from the Leningrad Institute of Soviet Trade, Bloomberg Markets magazine reports in its March issue.
In 1988, on a flight to London from Zurich, she met Robert Louis-Dreyfus. A Frenchman with a Master of Business Administration from Harvard University, he’d go on to run companies on two continents before heading the commodities giant his great-grandfather founded in 1851. The two married in 1992. Margarita, who was working for a circuit-board-equipment seller, became a full-time wife and mother.
Robert was diagnosed with leukemia in 1997. As his battle against the disease intensified, he filled Margarita in on the business and created Akira Holding Foundation in 2008 to hold the 61 percent of Louis Dreyfus he’d go on to amass. He locked up the shares for 99 years and installed Margarita as family trustee, ensuring she couldn’t be voted off the board. When he died in July 2009 at 63, he left her in the strongest position on the three-person board, overseeing the largest stake in the world’s third-biggest agricultural commodities
firm by revenue.
Since then, Margarita has immersed herself in Louis Dreyfus’s far-flung businesses. She says her goal is to fulfill Robert’s sickbed wish: to preserve the privately held, Amsterdam-based firm for his heirs.
“It was about protecting his children, his grandchildren, his great-grandchildren,” she says, wearing jeans and gray boots with her silver jacket open to reveal a blue-and-pink T- shirt with sequin-covered hearts. “It’s also protecting the company. What he was telling me every day were his dreams.”
Margarita, who will say only that she’s in her 40s, has embraced a daunting challenge: She’s a woman in a male-dominated business, who, with scant job experience, is seeking to steer a powerful family’s commodities conglomerate.
Not a Trader
“Generally, the boss needs to have been a trader,” says Philippe Chalmin, an economics professor at the University of Paris-Dauphine, who studies agricultural markets. He gives Margarita credit:
“She’s not like the image of the blond pinup wife,” he says. “You might have expected her to just live off the income from her rich husband’s estate, but that hasn’t been the case.”
Instead, Margarita is consolidating her power. In June 2010, Louis Dreyfus Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Jacques Veyrat and another Akira trustee, Erik Maris, resigned from the three-member board after Margarita accused them of conflicts of interest. She cited Veyrat’s stake in a Louis Dreyfus unit and Maris’s position as an investment banker for her claims. In March 2011, she took over as Louis Dreyfus chairman.
Veyrat left Louis Dreyfus in June 2011. He and Maris declined to comment for this story.
‘A Man’s World’
Margarita, seated in the Geneva airport office of the company’s commodities-trading operations, says Veyrat began thwarting Robert’s wishes soon after his death....MORE