By Christian Plumb and Tim Hepher
PARIS, June 5 Legendary French banker Antoine
Bernheim, a master of high European finance and a fixture at
companies from Christian Dior to Le Monde, died on Tuesday, aged
His death was announced by Vincent Bollore, another French
entrepreneur who was his frequent ally in boardroom battles at
Italian insurer Generali, where Bernheim ended up serving as
chairman for nearly a decade.
"Antoine Bernheim's grandson told me this morning that he
had died in his sleep," Bollore said in a statement, adding that
Bernheim had provided him with "unbending support and precious
advice" for decades.
A charismatic figure whose calculations shaped both French
and Italian finance for decades, Bernheim pursued most of his
professional career at French investment bank Lazard.
A graduate in law and science, he was Generali chairman
between 1995 and 1999 and again from 2002 until 2010 and was
vice chairman of a range of companies, including French luxury
group LVMH and French investment group Bollore
Bernheim also advised other leading lights of French
capitalism including luxury goods billionaires Bernard Arnault,
LVMH's head, and Francois Pinault, chairman of PPR.
"Antoine Bernheim was a great European," Laurence Parisot,
the head of French business group Medef, said in a statement,
adding that he had made "a particular mark on the Italian and
France's main business daily Les Echos described him in an
online obituary as a "Talleyrand of business" - referring to the
famed French diplomat - a "kingmaker" and "above all a player."
His tenure at Generali came to an end in April 2010
following disagreements over strategy with the main shareholder,
Mediobanca, the powerful Italian investment bank with
which Bernheim fell in and out of favor over the years.
Although he was born and died in Paris, he pledged to defend
Generali's position as a standard bearer of Italy and once told
a newspaper "I consider myself totally Italian."
As a young Parisian, Bernheim served as a resistance fighter
during World War II - his parents were deported to Auschwitz and
died there - but it was for his record in French and European
banking that he was later awarded the highest level of the
French Legion d'Honneur.
Bernheim was a key player in the in-fighting between two of
Europe's greatest banking houses, pitting Lazard - of which he
was a partner - against the Mediobanca of the late Enrico
Cuccia, the older banker who presided over Milan banking for a
A charismatic figure compressed into expensive three-piece
suits, Bernheim moved at ease within the closed, drawing-room
atmosphere of Italian finance, but rarely spoke out in public.
Even his movements lent spice to Italy's many banking feuds.
In a rare public foray after being ousted by Mediobanca as
head of Generali in 1999, Bernheim said he was "stunned by so
much ingratitude" and publicly accused Mediobanca of waging
vengeance for incursions by Lazard into the Italian market.
Six months later, reverting to cloak-and-dagger secrecy, he
crept into a Generali shareholder meeting and watched investors
vote on a bid for another insurer from a side room equipped for
him with a television set rather than appear before the throng.
"Antoine Bernheim was one of the great bankers of our time,"
Kenneth Jacobs and Bruno Roger, heads of Lazard in the United
States and France respectively, told employees in an internal
memo. "As a firm, we owe a great debt to him."