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SPARK OF THE CORPORATE

Entrepreneurs – over and beyond the quintessential wisdom (or the so-called business acumen) have many attributes that define them. Some have great leadership skills, some have great vision and clarity of thought, some are possessed of tough inner self to be able to face all kinds of adverse situations, and some have the capability to take a team along really well. Jean Paul Agon the CEO of L’Oréal – the world’s largest beauty company ($29 Billion revenues as of 2014, more than 50 brands under its stable), has all these attributes in equal measure. But what stands out (without undermining the rest) is his ability to excel in times of adversity.

In fact, his career, even after he became the CEO of the company, is a showcase of someone who has almost always sailed against the stream. Be it assuming responsibility that appeared odd and risky, to spending heavily when austerity was the order of the day – all done with a greater foresight and conviction than anybody else had. It is these qualities with, of course, the man’s enterprise, have led L’Oréal to become one of the most endorsed and trusted beauty and personal care brands in the world – and all of it despite the niche it plays.

He has defined a new type of leadership globally as well as for the company itself. For example the approach towards acquisitions where his predecessor, Lindsay Owen Jones wanted brands that the world knew, Agon wants brands that he can nurture and make huge around the world. This is one of the many things that Agon does differently and excelled at it.

Childhood & Education

Agon (born 6th July 1956) was only child of his parents. His father was manager with a pharmaceuticals company and his mother was an architect. This fact had its benefits on young Jean-Paul while growing up in Paris – as it afforded him the very best that life can offer: good upbringing, quality education, and a clear understanding of life, in general. He went on to graduate from the prestigious business school, HEC (École de Hautes Études Commerciales, or HEC Paris) amongst whose alumni is the current French president, Francois Hollande and many stalwarts of the French industry.

Career

Agon was recruited by L’Oréalfrom HEC in 1978 and started off as a product manager. He accepted the offer because the job entailed international travel – something he had always wanted to do even since he was a child decorating his rooms with maps of various countries he wished to visit. After 3 years, there presented an opportunity which was both challenging as well as exciting.

Exciting because it took him outside of France for the very first time. But it was more than challenging as it was a posting that several others had turned down. Why? Because it was L’Oréal Greece and it was struggling to stay afloat. Agon wasn’t to be awed by it and lapped-up the offer when he was appointed General Manager of L'Oréal Greece. In the four years he spent there, he did enough for a turned around thereby also laying the foundations of a solidbusiness.

Tasted blood (success)

What followed Greece were a spate of responsibilities across the globe that were faced with challenges from basic to severe, Agon saw the company through all of them (to the extent his position warranted). Like remodeling Biotherm (1989), and then the situation in Germany in 1994 when so much uncertainty prevailed as a result of the unification (of Germany) as well as a general slow-down in the market. But he converted this challenge into an opportunity through strategic initiatives such as acquiring Jade (German cosmetics company) – which was his first taste of major acquisitions.

The leadership in the face of adversitybecause he’s ‘Worth it’!

These exploits under times of distress across different locations made him not only a worthy candidate but also the right man to be entrusted with the responsibility of setting up and heading the L'Oréal Asia Zone in the midst of a full-blowneconomic crisis -no mean feat any which way you look at it.

Then a series of senior leadership positions (including the most successful one in the US) followed in the next decade after which time was ripe for the ascension of Agon to the Global CEO position which happened in 2006, again when the world was about to enter into an economic melt-down. But, being an explorer at heart, Agon didn’t shirk and took the difficult path of re-invigorating the company through measures that were anything from inane to wildly shocking such as opting ‘universalization’ as opposed to ‘globalization’, increasing the ad-spends, R&D spends (Out of a workforce of 78,600, it employs 3,500 people in advanced research, focusing on areas such as the biology of skin and hair, and stem cells), and diversification to various countries with relevant products and strategies so as to find its feet there easily.

He was subsequently (March 2011) made the Chairman & CEO of the company which further vindicates that the man’s rigor, energy, and vision and treasured by the company and he is unlikely to relinquish the post any sooner.

With his pet formula or dictum of Universalization meaning (in his own words) ‘it’s not always the same products, it’s definitely not the same formulas but it’s the same brand, the same vision of beauty, the same psychographics in terms of consumers, but it is adapted to the local needs because a woman in Rio doesn’t have the same needs or desires or dreams as a woman in New York or Shanghai or Mumbai, so you need to have big brands that have a global appeal and a global equity. But then you need to be able to adapt the brand continent by continent,’ – he continues to spearhead the company forward towards an environment-friendly world of beauty and personal care.

Awards & Recognition:

Elected "HEC Alumni of the Year." – 2005
Awarded the "Pace Leadership in Ethics Award 2008" by the Ethics Resource Center in New York – 2009.
Awarded International Human Relations Award by AJC in New York 2011.
Quotes
 The mission we defined was [one] as beauty for all… bringing the best of beauty to all consumers wherever they are, wherever they shop, whatever company they live in — men and women, all ethnicities, everything
 Beauty is all about imagery, emotions, aspiration and education, and for many years we were really constrained by the communication tools available: billboards, print and TV which, if anything, reduced the content of the message
 I am more optimistic than ever because the beauty market has great perspectives. We see with the evolution of consumers around the world, the use of beauty products will just grow. It’s amazing — the growth of the makeup market, which is very linked to the digital era
 The more that people take photos of themselves, the more they care about the way they look. There are some basic trends right now that are really in favor of the development of beauty productsworldwide.” – On the practice of taking selfies
 We want to be at the forefront of the digital revolution in the beauty industry.
 I strongly believe that I am continuing the legacy of my predecessors on the essentials, but the essentials are almost 90% of what is important
 Individual talent is critical. You need innovation, intuition, sensitivity, and talent
 The most important thing is that the beauty business is what I call a supply-driven, rather than a demand-driven. Which means that there is no such as a mature market, because you can always imagine new products and new ideas
 Unlike certain other categories that are sold in travel retail, such as alcohol or tobacco, beauty is a never-ending quest. And that’s why its consumers, both women and men, are always eager to try new products, which go further and deliver more
 I was terribly bored. I didn’t find it intriguing at all.”- About his choice of studying finance at HEC
 If you do marketing for food products or detergents, it is pretty rational.With beauty, you have some rationality, but you have a large part of emotionality. It is very cultural. It is linked to the image you have of yourself, or of the community. It is very much about imagination, intuition, taste
 The L’Oréal way is to acquire small businesses that can become very big
 You can’t just invent a [beauty] product and sell the same product to everyone. It is not like Coca-Cola. You cannot just globalize one product, one taste, one performance
 It is much bigger. We are at a different stage of the adventure. But it is still the same adventure with the same goal, the same vision, and the same ambition.”- On the company’s fabric remaining same inspite of so many changes in the last 50 years
 The universalization idea is a way to compete with the local [brands] because we want to make sure that our brand, even if it’s an international brand, is also at the same time relevant market by market. Each year it proves to be even more right
 We always want to be the best. Because that’s very important; it’s very interesting to see that consumers all around the world know very well how to differentiate quality. It’s an instinct they have
 It was a strategic choice of L’Oréal from day one to bring to every category we touch what we believe to be the best quality technology, for the best results, performance and safety. Which means that sometimes we are not the first to market, because we take our time to ensure the product we offer will be the best in all respects
 Our diverse workforce in all functions and levels enhances our creativity and our understanding of consumers and allows us to develop and market products that are relevant
 The market today is muchmore exciting. There is a new type of competition. Innovation has to be much faster. You have to be much more agile, much more nimble
 You need to have this passion and this curiosity because it’s all about curiosity, the curiosity about understanding the differences between people, the different habits, and the different attitudes to translate that into trends or products or ideas
 Globalization is the thing of the past, especially in beauty. It is clear that people on different continents have their own specific needs, habits, dreams, and desires – so one product or one formula does not fit all
 We at L’Oréal are very optimistic regarding the future of travel retail…when we try to envisage the world in 10, 20, or 30 years’ time, it is a world where travel is at the heart of everything. Therefore, all retail organized around travel will certainly create development

Hope viewers caught up the spark…

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