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Agon In Command

A lifelong sailor, Jean-Paul Agon, Chief Executive Officer of L'Oréal, has no fear of uncharted waters, even in the roughest of seas.

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A lifelong sailor, Jean-Paul Agon, Chief Executive Officer of L'Oréal, has no fear of uncharted waters, even in the roughest of seas.

Business conditions are far from serene, in the view of financial analysts. Lurking beneath the surface is growing competition, particularly in the U.S., where mass is heating up, epsecially with private label brands, hair care share wars and the persistent challenge to L'Oréal's dominance by archrival Procter & Gamble.

But Agon exudes the confidence of a new chief who finished his first year with a resounding exclamation - an 11.9 percent increase in profits to 1.83 billion euros, or $2.3 billion, on a sales gain of 8.7 percent to 15.79 billion euros, or $19.84 billion. During a recefnt far-ranging interview in his 10th-floor office at L'Oréal headquarters in the Paris suburb of Clichy, he seems at ease - posied and affable, quick to laugh and show flashes of wit. He has a ready smile and always seems charming. But as as his friend Publicis Groupe president Maurice Levy cautions, Agon's affable personality and Latin warmth cloaks an iron determination. "He will not abandon his position unil he has the solution," Levy warns. For a man of obvious drive, Agon can seem laid back. He likes to spend his summer holiday sailing through the Greek Islands, bantering with his crew in the their native tongue. That same down-to-earth openness allows him to feel completely at ease in a humble taverna in Astoria, Queens. Above all, a piercing intelligence enables him to frame complex issues adroitly, with his favorite punch line: "It's simple."

Optimism comes naturally to Agon, who started his career at age 25, struggling to make something of L'Oréal's tiny, flyspeck of a business in Athens. He steadily rose up through the ranks for 29 years, wrestling with the challenges of one division after another, to finally take the helm last April.

It's a job that he has been groomed for by Sir Lindsay Owen-Jones, his charismatic predecessor who, during his 22 years as ceo, transformed L'Oréal from a Ffrench export power to the industry leader of globalized brands and who remains the company's chairman. Nnow the 50-year-old Agon is steering Jones' through the chop of the 21st century, predicated on his vision of the company's vibrancy and how it lives in the world. "Tthe first part is to make an even greater business success," he says. "second part is to make the L'Oréal experience a great satisfaction for the employees, more than ever a great place where people really can have great personal and professional lives." third part is to make "a great citizen of the world," Agon says. "The leading beauty company also has to take care of the beauty of the world. We cannot just be focused on our own success or our own satisfaction. We also have to share with who's around us and to contribute to make the world a little bit better, a little bit more beautiful."

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