The New Guard: Fabrizio Freda Takes the Reins

Fabrizio Freda, recently appointed ceo of the Estée Lauder Cos., reveals his sweeping vision for transforming the prestige player into a global powerhouse.

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Beauty Inc issue 05/08/2009

But conceiving of a plan and implementing it can be two different things, particularly at a company populated by well-tenured, high-powered players. By most accounts, Freda’s powers of perception and charm have enabled him to fit seamlessly into the firm, striking a balance between winning over the tight-knit Lauder loyalists and instilling fresh ideas. He is frank about the changes he’s making.

“I don’t believe that this company had from within enough of the breakthrough ideas, the culture and the experience that was needed to get to the next level,” he says.

He adds the company needed an outsider to import “some skills, vision, strategic elements from other experiences. And that’s what I think I am doing.”

Freda repeatedly stresses that Lauder is loaded with creativity. “We have plenty of water coming down the mountains,” he says. “It’s where to direct this water. That’s the next big step.”

However, Freda takes every opportunity to point out that he has learned many important lessons from Lauder’s highly creative staff and in particular from the elder Lauder. Freda clearly understands the need for working within the existing culture to affect change.

“Personally, I feel more than compatible,” he says. “I really enjoy being here. On one side, honestly, I’m bringing many capabilities, skills and ways to run a business, which are new and require some change.”

Change has not come without effort. “There’s been an interesting dialogue and openness from their side… and this dialogue is a very healthy one,” Freda says, referring to Lauder’s management team. “This company needed that, as opposed to the opposite model of having somebody coming in and wanting to change everything. That would never work here. Or, somebody coming in and just doing the same we have done for the last 20 years. That also would not have worked. The only possible model is a model of dialogue, of listening, understanding and then building on the past success and moving forward with some new, innovative way of working.”

Immediately after Freda arrived at the company, he spent six months on a Hillary Clinton-style listening tour, zigzagging across Lauder’s far-flung empire of 140 countries.

“I strongly believe in the power of listening,” says Freda. “I really listen a lot, more than what people believe. When I am silent, I’m listening, I’m not distracted. Never.”

That isn’t just posturing. Freda’s hearing is so acute the one thing he can’t get used to about living in New York is the incessant street noise. “Manhattan is very exciting, but a bit too noisy and stressful,” he says. “The stress I can handle, but the noise….Everybody who has something urgent to do makes a lot of noise,” he quips.

Listening, he says, helps him connect the dots.

“I’m pretty creative, but I’m not a blue sky guy. I’m more able to connect things no one has connected before to create the unexpected,” he says. “The way my thinking and creativity goes is listening, connecting and creating.”

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