The Visionary Award: The Next Chapter

Sir Lindsay Owen-Jones looks back on his storied stewardship of L’Oréal, and reveals what the next chapter of his life holds in store.

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Lindsay Owen-Jones, the honorary chairman of L’Oréal, is adding a new chapter to his acclaimed career. And, as usual, he’s doing it in a hurry.

Sir Lindsay — he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 2005 — is returning to the love of his youth, when his idea of relaxation was taking a curve in a Formula One car at 180 m.p.h. on a grand prix track. But this time the 65-year-old retiree will be an organizer — not a driver — of endurance races. Or, as he put it, “I’m on the right side of this now.”


“Everybody knew I wasn’t going to hang around doing nothing,” Owen-Jones admits. “So I feel great, liberated. I’m having a great time, but I’m doing what I want.”


Owen-Jones has been asked to chair a commission formed out of an agreement between the two powers of motor sport — Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile and Automobile Club de l’Ouest, the organizers of the 24-hour endurance classic at Le Mans — to create a world championship for long-distance racing with a series of events around the globe. Owen-Jones, who finished fifth at Le Mans in 1996 as part of the McClaren team, needed no urging to return to the pit amid roaring engines. “Here I am, back inside the sport that I used to love,” he says, adding that the first of the series will be the Sebring 12-hour classic in Florida on March 17.


That date is exactly one year after Owen-Jones sat in his office in L’Oréal’s modernist headquarters on the edge of Paris and reflected on his 42-year career with the company he built into the global leader. March 17, 2011, was the day that he turned 65 and retired as planned — “my last corporate birthday,” he calls it. When he looked into the future on that day, his stated ambition was to construct “the fastest sailing boat in the Mediterranean” with the help of America’s Cup veteran Tom Whidden, president of North Sails. Speed is an Owen-Jones hallmark. His management approach is driven by an intellect that is rarely idling in neutral.


Owen-Jones took a highly respected export-oriented firm deeply rooted in French culture and transformed it into the dominant leader with sales of more than $25 billion last year, powered by an interlocking array of international brands that formed a fusion of the three main vectors of the business — the mass, class and salon professional markets. A heavy investment in R&D fueled the scientific innovation needed for L’Oréal to compete at every price level and in every geographic region. He not only globalized the business, but internationalized the management within L’Oréal’s stately but somewhat intimidating halls and broke the Gaullic mold. It was the probing, restless curiosity, strategic savviness, plenty of Welsh brio and no shortage of toughness that made Owen-Jones one of the few figures to have a hand in shaping the modern beauty business on a worldwide basis. He certainly played a major role in defining the global brand. Here, as he is honored with the WWD Beauty Inc Visionary Award, he looks back on his renowned career and reflects on the products, places and, most of all, people who have contributed to his great success.


As you look back over this long career, how has the global beauty business changed since you started?

What strikes me is that it seems to me like tennis. The players change, but the game hasn’t changed that much. It’s still about finding intuitively the new things that people want, which are different and better, and packaging them in a seductive way. You know, everything has happened and the Internet has happened and the way you reach people has happened. It’s different, but in the end, it’s still the same fight for people’s hearts and minds that it was all those years ago.

What does a young executive starting out today need to have compared to when you were starting out?

It’s an even bigger struggle for them to be themselves than it was for us. We took things and we were encouraged to be different, one from another. It seems to me that nowadays there’s a very strong normative element. Everybody does their CVs with the same three or four Internet sites and it’s like they’ve taught them at business school the vocabulary they have to use, the way they have to express themselves, even their gestures. It’s as if there’s been a strong formatting of these young people. To be themselves and to be different is more difficult for them than it was for us. They know more than we ever did about everything. So that’s not the problem. They’re computer savvy and they’re world wise, they’ve been places I didn’t even know existed when I was a kid. But are they original individuals? Because that’s what it’s all about.


Even with everything you’ve done, do you feel like there’s anything left to do?

Sure. There’s tons left to do, but I have to tell you one thing. The last thing my team at this point needs is me to map out what they still have to do. I think it really is time. We’ve done my dreams and now it’s time for them to have theirs and to do theirs. I don’t think it’s a good idea at this point for me to start voicing regrets of things I still would like to have done. It really is up to them to find themselves and go for it.
Looking back over your terrain, you’ve done tremendous good and made all the right decisions.


Is there any decision you would like to go back and redo or take another look at?

If you want to hear me say, “I made a few screw ups,” I assure you, the answer is yes, of course, I made quite a few. If you want me to actually identify them and rub where it hurts, I find that a bit more difficult. It’s not really what I do best. People learn from their own mistakes, they probably don’t want to hear mine. But yeah, there were plenty but, you know, this is a statistical game. [Laughs]


Is there one thing that you’ve learned in your career?

I’ve spent my life learning and it’s not over, but at a professional level the thing you realize more and more the further you go is that there really isn’t any substitute for talent. It really is a talent thing. There are so many people who can say what has to be done and so very few who can actually do it. It’s amazing the difference, and it seems to me that the gap gets bigger every year between these thousands and thousands of corporate clones, who all use the same push-button words, and those who actually do something and make things happen. That’s the magic of it. It’s the people and the individual talents.

It means that as a company you’ve got to be able to recognize it when you see it and distinguish between the real thing and the clone, and you’ve gotta love it, protect it, promote it and perhaps help it to grow and flower. This is a people industry. You can’t reduce what we do to any mathematical formula, and it was proved a long time ago that the time it takes to verify whether something is a good idea is about the same time it takes for the idea to become old fashioned and boring. This is an industry in which you have to shoot from the hip and you’ve got to be able to encourage people to do that. In the end it’s a talent thing, it’s a people thing. It’s what’s lovely about this business. After all the corporate wars and everything that we’ve all been through, in the end it’s still an individual people’s game.


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