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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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At this stage of your career, is there someone or something that you admire the most?

What I admire now is people who succeed with something for a long time. There seem to be endless numbers of people who make huge amounts of money in very short periods of time by having some great idea and so on, and great, this is the nature of human activity and it’s fantastic and it’s a great thing but it doesn’t really make me that admirative. What I like are the people who do it year after year after year. Think Michael Schumacher in Formula One racing, eight times champion of the world. That takes something unique. Think New York Yankees. People who are there, year after year, and you think it must decline. But some don’t, some renew themselves and continue forever. Just like there are painters who come and go but there are others like Picasso who go through periods and go on forever, going through new things. The thing I admire most is people who’ve not only done something exceptionally but have done it for a long, long period.

 

With all of the changes that have gone on in the beauty business in the last 40 to 50 years, looking ahead, what do you think is a pitfall that this business has to avoid?

The biggest risk we face is becoming boring. Inevitably the industry is consolidating. It couldn’t not happen. It happens in every single area. And so more and more of the leading brands belong to big corporations. As those big corporations are concentrating on fighting each other, at times we lose sight of the fact that we’re not just competing with each other, we’re competing for the final consumers’ money and for which there are many, many, many exciting alternatives to cosmetics.


It’s not like we’re selling vital necessities. We’re selling self-confidence. But we’re competing with everything from smart phones to everything else. And there are so many people doing so many exciting things that are competing for the same consumer’s discretionary income that we’ve got to be sure we’re not becoming too corporate, too predictable. It’s got stay fun. That is our industry’s biggest challenge.


You made a speech at Yale in 1990 and opened with the statement that brains are evenly distributed. It was part of your diversification program, you have to go where the brains are. Where do you think in the near future the dynamism of this business is going to come from? Do you see Chinese brands, Indian brands, Brazilian brands?

The energy is certainly going to come to all of us from these emerging companies. It can’t not. They just represent such an exciting prospect that all companies’ resources are going to be in tune with them. But it doesn’t mean that there’s going to be any lack of interest or lack of fight for the rich economies. The companies who are best able to capture these emerging markets are going to be the same as those who continue to be successful in the most sophisticated markets. You can’t separate the two. It’s a back-and-forth thing. The emerging markets don’t want a stripped down thing. If there’s one thing we’ve learned over the last 10 years, it’s that these people don’t want some special simplified version for them. They want exactly what the girls are wearing in New York. Sure, maybe suited to their skin, better suited to their color, packaged in a way that’s better compatible with their culture, but ultimately they want the hottest thing that’s in New York, Paris, Tokyo.

 

The idea that somehow you could be successful long term just being in tune to the Indian or Brazilian market, it’s a joke. It’s the companies that will know how to use their ability to listen to the most difficult consumers in the world who are in those great cities and to use their technological ability to also find solutions for the emerging markets but also do the same thing backwards.


When I’ve solved the problem of frizzy Brazilian hair, maybe I’ve found something that’s really relevant to Americans. We spend a lot of energy thinking about how we can make Western technology relevant to India and China, but the next step is how are we going to make relevant the specific things we invent for China, India or Brazil to our American or French consumers. I think we’ll do that and it’ll be the same companies. That’s gonna be the exciting part.

 

How do you want to be remembered?

It’s so difficult not to sound pretentious and I don’t feel it. Today I just feel like a happy camper. I can only tell you what I tried to be, perhaps not who I would claim I was, but I know what I tried to be. I tried to be a conceptual thinker, somebody able to conceptualize the way our industry would work and how you had to be to be successful. I wouldn’t dare use the word “visionary,” but I would say in a long-term vision of things.


Second, I’d like to be remembered as a brave soldier. I asked an awful lot of an awful lot of people, but I have some pride in thinking that nobody ever saw OJ as anything other than optimistic, competitive, combative, outgoing. And if I had moments of doubt, I kept them to myself and I tried to lead from the front and show my team that we could do things and that we would do them, and I don’t think I ever asked anybody to do anything that I wasn’t prepared to do myself. So there’s a sort of, “The old soldier who is quite proud of his scars.”


Finally I’d like to be remembered for something that most people don’t necessarily attribute to me because I’m British and I’ve got a square chin and because everybody knows I was a tough boss. I’m not going to start trying to change that now because I’m sure if everybody thinks so, there must be some truth to that. But I think I was also somebody who cared intensely about other people and followed personally hundreds, if not thousands, of individuals through their human development in this company and cared about them a lot. There are people all around the world who have sent me very kind mentions, messages on my last corporate birthday. And I’d like just to take the opportunity to say to them all that they were very special and I was very proud to be their boss.

 

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