Sir Lindsay Owen-Jones does not like being photographed. “Do I have to smile?” he says gruffly, before posing on the windowsill and couch of his Paris office in his grey suit, arms crossed in front of his chest. He exudes the air of a man who has done this many, many times before.
Such expertise derives from the fact that Sir Lindsay is frequently photographed with models, girls far taller than he is, who wear lipstick, eyeshadow and nail polish made by L’Oréal, the company he has worked for since 1969. He doesn’t understand how the girls smile so easily – he says they make him feel like a grandfather, adding wryly: “A sexy grandfather.”
Sexiness is an intrinsic part of Sir Lindsay’s job. For nearly 20 years he was chief executive of L’Oréal, the world’s biggest beauty company and owner of brands such as Maybelline, Redken and Vichy.
Although he stepped back from the day-to-day running of the company two years ago, handing over the job to Jean-Paul Agon, he remains chairman. It entails acting as the chief executive’s “intellectual ping-pong player” and as what he calls the company “emissary”, visiting people and places Mr Agon does not have time to see.
Sir Lindsay, who turns 62 this month, has spent the better part of his life trying to convince women and men that buying L’Oréal’s lotions and shampoos will make them feel good. But beauty products were not the reason he joined the French company.
L’Oréal is a curious destination for a man who had “no intention” of taking a job in the consumer goods industry after Oxford, where he read French and German, and an MBA at Insead. Yet he was drawn to the beauty company. “It was still quite a small company but was thought to be going places and was considered a great example of creative marketing and original advertising campaigns. It just seemed like a fun thing to do for a young man.”
At his desk Sir Lindsay appears nervous, fiddling with his glasses and brushing back his hair. But as he relaxes it becomes clearer what attracted him to L’Oréal: he likes to figure out what people want.
Cosmetics is “a business of intuition”, he explains. “Consumers don’t tell you what they need; you’ve got to guess. Nobody was asking for iPods until somebody made one.”
He credits his predecessor, Fran?ois Dalle, with teaching him basic business sense while he was working his way up the ranks of L’Oréal, running its Italian and US operations along the way. Mr Dalle, he says, was an autocratic Frenchman who never spoke English and “would ask at the most expensive restaurant if the sole was fresh”.
“He single-handedly ran this company and did every marketing job for every brand, all at the same time. But he was a genius, so I still think occasionally when I look at a project what he would have said. He spoke in riddles so he was a very difficult man to interpret.
“I think one of the reasons I got responsibility so young was that I could interpret the things he said, which often were the opposite of what he actually said literally.”
When Sir Lindsay was first hired by L’Oréal – then almost entirely focused on western Europe – the company was thinking about international expansion. “For the first 15 years of my career I was basically out in various countries [including Belgium, Italy and the US] struggling to build our brand and our presence in those countries. So when I got the job as chief executive it came totally naturally to me that my priority was going to be to write L’Oréal in the sky of every country in the world.”
Under Sir Lindsay’s leadership, L’Oréal did just that. Annual sales rose from a few billion euros to more than €17bn as the company acquired foreign cosmetic groups such as Shu Uemura in Japan, Kiehl’s in the US, and the Body Shop in Britain.
Sir Lindsay harboured international ambitions even as a child in Wallasey, on the Cheshire coast in England. “My mother always had dreams which my very down-to-earth father never quite realised – salt of the earth but definitely a quiet man.
“And my mother dreamed of parties at Monte Carlo and the bright lights. She transmitted to me the idea that excitement and fun was being international and travelling and speaking languages. It was easy as a teenager in a slightly grim 1950s Britain to see the cars going into Monte Carlo and to say, ‘Wow, one day I’m going to be there.’”
Today he seems to be living the life he coveted. His office has a view of the Eiffel Tower and on the shelves are photos of large sailing boats, mementoes of his valued leisure activities. While running L’Oréal (“an all-consuming, stressful, exhausting thing”), he relaxed by sailing and skiing. “When you’re skiing really hard all day, you’ve got to concentrate on skiing if you don’t want to break something. And during that time you recuperate.”
Most of his life has been devoted to business. He has been a board member of L’Air Liquide, the French gas group, and Galderma Phama, a pharmaceuticals joint venture between L’Oréal and Nestlé. This month he will receive a lifetime achievement award at the European Business Leaders Awards in London.
Now that he is chairman, a job he intends to hold for one four-year term only, he is pursuing “a more balanced and cultural life”. He goes to orchestral concerts and reads. (He declines to say what: “It’s very private and I don’t intend to tell anybody.”)
Making a career as a Brit at a French company “was never an issue” he says, although: “They liked it better when they discovered, mistakenly as it turned out, that I was Welsh.” (Although his surname sounds Welsh, his parents were English.)
“It probably helped me right from the beginning because I stood out. ‘Who is this English guy who doesn’t have the French manners to hide his thoughts from the chairman?’ I was probably a bit more blunt about things than they were.”
He believes, too, that one of the reasons L’Oréal has become a “really international company” is that it was run by a foreigner between 1988 and 2006.
“I could be a bridge between this intensely proud and performing French company and the rest of the world, who don’t always get on with proud and performing French people.”
One of the most “magical” experiences while running L’Oréal, he says, was seeing China’s transition from “the Mao uniform to miniskirts” in only a few years. He recalls the challenge of launching L’Oréal in China in the mid-1990s when he used to “pace the streets at night of Shanghai” pondering an appropriate marketing campaign for the country.
“We decided that we would light up the largest sign in China in the sky saying ‘L’Oréal – Because You’re Worth It’. It was a highly incredible claim that people didn’t even totally understand – the idea of individual worth in communist China. Then seeing it blossom …I will feel something very special for the city of Shanghai.”
The value of rewriting company history
Sir Lindsay Owen-Jones has presided over a period of steady global expansion at L’Oréal without any significant hiccups, such as accounting scandals, mass sackings or extensive corporate restructuring. He claims his secret is “preaching continuity”.
“Any major new thing we were doing I would start by saying: ‘There is a historical precedent for this. Back in 1956 everybody knows L’Oréal did this and then did that’.” When occasionally there was no precedent, he admits he invented one to help people “see that there was a perspective”.
He describes this process as a culture of permanent mini-restructuring. “I don’t think there has ever been a major restructuring charge in the whole of L’Oréal’s corporate history…but there have been hundreds of little ones. What we do is try to live a life of permanent small change to avoid the major disasters…It doesn’t mean we haven’t closed factories – we have – but we run them down very gently and then we’ve done everything we can to find jobs for the people.”