End of an era at L'Oreal as Brit chief steps down

24th April 2006, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, April 23, 2006 (AFP) - French cosmetic firm L'Oréal's British chief executive Lindsay Owen-Jones hands over the helm Tuesday at the end of an 18-year reign marked by an uninterrupted growth in performance.

PARIS, April 23, 2006 (AFP) - French cosmetic firm L'Oréal's British chief executive Lindsay Owen-Jones hands over the helm Tuesday at the end of an 18-year reign marked by an uninterrupted growth in performance.

One of the major symbols of France's style and chic will once more have a Frenchman in charge in the shape of Jean-Paul Agon, who faces a hard act to follow but has already shown he intends to do things a little differently.

Named as L'Oréal's next boss back in February last year, Agon, who will turn 50 in July, has spent his whole career with the company, and most recently ran its US operations.

Owen-Jones, known to all as OJ, will stay on as non-executive president of the firm after handing over a group that has seen fundamental changes to emerge at the head of the world's cosmetics industry.

For 21 years the annual results have been in double digits, crowned last year by a net profit of EUR 1.972 billion, up 37 percent on the year before.

The run of success is due to a well-honed strategy of making the whole of the group's products available in every market in the world, with top-range brands sold in specialist perfumery shops and cheaper items in supermarkets.

But investors say a shake-up is needed, amid doubts that such a phenomenal growth rate can go on forever.

Agon arrives at a time when competition has stepped up, notably from US giant Procter and Gamble, which enviously eyes L'Oréal's number one spot.

He will have to ensure continued new sales in emerging markets where Owen-Jones set up subsidiaries, including one in China in 1997 that was followed recently by a laboratory specialising in research into the specifics of Asian skins.

Growth in Europe has also slipped recently, though Agon expresses the conviction that new customers are still out there, including men and older people.

Since the news of his appointment at the top of a new management structure that saw the combined job of chief executive and chairman split, Agon has kept a low profile so as not to overshadow OJ's last months.

But he said when the latest annual results were announced on February 16 that he did not rule out expanding the L'Oréal empire with new acquisitions.

Scarcely a month later, while Agon was still not officially installed, L'Oréal announced the takeover of Body Shop, the British company renowned for its ethical hair and skin products for 652 million pounds (EUR 940 million).

It remains to be seen if the move was a good one: a recent poll in Britain showed public opinion of Body Shop had dropped significantly following the takeover announcement on March 17.

At the same time, L'Oréal, which owns the brands Lâncome, Garnier and Maybelline lipsticks, was among leading luxury goods and perfume companies fined a total of EUR 46.2 million by the French competition authority for price-fixing.

L'Oreal has rejected all accusations of price-fixing with the distributors of its perfumes and said it is considering launching an appeal.

Agon joined L'Oréal as a salesman in 1978, becoming head of the group's Greek operations only three years later at the age of 25, before taking the helm of L'Oréal Paris.

In 1989 he became international director of Biotherm to revive a brand that was struggling, carried out a shake-up in Germany and in 1997 was tasked with penetrating Asia at a time of economic difficulty in the region and a decade behind Procter and Gamble.

Having succeeded in his mission at the end of four years, Agon was sent in 2001 to run the US subsidiary, the most important in the group. He arrived just a week before the September 11 attacks.

Despite the ensuing drop in both consumer confidence and the value of the dollar, he managed to step up performance with what aides say is an extraordinary capacity to maintain enthusiasm among his staff.

Despite a self-effacing manner, Agon can be tough when he wants to be. One L'Oréal insider said that while OJ's bark was worse than his bite, with Agon it is the opposite.

Copyright AFP

Subject: French news

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