Nicolas Hieronimus may have started his career at L’Oréal as product manager of a hairspray called Invisible, but there’s been nothing inconspicuous about his career.
The executive, who first joined the world’s largest beauty company in February 1987, is poised to take its reins as chief executive officer on May 1. He will be responsible guiding the business through one of the most turbulent periods in history. Hieronimus’ rise through the ranks has been steady and notable — but talk to him about his achievements and he makes clear that he views himself as only one small part of his success.
“I really believe in the power of the team and of the collective,” said the 57-year-old die-hard sportsman (and fan). “No success can be achieved alone, and my role as a leader is to build the best possible team and — keeping with the sports analogy — to put the best players in the best position for them. Then to give them the confidence, trust, empowerment and freedom to operate and leverage their skills.”
L’Oréal CEOs have long been fond of sports analogies, but whereas Hieronimus’ immediate predecessors Jean-Paul Agon and Lindsay Owen-Jones favored nautical metaphors, his conjure up images of team sports, usually of the soccer or football ilk.
Hieronimus is clearly confident, with a probing intellect and deep-seeded curiosity that have enabled him to quickly master any subject and set clear strategies.
In an exclusive interview with WWD Beauty Inc, he shared his thoughts about the past, present and future as he prepares to lead L’Oréal. On this day, Hieronimus is relaxed, sitting in the company’s Seine 62 building for the Selective Divisions in the Paris suburb of Levallois-Perret, overlooking the river Seine. It’s where his office is for just a short time longer, before he decamps to company headquarters in the nearby Clichy suburb.
Hieronimus might be taking on a new title, but little about being CEO should be unfamiliar to him, since he has been deputy CEO, in charge of divisions, working side-by-side with Agon, L’Oréal chairman and CEO, since May 2017.
Before starting in the role, Hieronimus also worked closely with Agon, as head of the group’s Selective Divisions, which includes the Professional Products, Active Cosmetics and L’Oréal Luxe Divisions, starting in 2013. He has been involved in each of the company’s transformational decisions since then.
As deputy CEO, part of his mission was to strengthen the overall and transversal vision of the group’s four divisions – in other words, facilitate that best practices, ideas and ways of working from division to division amid a rapidly shifting beauty landscape.
“I use three words to describe my vision: continuity, confidence and ambition,” said Hieronimus.
“We are in a transition process with Jean-Paul, and things are going fantastically,” he continued. “He is extremely generous with both his time and the way he is [passing] the baton.”
That relay-race-like transition is, indeed, running smoothly, despite the raging coronavirus pandemic, which has just entered its second year.
Hieronimus lauded his predecessor, who will become chairman once the CEO-ship is transferred. The process follows a similar pattern as the prior CEO handoff, between Lindsay Owen-Jones and Agon.
Agon succeeded Owen-Jones as CEO in April 2006, and in March 2011, Owen-Jones retired from his chairmanship and Agon became both chairman and CEO.
“I really want to pay tribute to the incredible work done by Jean-Paul as a CEO,” Hieronimus said.
He described the group’s success during the period as twofold: One is the financial side, with major market-share and -cap gains, the latter of which increased fivefold, with L’Oréal’s share price rising to 324 euros.
Second is L’Oréal’s outstanding extra-financial performance — including ethics, social responsibility and gender equality, which have been gaining recognition and “are really a source of pride,” Heironimus said.
Ditto for the company’s digital and sustainability transformations that keep ramping up.
“Jean-Paul declared 2010 to be the year of digital, when frankly nobody really knew what it meant,” Hieronimus said laughing. “But we decided, as we do at L’Oréal, that we would get excited about it, and make it happen. The same around sustainability, with the Sharing Beauty With All program.
“So you know, as they say: ‘Big shoes to fill.’ I’m both very honored and also very happy to continue working with Jean-Paul. It’s fantastic, because I’ve worked with him for many years. We get along very well, and continuing this relationship is a pleasure, an honor and a chance,” Hieronimus said.
Agon expects that many of the initiatives he created to flourish under Hieronimus.
“We are just starting the digital journey — the tech journey — the green journey and the human journey. So I’m sure he and the team will go much further in these three directions that are, in my opinion, critical for the 21st century,” Agon said.
As the industry continues to change and evolve at exponential speed, Agon said the most important attribute Hieronimus and his team will need is the ability to anticipate what is to come.
“It’s super important to have this sensitivity to what is changing, what is moving,” he said, citing the motto of François Dalle, L’Oréal’s CEO from 1957 to 1984: “Saisir ce qui commence” (or “seize what is starting”).
Agility and speed are also of the essence, he said, and third is the ability to rally the entire organization behind what Agon called “this new adventure.”
If all such goals are met, “we’re going to do miracles,” Agon said. “That’s why Nicolas is a fantastic person to become the new captain — he has these three strengths.
“He is able to guess the evolution of the world, able to move the company, the teams, very quickly to adapt,” Agon continued, “and able to gather the teams in order to move in new directions.”
Travel might currently be off the table due to the COVID-19 crisis, but that hasn’t stopped Hieronimus from continually meeting with teams virtually around the globe.
“I was with China this week, the U.S. the week before, with the L’Oréal Paris DMI [Direction de Marque Internationale, or Global Brand Management] to prepare the 2022 launch plans last Friday,” Hieronimus said.
Such meetings dovetail with many of his stated top priorities as CEO, including maintaining momentum in China, accelerating business in the U.S. and taking stronger share in emerging markets.
“The objective for L’Oréal is to continue to beat the market,” Hieronimus said. “So in order to beat the market, you have to beat it everywhere.”
L’Oréal is emerging from the COVID-19 crisis is a position of strength, having weathered many of the challenges wrought by the pandemic. “I was very impressed by the agility, reactivity, courage, the fighting spirit of the L’Oréal teams around the world,” Hieronimus said.
As well, he learned from how Agon handled the health situation, particularly when it comes to the teams.
“The number-one lesson is that you have to be extremely close to your people, cautious about them – both about safety, which was the number-one priority, but to be in touch with everyone regularly, thanks to technology like Teams or Zoom,” Hieronimus said. “That keeps you having a very clear vision of what you want to do — short term, medium term and long term — gives people perspective and keeps everyone in action.”
That strategy paid off literally as well as figuratively.
L’Oréal, with sales of 27.99 billion euros in 2020, generated 39 percent of its business from skin care and 36 percent from luxury products. Asia accounted for 35 percent of group sales and e-commerce, 26.6 percent — demonstrating that L’Oréal is operating at full throttle in each of the hottest product categories, geographic zones and distribution channels of today.
Hieronimus is stepping into the CEO role at a company that the financial community often lauds as best in class.
Eva Quiroga, an analyst at Bank of America, praised L’Oréal’s long-term vision, encompassing everything from smoothly laying the groundwork for the CEO succession to investing in growth, and its agility in the short term.
“That makes this such an amazing company,” she said. “In digital, they’re unbeatable because they really have everything lined up, whether it’s the e-commerce, the communication, the technology.”
Still, there is work to be done, Quiroga said, in some key geographies and categories. “The building sites are still the U.S. and in Consumer Products,” Quiroga said. “The two are interlinked — they’ve been adversely impacted by makeup being so weak because they’re both relatively overexposed to [the category].”
Even before a sharp decline in makeup sales due to the pandemic, both the U.S. and Consumer Products Division were relatively underperforming.
In China, homegrown competition on the mass-market side is a potential danger spot. “Especially on the makeup side, there are quite a few Chinese players that are gaining share beyond just [their] region,” Quiroga said. “One of the questions clearly is whether the Garnier brand has to go and can go back into China.”
There’s a need to make sure that the luxury portfolio gets expanded further into the country, too.
Quiroga ticked off opportunities in Africa and the Middle East, where a brand like SoftSheen Carson could be well leveraged.
Pierre Tegnér, an analyst at Oddo BHF, cited L’Oréal’s digital transformation over the past decade, which started about six years before the competition’s, as a key to the group’s future development. He also cited the company’s presence in China and the strength of L’Oréal’s brand portfolio in which each brand has a clear, distinct identity and purpose.
“[Hieronimus] is taking the helm of a company that is very solid, and where there are no specific issues to fix or address,” Tegnér said. “Nevertheless, there is room for improvement and some strong challenges,” he continued, citing among them that the executive stays the course Agon set vis-à-vis management, strategy and operational discipline “to preserve the L’Oréal strengths.”
Another challenge is the shift from brick-and-mortar to digital. Thirdly, according to Tegnér, is the speedy deployment of digital capabilities not just marketing-wise, which L’Oréal has already done well, but mainly in terms of supply chain and manufacturing as business velocity hastens.
“On this topic, they have a very nice track record with the Chinese business,” said Tegnér, who added accelerating digital rollouts of supply chain capabilities is clearly an opportunity to widen the gap even more between L’Oréal and its competition.
The supply chain and manufacturing challenges are among those that will be met head on by Barbara Lavernos, president of research, innovation and technologies at L’Oréal, who will also become the group’s deputy CEO on May 1. She and Hieronimus have worked together for almost 30 years in various capacities.
“He’s super fast and super smart,” said Lavernos, noting Hieronimus’ ability to process information quickly. While she was in purchasing, manufacturing and supply chain management and he was more focused on the commercial and marketing sides of L’Oréal’s business, for instance, Hieronimus was always quick to understand issues in her domain.
Lavernos described Hieronimus as “super determined” and an “ultra competitor” — in the most positive sense of the terms. “Competition is a catalyst for him,” she said. “It brings him energy. Nicolas has a fantastic sense of humor and is joking all the time. When there are some tensions he always has this ability to joke. He loves to play with words.”
Zhen Zhen Gourves, vice president in charge of communications and corporate affairs at L’Oréal China, called Hieronimus “a visionary,” who gives clear directions and requests top-level quality and excellence. Like many other colleagues, Gourves described Hieronimus as a “good listener.”
“Nicolas is a real maestro,” said Stéphane Rinderknech, president and CEO of L’Oréal USA. “There are two parts of [him] — one is sport and the other is art. It’s very rare in people to have the combination of the refinement and the excellence of art and the competitive and fighting spirit of sport. He connects those dots.”
Rinderknech was heading up L’Oréal Luxe in South Korea when he met Hieronimus, who at the time oversaw the L’Oréal Luxe division.
“He loves all sports — rugby, football, tennis, bicycling,” said Rinderknech, ticking through the list, adding Hieronimus is also a big fan of the NHL, NFL and NBA.
“He’s got the fighting and competitive spirit, but in a collective way,” Rinderknech said. “That’s very important to understand him — it’s always about a team of which he is a part.”
Each person has a position, and teammates fight for and support each other. Performance, excellence and execution are paramount.
Hieronimus also finds inspiration in a wide variety of arts, particularly music.
“Music gives him this amazing sensitivity to people, his listening ability,” Rinderknech added. “He’s always super well-prepared. It’s not about improvisation. He loves the beauty of being prepared, like a professional sportsman or a musician. Practice makes perfect, and he’s all about that.”
Rinderknech called Hieronimus a “modern leader of today,” who’s compassionate and caring, and leaves people room to express their own ideas, which he processes for an even better result.
Hieronimus has had many inflection points during his career trajectory, and he always ties them into a broader context.
After graduating from ESSEC, among France’s top business schools, his start at L’Oréal was in the Consumer Products Division as a sales rep on the road — a requisite starting point for company managers at the time.
It was an experience that stands him in good stead today. Hieronimus explained all leaders in the group are expected to have a strategic vision, but simultaneously remain extremely close to the realities of the beauty business — its consumers, retailers and other partners.
“Which is why in normal times, when we can travel, we always do market visits, where we spend the whole day in stores — because that’s where you’re as close as possible to real life,” he said.
In the Consumer Products Division, Hieronimus held various roles, related to hair care, makeup and styling, and was responsible for creating the Fructis brand for Garnier in the mid-1990s.
“The intention was to create a new hair care line that could be global,” he said, noting that previously Garnier’s only hair care offer was Ultra Doux gentle shampoos.
“On the one hand, our hair-care labs had discovered the efficacy of fruit acid AHAs on strengthening the hair fiber,” he said. “On the other hand, as a marketer, I was observing the rise of energy drinks, things that young people were taking, which was legit – no drugs! Combining the two we created Fructis.”
Hieronimus and his team shook up the market codes with Fructis products’ fluorescent green packaging.
“It took me a bit of time to convince my bosses that disrupting the market that way could work,” he said. “With a few consumer tests, I was able to convince the mangers at the time, and Fructis has been a major success globally.”
Hieronimus called it “the epitome of L’Oréal magic,” an amalgamation of science, marketing creativity, surprise and disruption, plus passion.
Next, Hieronimus went to the U.K., where he served as general manager of Garnier Maybelline, launching Maybelline and Fructis there. Under his leadership in the U.K., between 1998 and 2000, Garnier’s sales rose 44 percent and Maybelline’s increased 40 percent.
Then, while steering L’Oréal Paris between 2000 and 2005, Hieronimus created the first DMI.
“I had the chance to build my team from scratch, which is very unique. Usually, you go into a job and there is at team there,” he said. “So I could single-handedly pick every member and create a very diverse team from L’Oréal, from outside, from every country.”
Hieronimus — who says he’s very demanding as a manager but gives people a lot of trust — enjoys and has a knack for identifying and growing emerging talents.
“I believe in building people and building the team,” he said. “In all my career, I’ve tried to identify who were the people that were really great and that I could push, develop, stretch.”
Many of the those whom he brought onboard at L’Oréal Paris have become top leaders at the company today, including Délphine Viguier, L’Oréal Paris global brand president; Arnaud Jeanteur, deputy CEO of the Professional Products Division, and Laetitia Toupet, global brand president of La Roche-Posay.
The group transformed L’Oréal Paris into an aspirational, accessible luxury brand, including developing Plenitude skin care, with the new name Dermo Expertise, creating Men Expert and pushing makeup. Under Hieronimus, L’Oréal Paris’ annual sales grew 36 percent, to 3.8 billion euros.
Another defining time for Hieronimus was when he ran L’Oréal’s activity in Mexico for three years.
“That’s the moment when you really have to question yourself, to adapt to a new culture, new purchasing power of consumers, a new style of consumer, a new way to manage people, a new relationship to hierarchy and — obviously — to a new type of distribution,” he said. “I loved it.
It was there that he understood the power of L’Oréal’s “universalization” model, which encompasses having worldwide brands with global technologies and innovations, but then adapting them to local realities.
After Mexico, Agon tapped Hieronimus to take responsibility of the Professional Products Division, beginning in 2008. That is the birthplace of L’Oréal, which got its start in the hair dye business. “It’s really the cradle of the L’Oréal culture and group — this craftsmanship, the relation with hairdressers, who are both artists and artisans,” he said.
It’s also a division that doesn’t rely on big-budget advertising, but on creating products and working on service, support and training.
Around the period of the 2008 financial crisis, in response to the difficult times, the Professional division came out with a big innovation, Inoa, the ammonia-free permanent hair color, and hosted a large celebration for hairstylists, syncing with the company’s 100th anniversary.
An event was held for more than 4,000 hairdressers at Le Zénith arena in Paris, where Hieronimus also presented a vision of hairdressing of the future.
“One of these visions, by the way, was the green salon,” he said. “And the green salon is actually happening now, led by the Professional division.”
Hieronimus called the morale-building responses “very L’Oréal” and noted similarities between those and the way L’Oréal is handling the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We get mobilized to try to go forward. We come up with new ideas and products, and we don’t stop innovating,” he said. “We want to animate the market and at the same time, we care about our ecosystem.”
Whereas the party for hairstylists was to give them a vision of a bright future, during the time of COVID-19 L’Oréal helped them financially, to reopen and launched products for the channel.
From the Consumer division, Hieronimus learned the power of advertising and star products, and from and the Professional division, he understood the importance of service, experience and empathy with the ecosystem. These insights he brought with him to L’Oréal’s Luxury Products Division, which he ran from 2011 and 2018.
The first decision he took at that division was to change its name. “I said: ‘We have to call it L’Oréal Luxe, because luxury is not just about products,’” he said.
Experiential retail, for instance, is a key ingredient.
“I’m a great believer in brands and brand equities,” said Hieronimus, who added that a focus was on making sure that each brand was growing according to its DNA and potential. The strategy bore fruit, with Yves Saint Laurent, Giorgio Armani and Kiehl’s becoming billion-euro brands during his tenure.
Between the end of 2010 and 2018, the division’s sales grew exponentially, from 4.5 billion euros to 9.37 billion euros.
“Nicolas is a very talented businessman: He often sees things before all others and pushes the business, smoothly, in that direction,” said Giorgio Armani, who credits Hieronimus with taking Armani’s beauty business from a male-focused perspective to one oriented on women, as well.
“After all, men and women are equal in the Armani world,” Armani continued. “Nicolas saw this as an opportunity and made it a priority.”
Key launches, such as Lip Maestro in 2012 and the Sì fragrance in 2013, helped propel Armani beauty into a key player in the luxury space.
“I found an unexpected and motivated ally in Nicolas when it came to my belief in the potential of the Armani DNA in the makeup world,” the designer continued. “My makeup line was launched in 2000, yet with a very limited distribution. It was Nicolas Hieronimus who believed in my vision and instigated a strong push toward a wider distribution. He sensed my intuition was right and helped a lot. Today, makeup is a significant contributor to and a growth engine for our business.”
Hieronimus, who has also been an important factor in L’Oréal’s top-ranked travel-retail business, in 2013 had his purview expanded to oversight of the Selective Divisions.
“And then for the last four years I was deputy CEO to Jean-Paul, which obviously was the best preparation for the role I’m about to take, on the first of May,” he said. “So a long career and a good mix of operational roles in the countries, running a business and also strategic and creative roles. I worked in three of the four divisions of the group and supervised them, also. I can say that I know pretty well the L’Oréal business.”
Hieronimus remains extremely confident about the future of beauty, despite the market having turned negative, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Beauty will start growing again because beauty…is essential, since the very first moments of humanity,” he said.
The rise of the middle classes, people living longer and younger people’s desire to express themselves through beauty are some of the factors that will contribute to that growth.
Yet, the industry must become more inclusive, too. “We live in a world which is both more global but more polarized, and the role beauty has to play [is] in allowing people both to express who they are and at the same time live together,” he said. “I’m really eager…to have all our brands play their roles as promoters of diversity, of inclusivity.”
Angela Guy, senior vice president, diversity and inclusion at L’Oréal USA, said of the executive: “I’m really impressed with his openness and willingness to deeply understand all that is involved in these conversations around diversity. There has been so much happening, especially in the last year — from the pandemic to all the racial disruption in the U.S., specifically — and the curiosity he has shown is really quite motivating.”
Hieronimus, whom she calls “courageous” as well as “a good listener” has been intent on understanding how the marketplace dynamics are impacting L’Oréal’s employees and consumers.
Another word Guy used to describe the executive is “committed.” “We’ve established this ambition to create beauty that moves the world,” she said. “In order to do that you have to understand the world through all its individual differences.”
Hieronimus believes L’Oréal must lead by example by having an executive committee, and leadership overall, that’s representative of the consumers the company serves. As such, recent executive nominations include Blanca Juti, a Mexican and Finnish national, as chief communications and public affairs officer; Vismay Sharma, an Indian national, as president of the newly created South Asia Pacific–Middle East-North Africa — or SAPMENA — zone; Omar Hajeri, a French and Tunisian national, as president of the Professional Products Division, and Ersi Pirishi, a French and Cypriot national, as president of the Latin America zone.
Sustainability is also a key issue, and L’Oréal has announced its ambitious For the Future program, which involves goals such as all of the group’s sites being carbon neutral by 2025.
Hieronimus deems beauty tech and green science as the two next great frontiers for L’Oréal. They’re fields that fall under the oversight of Lavernos, confirming research and innovation’s crucial role at the company, which invests about 1 billion euros annually in R&I.
“Science is and will remain at the core of the L’Oréal adventure,” Hieronimus said. “But it’s a new science — it’s a science that’s green.”
Progress in biotech will create ingredients that are green, safe efficient, renewable and controlled, and will transform the industry, he believes.
“There is the power of this triptych — performance, sustainability, safety — that will be a determining factor in the success of L’Oréal,” Hieronimus said. “People don’t want to sacrifice performance when they buy a green product. They want the products they use to respect the planet, and especially now they want products good for their health. Green sciences are precisely going to allow us to do that. It’s the beginning of a new chapter of research.”
Hieronimus calls “beauty tech” the second big revolution, which also falls under Lavernos’ responsibility.
“It’s a unique opportunity to leverage the data that we have from a history of 100 years of knowledge of beauty, biology and chemistry, and also the knowledge we acquire every day, from our consumers, from the feedback they give us on our products, the data we get from them — in full respect of their privacy — to boost our knowledge and the usage of new tech, such as artificial intelligence,” he said.
The power of tech combined with scientific expertise and green science will transform the industry and be a competitive advantage for L’Oréal, according to Hieronimus.
“We are a company of creators,” he said. “But at the same time, we want to have an industry and be a company that delivers strong financial performance, and that’s the focus, but also to be a company that contributes to a better world and moves the world. ‘Moves’ is much better in English than in French — there is this notion of emotion, because beauty is emotion.”
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