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Jean-Paul Agon in candid exchange with HEC Students

On September 4, HEC Debates organized a debate featuring celebrated HEC Alumni Jean-Paul Agon, CEO of L’Oréal, who spoke as part of Welcome Week 2019. In front of a Hall d’Honneur full of students and staff members, he shared his insights into the management of a large corporation, touching on corporate loyalty, sustainability, managerial style and innovation.

Jean-Paul Agon in front of HEC Paris students - ©Grand Angle

Over the course of his 41 years at L’Oréal, Jean-Paul Agon has had his fair share of challenges, facing economic crisis and fluctuating markets all around the world.

But before describing his vision and experience at L’Oréal, the company that was undoubtedly “made for him”, Jean-Paul Agon shared a few memories about his time at HEC. He spoke about how he created a start-up while at school and how his finance teacher told him he was good, not at finance…but at marketing.  He then chose L’Oréal because beauty is the “supreme art” of marketing, a mix of “creation, intuition, emotion” to better serve consumers.

He continued his overwhelmingly optimistic speech focusing on the opportunities that the challenges have created for him over the years, be it facing the Asian financial crash of 1997 or taking the lead at L’Oréal USA just before September 11, 2001. Agon talked to the audience about the need to respond to setbacks with flexibility and courage. These challenges, he admits, have given him an ability to anticipate changes in the market, which led him to focus on two areas for L’Oréal’s development: sustainability and digital innovation.

Jean-Paul Agon also stressed that L’Oréal’s culture has evolved with the times. An evolution of mindset from a culture of individual performance – that made its success – to a more cooperative and collaborative culture, with new management style and a focus on the diversity of talents. He described L’Oréal as “not one big boat, but a flotilla” with many captains giving it flexibility and capacity to quickly adapt to changes.

HEC Paris students - Jean-Paul Agon Conference - Sept. 4, 2019

Exemplary performance

With L’Oréal’s extensive list of accolades for sustainable practices, gender equality, and ethics, Agon’s desire to “be exemplary” stood out to the student interviewers. This ambitious approach was evident in the four-L’Oréal managers round table that followed his departure, two of whom were HEC alumna, who shared their individual experiences working within different areas in L’Oréal’s “constellation of startups”. Students heard the story of the creation of La Provençale Bio – an organic, affordable, French-made cosmetics line that falls in line with L’Oréal’s commitment to the development of sustainable products – and discussed La Roche Posay’s research into relieving the side effects of cancer treatments. A particularly inspiring story came from Marie Sermadiras, who co-founded Treatwell, the world’s leading online platform for booking beauty appointments, alongside her own studies at HEC. Students were interested to hear if the move from entrepreneur to working for a large corporation meant a loss of autonomy – but Marie was quick to reassure them that at L’Oréal, there is still an opportunity to be heard, without the pressures of being at the helm of all aspects of your own business: “It is a place which allows you to keep your entrepreneurial spirit, but with more means.”

Round table - Jean-Paul Agon Conference - Sept. 4, 2019

Looking to the future

The crowd was keen to hear more about L’Oréal’s approach in the era of corporate social and environmental responsibility. Agon explained how he mobilized the whole company on sustainability in order to radically transform its global impact. He also emphasized the success of L’Oréal’s unique strategy of “universalization” namely a “globalization that respects difference”, noting the construction of research and development labs worldwide, in each major market. Innovation is the name of the game, and he wants to make L’Oréal the beauty tech leader in the world.

When questioned, Agon cited the company’s exemplary practice in being at the forefront in developing new methods of assessing safety that do not involve animals. He reminded that L’Oréal completely stopped testing its products on animals 30 years ago – long before it was required by law. In terms of environmental impact, the major priority is, of course, to continue reducing the use of plastic. Celine Brucker, General Manager of L’Oréal France Consumer Division, drew attention to the move from all L’Oréal brands to refillable, reusable and recyclable packaging.

“As a leader, one must behave like a challenger”

This HEC debate, featuring three HEC alumni, touched on several big questions, and revealed L’Oréal to be an ambitious front-runner in terms of ethics and sustainability. Who knows what challenges the future will bring for L’Oréal under Jean-Paul Agon and beyond? One thing is clear: L’Oréal strives to demonstrate that to be sustainable is to welcome questioning, to never compromise on core values and to permanently reinvent the company.