Charles B. Strauss, 61, is just months away from ending his 37-year career in the mass consumer products industry. As president of Unilever Home and Personal Care North America, he most recently has been overseeing an $11 billion enterprise that has taught him his final lessons in the industry, which include how much further major corporations need to grow in order to reach today’s complicated and overinformed consumer.

Strauss’ career began in a much simpler time. After earning a BA at Dartmouth College and an MBA from Columbia Business School, where he majored in marketing, Strauss joined Procter & Gamble in 1967, where he acquired marketing and brand management skills. He later moved on to other companies, including International Playtex, the Marketing Corporation of America and Gagliardi Brothers, an affiliate of H.J. Heinz.

His 18-year career at Unilever began after he joined Ragu Foods as president and chief executive officer, which Unilever acquired in 1986. Subsequently, he served as chairman and ceo of Langnese-Iglo GmbH in Germany from 1989 to 1992, and was then appointed president and ceo of Lever Brothers Co., New York.

In what is likely his last interview as an executive, Strauss shares his views on what will keep the beauty industry dynamic in the years to come, as well as what will separate the innovators from the dinosaurs.

WWD: What is the biggest change in consumer shopping habits/wants/needs since you entered the beauty industry? What do you attribute this to?

CS: Consumers are shopping differently. They are moving away from some of the more traditional ways of buying fashions and beauty products, away from department stores, and we have seen that over the past five years. There has been significant growth of the mass marketing operation, with Wal-Mart, Target and Costco as examples, and also an increase in online shopping, which grows every year. I think consumers are getting information from many more sources, and as a result, are much more demanding. I believe they are far more sophisticated than they have ever been. They have more choices and, as a result, I think they make them more intelligently. I think consumers are more discriminating and more self-confident. They have more individual tastes, which you see with their different fashion choices and different looks: Today they know they can use many different products; today you see them changing hairstyles and hair color.

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