By and  on May 13, 1994

PARIS -- Lindsay Owen-Jones, L'Oreal's chief, knows his biggest challenge is to stay on top. His track record over the last six years proves he can do just that.

But even the world's largest cosmetics company is not invincible.

To comprehend both the awesome clout and lingering vulnerability of the world's largest cosmetics company, go no farther than Aisles 51 and 52 of the bustling Cora hypermarket in the Paris suburb of Massy.

Each month, 50,000 shoppers roll their carts past more than 1,000 feet of shampoos, bar soaps, deodorants, creams, toothpastes, fragrances and lipsticks.

L'Oreal Group rings up 50 percent of the store's toiletries and beauty volume, and in categories like hair gels, L'Oreal's share hits 90 percent.

Not even Coca-Cola claims a greater market share in its category, said Philippe Bizet, department head for toiletries and dry grocery at this Cora store, a unit in one of France's top hypermarket chains.

"L'Oreal is a formidable competitor," he said. "They are innovative and they overinvest to ensure they are the leaders. Few others have their resources to support so many brands."

However, the company has an underlying weakness, he said: "They are the leaders -- cocky, pretentious and so sure of themselves and their products that they are sometimes caught off guard."

For example, Nivea's anti-aging cream last year surpassed the market leader, L'Oreal's Plenitude, Bizet recalled with a grin.

"The L'Oreal guys couldn't believe it," he said. "They came and bought up crates of Nivea to take to their labs to study."

But all this is not lost on Owen-Jones, the firm's 48-year-old chairman and chief executive officer, who has been making his global vision a reality.

Owen-Jones has been transforming what he affectionately calls "a French cathedral" into a truly international beauty conglomerate, since he assumed command in 1988.

Last year, L'Oreal posted total global cosmetics sales of $7.8 billion, including licensees, some 77 percent outside of France. Meanwhile, for the past six years, L'Oreal has reported that its operating profit growth has outpaced the sales increases that are healthy by any industry standard.

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