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When asked for a one-word description of Claudia Poccia, makeup artist Laura Mercier’s answer is immediate. “Claudia is my fairy godmother,” she declares. “She makes things happen.” Mercier knows whereof she speaks. Since Poccia was named president and chief executive officer of Gurwitch Products in early 2011, sales of Laura Mercier and RéVive have outpaced overall market growth by a factor of three globally. In addition, Poccia has inked a deal with Project Runway All Stars to become the show’s official makeup sponsor, and set up the Laura Mercier Ovarian Cancer Fund, which since its inception in September has donated an initial $100,000 to Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. With experience ranging from running Stila after its acquisition by the Estée Lauder Cos. Inc. to overseeing Avon’s youth-oriented Mark brand, Poccia has become adept at catapulting entrepreneurial brands into beauty’s big leagues.
This story first appeared in the December 14, 2012 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
What is your assessment of 2012, and what opportunities are you looking to most in the year ahead?
In terms of 2012, it was another strong year for us in beauty, in terms of innovation, product proposition and the continuing evolution of the shopping experience and the consumer experience across multiple channels. As I look at 2013, the excitement comes from that opportunity of becoming a consumer-centric experience and providing that through both of our brands. What I mean by that is not just taking all the great things we’re doing in social and digital but bringing some of those elements to the in-store experience so that it’s very holistic. The consumer is telling us that is what she expects. I was in Paris at our counter at Le Bon Marché. I speak very little French, but the counter was filled with people, so I thought I better help. I got behind the counter and thought, “We’re in trouble.” But a customer from Japan held up her smartphone, and we shopped through her smartphone. She had pictures of the products she wanted, which made it easy for me to pull them for her. She had clearly researched these products. We really leveraged high tech to deliver that high touch that we all talk about.
Why is high touch so important to the consumer today?
There is this level of intimacy and kinship in that exchange. That is unique, and you can’t replace that.
What are the implications of that for a self-service environment?
Something we’re looking at is bringing the digital element to those undemonstrated venues, to bring some measure of personalization into the equation. Even in open-sell environments in prestige, there are always people there to help and guide you. It’s not as if you go and there are no people and no coaching. But if we can take some of the social and digital elements that we’re using on our own e-commerce sites or that you see on Facebook or YouTube and integrate that to the merchandising space, that’s going to be really exciting and innovative.
What does the industry need to pay attention to most in the year ahead?
The consumer. To watch, listen and work to deliver upon her expectations. That becomes more important in this global world, because you can’t simply bring a North America–centric brand to market without being respectful and cognizant of local nuances, whether it’s product textures, shade ranges and even rituals. The important thing is to understand what your consumer wants in these markets and deliver it in a way that is true to your heritage and your DNA.
What is your vision for Gurwitch?
My vision is that we will become a consortium of prestige beauty brands. Within that, the two brands in our portfolio—Laura Mercier and RéVive—are clearly the founding brands. Our charter is to bolster and grow those brands and get our operating model in a place where we can support those businesses globally and be prepared for acquisition. Our focus this year has been on our existing retail partnerships and making sure that both businesses are growing and delivering on consumers’ expectations. At the same time, there has been a lot of heavy lifting to design and implement a global operating matrix, particularly in terms of the technology platforms, the supply-chain infrastructure and the establishment of our commercial business units, so that our teams can be closer to the markets and get us ready for entry into new markets and grow our existing ones.
When do you think we’ll see acquisitions, and what kinds of brands are you looking at?
In terms of timetables, I can’t give you anything hard and fast. Right now, we’re getting our house in order and building the foundation in order to successfully integrate an acquisition. In terms of what types of brands, we love our founders. We love that their brands have a unique and distinct point of difference in the marketplace, so we’ll look for brands like that, which have a great story to tell but that also complement our portfolio.
How have you seen the prestige business evolve since you were at Stila?
I loved the direct-sell channel. I learned so much. We all talk about listening to the consumer, but it is a mandate in the direct-selling channel, because the representative is your customer, your retailer, your social-networking partner. Your business success is contingent upon her business success. It really is very holistic and integrated. When I fast-forward and come back to prestige, I look at today’s consumer, and she has evolved, too. We talked about providing her with a holistic experience, and what’s exciting is to see that in the prestige beauty segment, we’re all looking at the best ways to leverage it all—the social, the in- store—to create that deeper emotional connection.
Is there something specific you’ve been able to implement?
Yes. We did a contest with one of our retail partners. Laura has a signature smoky-eye look, and in advance of this product coming to market, we sent a group of artists digital cameras and asked them to video their take on the smoky eye—put their tips and twist on it. Then we posted them on YouTube, invited customers in and it became this very viral and fun thing, where people were sharing and adding and reaching out to their customers. It took on a life of its own. That was very much what we did at Mark when we launched the Facebook selling app.
How would you describe the state of the business when you arrived, and where did you see the most opportunity?
I was fortunate. The business had been and continues to do well. For me, it was fun to turn up the volume with fabulous, innovative creative, adding some freshness to the articulation of the brand. I focused on [building] the right infrastructure. In order for me to do right by these businesses, I needed to focus on the fundamentals and the operating model of the company. It was six months of heavy-duty diagnostic on what will it take to take us from an entrepreneurial company in how we operate, while keeping the spirit and creativity of being an entrepreneur alive, but wire it so that we can expand to other markets and support the business as it grows.
Not unlike what you were charged with doing for Stila?
When I talk about an entrepreneurial business and getting it ready for scale, it brings me back to Stila and Estée Lauder acquiring Stila. I will never forget Leonard [Lauder] saying to me, “Keep Stila Stila, but leverage the expertise of the Estée Lauder Companies operationally to bring the business forward.” I’m in that spot again. Will I do the same thing? Yes, because it’s a mandate for the business, but I’ll do
it very differently and mindfully, because what I learned was understanding how much change and restructure an organization can absorb while still maintaining the momentum of the business.
It feels like Laura Mercier is much more involved in the brand now than before you arrived.
Laura has always been involved in the product development and the artists and the in-store experience, and she will always be our inspiration. In terms of Laura and I, when we met, there was just this instant chemistry and kinship, a real excitement to have a newfound business partner. The real connection, the deeper connection, came from our shared experiences in dealing with people who we loved struggling through ovarian cancer. That bonded us on a much deeper level, and that’s when we began to talk about the importance of giving back and leveraging the power of the company to do good for other women. What is wonderful and unique about Laura is that, yes, she is creative and an artist, but she is a businesswoman who really understands her brand and what is right against what she envisions.
How would you describe your management style, and how has it evolved?
I’m a work in progress. I love smart, talented, motivated people with energy. I don’t have all of the answers. I don’t think anybody does. It’s important to surround yourself with highly skilled, experienced people who can run those functional areas better than I could myself, and then to make sure that I bring them together and bring out their best in service to the vision of the company. I have a responsibility to set the vision and empower the team to deliver against it, and make sure we’re aligned on our shared objectives. I coach. I mentor. But I also believe that at the end of the day, you can’t lead by consensus. Someone has to make the call and someone has to be accountable, and that’s the job of the leader.
Do you believe in mentors?
Absolutely. I’m the proud recipient of a lot of coaching and guiding. I call on my mentors every single time I need help. I also have wonderful mentees, many of whom I’ve been with a long time, and in a small way, I hope I’ve provided some of the counsel that’s allowed them to accomplish their dreams. The other part of it is they teach me. I get great joy learning from them.
Your lucky number is 24. Why?
My dad always taught me to work two times harder for what you want to achieve. Anytime there was something that I felt was going to be overwhelming or that I wouldn’t achieve or if I was ready to throw in the towel, he would write 2 X 4 and a star. For example, when I was trying out for cheerleading in school, he’d say, “Two-four as you’re walking out the door.” Work two times harder for what you want. So 24 is my lucky number. It’s been a personal mantra.
Florida native Claudia Poccia’s introduction to the beauty industry was behind the counter at Burdines department store, where she worked part-time at the Charles of the Ritz counter while attending college. Since then, she’s moved steadily up the ranks at companies such as L’Oréal, Giorgio Beverly Hills and the Estée Lauder Cos. Inc., where she rose to senior vice president and general manager of Stila. In 2005, Avon recruited her to become global president of its Mark division, a position she held until 2011, when she moved to Gurwitch Products. Today, she is president and chief executive officer of Gurwitch, overseeing the Laura Mercier and RéVive brands.