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Burns Exiting Victoria’s Secret, CEO Nixes Contract Extension

Robin Burns, president and chief executive officer of Limited Beauty Corp., Victoria’s Secret Beauty Corp. and Aura Science, plans to step down from the company.

NEW YORK — Robin Burns, one of the most enduring stars of the beauty business, put an exclamation point on her 30-year career Monday by announcing that she has not renewed her contract with Victoria’s Secret Beauty and will retire from the daily management grind. It appears to be a turning point in her life and even perhaps an omen for the beleaguered fragrance industry as a whole.

Burns joined Limited Brands in 1998 and led Intimate Beauty Corp. and Victoria’s Secret Beauty Co. as president and chief executive officer under an initial six-year contract. That pact ended July 1 and although Burns was offered what she described as a “generous” seven-year contract extension, it was time for a change. Burns, who is now 51, said, at the end of a seven-year extension, “I’ll be 59” and “I’ve been a ceo for 21 years,” referring to her seminal seven-year stint at Calvin Klein Cosmetics and eight years as head of the Estée Lauder brand at The Estée Lauder Cos. That all came after her beginnings at Bloomingdale’s, where she spent eight years rising through the cosmetics ranks to divisional merchandise manager.

She added, “I don’t want to be a ceo for the next seven years.” Indeed, in an era of one and two-year contract extensions, seven is an eye-opening number.

Burns said this is a chance to spend more time with her family and to dabble in opportunities, on a strictly product basis — both for-profit and not-for-profit. “Not that I haven’t loved it, but now I have the luxury of taking charge of the next phase of my life.” Burns described this turning point as a Baby Boomer’s dream. “I have the freedom now to have a different life.” But Burns admitted that if she realizes in a couple of years that she made a mistake, “I’ll still be young enough to get back into it.”

Burns said she plans to stay on long enough for Limited to field a new leadership team in the next few weeks. In a prepared statement, Leonard Schlesinger, vice chairman and chief operating officer of Limited Brands Inc., said, “Robin has left the Victoria’s Secret Beauty organization deep in talent and well-managed. We have complete confidence in the executive committee’s ability to oversee an effective transition and expect to bring the transition process to a close quickly.”

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Leslie H. Wexner, chairman and ceo of Limited Brands Inc., stated, “Robin is one of the finest leaders in the beauty industry. She will surely be missed at Victoria’s Secret Beauty and Limited Brands and by the retail and beauty industry as a whole. I am fully supportive of Robin’s decision and wish her great happiness as she moves to the next phase of her life.”

Industry consultant and management analyst Allan Mottus reads more into the situation. Pointing out that with the introduction of Obsession in 1985, Burns not only resuscitated Calvin Klein’s reputation in the beauty industry but also altered the basic nature of the fragrance launch, he said that her “decision to call it a day” speaks volumes about the state of the business, the lack of growth and outright consolidation in the high-end fragrance market.

Mottus pointed to both LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton’s beauty operations and Unilever’s fragrance division, where management has been consolidated.

During Burns’ six years at Limited, she rebuilt the old Victoria’s Secret Beauty business, first by creating a corporate shell around it, then dramatically taking the product assortment upscale by introducing prestige-priced fragrances hooked to the Dream Angels brand concept. Although Limited does not break out figures, industry sources indicate that the nine prestige fragrances she launched added $350 million in business. The rollout of color cosmetics added another $60 million. And the basic business, the inexpensive scented personal care products, grew from $312 million to $330 million. Overall the Victoria’s Secret Beauty business grew from $450 million in 1998 to a projected $850 million this year. The store count similarly swelled from 827 units to 1,005.

Less successful was the launch of the Aura Science skin care and makeup brand, which represented an abrupt about-face. Prior to its launch in April 2002 as a joint venture between Limited and Shiseido, Burns had speculated that the brand could support 500 freestanding stores. By January, the partnership had decided to close the initial edition of nine Aura Science stores and distribute the line through Victoria’s Secret doors.

Asked about industry speculation that this episode may have weakened her standing at the Limited, Burns replied, “If Aura Science was a failure, they wouldn’t be rolling it out to 380 Victoria’s Secret stores.”

According to sources, the joint venture brand has achieved an average penetration of 8 to 10 percent, with much of the growth on an incremental basis because Aura Science has injected skin care into the Victoria’s Secret assortment. Burns said she is proud of putting together such a powerful organization of talented people and she is proud of the results it yielded. Burns also said she takes pride in her nonbusiness activities, such as fund-raising for the Dream Ball.

When asked what opportunities remain unexploited, she ticked off a list including hair care, body care, skin care, color cosmetics and global expansion.