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Experience Matters With Guerlain’s Véronique Courtois

Guerlain CEO Véronique Courtois is injecting modernity into the storied French beauty brand.

Guerlain’s chief executive officer Véronique Courtois looks back to the future — literally.

Her new seventh-floor office in the Samaritaine building gives a sweeping bird’s-eye view over Paris. She starts her work day gazing north toward Sacré Coeur basilica and ends it looking westward, along the Rue de Rivoli, in the direction of La Défense.

Still, the past remains near. Just a stone’s throw from Courtois’ office stood the first Guerlain boutique, first opened in 1828, next to the hotel Le Meurice. And next door to the office, there is an Art Nouveau building, where Guerlain’s new laboratory perches on the top floor.

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“Voilà, so this is the new Guerlain,” she said, with infectious excitement. “I’m sitting here and thinking of the future.”

Courtois speaks with enthusiasm and engagement, and while she has created a finely honed strategy for Guerlain during her tenure as CEO, it is her innate curiosity and joy that is the true driver of the brand.

“Every morning I come here and first of all say: ‘Wow, I’m so lucky — I’m going to make it a good day. I am going to do my best. And two, every day I’m telling myself: ‘It can end at the end of the day.’ Not in a dramatic way, but to make sure I’m always changing, moving. I’m always curious about things.”

Courtois began her beauty industry career at age 20 at Parfums Grès, as an area manager, then worked for a decade under Chantal Roos at Beauté Prestige International, Shiseido’s fragrance arm at the time. In 2000, Courtois joined LVMH for her first stint at Guerlain. She rose to the post of international marketing director, before heading to Christian Dior Couture, followed by Parfums Christian Dior, where she was the general brand manager starting in 2012. In November 2019, Courtois was appointed Guerlain’s CEO.

“As a French girl, I always dreamt about Guerlain,” she said.

“Guerlain is a legacy brand — but it’s a legacy of the firsts,” she said. “It has invented everything.”

The LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton-owned brand also has a number of top-ranked products in France, where it places third overall, such as Terracotta makeup and Abeille Royale skin care.

Courtois sat down with Beauty Inc to discuss her career, philosophy and brand vision.

What drew you to a career in beauty? 

V.C.: I’m from Brest, [France], and when I was going to school every day there was a beautiful perfumery — like the boutiques you can find in your childhood, full of perfume. It had this beautiful smell. Whatever the day was, I was full of joy, optimism, and with future ideas in my mind because of this perfumery. I felt very quickly that smell was a kind of passion for me. When I was 14, 15, I decided I would work in this industry. I know it sounds crazy, but it’s really the truth.

Who have been some of your most formative teachers and positions? 

V.C.: Chantal Roos. I was 22 at that time and realized having a female role model was possible. In the industry in the ’90s there were only two [top executive] women — Chantal Roos and Vera Strubi. I realized very quickly that it was possible in this industry. Chantal gave me the [ability] not to fear. She taught me all about perfume, excellence, resilience. So, after eight to 10 years with her, I was very strong and thought everything was possible.

The other person who inspires me so much is Bernard Arnault. He’s got such a vision. From him I learned how important it is to have a vision and always to be connected with the field. Every Saturday he visits stores, is feeling the field. At the same time, he’s got this exceptional vision. And, of course, he is pushing you always to do better.

What are some key lessons learned?  

V.C.: After almost 20 years in the perfume industry, when I moved to couture in 2010, I suddenly discovered another world — because it’s two different worlds. This experience taught me that sometimes it’s good to push yourself in a kind of discomfort zone, because it helps you to go even higher afterward. In the late 2000s… I was feeling that luxury and retail would be back, and was very interested to learn from the couture side how to take care of clients and elevate a brand. It made me realize it’s good to push yourself in things you don’t know. This is a bit me. I like to push these boundaries when I’m not comfortable. Maybe it’s kind of: Are you going to make it — or not?

Keep on learning. Don’t be afraid of your luck. That is very difficult, especially for women.

Which have been your most important pivots and inflection points?  

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V.C.: When I joined Parfums Christian Dior, I was in charge of digital, and I worked also on the digital side at couture. No fashion brand was on digital. That was the beginning of the Web2. As I am curious about everything, I jumped into digital. Then I saw all of a sudden the amazing world that we were building — because I always see good things in life, because you can be afraid, discomforted. Suddenly, this new tool was completely revolutionizing our industry. You cannot say no to the future. You have to live with it and adapt yourself. So, one of my pivots was this discovery of digital — the Web2 and now the Web3. Being of your time, it’s accepting to evolve. If you’re curious about that, then the sky is the limit, and I found this extremely interesting.

Abeille Royal taps into the power of honey.

Guerlain has always been inspired by nature. We were one of the very first in the industry to set up a CSR direction. The bee is the emblem of this company. We realized that, of course, the bee is a key animal in the world, so we decided to commit the house to bee protection. The Ouessant Island Brittany Black Bee Conservatory needed help, and Guerlain was here. We started slowly but surely, and today we are one of the most pioneering companies in sustainability. [Sustainability] is all about lighter packaging and also clean formulas. To go even bigger and further in it is something I really insisted on when I joined Guerlain.

How would you describe the beauty business today? 

Incredible. We are so lucky, because we have to reinvent ourselves. It’s always been a very innovative industry… but today we have to reinvent formulas to make them cleaner, reinvent our pack, think out of the box. We have to think about the future — humanity — together, which is fantastic. My role today is not all about doing turnover on operational results. It’s also being able to do a bit of good. We need to deal with a new world — COVID[-19], post-COVID[-19]. It is accelerating all the insights we had before the crisis.

How do I see the beauty industry? As an amazing playground. The challenge of making a makeup product as natural, as clean as possible — it’s fantastic. And also having the possibility to think about how you launch your products 360 degrees, both in retail and online — it’s never been as interesting.

Facing challenges makes you more curious and sometimes push the boundaries of the impossible. I’m very positive about this market for the future, and it will be even more innovative in the near future.

How are you transforming Guerlain — a heritage brand in today’s world? 

Guerlain has a legacy of firsts — the first-ever company in this whole industry, almost 200 years ago, with Pierre François Pascal Guerlain having this extraordinary vision to bring fragrance, makeup and skin care out at the same time. Aimé Guerlain invented Jicky, the first modern fragrance, and also the first lipstick. It was called Ne m’oubliez pas, from 1870.

Guerlain was born in Paris, which is very important, because it’s still the signature of today.

When I visited the Guerlain archives, I told myself: ‘You just have to show the world these jewels, and you’re fine. Just give a bit of modernity to this brand. Having Violette Serrat, Guerlain’s new creative director for makeup, with us is putting Guerlain in its time. I thought she was the most Parisian makeup artist of all time, because she’s got this Parisian chic and at the same time, this modernity. And for me, that’s how I envision Guerlain.

Makeup creative director Violette is modernizing Guerlain’s lineup.

We have Thierry Wasser, our perfumer, but I elevated a perfumer who was working with him for so many years, since La Petite Robe Noire – Delphine Jelk. For me, it’s very important that we give also the path to women.

So how do I think of Guerlain’s transformation? First, is the need to put this brand in today’s world. Two, to make this brand very strong in the three axes. We are working with arts, craftsmanship and of course sustainability, which is a key pillar for me. We have invented a new retail identity. It’s about being proud of our legacy, of today and designing the future with optimism and the strength of our legacy. At the same time, it’s about being open-minded to the future. Guerlain has to be of its time, to be perceived as a brand of today.

It’s time to shout. It’s time to shine to the world. It’s not only by looking at the past that it happens, it happens because you look at the future.

How would you describe your leadership style? 

Chantal [Roos] was extremely demanding, but she was the same for herself. Mr. Arnault is very demanding, but he is the same for himself. My leadership style comes from their example. I show by example, but it’s a together thing. It is all about trust, excellence, curiosity and authenticity.

How do you keep au courant of all that’s happening? 

Every Saturday morning, I go and visit my boutiques wherever I am in the world. I’m feeling the field. By just watching the reaction of your clients to products, you feel things. I’m reading, feeling and smelling. Curiosity is about being open to everything. I’m passionate about what I do. I love it, and it’s been my life. The reason this industry is so important is because it works on mental health.

It’s very important for me to be surrounded by young people, because they fuel you with energy and new ideas. I’m trying to be a sponge and then, with my experience, help. But my engine — it’s them.

What feeds me is my family here. I like to be also building a kind of sisterhood. For me it’s very important. Eighty percent of the people working at Guerlain are women, but 66 percent now are in leadership positions, 60 percent of my executive committee is female today.

What advice would you give young women wishing to follow in your footsteps? 

Take every opportunity. Don’t be afraid of your luck. To move, it’s to advance. Be with people who elevate you. Never stop being curious, elevating yourself. Sisterhood ­— this has helped me so much in my life.