Stéphane Rinderknech has proven his mettle. The executive began helming L’Oréal USA in January 2020 and eight weeks later — boom! — the coronavirus crisis struck.
“Last year was that perfect storm, where you come into this job, don’t even know the people — the leaders around you, the employees — you didn’t have time to build those connections, relationships and that trust that is needed when you have to maneuver such a big boat through this kind of storm,” he said, speaking with Jenny B. Fine, executive editor, beauty, at WWD and Beauty Inc. “So you really find out a lot about yourself.”
That included finding a sense of calm.
“The most important was to face the reality of the situation,” said Rinderknech, explaining it was a must to be real about the circumstances, while bringing reassurance and confidence to the teams.
“Also little by little [making] the unknown familiar to all the people around you,” continued the executive, who achieved this by forging connections virtually. (No easy feat, even under even normal conditions.)
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Building a strategic direction for the business, which he called a “frame,” was imperative, too, and that he created with L’Oréal’s global leadership. The structure involved many elements, including communicating, giving directions and a point of reference. It served, also, as an opportunity to build relationships with colleagues. “It taught me also the need to connect, connect and connect,” said Rinderknech. “And the need to listen, listen and listen.”
During the crisis it’s been vital to be aware of people’s emotions and listen to their feedback, then try to make sure the frame is adaptable to any kind of situation and every employee, so each person feels free to maneuver within it.
“It brought me some maturity as a leader,” he said, of the whole experience. “As a leader, it’s important to bring that inspiration, vision, mission and direction…and to build some kind of trust within the organization.”
Finding the right balance between empathy and authority has also been paramount.
“I always thought about it, every day,” said Rinderknech.
He called 2020 a real stress test for the organization and strategic frame they’d been defining, which has proven to be correct. The executive described it as involving “establishing the most qualitative consumer connections, [setting] up a mind-set of trust and collaboration within the organization, and [developing] a firm commitment toward the world, planet, employees and topics such as social justice.”
Social justice and environmental sustainability were highly challenging issues last year in the U.S., in particular with the new social justice movement sparked by the murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, and dire weather events such as record hurricanes and fires out west.
“That reminded us that we cannot play with the boundaries of the planet anymore,” he said.
On the sustainability front, the company introduced L’Oréal for the Future at the global level last June. On the social justice front, L’Oréal USA introduced a diversity and inclusion advisory board; listening circles with employees to understand the feelings of people from different communities and see how best to respond to them, plus an inclusive beauty fund, which Rinderknech said had received thousands of applications.
There have been other prime focuses, too, such as on the consumer revolution accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I always tell the teams to follow the consumers,” not impose a specific agenda, said Rinderknech.
That included following their migration online as brick-and-mortar stores shuttered.
“We were very ready to accelerate e-commerce,” he said. In that retail channel, L’Oréal USA’s business doubled last year and grew 67 percent in the first quarter of 2021. But as successful as digital has been, Rinderknech takes a holistic approach, rather than a channel focus.
“We need to be where consumers are — and consumers are everywhere,” he said. “So how do we make sure that we bring that unique experience, education to the consumer?”
As people surge back into brick-and-mortar retail outlets, the offline-plus-online, or “o-plus-o,” experience is key.
Following consumers through their decision journey is the focus of each L’Oréal employee working in every department.
“How do we do this seamlessly and [make it as aspirational] possible?” said Rinderknech. “It’s got many dimensions, but it’s all about the consumer first. The consumer obsession is a mind-set… and it will just grow bigger in the months and years to come.”
Rinderknech, who led L’Oréal’s China activity from 2016 to 2019, sees the U.S. and China beauty markets as having two interlinking commonalities.
“It’s speed at scale, or scale at speed — it is a bit chicken and egg,” he said. “In those big countries, which are continent-countries, with such a huge number of consumers, you have to look for the tipping point that gets you really to a level where the big get bigger.”
Rinderknech said in a large market “it’s about being able to seize those consumer behaviors and trends, and get on that wave that’s going to lift you to levels which are unprecedented.
“It takes the whole organization to get behind that vision and that mission,” he said. “It’s very exciting.”
Rinderknech feels the team spirit strongly in the U.S. and aims to make everyone win and then celebrate together.
Makeup is the product segment that’s been hardest hit by the pandemic, but he noted in the U.S., as the country reopens, that the category is almost back to the levels of 2019.
“We had some great innovations this year, with Maybelline Sky High mascara, for example,” he continued. “It’s the biggest mascara [launch] ever in the history of the brand.”
Rinderknech credited the success to a heady mix of elements, including it being a product with unique innovation — like the Flex Tower brush and washable formula with bamboo extract.
“On top of that, you benefit from a fantastic social ecosystem that makes it reach the sky,” he said.
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