By Jennifer Weil
with contributions from Pete Born
 on September 21, 2017
Liliane Bettencourt

PARIS — L’Oréal heiress Liliane Bettencourt died Wednesday night here at the age of 94.

The sole child of the French beauty giant’s founder, Eugène Schueller, and the world’s wealthiest woman, Bettencourt had been out of the public eye for some time. Yet the decadelong legal battle — at which she was at the heart and which is known as “the Bettencourt affair” — continues winding its way through the French court system.

Over the years, the high-profile saga has taken numerous twists and turns, involving class warfare, political scandal, vast riches, powerful conglomerates and potential downfalls.

“Liliane Bettencourt died last night at her home,” her daughter, Françoise Bettencourt Meyers, wrote in a statement. “She would have turned 95 years old on October 21. My mother left peacefully.”

Bettencourt Meyers shared that during this mourning period, “I would like to reiterate, on behalf of our family, our entire commitment and loyalty to L’Oréal, and to renew my confidence in its president Jean-Paul Agon and his teams worldwide.”

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The executive, in a statement obtained Thursday night, said he had just learned of Bettencourt’s passing. “We all had a great admiration for Liliane Bettencourt, who always looked after L’Oréal, the company and its employees, and was very attached to its success and development,” he continued.

Agon said Bettencourt had personally contributed greatly to the company’s success for many years. “Mrs. Liliane Bettencourt was a great lady of beauty, who has left us and whom we will never forget,” he said.

Funeral arrangements for Bettencourt, who is survived by her daughter, son-in-law and two grandsons, have yet to be made public.

Until February 2012, Bettencourt — whose family holding company Thétys is L’Oréal’s largest individual shareholder, with a 33.05 percent stake in the group — stepped down from the company’s board. One of her grandsons, Jean-Victor Meyers, Bettencourt’s legal guardian, then aged 25, was co-opted to replace her until being confirmed that April.

At the opening of that annual general meeting in April 2012, Agon expressed his and L’Oréal employees’ gratitude to Bettencourt. He said: “This is a very emotional moment, as you will appreciate, for all L’Oréal employees who have a great deal of affection for her.”

Agon said then that since Bettencourt’s father had died in 1957 she had “always provided staunch support to our company, which has greatly contributed to the considerable expansion of [L’Oréal].”

He added: “I would like to pay tribute here to a remarkable woman, who over decades has been able to convey the spirit of the founder, her father, the search of excellence, the commitment for work well done and also respect for the men and women in the company. Madame Bettencourt has an entrepreneurship, a natural curiosity, a boldness for new ideas, which have been a valuable support to us in our business.”

Agon said at the meeting that Bettencourt not only assured the stability of L’Oréal’s shareholdership, but also provided support to management, “a very rare asset, indeed irreplaceable for a company such as ours with a long-term strategy. Through her advice, through her considerate counsel, she’s encouraged us to take risks, to go further. If L’Oréal is the leading cosmetics company worldwide, it’s because she shared with us every stage of this fine adventure started by her father.”

“Liliane Bettencourt was a great lady,” said Leonard A. Lauder, chairman emeritus of the Estée Lauder Cos. Inc. “She ensured that her father’s vision was carried forth into future generations. We, who are involved in family-founded businesses, know the passion that goes into keeping their memory alive, and she carried the torch for a long, long time.”

“She was an exceptional woman,” recalled Guy Peyrelongue, a former president of L’Oréal USA, who was among the key executives involved in the company’s expansion before retiring in 2001.

Bettencourt maintained a keen interest in L’Oréal’s business, without interfering in the management, he said, adding: “She was coming regularly to the U.S. to see what was going on. She had a special interest.”

Peyrelongue said Bettencourt “had a great impact,” noting that she put her confidence in management, with people like L’Oréal’s former chairman and chief executive officer Lindsay Owen-Jones and then Agon, his successor. “She was really supporting them and trusting them.”

That allowed the company “to build the business for the long term. It was not the [usual] quarterly pressure. She was very much a person for that,” said Peyrelongue.

Industry observers do not believe that Bettencourt’s passing will have any direct impact on L’Oréal’s ownership.

There has been longstanding speculation over what Néstle might do with its 23.3 percent stake, valued at more than 25 billion euros, in L’Oréal.

The principle terms of the shareholder pact between Nestlé and the Bettencourt family outline that neither party could increase its stake in L’Oréal during the lifetime of Bettencourt and the six months after her death. However, the parties are free to offer the shares to any third party.

Nestlé had already pared down its holding in L’Oréal from 29.4 percent, in a multistep transaction that closed in July 2014. At the time, Nestlé maintained its share in L’Oréal was a financial involvement, but also strategic, with long-term interest.

Nestlé, under pressure from an activist investor, announced on June 27 that it would initiate a share buyback program of up to 20 billion Swiss francs (or $20.61 billion). Citing the favorable context of low interest rates and strong cash-flow generation, Nestlé said “share buybacks offer a viable option to create shareholder value.”

A few days prior, Dan Loeb’s Third Point sent a letter to investors saying it owned 40 million shares, or 12.5 percent, of Nestlé. The hedge fund argued that the maker of Kit Kat, Alpo and Gerber baby products divest its holding in L’Oréal, which it deems nonstrategic, among other suggestions.

Bettencourt was born on Oct. 21, 1922, in Paris, and her mother died five years later. At 15, Bettencourt started apprenticing at L’Oréal, where she helped with tasks including mixing cosmetics.

Liliane Schueller married André Bettencourt, who became a politician and then L’Oréal executive, in 1950, and gave birth to their daughter Françoise in July 1953.

Following the death of her father in 1957, Liliane Bettencourt became the largest individual shareholder of L’Oréal.

She and her husband 30 years ago founded the Bettencourt Schueller Foundation, a nonprofit organization focused on bolstering French talent in the life sciences, the arts and social progress, through prizes and assisting projects through donations.

At the time of Bettencourt’s death, she was the world’s wealthiest woman, with assets of $44.6 billion, making her the world’s 14th richest person, according to Forbes.

The highly discreet businesswoman and socialite, who could be found sitting in the front row at Giorgio Armani couture shows, had kept largely out of the public eye until December 2007, when Bettencourt Meyers brought a lawsuit against 60-year-old François-Marie Banier. She alleged the photographer-writer exploited the weakness of her mother, who gave him assets valued at around 1 billion euros.

Banier denied any wrongdoing, while Bettencourt maintained she was sound and acting of her own free will. But by summer 2010, the Bettencourt affair had reached full boil, spilling into the government arena when an allegation surfaced that then-labor minister Eric Woerth, while serving as France’s budget minister and UMP party treasurer in 2007, had received a campaign donation for presidential candidate Nicolas Sarkozy from the Bettencourts that was well above the legal limit.

The French media was whipped into a lather by successive revelations. Many, such as news that Bettencourt’s former butler had secretly taped her conversations with advisers, were leaked to the press.

The Bettencourt scandal morphed in countless directions. Some questioned whether the affair would impact L’Oréal’s future ownership, but most agreed it had no impact on the beauty giant’s operations. Some observers believed, though, that it helped undermine Sarkozy’s political standing as president, among other wide-reaching ramifications.

On Dec. 6, 2010, in a surprising move, Bettencourt Meyers abandoned all the legal proceedings she had initiated. She and her mother issued a joint statement saying they’d reconciled to end the conflicts that disrupted their family life and had reached a common accord.

However, that didn’t stop French judges from continuing to investigate criminal allegations that sprang from the Bettencourt scandal.

In 2015, for instance, Banier was sentenced to three years in prison by a court in Bordeaux, France, and required to repay Bettencourt 158 million euros and a 350,000 euro fine. A year later an appeals court reversed the verdict, giving Banier a four-year suspended sentence and ordering him to pay a 375,000 euro fine.

In late August of this year, it seemed the Bettencourt affair might be drawing to a close. A Paris public prosecutor acknowledged that an agreement was reached between Bettencourt Meyers and Banier to end their 10-year legal battle.

At the same time, the prosecutor recommended to the presiding judge that the criminal proceeding against six witnesses, including Bettencourt Meyers, in which Banier alleged that statements incriminating him had been improperly obtained, be dismissed.

It is up to a newly appointed judge in Paris to decide whether or not the legal proceedings in the overall Bettencourt affair should continue in light of these developments or not. If the judge decides they should continue, that reportedly makes the settlement agreement non-operative.

Also linked to the Bettencourt affair, on Thursday the Bordeaux court of appeal confirmed the acquittal of five prosecuted for the violation of privacy of Liliane Bettencourt. It was also confirmed that a former butler, who tape-recorded Bettencourt, was not criminally responsible.