Stéphane Rinderknech is a man of many metaphors, and the jigsaw puzzle is one of his favorites. For him, the act of reconstructing a thousand little pieces into a single cohesive image represents the complexity of running — and building — a business.
“You may have 4,000 pieces, but the first step is always to put two pieces together, then three, then four,” says Rinderknech, president and chief executive officer of L’Oréal USA.
“It takes time. And each move, each piece, is important. Because you don’t get to 4,000 if you don’t get the third one. And it’s the same with everything we do in the company.
“When you first come to the U.S., you’re lost,” he continues. “Day after day, hour after hour, the image becomes clearer. Step by step, every meeting, every discussion, every trip, every moment is an opportunity to put two other pieces of the puzzle together that is L’Oréal USA.”
Rinderknech assumed his role officially on Jan. 1, 2020, but has been in the U.S. since September, traveling across the country and assembling his vision for the future. A lot depends on Rinderknech being able to fit together the many disparate elements of the North American beauty scene — not least of all which is to help restore L’Oréal to significant growth in a market that had stagnated even before the coronavirus crisis.
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If anyone seems up for the challenge, it is Rinderknech. Ask those who know him best to describe him, and the first word they use is “energy,” a force that comes through in even the most casual conversation. Rinderknech speaks with kinetic animation.
His sentences come out in bursts of adjectives, idea building upon idea, verbally italicizing key words and all punctuated with hand gestures for emphasis. His voice rises with excitement as he shares a concept, idea or anecdote, and when he listens, he leans in, intently focused on whoever is speaking.
For Rinderknech, people are a key part of the “pieces” that enable him to connect the dots and see the full picture, and he relishes human interaction. “I want every discussion I have, every meeting, to never be indifferent,” he says. “Something has to happen there. We have to build another step in the relationship.”
When the coronavirus pandemic hit the U.S. in early March, the puzzle became exponentially more complicated, but the picture immediately took shape. Although he may not yet know the country intimately, his mandate was clear and his call to action immediate.
“Going through a crisis makes us stronger together,” says Rinderknech, of the company’s 11,000-strong workforce. “Sharing this experience makes us so much closer. I see everyone’s homes, their dogs, their kids. This would never happen in a normal context.
“There is a spirit here,” he continues, “and to lift it up, to continue to move forward to be resistant, to protect the business and give our people a sense of direction, that is a very important mission.”
As the COVID-19 crisis worsened in the U.S., Rinderknech had three key priorities. First, to assure the health and well-being of L’Oréal’s workforce; second, to galvanize the company to contribute to the greater good, via the production of hand sanitizers, small business and vendor relief and donations ranging from financial grants to needed goods such as gloves, and third, how not only to mitigate the impact on the business — but how to learn from it, build on it and transform the way L’Oréal operates.
Even though the coronavirus pandemic had not yet broken out when L’Oréal chairman and ceo Jean-Paul Agon appointed Rinderknech as ceo of the U.S., it was clear he was brought on board to be an agent of change. According to L’Oréal’s own figures, the firm has a 13 percent share of the North American beauty market, making it the largest pure-play company here. North America accounted for 25.3 percent of L’Oréal’s overall business in 2019, or about 7.6 billion euros.
But as big as those numbers are, the region has also slowed down considerably. In July, Agon characterized the market as “flat at best.” In contrast, China, the market Rinderknech was most recently ceo of, posted growth of 30 percent last year, led by e-commerce, which is the top-ranked channel in the country and accounts for upward of 40 percent of sales.
“Stéphane is one of the most energetic men I have ever met, and he always keeps pushing in order to achieve his goals,” says Agon.
“At the same time, he is able to lead a team and effectively communicate his energy and ambition. Choosing him to lead the U.S. was not based only on what he has already done in a highly competitive market,” Agon continues, “but more on his skills and strength, which are extremely appropriate to the U.S. market.”
Agon knows whereof he speaks: He became ceo of L’Oréal USA literally days before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in 2001, and took over the global ceo role in 2006, just prior to the global economic crash of 2008.
L’Oréal recovered from both events to emerge stronger than ever — and Rinderknech fully expects to do the same when the pandemic has ended. As focused as he is on marshaling L’Oréal’s resources to conquer the coronavirus, he also recognizes the opportunity a changed landscape presents, particularly one in which technology has assumed a larger importance than ever before for a population largely confined to their homes.
“There is going to be an acceleration of the digital transformation, an acceleration within the acceleration,” says Rinderknech. “What we are going to learn is to adjust the content, build the capability, bring the consumer experience.”
For now, that means adjusting and adapting to the needs of quarantined consumers, creating livestreamed content, for example. In the future, who knows? But the point is to build in the agility needed to respond in real time.
“We have to adapt to the consumer reality, to be in their life, to be with them,” says Rinderknech. “The role of a brand is to seed connection, to engage in a dialogue with consumers. It is not to say, ‘Buy my thing and here is a great price.’ It’s, ‘I am here with you and for you, sharing the experience
and the moments.’
“What I’m interested in is the backbone of a brand, not whether it’s big or small,” he continues. “Who are your consumers? What does beauty mean to them? What do they aspire to? And what is our platform of expression to connect with those audiences that we have clearly identified, which is different depending on if you are CeraVe or Giorgio Armani or La Roche-Posay or YSL or L’Oréal Paris.”
He refutes the notion that the U.S. can’t be a high-growth market like China, positing that if you give the people what they want, when they want it, where they want and how, sales will follow, as evidenced by the success of products like L’Oréal Paris Revitalift Derm Intensives Hyaluronic Acid and Glycolic Acid serums and Maybelline New York Falsies LashLift Mascara (“a salon gesture adapted to mass.”)
“The market is not growing that quickly, for sure,” says Rinderknech. “But I think anybody in this market can grow very, very fast. There are different forces, different changes, different habits, and we have a responsibility to find the dynamism in the market by putting the right innovations, right quality, service, experience and products that can perfectly fulfill the demands and desires of consumers, which are changing.”
The curiosity to find answers to those questions is what drives him most. Whether it is consumer mores or languages (he speaks French, English, Spanish, German, Mandarin and Japanese) or cello concertos (Rinderknech is an avid player and says music is like beauty in that “there are a million versions of the same suite and every time you play one, it is never the same”), Rinderknech loves to learn.
“I am driven to discover, to take risks, to dive into new things, to push into new frontiers,” he says. “Because you discover something and then it leads you to discover more.”
Rinderknech has had a relatively meteoric rise through the ranks of L’Oréal, and in each posting, he has taken a key learning and moved forward. He joined the company in 2001 in Miami, as Lancôme area manager for South America in the travel retail division, where he soon caught the attention of senior management by adeptly managing through the sociopolitical crises in Brazil and Argentina and gaining significant market share advantages by supporting retailers during the upheavals and reaping the benefits when life returned to normal.
Three years later, he moved to Japan, first as head of Biotherm and then was quickly promoted to run Lancôme, a brand he revitalized in that market. In 2008, he was named head of L’Oréal Luxe in South Korea, where he launched Kiehl’s and helped propel it to the number-one skin-care brand in the market. In 2011, he moved to China, first as general manager of the Luxe division, then as head of the Consumer Products Division, and finally, in 2016, he was named ceo of L’Oréal China.
Rinderknech calls Japan the school of “consistency, rigor, quality, depth and detail,” while Korea was all about speed. (“They move so fast—there’s a word for it, pali-pali, you hear it all the time.”)
In China, which he calls the school of scale and speed, Rinderknech helped propel L’Oréal to the number-one spot in the country, and proved himself an able student of digital. “Running CPD there was quite a challenge — there was a brutal shift from offline to e-commerce, with the rise of Alibaba, Jingdong, etc., so we had to maneuver through that.”
By all accounts, he did so very successfully. L’Oréal was the top-ranked beauty company in e-commerce in China in 2018, with a 22 percent share of the prestige market, according to a company presentation. The group’s ranking on Tmall improved considerably under Rinderknech as well. In 2016, for example, Lancôme was the sixth largest brand on the platform and L’Oréal Paris was number nine; by 2018, the brands were first and third respectively.
L’Oréal’s top brass hope he can have the same impact here. “You’ve got the two biggest economies in the world and the two leading countries in terms of digital,” says Nicolas Hieronimus, deputy chief executive officer. “The ability to learn from one another is very important and Stéphane will definitely help our U.S. business benefit from some of the best practices and learnings that he got from a fast accelerating Chinese digital world.”
Already that is happening. Cheryl Vitali, previously the global president of Kiehl’s who was named global president, American luxury brands, in January, is one of the few executives stateside who has worked extensively with Rinderknech prior to his appointment in the U.S. “He is very focused on digital opportunities and commerce,” she says. “He was able to create a competitive advantage for us in China, and he sees similar opportunities here, where we can move quickly and see opportunities related to what the consumer is doing and how she/he continue to shift.”
Rinderknech’s approach is to incorporate digital into all aspects of the business, weeding out silos and making sure the entire organization is using all of the technological tools at its disposal to drive sales across all platforms. The phrase “o plus o,” online plus off-line, comes up frequently in his conversations, emphasis on the plus.
“It is not a confrontation, it is a convergence. This is something I was really exposed to in my previous job,” he says. “When I go to a store, I have my phone with me, and I do a lot of things with it. How does digital complement the in-store experience? It’s not shifting something. It’s making sure that the teams here that work on e-commerce and that work in brick-and-mortar don’t think channel. They need to think consumer.”
Rinderknech himself loves to spend time in stores. On a bright Monday morning just one week before the coronavirus quarantine in New York City, he was recalling excitedly visits to CVS, Target and Ulta that he had made over the weekend. “The only reality of the work we do is in the stores. If you have questions, go to the stores. The best discussions, best ideas, are always in the stores,” he says. “It’s great to go with people, because they can answer your questions, but it’s great to be alone, to understand what is it that I feel when I’m there. And then suddenly, bam! It pops up. And you say, ‘Right!’ And you get your idea.”
As for his “aha” moment that weekend? “I think our new products are amazing, but sometimes not visible enough or educational enough for consumers,” Rinderknech says. “Consumers want to be informed. How do you tell them about the ingredients, the routine? We have a tremendous opportunity to educate them.”
That being said, he is looking to tap into e-commerce’s potential as a force multiplier by taking advantage of the many hero products across L’Oréal’s brand portfolio. “These are products that are already imprinted on the minds of the consumers and the algorithm favors them, because there is organic search and stories behind them,” he says. “If we invest to make them even more visible, then there is great potential of growth ahead.”
Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Rinderknech spent a significant amount of his time traveling from state to state, visiting stores, observing consumers and meeting with teams everywhere to disseminate his vision. He makes it a point to see the world beyond the walls of an office, be it going on a 50-mile bike ride from Santa Monica to Malibu and back with Hieronimus (they went to a Lakers game after) or having dinner at an Outback Steakhouse during a market tour in the Midwest.
His leadership style is to make sure everyone is aligned on end goals — and then let the people involved figure out how best to get there. For an organization to thrive, Rinderknech believes people must know what is expected of them, where they fit within the frame, how they can best contribute to reaching the goals and also feel that they are continually learning. “There is not one way to get to Rome — you have to respect that there are different ways so that the diversity can kick in,” he says. “You tell them, let’s get there, but give them the freedom to tell you how. It’s like a recipe. Every person counts, every interaction counts, every ingredient counts. You take what everybody says, you mix it in a blender” — here he stops and makes a zzzzzzttttttt sound — “and then it’s like, ‘OK! That’s the way. I got it.’”
For sure, Rinderknech’s approach represents a newer way of working for many in L’Oréal. “Meetings tend to be much more collaborative and problem-solution-oriented, as opposed to a formal presentation, where you’re presenting numbers, concepts and strategies,” says Megan Grant, president of L’Oréal Luxe USA, who notes Rinderknech often pops into an office unannounced to bat around an idea. “It’s a more collaborative working session, and because of his approachability and energy, teams feel comfortable speaking their mind and giving their opinions.”
It’s a give-and-take rather than top-down approach, a style he honed in Japan. “If I give orders, I’m not going to get speed, I may get resistance,” Rinderknech says. “To gain in speed means actually sometimes to step back and play the game of back-and-forth, until you feel 100 percent ownership and engagement with the teams. That’s when the ideas are going, and everyone is hypercreative.”
While speed may suffer in the short term, in the longer term, Rinderknech believes such an approach accelerates change, likening it to a surfer riding a wave. For him, the wave is the size and scale of the U.S. market. “When you surf, you don’t use your muscle to fight the wave. You identify the right wave, and then let it carry you,” he says. “It is your balance, your agility, your flexibility and your skills that enable you to stay on the wave.”
Post-pandemic, that agility will be more necessary than ever before, as consumers and marketers adjust to whatever the “new normal” will be. “Part of our role now is to challenge people, to help them reinvent a whole new world, because this is what it is going to be about — nothing is going to be the same,” says Rinderknech. “The agility to rebound is to select what you want to build, to be able to allocate the right resources in the right place to ensure the right rebound.”
Ever since he was a five-year-old in Agen, France, where he would memorize the capitals of the world, Rinderknech has yearned to travel, and he is at his most animated when he talks about how much he loves discovering new cultures and meeting new people.
The first thing he wants to do post-quarantine is surround himself again with people. “I hate noisy restaurants, but when we’re able to again, I’m going to go to the most crowded restaurant. I am not such a social distancing fan,” says Rinderknech. “I love to be with people and I hope soon we are going to be together again.”
The CEO Chronicles
L’Oréal established Cosmair (short for cosmetics for hair) in the U.S. in 1953, and officially changed its name to L’Oréal USA in 2000. Rinderknech is the company’s eighth ceo. Two previous ones, Sir Lindsay Owen-Jones and Jean-Paul Agon, subsequently became ceo’s of the entire company after their time in the U.S. Here, a timeline.
1953-1981: Jacques Corrèze
1981-1984: Lindsay Owen-Jones
1984-1987: Jean Levy
1987-2001: Guy Peyrelongue
2001-2005: Jean-Paul Agon
2005-2009: Laurent Attal
2009-2020: Frédéric Rozé
2020: Stéphane Rinderknech