It was the first day of L’Oréal’s move into its new headquarters at 10 Hudson Yards, the behemoth rising from the desolate construction zone on Manhattan’s West Side, and Xavier Vey was standing in his brand new office on the 29th floor.
The floor-to-ceiling glass-walled corner unit gave him a wraparound view of the Jersey City skyline, Manhattan’s Financial District, New York Harbor—punctuated by the Statue of Liberty—and the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. It is a panorama as sweeping as Vey’s ambition.
In his previous job as U.S. president of Lancôme, he made a mark by surpassing the Estée Lauder brand’s U.S. volume. According to industry sources, Lancôme’s U.S. retail sales has topped $1 billion.
Now as the 50-year-old president and chief operating officer of L’Oréal USA’s Luxe division, he is back to finish the job.
“The ambition is very clear. I want L’Oréal Luxe to be the number-one corporation in the U.S.,” said Vey, who meant he wants to be the number-one luxury player in the U.S. market, ultimately surpassing the Lauder corporation’s U.S. business.
He believes it will take five to seven years. Vey did not provide details, but industry sources estimate that he must pass the $5 billion sales mark to achieve that goal. Sources also calculate that volume of L’Oréal Luxe in the U.S. is somewhere between $2 billion and $3 billion.
Vey has no comment on the numbers, and acknowledges that it’s natural to want to build market share with bigger, stronger brands. But he seems more interested in kindling human chemistry.
“I want to develop people and make L’Oréal Luxe the best place to work, to attract the best talent. When you’ve got the best people, you are sure you are going to win. It will start with people and it will lead me to the success I want.”
He added that the key is in trusting people—not the easiest thing in a corporation—“If I want to go that fast, [I] need to empower people to take risks.”
He has strong fans at the top of the masthead at L’Oréal USA, including Frédéric Rozé, president and chief executive officer of the entire U.S. division, and Carol Hamilton, group president of the U.S. Luxe division.
Rozé points out that Vey came to New York after “five fantastic years in L’Oréal Luxe France. He knows very deeply this luxe business. He is a very complete manager; very strategic on the marketing—the brand—side, and super good at seizing all of the opportunities of growth, the go-to-market strategy.”
Rozé praised Vey for his strategic thinking at Lancôme. “Here in the U.S., not only did he manage a fantastic launch of La Vie Est Belle. He managed to outfox Estée Lauder [in maneuvering Lancôme into the number-two spot].”
“He really has a strong team-building charisma,” Hamilton said. “It is one of his biggest strengths.”
She added, “He is quite confident and he has a strong attention to detail. He really wants people to like him. He cares a lot about making people feel comfortable.”
Vey joined L’Oréal in 1997 as a sales representative for Biotherm in France and moved up through a series of top management posts with Lancôme, Biotherm and other luxury brands in Europe, including in Spain and the U.K.
It all began with an “aha” moment early in his career, when he was a banker at a joint venture of Credit Agricole in Thailand. His best friend, a perfumer with Givaudan, gave him a quick tour of fragrance creation.
“He made me go on a journey in [under] 15 minutes, making me smell aromas of fresh-cut trees, fresh-cut grass, then the best rose. I thought: Well, if I can have so much pleasure in 10 minutes, why don’t I change my job and make this 10 minutes my whole life?”
Both Rozé and Hamilton asserted that Vey enjoys a strong rapport with retailers, an observation verified by Shelley Rozenwald, senior vice president and chief beauty adventurer at Hudson’s Bay Co.
“[Vey] is different from a lot of people I work with,” she said. “He is a visionary. He understands the needs of the current customer while anticipating future needs.”
Rozenwald added that Vey has the ability to walk onto a selling floor and read a counter, looking at it through a consumer’s eyes and “knowing how to excite them.”
“Xavier is a student of the business,” said Gemma Lionello, executive vice president and general merchandise manager of beauty at Nordstrom. “His top priority is to align the programs and products of his portfolio with our customers’ wants and needs. He is persistent and very driven to be competitive and to differentiate his brands from the competition.”
Vey noted how fast the world of beauty is changing and asserted, “The people that are going to embrace the new are going to adapt themselves to that; they’re going to win.” He attributes the industry’s uptick in velocity to the Internet. “In the last six months, we’ve done more than in the past two years,” he said. “In the past two years, more than in the past 20 years.”
After assuming his present job, Vey created a cohesive management committee and took them on a tour of Silicon Valley. He maintains that the current retail revolution was made possible by the “indie social.” He added, “The new social revolution is about people creating their life as a masterpiece and showcasing, through social, this masterpiece. You need beauty to show the best of yourself.”
He noted that young people today are using products and tools that only makeup artists used before. In the past, it was difficult to learn their tricks, but “today, you go on YouTube and you know how to apply the most difficult products. It helps us to innovate more than ever. Today, we can expand the categories.”
While he is completely optimistic on the makeup front, fragrance is another story.
“We’ve got challenges,” he declared, asserting that, unlike in Europe, “we haven’t unlocked the appeal of fragrance to a larger [U.S.] audience.”
He pointed to a lack at the retail level in “the way [fragrances] are distributed, the way [retailers] showcase it and the way they tell the story. It’s the storytelling in fragrance that is fundamental. There are signs of things that are happening, but we need to go a lot faster.”
Another area of struggle is skin care. “I still believe in the recipe of the big, innovative launch,” he said, but the industry has to stop overpromising. “When I see the huge success of Kiehl’s,” he said, “it’s probably because of that. They have never overpromised.” He added, “We need to tell the real story of what is going on inside.”
He followed the Kiehl’s trail further, pointing out that with its 1851 identification, it is L’Oréal’s oldest brand. But it is also “very, very modern,” thanks to its consumer-centric, community-sharing nature.
He explained that the staff at Kiehl’s is trained to quiz the customer on the nature of their need, then send them home with samples to try, in the hopes that they may return to buy. “I call it up-front generosity,” Vey said.
He defines luxury as “the stretch, the difference. How we bring disruption is a key part of what we have to do, to separate from the normal, the everyday, the boring.”
He has plenty of territory to work with. Vey is responsible for the full Luxe portfolio of brands filling two floors of offices at Hudson Yards—Lancôme, Giorgio Armani, Ralph Lauren, Viktor & Rolf, International Designer Collections and the new acquisition, Atelier Cologne—plus Kiehl’s downtown and Urban Decay and Clarisonic in California.
He reports to Rozé, while Hamilton has been elevated to a position of working on the global strategies of American brands, like Kiehl’s and Urban Decay, plus identifying new acquisitions, like the recent purchase of Atelier Cologne. She works with Rozé and Nicolas Hieronimus, president of selective divisions at L’Oréal.
Vey has come a long way from banking in Thailand. Clearly lacking pretense, he now lives in Nolita, formerly Manhattan’s old Lower East Side, and he is known to ride his Gitane bike to work, and around the neighborhood on weekends. Nolita may still lack the grandeur of some more tony neighborhoods, but Vey seems delighted with its cosmopolitan ambience.
“When you are on the street, you hear Chinese, Italian; the world is there,” he exclaimed, adding that is why “I’m so optimistic about the beauty market. The diversity that we have today in the U.S. is a driving force of the market. The Hispanic consumer is so passionate about beauty in all senses. It’s not just about makeup. They are making fragrance grow. They are passionate about skin care. This population is growing so fast and it’s such an opportunity for us.”