Leena Nair, who spent 30 years at the Anglo-Dutch giant, most recently as chief human resources officer, is to take up the role at the end of January, assuming a title previously held by Chanel co-owner Alain Wertheimer.
Wertheimer will now become global executive chair of Chanel, according to the company.
“Chanel follows a trend of attracting top FMCG talent to manage luxury goods,” observed Luca Solca, senior research analyst, global luxury goods at Bernstein.
“Unilever and P&G stand tall as management reservoirs for the relatively young luxury goods industry. The cases of Toni Belloni at LVMH and Fabrizio Freda at Estée Lauder are a benchmark in this respect.”
Given her international background and expertise in human resources, the trail-blazing Nair is also sure to help Chanel advance its diversity and inclusion ambitions, as she did spectacularly at Unilever.
According to Chanel, Nair has “built a global reputation for progressive and human centered leadership, delivering significant business impact” and went on to describe her as a “highly respected as a visionary leader, whose ability to champion a long-term, purpose-driven agenda is matched with a consistently strong record of business outcomes.”
In a separate statement, Unilever’s CEO Alan Jope said Nair made an “outstanding contribution” to the global consumer giant over the last three decades.
“Leena has been a pioneer throughout her career at Unilever, but no more so than in her role as CHRO, where she has been a driving force on our equity, diversity and inclusion agenda, on the transformation of our leadership development, and on our preparedness for the future of work. She has played a critical role in building our purpose-led, future-fit organization,” he said.
“I am also especially grateful for her leadership over the last two years, and how our HR teams have helped Unilever manage through the many challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic with great care, compassion and professionalism,” Jope added.
Unilever has not yet revealed her successor.
Nair was the first female, first Asian and youngest CHRO ever of Unilever, according to the company. She joined the group in 1992 as a management trainee of Hindustan Lever in India. By 2006 she had become general manager HR of Hindustan Lever.
In 2013 she became senior vice president HR Leadership and Organizational Development and global head of diversity, and in 2016 took up her role as CHRO and member of the Unilever Leadership Executive.
In 2020 Unilever, parent of brands including Dove, Paula’s Choice, Ben & Jerry’s and Vaseline, posted revenues of 50.7 billion euros, and net profit to 6.1 billion euros.
It is understood Nair’s appointment does not impact any of Chanel’s senior executives.
Among the most visible is Bruno Pavlovsky, president of Chanel fashion and Chanel SAS, a veteran of the company based in Paris.
Nair is also a non-executive member of British Telecom, a member of the Board of the Leverhulme Trust, and was a non-executive director on the U.K. Government’s Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy department.
Wertheimer assumed the management helm of Chanel in 2016 following the surprise ouster of Maureen Chiquet, who had been its global CEO since 2007.
Revenues at privately held Chanel totaled $10.1 billion in 2020, down 18 percent at comparable rates.
Reporting the figures last June, the company noted that revenues grew by double digits in the first six months of 2021, and its full-year operating profit margin is on track to return to 2019 levels.
The brand recently unveiled its Métiers d’Art collection at the French luxury house’s new center for specialty workshops on the outskirts of Paris.
In tandem with that event, Pavlovsky also delivered a masterclass in front of hundreds of students, also sharing the stage with brand ambassador Pharrell Williams.
The rapper and entrepreneur commended the center, known as 19M, for supporting Chanel’s mainly female workforce and creating opportunities for people from the surrounding neighborhood near Porte d’Aubervilliers, an area that in recent years has dealt with an influx of homeless migrants.
Williams told the young crowd that Chanel was committed to increasing diversity in its ranks. The brand hired Fiona Pargeter as head of diversity and inclusion in 2019.
“The intention is to diversify. The intention is to take a more democratic approach to France itself. We do know that there has been tension with our African brothers and sisters here in this country, our Arabic brothers or sisters in this country. Chanel understands that,” Williams said.