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Groupe Clarins’ CEO on Leadership During the Pandemic

Jonathan Zrihen said compassion, competence, resilience and very clear execution are among the keys.

PARIS — As confinement became de rigueur in France mid-March due to the coronavirus, Groupe Clarins’ chief executive officer Jonathan Zrihen had two phrases at top of mind.

The first was Charles Darwin’s “survival of the fittest.” “During crises, we have to have a kind of Darwinian approach,” he said. “It’s not the most clever or the strongest who will survive, but the ones who adapt best to the crisis.

“The second was Churchill, when he said: ‘If you’re going through hell, keep going,’” continued Zrihen. “That resilience aspect always inspired me. I don’t have a manual for the crisis. I’m just trying to use a lot of good sense and keep a very close relationship with our people.”

The executive steers the world’s 23rd largest beauty manufacturer, based in Neuilly-sur-Seine, France. The privately held company generated estimated sales of 2.01 billion euros in 2019, according to WWD Beauty Inc’s Top 100 ranking.

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When asked what leadership skills have been key to keeping Groupe Clarins functioning smoothly through the pandemic, Zirhen said: “You have to show compassion, competence, resilience and very clear execution to the people, and then you have to engage them.”

Here, Zrihen describes his current strategy, which focuses first on employee health and safety, and future plans.

WWD: How are you communicating with top management?

Jonathan Zrihen: We have established protocols and are in regular communication. Two times a week we have what we call a COVID-19 crisis management team [meeting]. This integrates my executive team, plus dedicated people who are gathering information — [like] someone in charge of internal or external communications, security, h.r. We have the [members of the Courtin-Clarins family, the group’s owner] joining the call also and all my executive team. There are about 18 people on this call. One is at the beginning of the week and one is at the end of the week. They last about one hour and a half.

We also have a COVID-19 business management crisis team, more about working on the business impact. I’m all for fighting against silos in normal times, but when a crisis comes, usually I like to create silos.

I have created four task forces that integrate people also from the [various] countries. I’ve called them: What Now, What Next, What If and then there’s a budget task force.

What Now is how do we respond to the crisis, organize ourselves. These are our crisis management teams that are making sure we are first of all guaranteeing the safety and health of all our employees around the world, are preserving the business that we have through online, for example. That is preserving and engaging our consumers through this difficult time.

Our task force, which is comprised of several people from our executive team, as well as several people in the countries, is called What Next. This is to be fully prepared when the business will reopen — basically to anticipate all the sanitary measures, changes that we are expecting on the short-term basis, from May to December.

What If is the beginning of a sentence to help us think of a future that will be very different. It’s, for example, what if 50 percent of our business in some countries is going to be online? What if we can’t use testers anymore? It takes into consideration major shifts that we expect will arise from the crisis. We are working with trends and different top council companies to try to evaluate this.

The fourth task force is to make real a zero-based budget. There is an opportunity for us to relook at how we are spending our money today by starting from a blank page, reallocating our resources, reassessing some projects, relooking at some organizations — basically with two big purposes.

The first one is to make sure that we’ll have the right, agile organization when the business bounces back. At the same time it’s about reallocating some resources that were used for projects or fixed costs to new opportunities that will come from this crisis.

One is another digital transformation. We’re seeing that digital is taking more and more space during this crisis, with particularly strong transactions online, and the need for more services online.

We have our internal communication — a platform on which we are regularly communicating about all the things we are doing.

People were very pleased and proud that Clarins was one of the first companies to decide to dedicate its production site to make hydro-alcoholic gel. We are producing 12 tons, which is about 300,000 bottles, every week that we send free of charge to hospitals in France. We [make] about 30,000 hand creams, and are going to produce more, and send them to all the nurses and doctors using hydro-alcoholic gel and have dry skin. We have ordered one million masks that we offered to the hospitals.

WWD: How much are decisions made in headquarters versus in the various countries?

J.Z.: Clarins has always favored central input but very strong local execution. We trust our heads of subsidiaries around the world tremendously.

WWD: How are teams working smoothly from home around the world?

J.Z.: We’re using a tool that is functioning really well, called Microsoft Teams. When I was in Asia at the end of January and saw China shutting down, I was really surprised how severe the confinement was there. I came back early February and set up the crisis team. We said: “Let’s plan for the worst and hope for the best.” Our IT teams organized every employee in the world to be able to work from home.

WWD: What other learnings have you gleaned from China, where the health crisis first hit?

J.Z.: The need for masks, so we ordered masks to be able to have enough reserves for people back at work. We are learning how they are working at the office — they have rules and teams, so not everybody is in the office at the same time.

They gave us some protocols on how to interact with consumers, sanitize some testers, show how we apply the products by having someone one meter away replicating the techniques.

We have learned from them about how to organize the points of sale a little bit differently to manage the flow of consumers. We have involved Chinese colleagues a lot in some task forces and for bounce-back scenarios, even though the China bounce-back scenario is very different.

WWD: What have been some challenges?

J.Z.: Engaging our people regularly. So I have a call every two weeks with all the general managers of the 20 to 25 subsidiaries we have.

What I find difficult sometimes also is [maintaining] the contact with our beauty advisers. They are staying home because stores are closed. But we have found, by creating the concept Clarins and Me online, the possibility of engaging them, to give consultations online or over the phone. This is the human contact we have created and it’s a big success. Just in France, we have about 50 to 70 slots per day. We have now expanded Clarins and Me globally.

WWD: Has the group tapped into French government subsidies?

J.Z.: We didn’t use any of the government support in France because we believe it has to prioritize small companies. Clarins decided to maintain full salaries for [even] all the salespeople that can’t work, including their commission earned last year, because we didn’t want any employees to be struggling during this crisis.

WWD: Have any strategies needed to be back-burnered due to COVID-19?

J.Z.: A priority for us was to try and grasp the impact of this crisis. At the same time, the company is on a trajectory. We sold our fragrance division to focus on the development of Clarins. We have nice resources to support this relaunch, [but] we had to delay some of the strong investment that we were planning to make on the Clarins brand until later. This will give us opportunity to invest when the markets bounce back.

At the same time, we had digital accelerations that were already planned, and we decided to accelerate those. We also decided to accelerate the launch of some transactional sites.

We were starting to think of building a second factory. [However,] we see less urgency to do it because of the slowdown this year. So this has been delayed.

But at the end of the day, when I look at what we had planned in our Clarins Unlimited strategy, [the elements] are still very relevant, even after the crisis. There was: acceleration on digital, CRM, China, social responsibility and traceability of all our ingredients.

We have to take it day by day and make the most reasonable decisions, always keeping in mind the long term. This is very important for us.