The Estée Lauder Companies offices in Hong Kong, strategically towering over the iconic Victoria Harbor, are the epitome of the skincare company’s push into the Asian market – especially China. As the president for Asia Pacific for the past six years, FABRICE WEBER has been in charge of developing the group and its more than 25 brands in a market where having a radiant, healthy-looking and youthful skin may be more important than anywhere else in the world.
Weber, a European of Franco-German ancestry, spent a nomadic childhood between Madrid and Brussels before graduating from HEC, one of France’s top business schools. He started his career in Europe with L’Oréal in 1986 and joined Chanel’s beauty and fragrance division in Southeast Asia and then Japan a decade later. He joined Estée Lauder in 2001, first based in the New York headquarters, then Hong Kong.
His upbringing, which Weber said helped him become adaptable and quick to embrace foreign cultures, helped make him the most suitable manager to lead Estée Lauder’s development in Asia, where women are ready and willing to devote a huge part of their income to premium beauty products.
In 2011, China became the biggest market in Asia for Estée Lauder and the third-biggest worldwide, with 5.4 percent of the group’s global business in the 2012 fiscal year (excluding Asia’s significant travel retail business). The group launched Osiao, a new brand that draws from the precepts of traditional Chinese medicine, in November 2012. The idea grew out of Estée Lauder’s recently enhanced Asia Innovation Center in Shanghai, and the busy tourist hub that is Hong Kong is serving as a launching pad to test whether the brand is ready for a wider regional rollout.
Fabrice Weber, along with Figin Seng, the skincare company’s regional director for organizational and talent development in Asia Pacific, recently sat with Pushp Deep Gupta, leadership and talent consultant at Korn/Ferry International, and Hélène Franchineau, a contributor to Briefings on -Talent & Leadership. Weber shared his thoughts on the diversity and complexity that define the Asian markets and on the challenge of developing talent and retaining leaders loyal to the company.
Fabrice Weber - President Asia Pacific, Estee Lauder Companies
Q: You once said about Estée Lauder employees that you hoped “we make them understand we are building them up and grooming them.” Can you tell us more about how Estée Lauder develops staff loyalty in Asia?
WEBER: The biggest battle in Asia Pacific is not for consumers but for talent. Everybody knows that in certain markets, there is a gap between the talent the business requires and the pool of talent available. At Estée Lauder Companies, our key assets are the brand and the people. We need substantially more people just to cope with our own internal, organic growth; and then we have the issue that there is a lot of temptation for our best employees to move on because they are offered opportunities elsewhere.
China is probably the epitome of that problem. There is a lot more demand for talent than you have talent available.
From our engagement surveys, we realize that what people want is not necessarily always and only more money and title; what they want is more opportunities to learn. There is an enormous appetite for recognition as well, because it reflects well on the high hard-work-ethics prevailing in Asia. We want people to say: I am going to join Estée Lauder Companies when I finish my studies because I think I could learn best-in-class marketing, retail management, the business of luxury and high-end service and so on. We want them to think of us as a place where they can have a long and rewarding career.
FIGIN SENG (regional director, organizational and talent development in Asia Pacific): We have recently introduced a very structured internship program where students work on business cases, and we want to use this opportunity to identify the best emerging talent. At the same time we brand ourselves in business schools and top universities in key countries and hopefully, by word of mouth, people will start to recognize us and career centers will start to connect with us.
WEBER: We also have a Presidential Management Associate program. We select Asian candidates who have at least five years of work experience and who graduated with an M.B.A. from a top-tier American business school such as Harvard or Wharton, and we put them through a process of a two-year job rotation (four assignments of six months each). We allow them to better hone what they want to do in this company, and it allows us to test them on different functions, different brands and different corporate positions across continents, before they are assigned to a core position within the company.
In September 2010 we also launched the Transformative Leadership Program, which is the first program created specifically for the Asia Pacific region. Our goal was to raise the level of leadership for a group of people who are already seniors. In two years, 160 people already went through it and another 40 people are ongoing. Estée Lauder Companies along with Korn/Ferry designed the program.
People from different backgrounds work in multidisciplinary groups over a period of nine months. Through this journey, they have to learn to work together on things that they usually don’t master at all. They have a senior leader sponsor who helps them, and at the end, they have to present a project to a group of senior management, in competition with another group. And yes, some of the ideas are implemented by the brands in the region or even globally.
Q: You have been based in Hong Kong since 2007, and you have seen how Asian leaders operate. What are some of the gaps in Asian leadership that you wished could be filled?
WEBER: We are a global business in a very fast-moving environment, and the age of digital has amplified communication and multilevel interactions. All of that is happening at the speed of light, and I think successful leaders need to learn to navigate that increasingly complex jungle. That complexity and the ambiguity it carries along quite often is where I see Asian leaders struggle the most, but this is also the area where I have seen the most progress. To me, it stems from education and culture, nothing else.
The other thing is also understanding who you are as a leader rather than trying to fit in a template. People have strengths that they should leverage, and we as a company want to make it clear that we don’t want you to be perfect, because it is not realistic, but there are certain things that you know or do better than others and we want to leverage that.
Q: What advice would you give to other high-performing organizations trying to grow in this region?
WEBER: I don’t think there is a single model that you can copy and paste, but everybody should be aligned on the company’s direction, priorities and choices.
Then you need to celebrate success and find the time to do it because, in this region, we are actually running a marathon at the speed of a sprint! People and their family mean something to us, and therefore letting people have a family life and a balanced life should be an obsession. I don’t think we are always delivering on that. I would encourage any company that is too self-centered to take a moment to step back and reflect on what they are doing to create a leveled working environment for their employees.
Q: Do you have a message to other CEO’s in the region?
WEBER: Never assume that the best product alone will make you the most successful player in town. You will need to invest in the relevant emerging areas and have the right talents for today and tomorrow because three years from now may come in 12 months. Investing in people is as important as investing in consumers to buy your products.
My other piece of advice is about creating passion, because passion leads to energy. It is about challenging yourself every day. In this part of the world, you don’t take anything for granted for very long, because consumers and the environment are changing so fast. You need to be open to the assumption that nothing you know is applicable to certain areas of emerging opportunities. You need to reinvent yourself constantly.
Q: Estée Lauder wants to make China its “second home.” How do you see the business expanding within China in the coming years?
WEBER: China is the greatest opportunity for the beauty industry in general and for the prestige beauty industry in particular.
We have to learn quickly to adapt to what is probably the fastest-emerging but also the fastest-learning consumer in the world.
In many areas, the Chinese not only learned significantly faster but also leapfrogged other consumers around the world. They are also probably the most digitally minded consumers in the world.
One priority is the expansion of the distribution: China is in its infancy in terms of distribution rollout. We are in 66 cities today, and when you compare to the United States or Japan, this is not a lot.
We sell to consumers in more than 350 cities through the Internet, so we already know that there is a demand, as we estimate that 150 to 200 million consumers are potentially in the scope of luxury products.
Q: Osiao was launched last October in two locations in Hong Kong and will be introduced in Mainland China in 2014. What was the logic behind creating an entirely new brand, and what is the initial feedback from consumers
WEBER: We launched, with Osiao, a truly Asia-centric initiative. We thought we needed to come up with an answer to address the issue of being able, as a leading company in the beauty business, to appeal to many women whose perception is: “Not made for my skin? Not made for me.” So we created Osiao in our Shanghai-based Innovation and Development center, and the concept is supposed to be premium and very high-touch in terms of service. From what we gathered in our two Hong Kong locations, there have been a lot of visitors from many Asian markets—including China, Japan, Korea or Taiwan.
With Osiao, we wanted to create a brand that is claiming to help you treat your beauty concerns from the inside and from the outside at the same time. It is not totally uncommon, but at the high end of the market we are probably the only one trying to do that.
So far the feedback is incredibly encouraging. We saw people who are willing to sit down for 45 minutes and go through what is unique to the brand – the skin constitution diagnostic tool, which gives you a diagnostic based on your lifestyle and your skin type at the same time. Our retention rate is also extremely high for a brand that is still very new in the market.
I want to stress that Osiao is not a China brand. We were partially inspired by traditional Chinese medicine culture, but it is not a “traditional Chinese medicine” brand. It is meant for Asia in the broader definition. One of the key strategies behind this product is that if it becomes big in Asia, we will be able to leverage it in Paris, London or New York because Asians travel a lot these days and shop abroad. We know that for every dollar Chinese consumers buy within China, we sell two dollars to them outside of China.
Q: How difficult was it to push for something homegrown in Asia, in an organization like the Estée Lauder group?
WEBER: Surprisingly enough it was quite easy because of one key reason: We started this project in 2008, a year before Fabrizio Freda, our current CEO and president, came on board. Six months after he joined, he was visiting China, and we took a shot at it and had the person who came up with the concept and her team articulate the vision behind this highly innovative new beauty brand. He said, “Let’s go for it.” He had the appetite for it, and he has been very supportive ever since.