Whether or not it's true, the French have a reputation for thinking their solutions are, well, supérieur. But ask France's top managers who is the most successful CEO of a French company, and many would point to a 56-year-old Welshman. Since taking the reins of L'Oréal (LORLY ) in 1988, Lindsay Owen-Jones has transformed the Paris-based group into a multinational powerhouse, the ExxonMobil of cosmetics. And in one of the roughest patches for European industry in a decade, Owen-Jones is showing just how strong L'Oréal is. Last year's sales were $12.6 billion, marking the 17th year in a row L'Oréal has seen double-digit sales and earnings growth, a track record few can match in European business.
Only a manager as consumingly competitive as Owen-Jones, who in his spare time pilots helicopters and races a 77-foot sailing sloop, could have accomplished such a feat. When he joined L'Oréal in 1969, 90% of its sales were in Western Europe. Today the company has a presence in 150 countries.
Walk into the toniest shops of Houston, Shanghai, or Mombasa, and you'll find L'Oréal brands like Maybelline, Lancôme, Vichy, and Garnier, most of them picked up in a string of acquisitions that last year included New York's Kiehl's brand and Japan's Shu Uemura. Maybelline, bought in 1996, shows Owen-Jones' savvy. Criticized by some for paying $760 million for a downmarket U.S. brand, Owen-Jones' crew forged Maybelline into a global leader. Over half its sales are now outside the U.S., and it is the No. 1 makeup in China. As they say in Paris, pas mal.