After a remarkable forty-year career with the LVMH and Coty groups, the French-American leader who influenced the cosmetics industry in an unparalleled way, is retiring and leaving behind a legacy that will last well beyond his departure.

From a modest background in the Jura region of France, Jean-André Rougeot fulfilled his American dream and built a tremendously successful career in the U.S. A graduate of EAP-ESCP and Harvard Business School, he forged his path with boldness, determination and an unshakeable work ethic, to establish himself as one of the most respected leaders in the cosmetics industry. He propelled Benefit Cosmetics to become one of the world leaders in make-up, growing its sales from $150 million to $1.5 billion, then led the revitalization of Sephora Americas, which was losing momentum 5 years ago and just achieved record sales of $10 billion in North America in 2023. 

Meet a visionary CEO, marked by exceptional humanity and unmatched humility.

 

Where in France are you originally from, and how have your French roots influenced your career path?

I grew up in the French countryside. I was born in the small Jura village of Montaigu, near Lons-le-Saunier, the birthplace of Claude Rouget de l’Isle, the author of the French national anthem La Marseillaise – that’s its claim to fame! 

I grew up in a modest rural environment. My father was a great influence on me. He instilled in me his work ethic. He built up a hardware business from scratch, which grew spectacularly. He was a visionary who set up the first purchasing cooperative for independent hardware retailers in France. He was generous, always ready to help, worked 7 days a week and had a great sense of humor.

 

How did you get to the United States?

I discovered the United States when I was 18, on a backpacking trip across the country. I fell in love with the country, the wide open spaces, the sense of freedom, and the opportunities available to you.

After doing my preparatory classes in Lyon, then the École des Affaires de Paris (EAP) business school that became ESCP, I decided on a whim, on my return from my military service in Ivory Coast, to apply to top American business schools. To my great surprise, I was accepted at Harvard Business School in 1982.

Coming from a modest background, I discovered that the United States was a land of opportunity, and appreciated the chance to climb the stairs to success on the strength of my own shoulders.

 

How did you come to choose a career in the cosmetics industry?

I got into the cosmetics business by chance. After four years as a consultant with McKinsey in Chicago, I was recruited in 1990 by Benckiser, a company whose ambition at the time was to rival P&G and Unilever in the detergents sector. After holding management positions in Canada, England and Spain, I embarked on a rather daring adventure when Benckiser decided to enter the world of cosmetics by acquiring the Parera and Margaret Astor companies in Spain. After a series of acquisitions of cosmetics brands, Benckiser chose to recreate Coty (the American beauty multinational) and entrusted me with the management of Coty’s worldwide cosmetics sector in New York for around ten years. I was able to build a whole new business, with brands such as Rimmel, Adidas (we were even the pioneers of the body mist with Calgon Body Mist long before the worldwide success of Sol de Janeiro!), and it was there that I learned to work with major retail chains like Walmart and Target. 

I quickly became fascinated by the level of activity in the beauty industry. It’s an incredibly dynamic sector, where creativity is constantly stimulated, and where every day brings its share of novelties.

It’s also an industry where female brand founders shine particularly brightly, with a determination and dedication to work that is nothing short of remarkable.

 

After Coty, you joined the LVMH group in San Francisco. How did you turn Benefit Cosmetics into a global beauty powerhouse?

In 2006, I was approached by LVMH to take over the Benefit brand, on which the group had high hopes and saw real potential for international expansion. Founders Jean & Jane Ford had created a brand of great authenticity, totally unconventional, breaking industry rules with Monty Python-like humor and putting consumers at the center of product decisions. Going against the grain of the “beauty establishment” dominated by traditional brands such as Lancôme and Lauder, Benefit was at the forefront of the industry’s transformation, focusing on women’s empowerment. In fact, it paved the way for the emergence of independent make-up brands such as Urban Decay and Too Faced.

The brand exploded onto the beauty scene. It became globally recognized, ranking among the top three make-up brands in most countries (#1 in eyebrows worldwide). 

We achieved this success by cultivating the brand’s unique DNA, focusing on hero products in key categories such as eyebrows and mascara, and investing early in Digital. A pioneer in digital marketing, we were the first brand to work on Instagram and collaborate with influencers. To set ourselves apart from other brands, we didn’t hesitate to run some very bold campaigns that literally made my LVMH management in Paris frown…

 

How did you manage to turn around the business of Sephora Americas, which was losing momentum before you took over 5 years ago and achieved record sales of $10 billion in 2023?

When I took over the reins of Sephora 5 years ago, the brand, which was generating 5 billion a year, had lost its dynamism and hadn’t seen the Ulta phenomenon coming. 

My first priority was to listen to employees and organize round tables with head office and store staff to hear their needs and ideas. We put everything on the table and together we identified the brand’s major challenges. My main challenge was to fundamentally change the way we work at Sephora. I focused on 5 main priorities, which I pursued relentlessly for 5 years.

My first project was to completely overhaul our distribution strategy and expand into the suburbs. Sephora had lost its dominance of the US market following the arrival of competitor Ulta and its move into the suburbs, whereas Sephora had focused all its distribution on urban areas. It was vital to get closer to consumers in less urban areas. We launched a new “drive-off mall” store model in outdoor malls (a smaller format with lower operating costs). We also signed a distribution agreement with Kohl’s and opened shop-in-shops in their department stores. We opened 500 new stores in 7 months. Our customers discovered many brands that were exclusive to Sephora.

During the pandemic, when demand shifted to e-commerce, we gave a boost to our online store, which was already very powerful. Our two advantages over Ulta during the first covid years were the power of our e-commerce site and the retention of our full-time store staff throughout the store closures, which enabled us to reopen stores very quickly at the end of the shutdowns.

This double acceleration of in-store and online sales gave Sephora’s business a real boost.

Today, Sephora has a 35% market share in selective beauty in the United States, and 50% in make-up. We’ve been growing at a rate of 25% a year for the past 2-3 years, and just hit the $10 billion mark in North America.

 

What are your best professional memories?

My best memory is to have been an entrepreneur in a corporate world on three occasions, at Coty, Benefit Cosmetics and then Sephora, thanks to the support of parent companies with absolutely remarkable openness, transparency and intellectual curiosity. LVMH gave us a creative freedom unrivaled in the industry.

I’ve also been lucky enough to be able to build brands and take them to the next level with passionate, committed teams, and in the process create jobs and opportunities.

I’m particularly proud of our BIPOC beauty brand program, which helps coach and support the launch and acceleration of brands created by founders of color.

Making a difference and creating change in the world of selective beauty is something very close to my heart.

 

Sephora has a strong commitment to sustainability. What is the company doing to reduce its carbon footprint?

Sephora has gone even further than the sustainability guidelines issued by LVMH by launching Beauty (Re)Purposed, a cosmetics packaging collection and recycling program, in partnership with Pact Collective, a non-profit collective whose mission is to reduce packaging waste from beauty and wellness products. 

To reduce the amount of packaging that ends up in landfills, the program enables consumers to drop off their empty beauty packaging at any Sephora store, regardless of the brand, and give their beauty products a second life. The materials collected are then transformed and used to make carpets, pallets, asphalt or new packaging, for example.

 


In your opinion, what major challenges will the cosmetics industry face in the coming years and what major opportunities will brands have to seize?

Beyond the obvious impact of new technologies like AI, the main challenge for our industry is to accelerate the birth and growth of differentiated brands (BIPOC founders, Clean / Save the Planet brands…). The beauty industry must continue to innovate by supporting our extraordinary brand founders. Fortunately, Sephora has been and will continue to be a leader in this field.

 

You are in the process of passing on the torch to your successor Artemis Patrick. How is the transition going?

First of all, I’m delighted that a woman is taking over the management of Sephora. Artemis is a great lady of beauty. She’s known as the “Brand Whisperer” for her in-depth knowledge of brands (having headed Sephora’s merchandising function for many years), but for me she’s a true “Customer Whisperer” who knows and understands consumers perfectly.

We are fortunate to have had a 6-month transition period together, which made for a smooth and productive handover. 

I’m looking forward to seeing the start of her first major project, which is the complete renewal of Sephora’s North American store fleet.

 

What are the key values and assets that have helped you succeed as a leader?

A sense of priorities. A good leader knows how to prioritize and must be able to define on one page his priorities for the company.

I’ve always attached great importance to being transparent with employees, and I’ve made a point of communicating with them regularly, sending them monthly letters to help them grasp the brand’s major challenges and understand their role in this big picture.

I’ve always had great respect for employees’ contribution and loyalty, and for this reason I developed a seniority rewards program and increased the financial bonuses awarded to in-store employees. It’s important to recognize and reward employees’ contribution to the company. Their experience contributes to the company’s culture. A company cannot succeed without its employees, and the CEO must be a conductor who is aware of and appreciative of his employees’ efforts.

In my opinion, it’s important to remain humble and intellectually curious, keeping an eye on what’s going on in the market (especially your competitors) and listening to your employees.

 

What advice would you give young professionals to help them build their careers?

Don’t hesitate to take risks, do things that are out of the ordinary, get away from your daily routine, find the courage to go and live abroad to open up your horizons..

 

What are your plans after you retire in April?

I’m going to stop working and enjoy total freedom and flexibility in my life. Although I’m deeply attached to San Francisco (I’m still fascinated by its vitality and multicultural richness), our family home in Maine will become my main residence, enabling me to be closer to my children and grandchildren. San Francisco, of course, will always be close to my heart.

I’m really looking forward to a quiet life with no time constraints. I can just imagine waking up one morning and spontaneously deciding to go canoeing down the Grand Canyon. My passion for hiking, which enabled me to discover the United States, drives me to explore new horizons on foot. 

I dream of living at walking pace…

 

Merci Jean-André



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