In the tumultuous world we live in, I chose to stress the positive. I wanted to start a series of stories about the people behind the scenes who make a difference in our daily lives. The people who have gone after a dream and made it.
I have always strongly believed that nothing is impossible. Perhaps difficult to reach at times but hard work and determination will get you anything you set your mind to as long as you are prepared to fight for it. It is called being a leader. Some people do not aspire to leadership; they would rather follow; be a part of a team, while others are born with it and made for it. It all starts early on, usually detected in school, with an insatiable desire to always do more and know more. The qualities required are strength, organization and being able to enlist the aid and support of many others around you to achieve a common goal. There are all kinds of leaders, political, religious, musical, scientific and business. People who at corporate levels help society to develop and progress so that everyone else can benefit from it. Role models are gifted with intelligence, value, vision, personality and dreams. People we want to look like, to be like, to emulate. As young adults leave their colleges and universities, diploma in hand, they are not prepared for the active life. If they are fortunate enough to find employment in a company with a person who can lead them to success then they have found their role model. I have always had a special interest in Beauty. I love every aspect of it and I love products; me and a billion other women. I wanted to ask a woman in an executive managerial position to give her thoughts on the matter.
I chose to ask Barbara De Laere, an entrepreneurial executive with 14 years of international experience in the beauty business. A go-getter with strong goals who is described as a strong analytical and strategic thinker, Barbara is Vice President and General Manager of L'Oreal Professionnel, Kerastase & Shu Uemura Art of Hair USA at L'Oreal USA. Successful in identifying accelerated growth opportunities and continuously improving business performance, she has proven her abilities in managing sales, marketing, operations, personnel and finance for established brands as well as for new market introductions. Fluent in English, French, German and Dutch, Barbara is a sociable leader who creates high performing teams while developing the individual’s talents.
So before the shampoo gets to us what happens?
You hold a title which reads Vice President and General Manager L'Oreal Professionnel, Kerastase & Shu Uemura Art of Hair USA at L'Oreal USA. Can you summarize the responsibilities that your position carries?
I’m looking at this question in three different ways. The first part of this role is the operational management side of business. Because as VP & GM of these brands, you drive things forward, from finance to human resources, to customer and distributor relationships as well as education—the whole 360 of a normal business.
The second component of this role is to develop the talent for the future of the company by coaching the people that work for me; helping them grow; setting them up for success and sending them in the right direction.
The third one is to be a leader and have a vision for growth — to show everyone how to contribute to that vision. And then keep everybody on track and focused.
The beauty about L’Oreal is that you can own your business within a bigger company. I feel one-hundred percent responsible for the business from A to Z for these brands.
You started at L’Oreal in 1999 in the Netherlands. Are you from there?
No, I was born in Belgium, in Bruges, the Venice of the north. It is a small country with a lot of charm and Joie de vivre. My mother tongue is Flemish. But I learned French from 8 years on. Our neighboring countries are so close, that speaking several languages is a necessity.
How did you know that business and beauty were in your future?
As a little girl, I was the one creating a library and lending out my comic books to other people, or selling candy for charity—always doing all kinds of things. So when my mom asked me what I wanted to do when I grew up, I wholeheartedly answered that I wanted to lead a company. At that time there was no 360° business education on university level offered in Belgium. I quickly realized that I needed to go abroad. So I went off to study Business in the Netherlands at 17. The Dutch are world renowned merchants and I wanted to learn from the best. My international path started there.
I always related very well to beauty. I’m intrigued by aesthetics, by design, and by art. I’m revived when I’m surrounded by beautiful things. It can be beauty but it can be something as simple as the sun coming up in the morning, shining a golden light into the apartment. I just love aesthetics.
While attending University, we used to have what we called “Company days”. Executives from large corporations would visit campuses and discuss various aspects of companies with students. It is then that I came in contact with L’Oreal Professionnel’s VP of Marketing. I was offered an internship at the company and immediately seized the opportunity. I fell in love with the company. From the start, I was given a lot of responsibility along with freedom of creativity. That’s the reason why I love L’Oreal today. It is a company that is entrepreneurial. One of our CEO’s had this belief that, “The people that work for L’Oreal are poets and farmers at the same time. They’re with their heads in the clouds, forward dreaming and strategizing, and at the same time with their hands in the mud making it happen.”
Have you encountered many challenges on your way up to the top as a woman executive?
I wouldn’t say that I’m at the top yet (laughs).
What would the top be then?
I think the executive committee of L’Oreal worldwide would probably be the top.
Is that a goal?
I have an extreme passion for building brands, building businesses and developing people and that’s how I got where I am today, not because I said, ‘I want to be here at this moment replacing this specific person.’ If I can contribute to the culture and the success of the company and inspire people, more specifically women, to grow within this company, I would love to be a part of the worldwide executive committee of L’Oreal.
You have worked for L’Oreal in several countries. Were there any significant differences between them?
Absolutely! The culture of the country, the people, the positioning of the brands, the market circumstances, they all differ. As you can imagine, if you work in France, which is the heart of the company, there are a lot of eyes on your work, or heads that look over your shoulder.
When you walk into a city or in a country, there is a certain level of energy there. Everything in life is energy. Music is energy, physical objects are energy, and people are energy. And the funny part is, when you arrive at a certain place, you can feel those energies on a certain level coinciding. You can almost put a word on that energy that has the same feel as what is happening in that city or in that country. When I was living in Paris, I felt that the words ‘beauty and poetry’ buzzed on the same energy level. When I went to work in Germany, the energy was all around ‘efficiency and quality’. And for example, when arriving in the US and living in New York, I had never seen the word ‘success’ so many times used on television or written on billboards. This energy defines a culture. And when you work in those cultures, it resonates in everything that you do.
You speak four languages fluently. Did you learn each one when you moved to a different country?
My mother tongue is Flemish. I already knew a little bit of French. But when I arrived in Germany for example, I didn’t speak German all that well. I spoke Dutch and I put “um” at the end and thought I was speaking German (laughs). The first 8 weeks that I was in the country, I was in the field and toured the country with my sales team. They were the ones who taught me German. Every time I said something, people were looking at me like, ‘What does she mean?’ and then they gently corrected me. I’m very grateful to them.
I learned English mainly from listening to songs.
I think—and I see it in the environment and people around me—people that work for L’Oreal are very intrigued by languages, even in the U.S. Regularly, people ask if they can go to school or have an evening course to learn to speak French. I think it’s a bit inherent in our culture in L’Oreal—which is a very international organization—to adapt to the local environment, but at the same time get a lot of inspiration from abroad. Personally, I love languages. I believe that only through language you can really understand the culture of the country.
You’re fascinated by finance and marketing. What comes first for you?
It’s the building of the identity of the brand—making it relevant for the people that buy it. That translates back into products and into doing things around the brand that add value for the people who buy it.
What is the area that you excel the most in? Is it business or finance?
One is being analytical. I love numbers. When I was in university, I was the assistant to a market research professor because mathematics just talked to me. I loved to decode and read data, then translating it back in business decisions.
The second element is being able to step back and see the big picture, to then zoom in on the biggest opportunities. Somebody said to me, ‘It’s incredible: you see a situation, and you go instantly where you can make the biggest impact to then synthesize it back with the big vision.’
Being a role model, do you have any special advice to give to young women who are going into business?
I would say to stay true to yourself. I think that a lot of people get caught up in trying to fit the mold. If you want to be a true leader, you have to be authentic and honest with yourself. The second thing is that especially women are the hardest critics of themselves. They tend to under-value themselves, because there is always that “little thing that could have gone better”. It’s better to be very rational and to be very conscious about your value. Be confident. You’re in a business relationship. Think ‘How can I add value?’ but also, ‘What does it bring for me?’
Working under pressure every single day within a multi-billion dollar company, do you have any time for yourself?
I am one of the lucky people—and that’s a lesson that my mom taught me when I was growing up—who turned my hobby and my passion into my work. I don’t go to work every day and think, ‘This is my work.’ I really, really like what I do.
But still, don’t you schedule time for yourself?
I do. During the year—and I think that’s a little bit of the reason why I’m going where I’m going or why I’m growing—I’m very good at switching off. When I leave the office at night, I spend time with my friends or with my fiancé or I go to the museums or for a walk. I have so many other interests. My time is in the morning when I wake up. From 6 o’clock until 8 o’clock in the morning, I do my things—I read, I go onto the internet, and I read trendsetter things. That’s where I get my input. Or at night my partner and I—because we’re both foodies—go to the most bizarre new places to try out the latest cooking trend.
Eating is really nice.
Yes, and for me that’s beauty as well. It’s aesthetics. It’s my little time off.
Besides restaurants and museums, do you have any other passions? Do you take pictures?
I have another passion that I unfortunately do not get around to do as much as I would like to, and that’s taking care of my body, my temple: Going to the gym, playing sports …. I’m a very active person. I need to move.
I’m intrigued as well by the concept of longevity and the quality of life. I’ve read a lot about that as well. If I had a second life, I would completely go in that direction.
Do you have any other wishes for your immediate future besides taking a vacation for more than three days?
I’m very happy where I am; I’m very happy with what I’m doing. A more personal wish is to be able to secure the future for my mom and for my brother, but that’s a very personal one.