Fabrice Weber’s impressive résumé and rise to president of Asia Pacific for Estee Lauder is anything but cosmetic
When people talk about the type of multilingual, multicultural executives needed to run today’s fast-changing global businesses, they almost certainly have someone like Fabrice Weber in mind.
As president of the Asia-Pacific region for the Estee Lauder Companies, whose portfolio includes such names as Bobbi Brown, Jo Malone, Clinique and MAC, Weber is spearheading corporate expansion in some of the world’s most dynamic consumer markets. At the same time, he is also tackling the complexities of creating new distribution models and building an organisation that still reflects the founding family’s values.
“This role allows me to leverage my experience in taking on challenges which require a global view,” says Weber, whose international outlook and approach to life is, in large part, the result of a somewhat nomadic childhood.
His father’s job with a large German pharmaceutical company saw the family living in Belgium, Germany and Spain. Weber was “from the get-go” picking up languages, learning to adapt, and figuring out how things worked and why in markedly different contexts.
“Looking back, I didn’t see much of my father, but he always had very exciting stories about where he’d been or people he’d met,” he says. “So for me, the thought of working in different countries was always intriguing and definitely something I wanted to do.”
An initial step was to study business at the HEC business school in Paris, with a focus on international affairs and marketing. The course included an internship in Canada and led on quite smoothly to a management trainee role in Vienna in the late 1980s with the L’Oreal Group. He chose the group for its good reputation for talent development and promise of further international postings.
The group may have rejected Weber’s request for a move to South America, but the counter offer of a job in travel retail in Hong Kong turned out to be “a dream come true”. “Asia is the gold standard in terms of the sophistication and creativity of channels for luxury brands, because people here travel and shop so much,” he says. “As an executive, I learned how to operate in a high-speed, extremely competitive environment, to manage organisations in multiple countries at the same time, and to understand Asia’s mosaic of cultures and sensitivities.”
After 10 years with L’Oreal and a further five with Chanel in Asia, the time seemed right to set new goals. So, when approached in 2000 about a switch to Estee Lauder, it was an easy decision to make, even though it involved relocating his family from Tokyo to New York. Based there to oversee travel retail brands worldwide, Weber ran companies in London, Miami and Singapore, which was a gilt-edged opportunity to understand the full scope of the group’s operations and meet the people who effectively create the business – the scientists, strategists and members of the Lauder family.
“It was very exciting to run a division with responsibility for selling all the 25-plus brands,” he says. “Having previously competed with the group for 15 years, I had always been struck by how focused they are on quality of execution and how the working culture is very supportive of retail partners.”
Weber assumed his current position in 2007. With 13,000 staff in 14 countries now under his command, and the region generating 20 per cent of the group's net sales in its last fiscal year, there are inevitably “tremendous challenges” in staying ahead in a highly competitive sector, and adjusting to the changes brought by the rise of social media and digital marketing.
In Hong Kong, for instance, both frontline sales and office-based workforces are largely dominated by millennials, who have the know-how and perspectives needed to add something extra to the more traditional style of retailing.
“In general, we like to empower people early on and see the need to shift resources, develop talent, and determine what we should stop doing,” Weber says. “Some brands may still emphasise their heritage and craftsmanship, but all must find a way to respond to the transformative power of the internet and all its forms. If you are not open to a change of mindset and ready to look reality in the face, you are bound to fail.”
Taking the concept of “management by walking around” to a new level, Weber likes to invite key individuals to join him on walks from the office through the Harbour City shopping mall, which can easily turn into a three-kilometre round trip.
“It helps in looking at things with a little less emotion,” he says. “We may stop for a coffee on the way, and it is also a chance to see what all the big luxury retailers are doing. When it comes to recommendations and ideas, anything and everything can be discussed.
“Also, because we are big on innovation – which can be a matter of connecting the dots and not necessarily ‘light bulb moments’ – we have instituted flexi-hours and allow people to work in ways where they can take a step back.”
When not working, Weber’s main priority is to spend time with his family, but he also practises yoga to keep in shape and is on the lookout for new experiences.
To celebrate reaching the age of 50, he did two specific things. Getting behind the wheel of a superfast sports car was just for fun, but the week spent volunteering with a charity for street kids in Vietnam meant something more.
“I constantly remind myself there are people who have a very difficult existence for reasons of health or financial hardship. I’ve been blessed in many ways, believe in goodness and am enjoying ‘the journey’. But I worry about the people I care for and, in particular, I want to see my two boys grow into decent human beings.”
Fabrice Weber’s five tips for succeeding in the beauty and luxury retail sector
Foundation “You need to be energetic, to like a fast-paced environment, and be very open in terms of outlook and wanting to learn about the brands and how the industry works.”
Flaunt it “There is a constant element of competitiveness. It is important to respond to the challenge of working in a place where you have to perform at a high level all the time.”
Cosmopolitan “Those who do well have a special gift or passion for understanding global business and giving it local relevance. That means being interested in the world and performing a constant balancing act.”
Eye for style “It definitely helps to have a natural interest in all things that are beautiful. It certain ways, we overlap with the arts and what inspires women, who tend to focus on what’s beautiful or precious, along with the concepts of self-improvement and self-gratification.”
Close-knit “In this company, we are international leaders in many dimensions, but are still fundamentally a family culture.”
This article appeared in the Classified Post print edition as Keeping up appearances.