If anyone understands the business of beauty, it’s Inês Caldeira, the CEO at L’Oréal (Thailand, Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia). Here, she talks about leadership in a volatile world ofdisruptions.
Now in her early forties, Inês Caldeira is, I expect, an ace at swatting aside questions playing into gender stereotypes, ageism (she is young), work-life balance, and being a working parent. Questions rarely put to her male peers. Determined not to waste time on the needless, I focus on getting her insight into the multi-billion-dollar beauty industry, as this executive from Portugal is not only the current CEO at L’Oréal (Thailand, Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia), but was also named one of the most powerful women in business by Forbes Portugal in 2018. This month, she completes three years in the hot seat in Bangkok.
“When you dedicate 20 years of your life to beauty, there are few countries better than Thailand in this industry,” she begins, as she looks back on three “absolutely fascinating” years. She speaks of the sophistication and complexity of the Thai market, the productivity in terms of innovation, and the competition – both local and international players. She clearly finds it exhilarating. I hear it in her voice, and I’d probably see it in her eyes if it weren’t for the digital divide between us.
Her move to Thailand came after over 17 years in the trenches working for the world’s largest cosmetics company, with a brand portfolio that runs the gamut from supermarkets to the luxury sector. Inês landed in Bangkok with her six-month-old son, Antoine, and businessman husband Matthieu Douziech. “This is the best place to raise a child,” she remarks. “Thais have a lot of love and respect for children. Here, my husband and I can provide a calm, not hyperactive, childhood. I will be forever thankful for that.”
My pointed, ‘So who is Inês?’ query gets her contemplative. “A lot of things,” she answers. “CEO is the last tag I use to describe myself. I am a daughter, a sister, a mother, a wife, and a good friend. I love challenges, and I am a fighter. I am an early bird and quite an introvert in my personal life.”
Her ‘me time’ finds Inês indulging in her love for hip-hop dance, yoga, spin classes, photography, and travelling. “I started cooking during the pandemic,” she goes on to say, while listing reading and Portuguese wines as other interests. And what about fado? “Only the modern fado,” she admits.
Her son attends a French school, as her husband is French, but at home they speak Portuguese. “My country is just 10 million strong. We cannot lose even one Portuguese speaker. It’s essential to speak other languages fluently – it opens up a lot of opportunities, and opens the mind.”
With her personal domain on an even keel, the volatility in Inês’ life comes from managing in a VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity) world. “It’s a challenge because you make decisions in the morning, based on certain data points, and by lunchtime the data points change. You need the agility of thought, fast decision-making skills, and a risk-taking approach. That is magic! It works with my personality.
“Then there’s Covid-19,” she says, “something that the managers of my generation, currently running the world, are facing.”
When the pandemic forced the world to pivot hard into the digital arena, L’Oréal was prepared. “If we hadn’t started this journey eight years ago, we would be in a difficult situation. We could quickly adapt to the new world, maximised and accelerated by the pandemic. When you are fighting for business dollars, you need to go after all the initiatives. The Thai consumer is hyper-digital, hyper-connected. This created opportunities that played in our favour.”
The connected world comes with a caveat: everyone is an expert. Inês, though, sees this as an opportunity. “Consumers with a passion always had questions, and digital platforms became a weapon of market penetration, allowing consumers to raise questions and for us to satisfy many beauty desires. It’s a new world. The more knowledgeable the consumers, the better it is for the brands.”
For over a century, L’Oréal has led the discussion on beauty, perhaps along the way even transforming the very idea of beauty. “I hope we are transforming it. We are the leaders and have dedicated 100 plus years to beauty. Our knowledge and perception of beauty have a worldwide view. I do believe we create the beauty that moves the world. We believe we have a role to play in moving forward conversations on beauty stereotypes by listening and adapting our marketing models to be more inclusive. We are for a world of diversity and inclusion, even in our advertising. Our brand acquisition model represents all types of beauties, and our foundation covers all types of shades.”
To Inês, the L’Oréal portfolio is a palette coloured with possibilities. “As many opportunities as brands,” she observes.
“First, we need to understand the role of beauty. It’s much more than physical appearance. There is emotion, and there is self-esteem in the way you present yourself. For some, a Lancôme anti-wrinkle cream is about status. Others give more importance to cosmeticity than fragrance or texture. Some want efficiency, ingredients, and concentration and don’t care about texture or how pleasant it is.
“There are thousands of drivers for the same problem,” she concludes, acknowledging that each driver creates a brand-based opportunity.
The beauty business is a minefield of expectations requiring laser focus leadership. So, where does Inês find her inspiration? “I find inspiration in people who can share their mistakes, their struggles, their feelings. With that comes a lot of humanity. It’s a journey with self-doubt, a journey with questions. I find people that delegate, trust their team, and build on their experiences to be very inspiring.
“My father has been the fundamental influence on my values and the kind of leadership I practice. The teams that I have crossed have shaped the leader I became. I see authentic, vulnerable leadership as a continuous journey. If I may compare: you are not born a mother; children teach you to become a mother. Leadership doesn’t come in a book, it is a learning process, and feedback is so important.”
Her last word goes out to her employer: “The company has allowed me to have the life I wanted. ‘Never give up… be the size of your dreams’ is what L’Oréal taught me.”
This article first appeared in the September 2021 issue of Prestige Thailand.