Former leader of L'Oréal 'deserved' his €100m gift

British businessman who drove cosmetics firm to the top regrets that payment was kept secret

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The Independent Online

The retiring British boss of L’Oréal has a simple message for those who criticise a €100m gift that he received from Liliane Bettencourt, the chief shareholder in the French multinational.

Sir Lindsay Owen-Jones – the man who built L’Oréal into the world’s dominant cosmetics company – says that he was given the money “because I’m worth it”.

Sir Lindsay, 67, retired today as the honorary boss of L’Oréal after spending 44 years with the company, rising from a shampoo salesman to chief executive and then president. For two decades, he was the most successful British businessman in the world but scarcely known in Britain.

Between 1984 and 2005, under his leadership, L’Oréal increased profits by a double-digit figure each year and quadrupled global sales.

After he stepped down to become honorary president in 2006, his golden reputation was tarnished, in some people’s eyes, by his marginal role in the “Bettencourt Affair”:  a family quarrel which turned into an explosive political scandal.

The affair began in 2008 when Liliane Bettencourt’s daughter, Françoise Bettencourt-Meyers, accused a society photographer, of taking advantage of her octogenarian mother’s feeble state of mind to extract €1bn in “gifts”.

The photographer, François-Marie Banier, 65, has since been formally accused of abusing Ms Bettencourt’s mental weakness. So has the former President Nicolas Sarkozy, who is accused of taking illicit campaign funds from Ms Bettencourt, the daughter of L’Oréal’s founder.

In an attempt to defend his actions, the photographer revealed in 2009 that Sir Lindsay Owen-Jones had also received a “gift” of €100m after tax from France’s wealthiest woman.

In a rare press interview, with Le Monde, Sir Lindsay has now publicly defended for the first time his decision to accept this gift in 2003. “I was enormously proud to be rewarded by people I had helped to enrich,” he said. “I deserved the money. We had just liquidated the arrangement tying Nestlé to the Bettencourts, which vastly increased the value of the family’s [L’Oréal] holdings. The Bettencourts wanted to make me part of their good fortune… They wanted to make the gift to allow me to become a large shareholder in L’Oréal.”

With hindsight, he said he now “regretted” that the gift had been concealed from the public and from Nestlé, the second biggest shareholder in L’Oréal. “Ten years ago, that kind of thing was not as hyper-sensitive as it is now,” he said.

Sir Lindsay is certainly right to claim the Bettencourt fortune – estimated at around €8bn – is largely his creation. In the 1990s L’Oréal’s share price increased by 1,100 per cent.

He studied at Oxford and at the Parisian business school, the Institut Européen d’Administration des Affaires. Upon graduation, he joined L’Oréal as a trainee manager and was selling, among other things, shampoo to municipal baths in Normandy. Sir Lindsay rose rapidly to become chief executive in 1984.