As a shaven-headed rugby player, Stuart White was probably not one of the more obvious candidates for L’Oreal UK’s graduate management trainee scheme. Yet just seven years later, having joined the company shortly after leaving Lancaster University, he’s now the group product manager for L’Oreal Paris Haircare in this country, responsible for a massive £70m in turnover.
L’Oreal is an enormous multinational company. With a presence in 130 countries worldwide, it’s a household name with massive brand recognition in Britain, having launched a thousand ‘because you’re worth it’ jokes on TV. It also moves a not inconsiderable 45m units – bottles of shampoo and conditioner – every year.
So what role does Stuart play?
“I’m responsible for the growth of the haircare brand portfolio in the UK,” he says, which contains more than 100 products in total. This entails lots of things: ‘pushing growth on our existing business’, ‘driving new product launches’, and maintaining ‘promotional and advertising excellence’.
On a day-to-day basis though, there’re loads of different things to cover. He’s responsible for a £10m media budget – which covers the development of brand messages, the creation of adverts and promotions, and then buying space for them on TV, in the press and in key retailers.
But that isn’t all of it.
“It might be that on a certain day we’re travelling across the country to go to the HQ of a key retailer and present our brand plan for the next two years,” he says. “Or we could be working with the merchandising team on creating the next pieces of in-store theatre, for a launch in six months’ time.”
His media duties are also strategic, working on longer term goals with the marketing director and various commercial and logistics teams to establish two-year forecasts for his brands. L'Oreal is quite flexible; while global brand strategies are developed out of Paris, a lot of Stuart’s work involves tailoring those to his own market.
In fact, one of his most successful campaigns was due entirely to local tailoring. They hired Cheryl Cole, the brand’s first British spokesmodel in a decade, and even went so far as to modify the formula of a new product to suit the particular needs of British hair in order to market it as such. The success of the strategy was plain to see; the product sold 30 per cent more in Britain than in any other European country.
How did he get his job
Stuart’s route into the hinterlands of the ‘fast moving consumer goods industry’ (FMCG for short) started university at Lancaster, where he did a four-year management degree, specialising in marketing, including one year in industry.
“It’s a really good business school,” he says. “As well as the marketing side of things, the degree was quite varied, so it would cover operations, market research and finance, meaning that I came out with a suitable skillset for a company like L’Oreal.”
It was towards the end of his degree, though, when he realised that marketing, particularly of FMCG – things like beauty products, sporting goods and drinks – was what interested him most. So, for his dissertation he decided to write about ‘how to build and sustain brand equity in the cosmetics industry’ – and aware that L'Oreal was ‘a major worldwide player’, he began to speak to people in the sector. From there, he decided to apply for the management trainee scheme straight out of university – a long, complicated process designed to sort the wheat from the chaff.
“I went through four or five different rounds of interviewing and assessment days. The final stage was an interview with the head of the consumer products division in the UK. Thankfully I think she liked what she saw and that led me onto the scheme that September.”
How do you get his job?
Stuart’s route from university might seem quite simple, but a lot of work goes into an application to get onto any graduate trainee scheme.
“We’re an ambitious lot,” he says of his employer, “and what we look for in other people is an entrepreneurial spirit, this idea that ‘my brand is my business’ – wanting to make everything happen for L’Oreal.”
So what is this ‘entrepreneurial spirit’, and how does one show it?
Says Stuart: “You can’t draw on a lot of professional experience, but you could talk about the initiatives you got involved with at uni. Perhaps you revolutionised one of the clubs? It’s not necessarily grand scale that you have to show, so much as being seen to go through the process of innovation and recognising it and giving examples.”
It’s actually, weirdly, not so important to know the industry inside out. No one will expect a young grad to know everything about the ins and outs of selling hair products on the international marketplace. But you do need to have done your research.
“I can think back to the interview, and what she was looking for was for me to form an opinion of the beauty industry. Whether or not I agreed with her or didn’t wasn’t important,” says Stuart.
Anything else? “Don’t be put off by what your friends say,” he laughs. “When my friends heard that I was going to interview at L’Oreal, I think it was met with a few quizzical eyebrows. It’s not really seen as a manly career move – but I’ve never had any reservations.”