Since 1828, Guerlain has had thirteen different managing directors, or CEOs as we'd call them today, starting with Pierre-François-Pascal Guerlain himself. By modern standards, that's not many for a 190-year-old company, but in the early days, working at the Guerlain family firm was a lifetime job. Aimé Guerlain's brother, Gabriel Guerlain, was the brand's longest-ruling director (1864-1933). According to recent studies, the median tenure for CEOs at large companies today is five years.

In the expansive 1980s, when a whole new and highly competitive global market for designer clothing, fragrance, and status symbols emerged, Guerlain decided to leave its directorship to professional marketers from outside the family. By the beginning of the 1990s, Guerlain faced an industry that had undergone a vast transformation.

Guerlain's difficult journey to where it is today took 30 years, enormous amounts of money, an ownership transfer, and six CEOs.

Bruno Giry 1981-1989
The first of Guerlain's CEOs from outside the family, Bruno Giry was probably also the last of the "romantic" directors, more passionate about heritage and tradition than about trends and market shares. In a 1988 interview with French fashion magazine L'Officiel, he revealed that the Guerlain bestsellers were Shalimar, Jardins de Bagatelle, Mitsouko, Chamade, Vetiver, and Habit Rouge. However, he recognized the importance of not getting stuck in the past. "Today, we want to 'give our past a future,'" he said. This slogan was often later used by Sylvaine Delacourte, who had begun as Guerlain's fragrance evaluator in 1987. Giry explained that Guerlain was investing in research and innovation, "without ever forgetting that our profession is above all one of art and creation." According to him, Guerlain owed its success to the maintenance of a unique and distinctive soul, expressed in the motto, "Etre Guerlain." He also revealed that the brand was preparing to launch a new feminine perfume: Samsara.

Although Guerlain felt the pressure of "marketing fragrances" in the 1980s, Giry was happy to note a renewed interest in fragrances that were "more romantic, more classic, more traditional". At Guerlain, he said, this tendency was reflected in increased sales of L'Heure Bleue, "especially among the young customers." Giry therefore hoped that customers would be pleased with the newly launched Parfum de Toilette format of the big classics, Shalimar, L'Heure Bleue, Jicky, Mitsouko, and Chamade. Today, this format is called Eau de Parfum, and is the most popular and common of all fragrance variants.

In 1987, Guerlain family members sold a 14.2 % stake of the holding company to Henry Racamier, a French businessman who successfully turned the dated leather goods firm Louis Vuitton into a brand of expensive status symbols, reportedly to fund the Samsara campaign, though Guerlain denied being short of finances. Later the same year, Louis Vuitton merged with champagne and brandy makers Moët Hennessy to form LVMH.

Jean-Michel Paulhac 1990-1994
After Bruno Giry’s Guerlain directorship ended with the launch of Samsara in 1989, 52-year-old Jean-Michel Paulhac with a business degree from Harvard assumed the management of the company in January 1990. This was a difficult time in Guerlain’s long history.

Despite the economic downturn of the early 1990s, Guerlain could still generate a decent profit from sales in Europe, half of which were limited to France, but was lagging far behind the international marketing power of rivals Dior, Chanel, and Lancôme. Guerlain struggled to build up a corporate image in China and the US. Meanwhile, its catalogue was ageing, and the company continuously groped for a way to be both exclusive and appealing to the masses. The ad campaign for the men’s scent Héritage (1992) oozed conservatism and weighty history (including, for the first time, an attempt to define the Guerlinade), while Petit Guerlain (1994) was being promoted with free samples in maternity wards.

Guerlain later revealed that unlike Samsara, Héritage, whose marketing budget amounted to 25 million dollars, wasn't the expected commercial success, mainly because the brown packaging design was "too dull for some markets."

In a 1993 interview with French business magazine Les Echos, Jean-Michel Paulhac said that he believed the future belongs to global heavyweight companies, or small, specialized niche brands with very selective distribution. His prophecy already reached fruition the following year, because Guerlain, being neither a worldwide player nor a small label, and one of the last independent perfume houses, agreed to be acquired by the LVMH conglomerate. LVMH president Bernard Arnault, who diplomatically dubbed the acquisition a partnership, said that he had no plans to replace Jean-Michel Paulhac with a new CEO, however Paulhac resigned a few weeks later, in June 1994, without disclosing the reason for his departure.

Christian Lanis 1994-1997
In September 1994, Bernard Arnault installed 46-year-old Christian Lanis, who had spent his entire career in consumer product marketing at Unilever, as Guerlain’s new CEO. Arnault, who has made a €5 billion business from combining luxury with a mass-market approach, later said that "people do not understand that success stems from the cohabitation of two contradictory spirits: the artist's vision and the logic of worldwide marketing."

At his first press conference, held at Guerlain’s new factory at Orphin, Lanis vowed to bring a mass-market fighting spirit to the old brand, and increase the speed of international fragrance launches, the first one being Un Air de Samsara, a fresh take on Samsara. He also said that another new women’s scent was in the works: Champs-Elysées.

One journalist noted, however, that Lanis appeared uninformed about Guerlain, and often had to call on Jean-Paul Guerlain, who also attended the press meeting, to answer questions about the company. "Jean-Paul wandered about clutching the leather-bound family ‘recipe book,’ which contains handwritten formulas of the house's best-selling scents, as if to stress that one can buy a company but not 166 years of know-how," the journalist wrote.

When Champs-Elysées launched in 1996, French newspaper L'Express reported that Jean-Paul Guerlain refused to put his name on the new fragrance, which he found incompatible with the Guerlain soul. Bernard Arnault wasn't too happy with his new Guerlain CEO either, as he thought the 15-million-Franc ad spot was unattractive, "hardly worthy as a tourism ad for Japanese visitors." A new ad campaign therefore had to be made in a hurry, featuring French actress Sophie Marceau, but Champs-Elysées never became the commercial success it had been projected to be.

Thibault Ponroy 1997-2001
After the trouble-ridden launch of Champs-Elysées, lawyer Thibault Ponroy was named Guerlain's new CEO in December 1997, making Christian Lanis the shortest-lived of all Guerlain CEOs. Ponroy had previously been with Guerlain as a commercial director (1985-1990), starting when he was just 27 years old, and then worked for Johnson & Johnson in the interim. Like his predecessor, he faced the obstacle of matching tradition with trends, luxury with mass marketing.

The biggest success by far under Ponroy’s Guerlain rule was the Aqua Allegoria collection in 1999, still popular today. By contrast, the major masculine and feminine launches, Coriolan (1998) and Mahora (2000), were both complete commercial failures. In 2001, Guerlain’s sales were down four percent and enormous advertising expenses wasted. By October, it was known that Ponroy was about to leave. In January 2002, Renato Semerari, formerly a marketer at Procter & Gamble and Parfums Christian Dior, became the third Guerlain CEO since the LVMH takeover in 1994.

January 2002 also saw the retirement of Jean-Paul Guerlain. "I want to stress that my last years within the group have been happy," Jean-Paul Guerlain stated in the announcement of his retirement. However, people who knew him reported that he had just had enough of the LVMH management, constantly colliding with marketers who in his opinion were not cognizant of Guerlain’s heritage and what defines a beautiful perfume, though he agreed to continue as a consultant for the brand. Knowing that the Guerlain brand image was still very vulnerable in the thrust of the new market, LVMH continued to promote Jean-Paul Guerlain as "an ambassador of the Guerlain spirit."

Renato Semerari 2002-2007
Renato Semerari's directorship of Guerlain was assisted by an associate managing director in charge of marketing, a new post assigned to former Unilever marketer, Laurent Boillot.

The departure of Jean-Paul Guerlain in particular made headlines. At his first press conference Renato Semerari stated that all of the brand’s fragrance releases from now on would be created by various external perfumers. Although this had already been standard practice at Guerlain at least since the LVMH takeover, commenters feared that without Jean-Paul Guerlain, "perfumery will become a matter of pure marketing." Renato Semerari rushed to assure that Jean-Paul Guerlain was still around, acting as a consultant for the firm. Who in fact was the olfactive head remained uncertain though, as most Guerlain stories that followed in magazines and on blogs (an emerging phenomenon back then) cited Sylvaine Delacourte rather than Jean-Paul Guerlain.

On the other hand, maybe Jean-Paul Guerlain’s retirement was like a fresh start for the brand, which hadn’t had much success since Samsara in 1989. In any case, within five years, Renato Semerari and Laurent Boillot seemed to jump from one hit to the next: Shalimar Light, L’Instant de Guerlain for her and him, the L’Art & la Matière line, Les Parisiennes, Insolence, and L’Instant Magic. Semerari also devised a renovation and expansion of the Champs-Elysées boutique, now dubbed Maison Guerlain. "When I came in 2002, I was struck be seeing 300 square metres of meeting rooms practically unused," said Semerari, explaining that the boutique saw increased sales by more than 40 percent after the renovation.

After many years of drifting, regardless of whomever or whatever was responsible, Guerlain had finally found a formula for success. LVMH even called it "the remarkable renaissance of Guerlain."

Laurent Boillot 2007-
LVMH had found great Guerlain leadership talents in Renato Semerari and Laurent Boillot, and decided to reshuffle their posts in September 2007. Semerari was appointed CEO of Sephora Europe (also owned by LVMH), while Boillot became Guerlain’s new CEO. The enormous size of the LVMH empire allows for myriad job titles, promotions, and careers. Boillot is by now the longest-tenured Guerlain CEO since this job was handed over to marketers from outside the Guerlain family.

In the preceding two decades, the past five years had by far been the most successful at Guerlain, which came out with a revived brand image of French luxury and a flood of new fragrances. Laurent Boillot believed that the company was now ready for the global expansion that it had envisioned since the 1980s. But before that, he wanted to take care of one crucial detail that was still missing: finding an in-house perfumer. He rightfully understood that he could not promote Guerlain’s signature mantra of tradition and innovation without a house perfumer to symbolize the transmission of know-how from former generations. In June 2008, he appointed Thierry Wasser, formerly at Firmenich, as Guerlain’s new master perfumer. To train for his new role as a Guerlain successor, Wasser spent a lengthy time with Jean-Paul Guerlain, with whom he developed a close relationship. Just two years later, Guerlain cut all ties with Jean-Paul Guerlain due to his unfortunate racially-tinged remark on French television, after which Thierry Wasser was left the only remaining "ambassador of the Guerlain spirit."

While the first step towards world recognition of Guerlain was a failure (an attempt to modernize Shalimar with a caramel floral called Shalimar Parfum Initial), La Petite Robe Noire became the brand’s biggest and most rapid international success since Shalimar. According to French business magazine Challenges, LPRN went straight to the Top Three best-selling fragrances in France in its worldwide launch year of 2012, pushing Chanel N°5 off its lofty perch in 2013. But Laurent Boillot’s biggest achievement was to persuade world-famous actress and women’s rights activist, Angelina Jolie, to give Guerlain a celebrity boost with the brand’s most expensive ad campaign ever, for the 2017 release Mon Guerlain. At the same time, Boillot set out to open 100 new Guerlain boutiques in major cities worldwide within ten years. According to him, while Guerlain is currently only known to an elite group, "every woman and man in the world should have access to Guerlain, perhaps they won’t become customers but they should know who we are."

Boillot was also responsible for a second expansion of Maison Guerlain, now "the largest perfume boutique in the world." His stated ambition is to make Guerlain the leading perfume brand in Paris, above Dior and Chanel.
(April 2018)

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