My conversation with John LeBoutillier, who is the President & CEO of Unilever Canada, was very thought provoking. This interview has some really good tactical advice for people at all stages of their career. We talk about important leadership lessons, approaches to integrating yourself into a new organization after a career change, and his views on work-life balance. John got to the top by simply outworking everyone else, and he covers that story in-depth throughout this interview.
Here are a few snippets from the interview:
- At the age of 10, he would regularly monitor the stock market while waiting at the bus stop. As a child, he didn’t want to be a soccer player or a firefighter, instead he wanted to be a stock broker.
- His first job was not in the Consumer Goods industry. He was a junior tax professor. After switching from Arthur Anderson with a job in finance, he worked for Sandoz (now Novartis). His career in the Consumer Goods industry did not start in marketing but instead in finance.
- He interviewed with L’Oréal and Novartis at the same time but elected to go with the latter because of a boss who he really admired and looked up to. Eight months into the job at Novartis in Switzerland, he was asked to move to Japan to be the assistant (to the assistant, to the assistant) of the Finance Director. Two weeks before leaving for Japan, they changed their mind and asked him to move to the Philippines instead.
- While in the Philippines, his father paid him a visit and ended up getting kidnapped. This was just one of the many adventures that he experienced while in the Philippines.
- L’Oréal kept an eye on him as he rose through the ranks at Novartis. He was also growing frustrated by the limitations of not being able to switch out of finance and into another division. When L’Oréal came knocking on the door asking what role he wanted, he responded by saying that he wanted to one day be the President and CEO. They shared that it was possible but that he would have to follow and trust their process. This meant that he would have to start at the bottom. He traded a private driver and the top finance job at Novartis in the Philippines and ended up in a sales role driving around in a Renault 5.
- He set two conditions when he started at L’Oréal. The first condition was that he did not want to be in Eastern Europe, Pakistan and South Africa. The second condition was to not be in a finance role. And so when the first international opportunity was presented to him, L’Oreal offered him a posting to be the COO and CFO in Russia. They were clearly trying to make him uncomfortable but he had to respect the process.
- One important lesson he picked up while in the Philippines and Russia was to have zero tolerance with corruption. If you get into the cycle of corruption, you will eventually lose all control of the business. In exchange for the zero tolerance on corruption approach, he had to live with bodyguards who gave him protection and surveillance for 24 hours a day. It was the personal price that he had to pay for making that choice.
- He was very honest in saying that he didn’t have any mentors. Instead, he had people who took a risk and placed a bet on him.
- In terms of how he has approached his career, he’s convinced that things have to be done well and he refuses to take shortcuts. While he probably could have done certain things in his career to move faster, he doesn’t think that he would have necessarily gone further.
Hope you enjoy listening.
Ray Cao is the CEO of Exact Media. Exact is transforming the world of direct mail by enabling advertisers like P&G and PepsiCo to distribute product samples and coupons through a vast network of e-commerce and omnichannel retailers.
Daniel: Today on Connections.
Ray: I can imagine. Did you run into any kidnapping issues back then in the Philippines?
Javier: Oh yes. No, no, the Philippines, I did. They kidnapped my dad. My dad came to visit, yeah. My dad came to visit and he was kidnapped in order to be robbed, so was nothing serious except the fact that we lost contact with him for almost 24 hours. No, but I had two coup d’états, big ones. I had an earthquake, big earthquake. I had a…Mount Pinatubo, there was a volcano that went into eruption at Pinatubo. And I had…no, no, was for three and a half years full of experiences. And also, you know, a good cure for the pride of a young boy.
Daniel: My name is Daniel Rodic, and I’m your host at Connections. Brought to you by Exact Media. We created this podcast because we realized that a lot of people we spent time with in our day to day work, brand managers, marketers, those who are trying to rise quickly in their careers, could benefit from hearing the stories of the leaders they look up to in their industry. In every episode, we cover the stories that you’ve never heard of. Where did they grow up? How did they get their first job? What were their successes and failures in their career, and how do they recover from them? My hope is that you will take away some interesting tidbits and tactics that will help you accelerate your careers.
I don’t wanna spend too much time talking about us, but so you have context on how we’re involved in the industry. At Exact Media, we work specifically with marketers to help them sample their products through the parcels of online retailers. For example, if you bought running shoes online, we might give you a sample of a healthy granola bar in that parcel. If that interests you at all, visit us at www.exactmedia.io.
Now, on to our guest. Today’s guest is Javier San Juan, the president of L’Oréal Latin American Region. Javier is by far one of the most well traveled guests we’ve ever had on our show. He’s been president and CEO of L’Oréal in Canada, Argentina, Uruguay, Romania, and Russia, and his work has taken him to even more interesting places. In particular, his start at L’Oréal was quite interesting as he went from being CFO of another company in the Philippines where he got all the trappings of being a corporate executive at the age of 26 to driving himself around in a tiny car through the small streets of France when he joined L’Oréal in sales in 1991. And unlike most of us building our careers, he’s had to deal with some pretty crazy stuff. Government coups, kidnappings, and really adapting to new cultures and environments every few years. I’m pretty confident in saying you’re in for quite a treat with this interview. It’s probably one of the funnest ones I’ve ever listened to. So here it is. Exact Media’s CEO, Ray Cao, interviewing Javier San Juan.
Ray: So Javier, thank you so much for doing this. Really appreciate the time. Now since we last saw each other, which was quite a few years ago, I think you’ve had a bit of a change in your role. Can you share just a little more about what you’re now doing at L’Oréal?
Javier: Okay, so right now I am the president and the CEO of the Latin American stone for the L’Oréal group. So all the countries that they are south of Rio Grande until the end of Chile and Argentina.
Ray: Okay, got it. So I actually wanna dial it back a few years, and also because you’ve had this fascinating life so far, which I actually have trouble piecing together because I can’t really figure out how all the pieces fit, but we’ll get into that. I’m just curious, I mean like what was your childhood like? Where did you grow and what were your parents like?
Javier: Well I think it’s a very important question because I think that the big part of what I am today is based on my childhood, the job of my parents, and the environment that they grow up. I was born in Spain. I was born in a city called Salamanca. That is a university city. But my family and all of us, we are coming from the north of Spain, from the region near the Basque County called [inaudible 00:05:10]. And if you ask me, I feel basically of being from there.
And my childhood was a very normal, very happy childhood. I am the eldest of four kids. Sorry, eldest, we have three boys and one girl. And my parents work for the government. And basically they work for the government, but they work for us because a lot of their time and their energy…basically so my mother was staying beside us, and they were always letting us dream or pushing us to dream, giving us also several times reality checks, and making sure that we took risks and that they were always beside us even if quite often we didn’t see them, but we felt that they were beside us. So my parents were hard working people. I don’t remember them have gone ever for a dinner out on their own. I think that they were partially economical reason. And also that they wanted to spend a lot of time with us. Still today when we talk about, with my brothers about life with my parents, it’s always with a degree of how come they were able to give us such a wonderful childhood and had difficult times in Spain. So I think that this part of the success is coming for what they did to all of us.
Ray: What do you think you, you know, when you look at the impact that they’ve had on you, do you look at some of the habits that you have today, or the things that you were doing, what part of your upbringing do you think was influenced by your mom or your dad? And in the way they raised you, is it that, you know, you also appreciate being frugal and economical as well at certain times? I guess how they influenced you, how you operate today.
Javier: Well I think that they, I never thought that we were lacking anything. I don’t have a memory of…they see a toy that they would like, and we couldn’t buy. But they realized that that was a reality. The reality is they not necessarily had all the opportunities of buying us everything they would like, or we would like. So I think that we…I learned how to do the most with what you have and I think that’s something that they were able to give us. Also they learned, we learned to be very respectful, but doesn’t mean to be politically correct. So I think that we were encouraged to speak the truth, always in a respectful way. But always been honest and saying what we thought that was right.
My mother was a person who has much more questions than answers. And that was always…she was always asking check why, are you sure of that, verify, look at the dictionary, look at the book, read that. And I think this is something that has grown on me. What all they have done…
Ray: Did your mom have an influence on where you ended up studying and in college or university?
Javier: Well, yes, yes, yes, definitely. My parents were…when I finished school, I knew what I didn’t want to do, but I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to study. What is funny is my father used to bring me to the bus to go to the school every morning. And the bus stop was in front of a bank, and you have all the shares, values, and all the stock market situation. And I was looking every single day at the changes in the stock value. And my father was trying to explain to me how it works. And it’s funny because people looking at me, they were saying, “But does he understand what he’s talking about?” And my father said “Yeah, he really does.” And at that time when people asked me what do you want to be, I never said I want to be a soccer player or a firefighter. I said I want to be a broker.
Ray: How old were you?
Javier: Probably 9 and 10. So I suppose the people look at me horrified of this awful boy that instead of saying normal things, he wants to be broker. After I realized that is not I wanted to be, but part of my…I took a Bachelor in law, and a Bachelor degree in economics. I did both at the same time. In Spain, a Bachelor degree is five years. So what I did is I studied both in six year. So I did that at the beginning, first year of law, and then next year I did second of law and first of economics, and I spent six years in university.
The reason was basically because my parents considered that that was the best training to do, to prepare to be a broker. And unfortunately or fortunately third year of my career, I decided that I didn’t want to be a broker. So yeah, they also influenced that.
Ray: What led you to say hey, I don’t wanna be a broker anymore? Did you come across something?
Javier: Yeah, I think that this idea of brokers, they do not build anything. And at one point of time, I felt that to build things, to create things other than value. I mean, of course, brokers create value. But I think I wanted to do something more solid, more that I can touch. And then with the training that I was taking, going to work for a company was the most natural direction.
Ray: It’s funny, I actually worked as a trader on Wall Street for a period of time as well. And I used to look back and say, “We never really created value. We would shift value one place to another,” right? And so that was actually…
Javier: But this is exciting. I had the opportunity to work, when I did a training with [inaudible 00:13:37] in London, I worked for there for six months in the floor. And it’s exciting. It’s exciting. I have to say that I understand how people can feel that this is the job of their life.
Ray: Yeah, yeah. I remember they used to pump extra oxygen onto the trading floor. It was a strange environment. But was that your first real job or did you do something else by then?
Javier: No, I did a couple of interim jobs, you know? Because what I did is after I finished university, my first job was in Arthur Andersen. I got the job in Arthur Andersen, and I did my first month that is a training. And then I started working at 9:00 in the morning, and I resign at 1:00 in the afternoon because I realized that was definitely not what I wanted to do. And that was my first…no, no, I’m not…I’m being wrong.
My first job that was really paid, I did it at the university. When I finished law and I was still finishing economics, they asked me to teach, as a junior professor, taxes. And it was for one year I was a teacher of the practical part of taxes. It very, it turned into a learning experience because at the end of the year, all my students knew the topic to a great extent, but all of them hated the topic. So I was able to teach the subject, but I was not able to transfer any pleasure, any illusion, or anything to do the job. So I realized how difficult it is to be a good teacher, and how easy it is to be a bad teacher.
Ray: So did you go to Arthur Andersen, was that…did you go into their finance team, I guess? Or was it consulting or…
Javier: In Arthur Andersen, do you know, in the food chain of Arthur Andersen, there was a top, there was the consultants. Then there was the tax people, the number two. And then the lower one were the auditors. No, no, I went into the tax team.
Ray: Okay, okay got it.
Javier: But I didn’t like it. I felt it was not the place where I wanted to be. And then I decided to do studies, to study outside of Spain, to go abroad. And then I went to France to do what is called a [inaudible 00:16:44]. It’s a business school in Paris for two years. And at the end of the…during the last period of these two years is when I did some training job as the…in London with [inaudible 00:17:00]
Ray: Got it, got it. So what was the first job that got you into this whole industry? I guess what was the starting point to get into L’Oréal?
Javier: The real, the first job that was for…I mean, as a career move, when I finished my studies in France, I got two great offers. One from L’Oréal, and the other for Novartis, but at that point was still Sandoz. And I decided to go to Sandoz because I wanted to work, I think a Swiss company is something that I was attracted to. And also the quality of the people that interviewed me in Novartis, they were really outstanding. And in particular, the wonderful boss after my boss is this guy…of guy that you say wow. I would like to be like him one day. So surprisingly I said no to L’Oréal and I went to Novartis to Basel in the German part of Switzerland.
Ray: And this was straight out of school, so you went from Spain to France, France to…straight to Basel in Switzerland.
Javier: Yeah, so that was probably…I was 20, 25 probably because I did, I started the school when I was…at the university when I was 17, plus 6, plus 2, I mean 8, so 25. I joined the tax department, sorry tax department, the finance department of Novartis in Basel. I was there for almost one year. And then like eight months or seven months after I joined, they told me that they would like me to be, to go to Japan to be the assistant to the assistant to the assistant of the finance director. And two weeks before leaving, they said they have a need in the Philippines and that if I wanted to go to the Philippines instead of Japan, and the job was deputy finance director, but without finance director. So I was the deputy of no one. And I said yes before even I knew that the title was better. So I just told them, “Yep, Philippines is fine with me.” And then I was there for two months as deputy, and then I was finance director. And I was the finance director of Novartis in the Philippines when I was 26.
But I have to say was a really small affiliate. So there were…they took risk with me, but I think was a calculated risk. I was, I could not have done anything major against the interest of the whole corporation.
Ray: But why do you think they bet on you? Like what do you think it was that they said, “Hey Javier, it’s like we wanna pick you to give you this.” I imagine not many people had this opportunity at your age.
Javier: No, I think that they were in a process. I arrived on the right time. I think they were in the process of understanding that being multinational, you need to have people from outside Switzerland, that you cannot have only Swiss people in top positions. And we were a bunch of probably six or eight guys that they took under their wing, and they say, “Okay, we are going to bet on you. And we are going to train you and to give you responsibilities.” I think the case of, my case was a little bit special because I got the very high, relatively high job. I think was also because the Philippines was a difficult country to leave. The Philippines having at one point of time been a province of Spain. The culture was similar and the values were similar at least under mine. And they thought that I will be maybe a better fit than the Swiss, so any of my other colleague.
Ray: You make it seem like it was very easy. You know, you went from Europe straight to Asia. Was that just, you know, did you look forward to traveling to a completely different part of the world or did you find that this was just an opportunity that no one else wanted to take, so you were willing to take it? Was it that easy of a decision for you to make?
Javier: I think it was easy. You know, I never thought that I would do an international career. So I never, you know, as a good Spaniard, we love our country. We have a great country and we are very attached to our family. And leaving is not something that is necessarily on your plans. And I didn’t plan it. I think that the fact of going to study to France opened a lot my window, and was basically probably if I have said yes to Arthur Andersen and stay in Arthur Andersen, my career would have been in Spain all the time. But you know, once you leave your country, you start saying, “Wow, it was nice to be in France.” I enjoyed my two years there. And then going to Switzerland, I learned so much, and I was surprised by so many things. And the Philippines sounded like a fun place to be. And you know, it was different, but it still was…you know, there is a part of magic of saying, you know, they were once part of Spain and the culture and…And then I go.
Also I think that when you’re 26, probably if I have thought about, and if I was a little bit older, a little bit more mature in terms of which kind of life I want to lead, probably I would have hesitate. But you know, you’re 26, you believe that you can do anything. And also as I said, I had a great boss at that time. And the way he presented was exactly touching the fever that…he said, “You know, Javier, maybe you could make it, maybe not. We have a doubt and we are not sure. Do you think you can make it?” And you know, is they put you the challenge, and they start telling you maybe there’s a limit. And you know, this was my personality. You are 26, oh come on, you tell me that you have a doubt, I will prove you wrong a thousand times.
Javier: And I think that’s part of the motivation. And then I went to…But it was a shocking experience because the Philippines is similar in a few things to Spain, but it is Asia, different culture, different climate, and it’s really far, really far.
Ray: I can imagine. Did you run into any kidnapping issues back then in the Philippines?
Javier: Oh yes, no, no, on the Philippines I did. They kidnapped my dad when my dad came to visit, yeah. My dad came to visit and he was kidnapped in order to be robbed, so it was nothing serious still except the fact that we lost contact with him for almost 24 hours. No, but I had two coup d’états, big ones. I had an earthquake, big earthquake. I had a…Mount Pinatubo, there was a volcano that went into eruption at Pinatubo. And I had…no, no, was for three and a half years full of experiences. And also, you know, a good cure for the pride of a young boy because I learned that there nothing that you can do on your own, that success is a collective task. And you know, it was not at the beginning. At the beginning, you know, you’re 26, you know everything. You come from the head office, you’re there to teach them. And after a few months, I realized that I will not be able to make it without my team. And then I learn and I change attitude. I asked for excuse. I excuse myself to have done a few things on the [inaudible 00:27:40] So no, it was a great learning experience.
Ray: So you were in your twenties running pretty much the finances for Sandoz in Philippines. How did you suddenly decide that, hey, I don’t wanna do this anymore? And you then, I think, jumped to L’Oréal, right? That was sort of the last thing you did before jumping in.
Javier: Before that, I got an offer. I mean, Novartis or Sandoz, they asked me to go as Chief Financial Officer in Turkey. There was already a more serious affiliate and a more serious job. And at that time, L’Oréal came back saying, “Well you know, Javier, we have been following your career. Maybe it’s a good time to do a move.” And basically, the difference between Novartis was a great company, and is a great company. But my career was a little bit too much planning events. So they knew the next steps and coming from finance, you know, there was a limitation on the jobs that you can reach further down in your career. So I requested to move to the pharma division to do a job outside finance. And that was not possible in the setup of the organization. There was not a possibility to move from finance to another division. And I found that a little bit, not the kind of life that I want to live.
And then L’Oréal came and say, “Okay, what do you want to be?” And I said, “Oh, I want to be one day a CEO.” And they say, “Yeah, sure. You can do it. Let us go through the motions.” And they say, “Okay, what are they…trust us, and we will bring you there.” And I put a little bit, a couple of conditions. The first one is I don’t want to do any more finance. And the second one is I’m ready to go to all the countries except Eastern Europe. I think I say Pakistan and South Africa. They said, “Okay, fine. No problem.” So my first job was to be a salesman. So…
Ray: You went from being the head of finance to being a salesperson at L’Oréal?
Javier: Yep. Yep, I changed to have a big car with a driver to have a Renault Five with two doors. And I have the difficult task to explain to my parents that was a career because, of course, my parents were telling me, “Wait a minute. You were doing fine, a serious job. You were the chief financial officer. Top guy. You had a car with a driver. And you were in pharmaceuticals, you know, a serious company. And now you’re selling shampoos?”
So I had to explain that I didn’t do anything wrong, that I have not lost my mind, and that was a calculated risk. In fact, was not a calculated risk, was just a risk and a little bit the appeal of trust us, and what is what. So I did that. I did for eight months in France, a salesman. Then I did, I was a product manager for one year, almost one year and a half. Then I was a marketing director for, I think, a couple of years. [inaudible 00:32:08] couple of years. And then they told me, “Well, you know, now you need to go abroad.” And I said, “Okay, but you know the rules. I don’t want to do finance, and I don’t want to do Eastern Europe, Pakistan, and South Africa.” They say, “Okay, perfect. Your next job will be chief of operations and chief financial officer in Russia.” Okay, so…
Ray: Thank you for listening.
Javier: So I say wow. I thought that my French was clear, but I realized, that’s not. But okay, but also they took a very good, very smart approach. They told me, “Listen Javier. We invested in you. We brought you to do a salesman job. And to be honest, you were okay. You were okay. You were not, I mean, we would not have hired you to be a salesman because you were just okay, and we want to be nice. Then, and you were product manager, you did a good job. Marketing director, you did a good job. That’s good. That’s good. But it was just more an investment. So now that we need you because we have a big problem in Russia, you’re telling us that you will not do it.”
And I was…maybe by the way you are brought up, and so I say, “You know, I think that you bet on me. I have to give back.” So I said yes. And I hated to go to Russia. I didn’t want to. I was…my arrival, actually [inaudible 00:33:50] I was scared like hell. I was convinced that these guys will bring me in a room, and I will disappear. But I have to say, I didn’t regret one single second of the three years and a half that I was in Russia, the fact of having to say yes. It was one of the most amazing and unique adventures, and it was in 1994, so it was already of course, it was after the Perestroika, so it was already with Yeltsin. But was a country where everything was possible, the best and the worst. We had the people working with us, that they were super intelligent. They were really at the level of intelligence and capabilities that I have never seen again. But they didn’t know what was the capitalism. So you have to explain to a brilliant guy why you have to put the name on a shampoo, and why quality in a factory is more important than making the five year’s plan, and why advertising is not a way to lie to people, but a way to inform the consumer about how good was your product.
And it was unbelievable. For the quality of the people I worked with, it was a moment where, you know, after a couple of months, you stop asking why because anything was possible. And the Russian, they have a sentence for that. They say, [foreign language 00:35:39]. “Why? Because this is Russia.” So this happened because it happened. And it’s useless. It’s a loss of time to try to find out why, because it is. And so I did three years and a half, exciting, very, very, very good years. That finished with the 1992 crisis of Russia. And there my finance served me well because we were the only company who had taken coverage for the valuation of the ruble. So we were the only company who…we did not lose a single dollar in that crisis. In fact, gave us a big competitive advantage.
Ray: What was it like in Russia at that time? Was it easier to do business because it’s Russia, and it’s the Russian way? Or was it harder to do business? I mean, rules there are slightly different from North America, right?
Javier: Yeah, it was difficult also because, you know, one of the things that I learned, it’s part of also my education with my parents, but it’s also what they have learned in the Philippines, is you know, you have to be zero tolerant with corruption. If you give way, if you go into that cycle, you lose contact of your business. And once you start paying or doing something that is not, are not respecting the laws, you lose absolutely control of your business because then they will ask you for this, and for that, and you go into…so one of the things that we properly did in Russia was we did not go into any business that require going against the law.
In exchange, also we have to say that we will leave for three years and a half with bodyguards on your car and your house. I had 24 hour bodyguards because when you say no to people asking for money at that time, there was a lot of mafia, a lot Chechen mafias. So you pay a personal price. But you know, human nature gets used to everything. At the beginning, it was very annoying. At the end, was part of the setup. So you leave with…no, but Russia was…I saw unique things. I went to [inaudible 00:38:53] on top north. I saw the Russian Baltic fleet when it was not operational. No, no, was we…was a wonderful training for Canada. You see, the cold weather there trained me to after we survive and enjoy Montreal weather.
But no, no. As I said, I didn’t want to go. I do not regret to have gone. It was…and also you realize how important it is to train people, how much the return on investment you get when you dedicate time to your teams, and how you have good people and you teach them, or you let them grow. They will return the investment a hundred times. At the end of my, say three and a half, no it was more…It was almost four and a half. But 1994, 1998. Four and a half, at the end, I have teams of people working for the company. And even when the crisis arrived and we have to restructure, still people were really thankful.
No, no, I think I learned that the investing in people, trusting your people, and spending time with them is by far the best [inaudible 00:40:27]
Ray: Did you dad get kidnapped in Russia this time or…
Javier: Yeah, no. No, my dad didn’t go because for…no, no, he didn’t go But for…you know it’s a different type of political reasons. He said that he will not go to the Soviet Union. So I said, “You know, dad? It’s not the Soviet Union. It’s Russia.” He said, “You know? It’s the same people with different colors.” So no, no, he didn’t want to go to Russia unfortunately.
Ray: Were there…you mentioned the bodyguards. Were there actual moments where you feared for your safety because people wanted to go after you or…
Javier: No, you know, the only time in my life that I feared really for my life was in the Philippines during one of the coup d’états. And I learned that fear is one of the strongest feeling, as strong as hate and love can be. At that time, I was going out. The rebels were taking over building by building, and they went up to the roof. They put the people of the building, and they raise the flag. And they were approaching my building, so I took a car, my car. And meanwhile, I was driving, I could see the snipers on the roof and I could see, like you know, in the movies the red dot. And I was scared to…I understand that people could die of fear.
No, no, in Russia, I do not remember…I mean, yes, you did situations where you are concerned because you’re in a restaurant and you see shootings, or you see police coming into hotel and putting all of you against the wall. But I suppose so. I don’t have…I have a memory of the Philippino event. In Russia, I think there was several times where I was happy to have bodyguards with me. But I don’t think that I got…I don’t think I was in danger. But you know, the perception of tragedy is something very personal. And I think…yeah, Russia was dangerous in 1994 as much as it was in 1998. In 1994, I was very scared. In 1998, I was walking as it was the corridor of my house.
Javier: And I think the danger was exactly the same, was not different.
Ray: Before we move on to the time where you ended up becoming, in your first presidency, you were all in Romania. I’m just curious, I mean, when you started at L’Oréal and you said to them, “Hey, I eventually wanna be CEO,” I mean, it seemed like they really took that seriously and they had that conversation to build. But if you’re starting off your career today at L’Oréal in, say, New York City or in Montreal, or even in Latin American options, do they have that conversation with you? I mean, do they pick out the high potential people and say, “Hey, you know, we have an eye on you. And you tell us what you wanna be, and we’re gonna help you get there faster,” or is that unique to what L’Oréal was at that time, and that this is no longer what they do?
Javier: Yeah, I’d say it’s a very good question. I think that L’Oréal has the big advantage that talent for a big part of your career is the best currency. If you want to, if you show that you want to, you show the potential, if you show the willingness and you’re ready to invest, yeah, I think it’s still…we hire people that…and I will tell people to be country manager, a CEO, in one of our countries one day, sure you can. And I honestly believe it. Now I’d say maybe it’s a big more complicated. There is more talented people, and the competition is tougher. There is maybe a little bit less opportunities. We have not yet opened Africa, but maybe the next open…totally Africa that is maybe the next frontier. No, I think that to reach the level of country manager talent is the only currency you need. To move further, you know, like any big organization, you may need other things than just talent.
Ray: And what would those things be? Would it be the willingness to go into a country or region that very few are willing to or is it [inaudible 00:46:14]
Javier: I think that’s part of the first job. So you know, it’s like when you get an embassy, you will not get embassy New York or in Washington. You will get first an embassy in a small country. I think, of course, there is a need for you to be available, to go where you are needed, and to jump into the opportunity. No, no, I think the country manager job, you just need the willingness, the talent, and a little bit of luck also, of timing more than luck. And then you can do it.
Then to go up, there is also some…I’ve been in a big organization, maybe some political skills that you need. That has a little bit less to do with your talent.
Ray: And more so with building relationships with perhaps the right people? But do you think that there is a…that you had an advantage that you started, you know, in Europe and other parts around the world versus if you were to start today in the US, where big market, incredibly competitive, could you have…could you get the opportunities that you’d gotten in that same time given how competitive it now is?
Javier: Well I don’t know if I would have been as competitive as my colleagues, have I started in the US. But let’s say…I think that the biggest challenge for a US person today is the lack of willingness to move out of the States. I don’t think that nationality has anything to do with getting a job. On the opposite, I think being in the US, you have the big advantage of being exposed to a lot of people, and a lot of people look at you. I mean, it remains as the biggest country in the world, the biggest affiliate for L’Oréal, all our top managers, they go, they visit the US. And they will be able to spot talent so they will have the chance to be in front of them making your case. No, no, I think that the US may be a little bit more complicated in medium sized countries. I think that the medium sized countries, because you take a small country, and you make it big, big growth, you can be seen. I think that the magic on that is you have to be supported. I mean, you have to, of course, to tell your story, but you have to have someone who listens to it.
And all the [inaudible 00:49:22] we tried to spend as much time as possible listening to our teams. In the States, you have a great exposure. I mean, Russia helped me basically because also was the attention of the whole corporation. At that time, of course, it was in Russia. It has been a little bit later in China, of course, have been in Brazil, Mexico. And also, you made your own careers. I mean, we will talk probably at one point of time of Canada, but Canada when I was accounts manager, we export one Canadian every month and a half to the group, and it’s basically because we have a lot of talent, and because we provide them the right exposure for them to be noticed.
Ray: Interesting, interesting. So I guess throughout the journey that you’re in L’Oréal, you talk about, you know, a little beyond just your own skills, but was there like a particular mentor that you had, or someone that was just keeping an eye out on you, that helped you go throughout this entire journey? Or several mentors?
Javier: Unfortunately not. And this something that maybe I have missed. I got managers that took a risk on me and say, “Okay. Maybe he can make it. Let him run.” That I have had in L’Oréal. Mentors, yeah, I think I missed that one. I missed that one and I think it’s a pity because that could have made my understanding of the different possibilities. But I don’t think that the mentor made your career, but helps you, guides you, and no, no. I didn’t have that. I have managers that were, they were, they took a risk and they bet on me. That, yes, I had.
Ray: Okay. So just getting back to the journey, so after Russia, how did you eventually just get that first president CEO job in Romania?
Javier: Because when we finished, or the time of Russia was almost over, and the crisis was [inaudible 00:52:00] already we knew it was not solved, but we knew already the size of the problem and some of the decisions have been made to prepare the company to pass through that crisis. I asked and I said, “You know, that’s what they want to be. That’s what we talk about.” You realize then that you know being multinational in general, they do not plan things so much. So I don’t think that anyone planned my career. I think that they thought, well there is a chance that this guy one day, he may be country manager. And the only thing is I did is I remind the organization that that’s what I came there for.
At the beginning, I don’t think that they were very convinced. I think that they say, “Wow, he has done a great job in Russia, and finance, and operations. Okay, maybe yes, maybe not.” So I think the first reaction when I said what I wanted was not a oh yeah, sure, we have already thought about. Was more of oops, we are not sure. Let’s have a look. And then I have to say I was little bit disappointed because I was expecting a different answer. But I couldn’t have been disappointed for too long because a few days after, they called me and said, “Yeah, we have a great country for you. A country that is moving from communism to capitalism. It’s a country that you will not have a problem with the language as you had in Russia, and it’s a country who has, you can do easily to the sea.” And I say, “Wow, Cuba.” And they say, “No, no, it’s not Cuba. It’s Romania.”
So Romania it was, and I was there for my first CEO job. We almost was, we were almost opening the affiliate because it was pretty small, and was an amazing adventure because we hire everyone, and every time I look at L’Oréal Romania, at least three or four people there in the executive committee of L’Oréal Romania today was people that I hired. And again, we go back to talent. I mean, at that time in Eastern Europe, you could get talented people, that they were eager to learn, and eager to work. And if you invest in them and you believe in them, they will provide you with what you wanted. And so Romania was a great time also because, you know, that the Romania has a reputation at one point of time of being a dangerous place, but mostly the dangerous people, they move from Eastern Europe to Western Europe. So at the end, Romania was a very safe place. All the criminals have left.
So it was…and you know, it’s nice to build something. When you build a new company almost from scratch, and you live in a very small office, and you go to another bigger, and then you go to another bigger, and you come planning another bigger. And you see at the beginning you have to do everything, and then as time pass, you realize that there are people that are better than you at what they do, and then you start letting go, letting go, and letting go. And no, it’s a great experience.
Ray: Yeah, growth makes you feel alive, right? It’s hard to replace that feeling, yeah. I don’t wanna skip too much but I also wanna be respectful of time, but how did they eventually…did they make you earn your way up to Canada so that you could live in a normal country that was different from all other places? Like how did you eventually get into the role in Canada? And I know it was like the longest time that you stayed in any country, right?
Javier: Any country. And I loved every single hour. I was always say, “No, I just arrived. Don’t move me.” No, what happened is, you know, after having done eight years in Eastern Europe, they offered me, of course, South Africa because it was the other one that they have told me that I didn’t want. So I got the offer for South Africa. Pakistan has not yet been offered to me, but you never know.
Ray: Could be next.
Javier: So they offered me to go to Argentina. Argentina was at that time starting a crisis. I mean, I arrived exactly when the crisis was unfolding. I think that for L’Oréal was I spoke the language. I understood, or I thought I understood, the culture and the people. And then was a tough crisis enough that having done little bit one in the Philippines, another one in Russia, was like part of what I do. So I did four years in Argentina. And after that, I think that Argentina result was pretty good. We were able to come out of the crisis with a lot of market share and in a very good position.
And there was a movement of people at that time moving to Japan and to Asia. And there was an opening in Canada. When our president asked me which countries I wanted, I give a list of five. He look at the five and I say, oof, that will be difficult. But again, the opportunity came and Canada was on my list, and they told me, “Okay, what about Canada?” And I say, “Wow, you know, I’m going tomorrow.” And I went, and I stayed for eight years. So, you know, Canada as a job for L’Oréal is one of the best kept secrets because, you know, you have a big corporation where you have money to do things. And you are near the US, so the US deflect a little bit attention, or attract attention. I mean, you can deflect attention on you on to the US because everybody who wants to go to North America as top management, they would rather spend one week in the United States than two days in Canada. So you have the freedom to do with your teams the way you see the future. And you can take a lot of risk because you have the quality of the people because nobody’s necessarily watching. And then you just present the good result of the risk that you took.
Ray: Interesting, interesting. Javier, I wanna switch a bit onto, I know we talked about your career so far, but I wanna switch to the personal side a bit. You know, if I look at this life that you lived professionally, I imagine there must have been sacrifices and personal setbacks that you’ve had to go through to make some of these career decisions. When you look back, you know, what were some of the setbacks or sacrifices that you just had to say, “Hey look. I have to put this on hold in personal life in order to do the things that I wanna do professionally?”
Javier: You know, I have an approach to the balance between work and life. I think that you cannot reach this balance every day, or even every week, or even every month. I think that there is time where you have to decide that work goes ahead of life. And there over time that you have to decide that personal life will take over your professional life. And I think that that’s you have to do it for not a long period of time, but for a long enough period of time.
So you invest, I don’t know, 2014 my first year in the job here in the region, has been an awful year in terms of professional difficulties and even personal because I moved to the region just when my son was three weeks old. And my family stayed in Canada, so I have to go back and forth, but you have a three week old child, so you sacrifice a lot. And you ask your family to sacrifice a lot. Other times, but you say, “Well no, I have to prioritize my family.” And then you do sacrifice in your professional career.
In terms of setback, I think all the setbacks that I have had are basically link, maybe to the difficulties to understand decisions taken by your superiors. I think that that’s a very difficult thing, at least for me. When you do not, when you get frustrated because you are not allowed to go fast, and not in your career, but on the business, or when you realize that maybe your capacity to decide on your own is limited…also because normally, you know, the risk are big. I mean, if I made a mistake in the Philippines or I made a mistake in Romania, well the consequences will be lighter than if I make it in my job now. But I think that my setbacks or my frustrations are coming more for this difficulty in understanding politics and why things are the way they are.
Ray: When you were traveling and moving from country to country though, did you have a family at the time or…
Javier: Yes, yes I did.
Ray: And how did you manage that time? I mean, even if it ebbs and flows, and that sometimes it’s more personal, sometimes it’s more professional. Like what were your weeks like, and I’m sure it might have evolved as you got smarter and better at it, but how did you manage that time?
Javier: Well you know, if I talk basically about my last job, that is the one in the region where I have to travel between two weeks and a half to three a month, that’s yeah. That’s a tough one. So you try to make it up to your children and to your wife the time that you are there, who’s your partner in your life is a key success factor, the fact that I’m married to an Argentinian, that’s less her country. So also that there is this discussions and you agreeing what you want to do, what you don’t want to do. And I think that if my parents were very, very important in my beginning of my career, and on these states of my career, the understanding of my wife, the way she explains to my children why I’m not there as much as I would like to. But those are why she explained to me why it’s not bad, that I know I should not feel as guilty as I feel sometimes. I think that’s part of a key success factor.
Ray: Today, I mean, how does your week normally look? Like how do you plan it out? Do you plan a month in advance? A quarter in advance? Like what’s sort of your method to keep life organized?
Javier: Okay, the planning of the year is done well in advance, only to realize that you have to change it very often. Because, you know, there is…if payroll has a problem, then I have to go to payroll to try to understand. But we try to plan in advance all the trips, all the meetings, all the [inaudible 01:06:36]. Me personally, I never know…I discover what I’m going to do next day early in the morning. So I’m not, I do not have the discipline, and I don’t think they want to have the discipline, of planning, looking at the week and saying, “Okay, what is what I’m going…” No, I mean, I go, we have organized. I have an assistant that knows what is my priorities. She tries to accommodate everyone in the limited time that I may have. And then the thing that we really prepare is the visit to the countries because it’s very important for our region to try to have some added value on the visit. Because if not, the visit become a pain for the countries. And then we try to be very careful on not bothering them more than…or providing them with more answers, that the war that we create when we go there.
Ray: Mm-hm, mm-hm. I’m curious, like in your 20s and 30s, you know, did you have, did you approach work in a way that was just different from your peers? You know, to get to where you are, you can’t just be good. You’ve gotta be pretty special, right? And so did you do something different in terms of your work ethics or how you approach things that you think helped you get further along in your career than others?
Javier: Yeah, well I think that is more related to my personality. I think that is more related to…I think a sentence that defines me is I have passion for life. Everything that I do, I do it with passion. And I think I…probably what has helped me in my career is this absolute passion for life. Also I’m very convinced that things have to be done well. And I hate the shortcut. And I think that at the end of the day, I have seen other people taking shortcuts and going faster than I have gone, not necessarily farther. And you know, very often people want to move from one company to another as fast as possible, and they’re always requesting to be moved. Me, they have had to push me out of every single job that I have made. I have never…well Canada was eight years, but you know, Argentina was four and every single time people has…or my company has been forced to ask me in a very compelling way to move. That provides you with a sense that you have to do things well because if you do things just to show or to appear to be well…
You know, if you play in the short term and you just want to do window dressing and showing…running faster than the problem that you have created, and it’s a career style. And it works for a lot of people. And I have seen people being very successful at this particular method. It’s not for me and probably I could have gone faster, but I don’t think I could have gone farther. And also, you know, at one point of time, I’m ready to respond for every single decision that they have made. It doesn’t mean that they have been right in every single one. But even in the ones that I was wrong, I did it, I’m sure that I did it from the best of my knowledge, and for the best of my capability. And I never did it thinking that if I do well…
And I think I have a still…I’m loyal to the work. My parents taught me of lying is not being politically correct. And if lying is being politically correct, I will never be politically correct. I think that…and I think that, you know, some people may consider me to really to be tough with people. I think that what I am is very honest. I treat my people like others, my coworkers and people working for me. And if something is right, it’s right. And if something is wrong, it’s wrong. And I think to lie to people saying, “Well, you know, it’s not so bad. Don’t worry.” Yeah, it’s because you want to motivate him. You’re not serving him. It doesn’t mean that you have to insult anyone, but I think that the truth in business is an asset. I’m not sure it is in fashion, maybe not. But I think that at the end of the day, it’s an asset, and people understand that you’re trying to be honest, maybe not always right, and they value…
Because you know, the day that you say, “Come on, you have done a great job,” they know that you are not bullshitting them. They know that you honestly believe, and the effect is so much better than if you were. But that’s, sometimes that has helped. Sometimes that has not helped in my career, but I didn’t do it my way like in the song, but I did it the best I could.
Ray: Yeah. You said about passion, and I imagine work is a big part of your passion, but what else do you do when you’re not working?
Javier: Well I spend time with my wife and the kids. I play. I play tennis. I read. I go, I used to go for dinner, now I’m losing weight so I don’t go for dinner anymore. One of my…just…but that’s also a little bit what I am. In March this year, finally I decided that I wanted to lose weight. And I lost 15 kilos. I have still another 15 to lose. And when people tell me that, “Are you sure that you will do it? Why didn’t you do it before?” Well I didn’t do it before because I didn’t decide to do it before.
Ray: Yeah, yeah.
Javier: Once you go for it, you have to go for it. And so I play tennis. And I have a two years old kid and an eight years old girl. So I go to see the soccer match of my daughter, although I’m forbidden for telling the referee anything. And I am not allowed to tell the trainer what to do. And I have…but I do everything with passion.
Ray: A couple questions left for you. What do you still have left to accomplish besides conquering Pakistan and Africa?
Javier: You know, I think I wish to be a little bit more independent. I think still I find myself, that I depend a lot on the monthly salary. I depend a lot on what people will tell about me. I think that I wish to be a little bit more independent because even if I am telling you I’m not politically correct, I’m always say the truth. The truth is also the…I mean, to be a manager, you have also to compromise a lot. And I don’t want that…now that I am a little bit higher in the hierarchy, the compromise will be accept things that they are not the way I think they should be done just because I have a dependence to a job, or to a relation, or to a company.
And I think that the balance between accepting that you are not always right, and listening, and taking everybody’s opinion, and compromising that this is a very important part of a job. When you compromise for an independence, it’s much easier than when you compromise for any boss. He says, “Well you’re not independent.” And I think that going up in the organization, I have lost a little bit of that independence that I used to have.
Ray: What do you still have left on your personal bucket list of things that you wanna be able tick off and still do? Do you wanna jump off a mountain?
Javier: At one point of time, I will, when I will retire, I will have my own company. I think it’s a challenge. I have a huge admiration for people that they do, they’re entrepreneurs. I think that this is something that I wish I could have done. But you know, it’s again the matter of dependence and independence that we were talking. You have to have a degree of independence to be an entrepreneur, and I think that is something that is still have to be done. I think still…do you know the good thing with for me is I’m motivated for the next challenge. So, you know, what calls my…if there is a challenge, I get…that put me on track. When things done, and luckily, my region provides me with an endless opportunities of challenge.
Ray: Awesome. Javier, this is a lot of fun, and really, really enjoyed hearing your story. Thank you so much for doing this.
Javier: Thank you, and it’s a pleasure to talk to you again, even if it’s over the phone.
Ray: Thank you, Javier. We’ll eventually somehow meet somewhere. Maybe I’ll come out to Mexico or whatever country you’re in and we’ll see each other [inaudible 01:18:44]
Javier: Bye, have a nice evening.
Ray: All right, you too. Thank Javier.
Javier: Okay, bye.
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