I’m on the 13.13 Eurostar from Paris to London sitting opposite one of my all-time heroes, All Blacks superstar Dan Carter.
Dan played in the same position that I spent most of my 40-year rugby career, fly-half (number 10). Like me, he also hails from the rugby heartland of Canterbury, New Zealand. We had similar skills, I suppose. Dan could kick. I could kick. Dan could pass. I could pass. Dan ran fast. I ran fast (especially when a number 7, or even a number 3, was chasing me… as I grew older, whatever the number they caught me). Dan had two legs and two hands. And yes, despite the views of you who recall my participation in those epic Cannes rugby matches all those years ago, so did I.
There, alas, the similarities end. Dan was… is… a god of the game, his skills soaring higher than the Southern Alps that run through the South Island like a bloodline. Mine were more of the journeyman variety, with as few peaks as the broad but unrelentingly flat Canterbury plains. Dan was also voted sexiest New Zealand male in a 2004 survey, receiving 35.7% of the vote. I don’t need to blame any Iowa app to reveal that I fell well short of that number.
Actually, I do tell a slight untruth, not on the survey results but about my travel companion. Despite the fact that he is positioned next to a rugby ball adorned in the splendid blue and white hues of Racing 92 – the Parisian club where he closed out his European career – this is not the actual Dan. Alas, it’s just a photo of the great man.
How is it that my travelling comrades, as it were, are a rugby ball and a photo of a sporting demi-god? Simple. They were the kind and unexpected gifts presented to me yesterday by Christian Courtin-Clarins, Chairman of the famed Parisian beauty house Clarins, when I visited Clarins headquarters.
Besides being a great entrepreneur and a wonderful, rich-hearted man, Christian is a big rugby fan, of the game in general and of the French and Racing 92 teams, in particular. The rugby ball he handed me (via a slick inside pass, I must add, that would have unlocked any defence, other than that, perhaps, of the All Blacks) was signed by this year’s entire squad, including one of my contemporary favourites, the exciting (make that electric) French winger Teddy Thomas.
I was honoured to lunch with Christian, son of Clarins’ founder Jacques Courtin-Clarins, together with the highly driven, deeply insightful CEO Jonathan Zrihen and the irrepressible Christian Laurent, President of the company’s Travel Retail and Export Worldwide Division.
I have known and respected Clarins for many years but had never benefited from the opportunity to get up close and personal like this. A chance meeting outside the Majestic Hotel in Cannes last year, when Christian Laurent called me over and made some very nice compliments about our work (duly returned) led to me accepting an invitation to visit group headquarters in Paris at the earliest possible opportunity.
That was this week, though little did we know last October that my sojourn would coincide with a travel retail crisis emanating from a virus that no-one had heard of back then. This week we talked about that crisis, of course, but Clarins sees things in the long term (more of that in a moment) not quarter by quarter, and so much of my conversation with Christian, Jonathan, Christian (Laurent) and other key members of the management team focused on the vision and values of the group, not on interim volatility.
Clarins enjoys a stellar reputation among both consumers and retailers for the quality of its products, their efficacy, and for the group’s values. Clarins is by some distance the biggest family-held group in the beauty industry – and therefore a bastion of independence in the travel retail sector. It chose to delist from the stock exchange in 2008, with Christian Courtin-Clarins telling The Moodie Davitt Report, “The Stock Exchange is all about short-term profit, not investment or long-term perspective. Now we don’t have to compromise anymore.”
That also took money and guts. Having done the same and saddled myself with tough repayments and a barrel load of debt in 2015, I know all about buybacks, though not on this scale. At the time, the Courtin-Clarins family owned 64.9% of the equity and raised big money to buy out the minority shareholders’ collective interests at a hefty premium. One suspects from that moment forth, Christian Courtin-Clarins was a much happier man. And Clarins a much better company.
Over lunch with the two Christians and Jonathan I learned much about the values, the spirit and the sheer joie de vivre that underpins this remarkable, smart, instinctive, fleet of foot company. During interviews with key executives, old and new, I realised that in Clarins you have a group that can foot it with – and sometimes excel – the biggest (and boy are they big) and best beauty houses in terms of R&D, product creation, packaging, marketing, merchandising and CSR.
They also have a powerful commitment to the travel retail channel that augurs well for the balance of a sector that will inevitably be increasingly dominated by the major groups on their understandable and relentless M&A trails. That, of course, means equally inevitable encroachment of already constrained retail space but Clarins mounts a powerful argument in product, partnership and staying power terms that it should not be a victim of that dynamic.
As a journalist I have always seen myself as a storyteller. I would like to say this story writes itself but that would be perhaps to understate my only real skill in life (you already discovered my rugby limitations) and more importantly, Clarins’ own traditional and perhaps surprising understatement of its virtues and success. This is a company borne in the image of its founder, which likes its deeds and not its chatter to do the talking. That makes the story no less worth listening to.
Yesterday I visited the Clarins Laboratories in Pontoise (pictured below), just outside Paris. I discovered an enchanting fusion of botany, chemistry, science, technology, industrialisation and human endeavour. I saw unlikely beauty in machinery; perfect symmetry in warehousing technology; and passion and sparkle in the eyes of staff employed across disciplines ranging from photo imagery to chef-like creations in the Clarins R&D ‘kitchen’.
Earlier, at HQ, I watched exhilirating company presentations interspersed with video production values that I could only dream of for my company. I heard time and time again of the company’s commitment to sustainability, the environment, to people and their planet. And, most importantly of all, I believed it.
Clarins does not always tell its story. But my goodness, it writes it. Who needs an imitation Dan Carter? I got to meet the real Christian Courtin-Clarins.
Wine is a universal language, a cultural equaliser, and I have long championed both its role and its further potential in travel retail.
Going forward in this short column, I will talk about the wine encounters I have while exploring the equally fascinating, multi-national world of travel retail.
The Wine: Condrieu: Domaine Georges Vernay Les Terrasses de l’Empire 2018
The Occasion: Dinner with Clarins President Travel Retail and Export Worldwide Division President Christian Laurent and Clarins Travel Retail Europe General Manager Flaka Hamiti
The Location: Matsuhisa Paris, Le Royal Monceau – Raffles Paris
The Cuisine: Japanese-Peruvian fusion
Wine notes: A surprise choice by my genial, wine-loving host Christian, this was a real discovery that went perfectly with the subtlety and lightness of the outstanding food. A white viognier from the Rhône, where the Vernay name is synonymous with the grape variety. The wine has a remarkable peach-like texture and a balance that would put an Olympic gold medal figure skater to shame. One of those wines that deserves to be savoured and to be accompanied by great cuisine. Usually one says that food melts in the mouth; this time it was the wine.
About the wine: Modern-day winemaker Christine Vernay’s father Georges (1926-2017) was instrumental in keeping the Condrieu appellation from extinction in the 1960s when there were only eight hectares left under vine. The wine comes from 45 year-old vines and it shows in the marriage of softness and fullness on the palate. [Source: www.yapp.co.uk]
What others say: “Domaine Georges Vernay is the flagship of Condrieu. Its vines were planted in the AOC in 1936, and it remained the only domaine in Condrieu for many years, until others finally started believing in Viognier. Today, third-generation vintner Christine Vernay runs the estate, crafting whites that are both opulent and pure.” – James Molesworth, Wine Spectator.