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A chief executive who’s expanding on his boyhood hero’s vision

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Many boys grow up worshipping action heroes. Frederic Charles’ boyhood hero was a pharmacist named Pierre Fabre.

“Fabre was highly respected in my hometown as a man and as a businessman,” said Charles, who’s from Cahors, a neighboring town of Castres where Fabre came from and where he started a pharmacy.

“When I was a baby, I was using products for babies. In Midi-Pyrenees, Fabre was the second private employer after Airbus. So he was always very established.”

Charles, who was born into a family of pharmacists, met Fabre as a boy through family connections. Fabre’s business visions and beliefs impressed young Charles.

Fabre, who passed away in 2013, was an inventor of medical beauty products. Since he set up his pharmaceutical company in 1962, Fabre came up with safe and effective cosmetic products which he subjected to the same vigorous standards of drug manufacturing.

Pierre Fabre Laboratories, the second-largest independent pharmaceutical group in France now generates more than two billion euros (HK$17.29 billion) in annual sales. It is engaged in drugs, health products and dermocosmetics.

Dermocosmetics, comprising 10 prominent brands such as Eau Thermale Avene, are the largest profit contributor. Pierre Fabre Laboratories holds more than 50 percent share of the world market.

This business is also a fast-growing category for competing companies, such as Bioderma Laboratories and The L’Oreal Group, which owns Vichy and La Roche-Posay.

On a personal level, Fabre was a humanist. He was always close and faithful to his friends and each one of his staff. Charles recalls: “The group has more than 10,000 employees but he always knew each one by their names.”

Knowing that Charles wanted to read business, Fabre advised him to choose the right business school, and proposed an internship at his company’s new subsidiary in Japan. Fabre had just started a joint venture with the family that founded Shiseido.

“I was 18 then. It was my first time in Asia,” recalls Charles. “When we visited a Shiseido factory, the marketing director was there to welcome us. For someone preparing to enter business school, it was an impressive life experience.”

“Shiseido played a big part in promoting Eau Thermale Avene. Created in 1990, it achieved commercial success in two years. We were the only one to do that in Japan.”

After business school and a brief stint in film production and finance, Charles joined Pierre Fabre Laboratories in 2000. Now chief executive of Pierre Fabre Dermo-Cosmetique in Hong Kong and Macau, he is no stranger to the SAR as he has travelled here for business. He had also started his own local trading company during a sabbatical from work.

His main responsibilities today include making Hong Kong the company’s regional hub, as well as sustaining the growth of dermacosmetics. “Since last year, mainland China has become the world’s second biggest market for us after France,” he said.

“And in January, we took back the distributorship of Eau Thermale Avene in Hong Kong. We now have a full team of 72 people, including beauty advisers. On top of this, we have a corporate presence here to manage the drug business in Asia.”

Dermocosmetics sales have mushroomed over the years. Charles noted, though, that the sector is just beginning to take flight. Consumers have become smarter and no longer presume that more expensive products are better than inexpensive peers.

“People prefer a brand which invests in its products, not in the marketing campaign,” he said. “Our approach speaks to customers.”

The next beauty trend is sterile cosmetics. Fabre conceived the idea to develop products for dermatologists to treat patients with severe skin conditions or post-plastic surgery.

“It’s about producing the simplest products. Today, consumers don’t want to have paraben and all these external ingredients that don’t bring any plus,” he said.

“We have developed a full range of products under the label Tolerance Extreme, which have never come into contact with the outside world during production. This allows us not to add preservatives in the formula.

“Ten years ago, the products were not profitable. It was Fabre who insisted that he wanted them for surgeons and dermatologists. He is really a source of energy.”

The article first appeared in the Standard on September 2, 2016.

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