Nicolas Beau is the international director for watches at Chanel.
Q. Tell me about your family background.
A. I was born in 1963 in Neuilly-sur-Seine, a suburb of Paris. My father was from a military family and became an engineer. My mother stayed at home. I was the oldest of three children. No one in my family ever worked in the luxury industry. My father wanted me to become an engineer, but I was mostly interested in traveling and sports.
Q. What was your educational background?
A. After high school, I attended the I.S.G. business school (Institut Supérieur de Gestion) in Paris. Its international program allowed me to spend a year in the United States and five months in Japan. I was not a very dedicated student, just good enough to pass every year. Skiing was my youthful passion.
Q. What was your first job?
A. My first job was with Salomon, the ski company. In the 1980s, Salomon had acquired Taylor Made, a golf brand, and was looking to develop that business in Australia. I had learned to play golf early on, and jumped on the opportunity to move to Australia. I fell in love with the industry, played a lot of golf and met some great people.
In 1988, I was transferred to England and roomed with a friend who worked for Cartier. My first exposure to the world of luxury came from attending Cartier events with my roommate. The following year, I returned to France and applied for a job at Cartier.
Q. Why did you leave sports for the luxury industry?
A. I was truly attracted to craftsmanship. Watching things being made by hand fascinated me, in any métier. I love a beautiful table setting as much as a great meal. Acting on pure instinct, I accepted a position in Cartier’s tabletop division, which covered tableware, silverware, crystal and china. No one really wanted a job in a luxury brand back then. Most business school graduates applied to large companies like Procter & Gamble, rarely to luxury brands.
Q. What did you do during your five years at Cartier?
A. I started as a product manager in charge of developing new tabletop products. I visited factories and worked directly with the craftsmen. The job confirmed my passion for beautiful objects well made. It wasn’t a great big adventure —- we were just running a business — but I loved it. The business was growing, and every year was different from the previous. It is great when your life changes every year.
Three years later, I joined the team of Alain Dominique Perrin, Cartier’s president, as a staff member in business development. Cartier was part of the Richemont Group (then, Vendôme), which had acquired Piaget, which in turn owned the watchmaker Baume et Mercier. I was asked to help reposition Baume and develop key markets.
My wife is Swiss, and we were happy to relocate to Geneva. We spent six years there, and I focused exclusively on Baume, working closely with watchmakers. That is how I acquired my watchmaking culture and developed a true passion for watches.
Q. In 2002 you left the Richemont Group and joined Chanel. Why leave?
A. At the end of 2001, I was appointed managing director of Richemont France, a new organization covering France and Benelux, and returned to Paris in part because I was fed up with life in Geneva. I was given responsibility over all the Richemont watch brands except Cartier. By then, I was beginning to feel focusing exclusively on watches was too restrictive for me. I needed some fresh air. When the call came from Chanel, I knew very little about this “ladies’ brand,” and, apart from my wife wearing Chanel No. 5 perfume, I had never stepped into a Chanel boutique and had no experience of the brand. Still, I felt that Chanel would be an escape route, an opportunity to explore wider avenues in luxury that included fashion, perfumes and beauty.
Q. How do you manage cross-cultural teams at Chanel?
A. Fourteen years ago, when I joined Chanel as international director of watches, we were a small team, and I knew nearly everyone by name in all of Chanel’s divisions. Today, I manage teams internationally, and the company has grown exponentially. With very fast growth, a business takes on an entrepreneurial aspect. As a manager, you must evolve rapidly, work on intuition and depend heavily on the quality of the people you recruit.
Because I have been traveling nearly every month for the past 30 years, I have gotten to know different cultures well. For management purposes, it helps to communicate and not impose your views in a multicultural environment. I always consider the opinions of those outside my own culture.
Q. How do you ensure that multinational teams understand the identity of Chanel?
A. Given our rapid growth, we realized that it was important to pass on the culture of Chanel to everyone in the company. In 2009, we created Imagine Chanel, which is a team that runs an in-house training program for new managers on the culture of Chanel. The goal is to help them to understand who Gabrielle Chanel was, who we are as a company and what we do. With so many newcomers into the company, there was a real risk that we all have a different vision of that culture. Even veteran managers participate to better understand their own divisions. It makes the job of a manager across cultures much easier.
Q. What is your style of leadership?
A. I work mostly on trust. I am not a controlling leader. In our division, we have a timetable, and as long as deadlines are met, I trust my teams to manage their own work. I have come to believe that respect and trust can be found in people who appreciate the chance they have been given.
I accept mistakes but not dishonesty. I have difficulty dealing with someone who is untruthful.
Q. What has been the greatest influence on your leadership style?
A. My grandfather was a big influence. He had founded an electrical engineering firm in Normandy at the end of World War II, and hired only people with just a high school diploma. They had to be good at their job, and it was immaterial that they had no secondary degree. He became successful by trusting his employees.
The other influences on my style were Perrin, the charismatic president of Cartier, who was always willing to give me a chance, and also Alain Wertheimer and his brother Gérard (controlling shareholders of Chanel) because of their trust in the teams and their long-term vision.
Q. What is the best advice you have ever received?
A. I am very serious and am often told to smile more. But I am a shy person and must work on being more engaging.
Q. What is the difference between a good leader and great leader?
A. A great leader has the vision and ability to anticipate changes.
Q. What advice would you give a young person starting out?
A. Go around the world three times before starting to work. That is what I tell my two sons, who are 21 and 15. I spent the first few years of my professional life living abroad. It is greatly enriching and even more important today.
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