Episode 34: Laurent Saffre, CEO of Pierre Fabre USA

Meet Laurent Saffre. CEO of Pierre Fabre USA. Listen as this artist, pharmacist and business leader tells us how a career across three countries has been a rewarding adventure for him and his family. Special thanks to the historic C.O. Bigelow Apothecaries for hosting our first ever on-location recordings.

Dan Hodgdon
AnnouncerWelcome to Where Brains Meet Beauty, hosted by Jodi Katz, founder and creative director of Base Beauty Creative Agency.
Jodi KatzHey everybody, today is super special for Where Brains Meet Beauty. We are recording on location today in historic C.O. Bigelow Apothecary, in New York City's West Village.

And we've taken over a nice corner of this 200 year old store for our podcast series. So special thanks to C.O. Bigelow's CEO Ian Ginsberg and the head of beauty Emily for collaborating with us today. We hope this is the first of many.
We all know that every good brand has as story. But at Where Brains Meet Beauty, we're interested in the people behind the brand.
Today we are joined by Laurent Saffre, President & CEO of Pierre Fabre USA.
Laurent SaffreHello Jodi.
Jodi KatzIt's nice to see you Laurent.
Laurent SaffreThank you likewise, and it's great to be here with you, this iconic store, C.O. Bigelow. And thank you so much for having me.
Jodi KatzWe've known each other professionally for a really long time. I think almost maybe six years at this point. My agency's done work for some of the Pierre Fabre brands Avène, Glytone, René Furterer.

But what's so great the podcast and sitting together is that I'm going to get to know you beyond the work. And that's what's so cool about this opportunity. So I'm really excited to get to know you better.
Laurent SaffreLikewise.
Jodi KatzI will let you know that I used the Klorane dry shampoo this morning.
Laurent SaffreI was going to compliment your hair. That's perfect! What a great segue.
Jodi KatzI got home very late last night, from a late flight. And this morning was all about the Klorane dry shampoo, as I'm sure is a number one seller for you.
Laurent SaffreIt is actually.
Jodi KatzSo can you just start by telling us a little bit about Pierre Fabre 'cause it may not be a corporation a lot of people are familiar with?
Laurent SaffreOf course. First I want to apologize for my thick French accent, I will try to speak slowly.

Well of course Pierre Fabre is a great company that was founded by Mr. Pierre Fabre, a pharmacist in the early '60s. And it was at that time, a small pharmacy in Southwest of France. And Mr. Pierre Fabre developed the first drug for patients suffering from venous insufficiencies. And he created Pierre Fabre laboratories in order to improve the quality of life of his patients in the pharmacy. And then became a fantastic success story with the company, which is today a $2.5 billion company worldwide.
The beauty of this company is that today this company is not only privately owned, but owned by a non-profit organization called the Foundation Pierre Fabre. Mr. Pierre Fabre unfortunately he passed away a few years ago but gave all his company and his belongings to a non-profit organization, the Foundation Pierre Fabre.
Jodi KatzIt's so interesting.
Laurent SaffreSo at the end of the day, the company, the Pierre Fabre Laboratories are funding a non-profit organization, which is in France quite unique.
Jodi KatzAnd where do profits go?
Laurent SaffreSo the profit of the company are funding the Foundation. The Foundation has four main actions. The first ones to improve the quality of life of patients suffering from Sickle cell disease-
Jodi KatzOh my goodness.
Laurent Saffre... it's a very painful disease and by training healthcare professionals who take care of the disease, we try to improve the quality of life.

We are also improving the traceability of drugs by fostering and trying to fight against counter fit drugs in some countries, especially sub-Saharan and Asian countries. So it's the second big action that we are doing.
Also, developing drugs for tropical dermatology conditions in some countries, specifically in Haiti. That's really, we try to develop, and we are also educating healthcare professionals, specifically pharmacists in some countries. For example, we developed a university for pharmacists in Vietnam a few years ago.
So that's where the benefit of the company are going, the dividends of the company. And of course, the company is also investing directly in R&D to develop new drugs and new dermo-cosmetics products.
Jodi KatzIt's so fascinating, I love these entrepreneur success stories, right? It takes one person to do one thing and then years later, it can become something magnificently enormous.
Laurent SaffreAbsolutely.
Jodi KatzSo Mr. Pierre Fabre started a pharmacy just like Bigelow, right?
Laurent SaffreAbsolutely.
Jodi KatzBigelow was started 200 years ago as a pharmacy so Mr. Fabre did that in France and then look what it's become.

It's so fascinating. It only takes one person to do, it takes one person to start but then how things evolve, it's just incredible.
Laurent SaffreAnd the way that those leaders are building their companies is amazing because it's like a family at the end. And so today it's resonating very much this crazy world, I think it's important that we know why we work at Pierre Fabre and we know the end point of promoting our products but not only we are helping in order to get a better world today through our products and through our guidelines that are meant that Mr. Pierre Fabre gave us.
Jodi KatzSo cool. What I want to talk about because we've haven't known each other beyond professionally, I want to understand what it's like to grow up in another country, start building a family there and then one day just say "Okay, let's move to the US." Or maybe Canada was your first stop?
Laurent SaffreYeah, so it's been actually a long journey for me. I was raised and born in France as you can hear with my accent. I was looking to begin my career for the Pierre Fabre group in the USA, actually, in Los Angeles.

A brand that you may know, Physicians Formula.
Jodi KatzOh sure. Oh wait, Pierre Fabre owned Physicians Formula?
Laurent SaffreYeah, we used to own the brand Physicians Formula, not anymore but we used to own this brand.
Jodi KatzDid Pierre Fabre launch that brand?
Laurent SaffreNo, no, they acquired the brand in the US.

So I made a career in Los Angeles with, that was a subsidiary that was Physicians Formula and launching another brand called Ducray at the time.
Jodi KatzSo you were living in France and went to school in France and then you got a job offer to go to Los Angeles?
Laurent SaffreAbsolutely. Actually I'm a pharmacist as well and I also have a Masters in Marketing and Management in Paris. And to be very precise, my first job was with L'Oreal. I was really a fan of photography and I actually did an exposition in New York, black and white. And HR guy from L'Oreal saw this exposition and saw me my at my existing school and offered me an opportunity to join the Lancôme brand. So that was my first experience.
Jodi KatzOkay wait, let's back up. You go to school in France. You're a photography student as well. You created your work and you showed it in New York?
Laurent SaffreI wasn't a photography student, I was like, it was my passion. I did an exposition in New York and that's was just to make a little workshop. And it was an opportunity for me to meet with the HR guy from L'Oreal and there were apparently pleased with the work and they said "Maybe you have some talent in terms of creativity, as a pharmacist, wow, this is special."

And they said "Why don't you try to join us with Lancôme." It was a fantastic opportunity for me to join the luxury brand in a fantastic company as well, L'Oreal.
Jodi KatzAnd that was in New York, the job?
Laurent SaffreIt was in France.
Jodi KatzOkay, so this never happens where somebody is just doing their passion, right their artistic passion? And somebody from a major corporation in an industry that's something that's fascinating to that person, comes up and says "Oh, let's give you a job."

Like that never happens, ever.
Laurent SaffreWell, it's like you're connecting the dots, by doing the passion and the fantastic opportunity for me to join the beauty industry through photography, which was unexpected.
Jodi KatzYeah. Are you still in touch with that person who gave you the job?
Laurent SaffreThe HR person, yes, I'm still in touch with her.
Jodi KatzThis is a good friend.
Laurent SaffreYeah, it is, absolutely.
Jodi KatzSo you got that job working on Lancôme.
Laurent SaffreAnd then I had an opportunity through my business school again to do what we called at that time V.I.E, specific word, which means is a specific mission when you are a French student you have to do something abroad for developing a business outside France. And then I had this opportunity to join the Pierre Fabre Group in Los Angeles, which was a fantastic mission for me.

I not only had this great opportunity to join the US market but also I met my wife in Los Angeles.
Jodi KatzOh cool!
Laurent SaffreShe was a product manager for Physicians Formula. So it's a small world. And believe it or not, my wife is French as well. And she was living very nearby where I live in France. So it's like a very funny.
Jodi KatzThat's so funny. So all the way to California to meet her.
Laurent SaffreSi.
Jodi KatzWhat was the job at Physicians Formula? What were you tasked with?
Laurent SaffreI was actually helping the company to launch a French brand in the US called A-Derma. It's an old milk based brand and we actually tried at the time to duplicate the business model we had in France, which is product distributed in a pharmacy and being recommended by dermatologists or by physicians. And we tried to copy and paste this business model, which was extremely successful in Europe, in the USA.

And guess what? It didn't work. It was a big failure and I began actually my career with a failure, which is I think a chance because I learned so much about what not to do in a very different landscape and very different environment. And trying to duplicate something that works in some specific countries in other countries can be very, very dangerous for a business.
So we learned a lot and we understood that in the US things are different. The advice in the point of sales is very differently managed, especially in a drugstore environment. Which is the case here at C.O Bigelow, actually which is one of my favorite stores in the world, which still has some great advice in a fantastic environment so people can feel pampered and they have the perfect advice from pharmacists and from beauty advisors.
And we also have a big recommendation by physicians in Europe with dermatologic products, which not really happens in the US. So the business model didn't work here. And it was my first lesson, that listen to the market and don't try to duplicate what you learned at school as a university as business course.
Jodi KatzLet's talk about making mistakes because I think that's awesome actually that this did happened and it wasn't your mistake alone, right? It was a corporate one as well. Also, I feel like people at the corporations now are really terrified to make mistakes, they really think that their job is on the line. I'm obviously generalizing but I get the sense ...

I'm looking in. Right now I'm an entrepreneur into these situations, we make mistakes all the time and we just fix them, right? That's not scary at Base Beauty but in the corporate world, I get the sense that a lot of people are terrified to make mistakes they think their job is on the line. And therefore everything is just sort of status quo.
“We don't try new things, we don't work really hard to rock the boat.” As someone who's made a great mistake, do you notice that around you?
Laurent SaffreI think it's about the management and how the management value people who are failing, but how they rebound and how they learn from the failure. I think it's very important that people understand that if you don't take risk, you may not succeed. And if you take a look at all the value peaks, the value from the big leaders even Steve Jobs, they failed so many times.

What I like in the US particularly is that people value when you fail and when you understand why you failed, and what the lessons you learned from that. I think it's key and I think if you ask a lot of people that are very successful, they all have their own failures in their journey. Sometimes they talk about it sometimes they don't. But I think it's very important to identify it as a failure and make it a success afterwards.
Jodi KatzYes, for our listeners I been laid off and fired plenty of times.
Laurent SaffreThat's why you're so successful today. Congratulations.
Jodi KatzAnd you think it matters so much in the moment, right?
Laurent SaffreAbsolutely, yeah.
Jodi KatzIt feels like the biggest thing.
Laurent SaffreBut you learn from it.
Jodi KatzYes, and I want everyone to know that it almost doesn't matter in the end that every thing works out.

So let's talk about the failure happened, and then do you go back to France and work in France?
Laurent SaffreI went back to France for two years, I was the assistant of the Americas Director. So from Canada to Argentina for the Dermo-Cosmetique Division of the company we have two divisions. Dermo-Cosmetique and Drug divisions. I was the assistant of the director and after two years, I had a fantastic opportunity, Mr. Pierre Fabre said "Why don't we send Mr. Saffre to the freezer," which was actually Canada.
Jodi KatzSo was Mr. Pierre Fabre himself who asked you to go to Canada?
Laurent SaffreAbsolutely, at the time the size of the company was still, size where you were able to talk to the CEO easily. And I had this opportunity and he gave me this opportunity. I had 48 hours to take my decision to decision with my wife and go in Canada and to set up the subsidiary almost from scratch. The subsidiary that we had only a few months.

So it was a discovery of a new landscape, a new environment, but guess what? I didn't make the same mistake so I learned from the ground, I listened to the people, I went and spent a lot of time in the field. And we launched Eau Thermale Avène in Canada first, and it's been a fantastic success.
We became after only a few years the number one subsidiary of all the Americas and were able to build actually, with the L'Oréal Group, as Dermo-Cosmetique category. That's all the big retailers in Canada such as Jean Coutu, Shoppers Drug Mart and all the big retailers.
So we had a fantastic success. And I stayed there eight years-
Jodi KatzSo you were married before you went and your wife went with you?
Laurent SaffreI actually got married a bit after but it was still my wife at the time.

And we had two kids in Canada, so my two boys were born and raised in Canada.
Jodi KatzOh interesting, interesting.
Laurent SaffreAnd we became after eight Winters, Canada citizens. They get the citizenship after eight Winters if you survived.
Jodi KatzAnd you did.
Laurent SaffreYes, we did. So I'm very proud to be Canadian today, it's a fantastic country, it's been a tremendous experience and of course we launched other brands and the subsidiary today is a big subsidiary.

We made a great success in Canada and I met also fantastic people, the team that we built, over there is still a fantastic team and I'm very proud of that.
Jodi KatzSo on a personal level, was your wife realizing that she was going to be on a multi-decade journey? Through traveling the world with you?
Laurent SaffreI don't know if she signed for that when she get married. But I think she's also coming from the cosmetic industry and she loves discovering new environment and definitely she's been my best asset and she always gives me the best advice. I'm very lucky to have her on my side.
Jodi KatzThere's certainly plenty of people I talked to who a spouse stays where they are from, right? Like the family doesn't journey together. I think you obviously, this is a family decision, right?
Laurent SaffreAbsolutely. It's very consistent with our personal life. I'm a big fan of sailing, I'm a sailor, and every Summer we go with my family and my boat in France we spend three weeks and we cross out into the ocean, but the Mediterranean Sea. And we are having a lot of fun and I think it's a state of mind. No matter what the country is, no matter what the challenge is, if you're willing to learn and to face the elements, could be the wind, could be the sea, the waves. It could be the business environment but if you're willing to learn from that and to experience that as a family, as a team, I think it's not a questions of where you are going to do it, it's a question of why, what's the purpose of the mission.
Jodi KatzThat's so cool that you're a sailor. So your kids are experts sailors at this point?
Laurent SaffreAbsolutely. I don't know if they are ... They are doing great, they are 13 and 11. So they are doing great.
Jodi KatzAnd everyone enjoys that adventure or do you get some pushback from the kids?
Laurent SaffreNot yet. Maybe one day but not yet. The boat is still big enough. Maybe is going to be too small one day but you know, I think it's a good way so far to disconnect from all this craziness of social media, internet, and everything. So good to be away for three weeks to be amazed by sunrise and sunsets that you don't really see in New York, with all the buildings. So it's a fantastic opportunity.
Jodi KatzSo when you're on the boat, does everybody really put their devices away?
Laurent SaffreAbsolutely, that's the-
Jodi KatzThere's no WiFi?
Laurent SaffreI'm the only cheating with the signal connection, checking my emails. But I'm trying to hide in my boat once a day, otherwise we would try to limit that and to enjoy the time being ... It's a great journey.
Jodi KatzIt's hard to do. I have, I feel like my body, I don't know if it's like in my mind, in my hand. “Check the email, check the email.” And when I go to check it and there's nothing there, I'm disappointed. “Why doesn't anybody need me?” It is like crazy chemical dependency I think in my body on the device. So it must be really hard to leave the country, get on the boat and really unwind.
Laurent SaffreIt's hard at the beginning as it was with you, it's like rebooting your computer. So it doesn't mean we don't like it when it's here we enjoy and of course my kids were born with technology. They're completely ... They love using it on a daily basis and if you do it in a nice good way it's fun. It's fantastic they still have some connections with their grandparents on a daily basis, which is fantastic, it's FaceTime.

I think it's great also if you take it in a good way it's fantastic opportunity for kids to learn a lot and so that's great. Sometimes you have to reboot and to remind them that life is not always through Facebook or Instagram. Life is also connecting with people on a real life and spending some time with people not saying happy birthday to your father on Facebook, but spending some time with him.
Jodi KatzThat's funny.

So at the CEO level when you're on vacation do you have to actually do work everyday a little bit or is there an opportunity to stop working?
Laurent SaffreI can't disconnect personally. My team is like my family so I still need to have some news and see how things are going. Not because I think people cannot work without me but because sometimes you need to anticipate some events and can also have some crisis that you have to manage. I would feel very bad if people were in a bad situation and me having fun on my sailboat without doing anything for them.

So that's why I need to be connected at least once a day. It's very short and immediate and then I feel relaxed and I feel okay to enjoy my moment.
Jodi KatzI've been running my business for 10 years and only this past Spring did I take a true legit vacation from work and I was with my family.
Laurent SaffreHow did you feel after that?
Jodi KatzIt was amazing. It was so joyful because I think I finally have the team built, but you need to be able to support the decision making in my absence. And my team also knows that I trust them, God forbid there was a crisis with a client and they go nuts and leave the agency in a huff or whatever. I've communicated clearly with my team that we do everything we possibly can to make the work great and the experience great.

And then if it just isn't great for them it just isn't great for them, right? And that's just the way it is, right? Not because I'm not there to answer the email. So yeah, I took that first vacation and I loved it, I was so happy. 'Cause I usually always have been connected a little bit, right? Like I've been in Disney World and in front of a ride texting my team and answering calls and I was really ready for a break.
So I would imagine at the CEO level it almost feels like the entrepreneur experience, right? You feel so tied to these ideas.
Laurent SaffreAbsolutely, I think being an entrepreneur is your even more tied to your business. It's a question sometimes of being able to take decisions quickly and congratulations for your first vacation.
Jodi KatzThat's great. They'll be many more I hope.

So let's talk a little bit more about growing up as a French family in the US.
Laurent SaffreSo just after Canada I went back to France for four years and became the Americas Director for cosmetic divisions and for four years I had the opportunity to join the US subsidiary for the cosmetic and then the drug divisions. So it was the first time for me that I was able to handle drug division for Pierre Fabre Group. So I'm in charge of different brands from Rene Furterer, which is dealing with hair salon stylists and C.O. Bigelow of course. To anti-cancer drugs dealing with hospitals for lung cancer.

So it's a very, very wide spectrum of product and I would say directions between a stylist and oncologist. You can see it's not the same type of interactions and think it is what makes my job actually pretty amazing. It's been quite a fantastic adventure so far. It's been six years now that I've been in the US. I still have my French accent I'm sorry but I'm enjoying it very much and again we're having a fantastic success in the US today. Again listening to the market and making sure that we adapt our business model to the US market.
Jodi KatzRight. When I explained to people that are not familiar with your company what Pierre Fabre is, I think of it as like a French J&J, like a French Johnson & Johnson, right? There's consumer focused product, there's medical related products. In your servicing these businesses in different ways uniquely.
Laurent SaffreYeah, even though we are smaller for sure. You're right, we have a very wide spectrum of ... Broad spectrum of products and J&J is a good analogy, absolutely.
Jodi KatzAnd you can grow to be that big, that's fine.
Laurent SaffreWhy not.
Jodi KatzI think it would be interesting for a lot of our listeners, 'cause many of them are probably in your shoes or considering being in your shoes. Leaving where ever they are from to move whether it's from the US to another country or another country to the US. What advice would you give somebody who is considering either really picking up their homestead and moving to another country for a career experience?
Laurent SaffreI would say do it no matter what. I think it's a fantastic opportunity to learn and to be much more open-minded. For my kids it's been absolutely fantastic, they embrace the world today. They have a 51 nationalities at the school, which is absolutely amazing.
Jodi KatzOh wow, that's so cool.
Laurent SaffreSo you can imagine also they their eyes completely open and they are always eager to learn more from other people, which is what I want to transmit. It's not about being ... Having a top score in different ... Physics or math, but I want them to be good people later.
Jodi KatzCitizens of the world.
Laurent SaffreYeah, I think it's a great opportunity and New York is particularly open to that.
Jodi KatzWhat do you love most about New York?
Laurent SaffreThe melting pot. I think I like New York because it's the world in one city and depending on where you go you can feel that you're in China, you can feel that you're, I don't know in Latin America and just one block away. And I think this is ... People get along very well in this crazy city, totally crazy city, but I love it. I love the craziness, I love the energy, the vibe and definitely yeah, New York is a fantastic experience.
Jodi KatzSo you've been here at Pierre Fabre for, is it over 12 years?
Laurent SaffreAlmost 20 years now.
Jodi KatzOh my God, 20 years. That's a really long time.
Laurent SaffreI get old, huh.
Jodi KatzWhat would you say keeps you there?
Laurent SaffreI think what really ... First of all ... I think the why behind the company. What we do everyday is to fund a non-profit organization. So the end point is very noble to me and I don't find too many companies like that today.

You have many companies that have a foundation, which is great. But are not owned by a foundation, that makes a big difference. What I like at Pierre Fabre as well is the fact that behind the fact that we are privately owned, I think the company really has a true vision about the future of cosmetics. And I think Monsieur Fabre was a visionary because what he's developing in terms of new technology is completely resonating with what the market is evolving. Maybe we are a little bit in advance. Like as an example, we are developing sterile cosmetics. Cosmetics with complete sterile.
Jodi KatzWhat does that mean?
Laurent SaffreIt means that you have absolutely not preservative in the formula and even preservative-like. So you can say no preservative in the product.
Jodi KatzRight.
Laurent SaffreIf you don't have the preservative, which is listed on a specific preservative list.
Jodi KatzRight, like a chart?
Laurent SaffreAbsolutely, like a chart. But if it's sterile you have to have a preservative-like otherwise your formula will not have a long shelf life. But if you sterilize a product and if you're able to give a specific way of protecting the formula from any kind of bacterial contamination then your product is absolutely safe and requires a very minimum number of ingredients. And that's the future I think. Less is more and I think that you can see that more and more people are exposed to allergens like ... They get more allergies. And I think the future of cosmetics will be to limit the number of ingredients and maybe to be giving sterile formulas to the patients.

So I think we have a developed something very innovative. This kind of innovation that not necessarily has a very short-term return on investments, in terms of financial standpoint. I think it's building the future and this is how Mr. Fabre always bet on the future.
Jodi KatzIt's so interesting when you're talking about fewer ingredients and no preservatives. I see it as an innovation now, it's also a throwback to the way I'm sure he compounded his products.
Laurent SaffreAbsolutely, yeah.
Jodi KatzThere was no reason to put a lot of junk in there.
Laurent SaffreThat's true, that's true.
Jodi KatzSo it seems really in line with the idea of going back to the more simple traditions around like just focusing on key ingredients. Not adding a lot of fillers and things to mask smell and all that stuff and just to be focusing on the value of the ingredient. So it's like a backwards forwards thing, I think.
Laurent SaffreThat's true, that's true.
Jodi KatzThat's so interesting. Well thank you so much for sharing your stories with us today.
Laurent SaffreOf course, it was my pleasure. Thank you for listening to my French accent again. And Jodi it's always a pleasure talking with you and first time we had this opportunity to discuss something else than business. It's great.
Jodi KatzYeah, I didn't know you were a pharmacist, I think that's so cool. Yeah, I just learned something new when you get sit down and talk about something other than deadlines and schedules and budgets.
Laurent SaffreAbsolutely.
Jodi KatzSo for our listeners, I hope you enjoyed this interview with Laurent. Please subscribe to our series on iTunes and for updates about the show please follow us on Instagram at #BaseBeautyCreativeAgency.
AnnouncerThanks for listening to Where Brains Meet Beauty with Jodi Katz. Tune in again for more authentic conversations with beauty leaders.

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