Chanel breaking conventions with hire of luxury industry outsider CEO

Chanel Leen aNair

Chanel SA, a French luxury firm, has hired Leena Nair, a consumer goods executive, as its new CEO, seeking beyond the fashion sector for leadership as it tries to rebound from the industry’s global recession.

Ms. Nair was previously the chief of human resources of Unilever PLC, a consumer goods and packaged food conglomerate. Alain Wertheimer, who owns Chanel with his brother Gerard, will step down as CEO and become executive chairman early next year, Chanel announced.

Outsiders are unusual in the luxury sector, which has typically favored insiders or, in the case of many family-run fashion enterprises, scions of the business founders. In 2009, Estee Lauder Cos. hired Fabrizio Freda, a snack-food executive at Procter & Gamble Co., to become its chief executive, a move that had parallels to Ms. Nair’s.

Ms. Nair has switched from fast-moving consumer goods to luxury, a sector that analysts believe is set for substantial post-pandemic expansion. Global luxury revenues are expected to climb from an estimated €283 billion, or $320 billion, this year to about €370 billion, or $418 billion, in 2025, according to Bain & Co.

According to Deloitte, Chanel was the world’s sixth largest luxury group by revenue in 2020, with revenues of $10.1 billion. Chanel’s products include apparel, perfumes, jewels, and skin care. Chanel’s sales, like those of other major luxury brands, were impacted hard by the pandemic, falling 17.6% in 2020 compared to the previous year. In comparison, LVMH Mot Hennessy Louis Vuitton had an 11 percent drop and Kering SA saw a 17.5 percent drop.

Ms. Nair, a newbie to the luxury industry, will be based in London, where Chanel’s global headquarters have been since 2018. She worked at Unilever for three decades, most recently as its top human resources officer, and is also a nonexecutive board member of British telecoms giant BT Group PLC.

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