Liliane Bettencourt, L’Oreal Billionaire Heiress, Dies at 94

Liliane Bettencourt, heiress to the L’Oreal cosmetics empire and the world’s wealthiest woman, has died. She was 94.

Her death was announced in a statement from Jean-Paul Agon, chief executive officer at L’Oreal Group. She died Wednesday at her home in Neuilly, a suburb west of Paris, according to a company spokesman. No cause was given.

Liliane Bettencourt

Photographer: Francois Durand/Getty Images

Bettencourt, the only child of L’Oreal SA founder Eugene Schueller, owned about one-third of the company’s shares. During her lifetime, the Paris-based company grew from a small hair-dye supplier into the largest maker of beauty products with more than 30 brands including Lancome and Garnier sold in about 140 countries. In 2016 the company reported revenue of 25.8 billion euros ($27 billion).

Bettencourt’s net worth was $42.5 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.

Her death will fuel speculation about Nestle SA’s 23 percent stake in L’Oreal, the second-largest holding after the Bettencourt family. The Swiss food company and the Bettencourt family have a shareholder agreement that limits either side from raising their respective stakes until six months after the death of Liliane Bettencourt, according to the company’s 2016 registration document. This restriction will now lift in March 2018. 

L’Oreal in 2014 bought back 8 percent of its stock from the Swiss food company, which is free to sell the cosmetics company’s shares. Nestle’s website notes it will continue to act in concert with the Bettencourt family for the remaining duration of the shareholders’ agreement.

“Friendship, taste for life, knowledge, health. I would say that these are the things that are the most valuable,” Bettencourt said in a rare interview with French literary magazine L’Egoiste in 1988. “Everything that isn’t measured is what matters most.”

Francoise Bettencourt-Meyers

Photographer: Mehdi Fedouach/AFP via Getty Images

After the death of Bettencourt’s husband, French conservative politician Andre Bettencourt, in 2007, the media-shy heiress spent her final years embroiled in a legal spat with their only child, Francoise Bettencourt Meyers.

Assigned Guardians

Bettencourt Meyers claimed her mother was mentally unfit and had been manipulated by her entourage, especially one friend to whom she gave about 1 billion euros in gifts and cash. In 2011, a French judge assigned Bettencourt’s daughter and two grandsons as guardians over her interests.

Liliane Bettencourt’s fortune now passes onto Bettencourt Meyers, 64, who heads the family’s investment company. An academic, she wrote books on Greek mythology and Jewish-Christian relations. As main guardian of the family’s assets, including its stake in L’Oreal, Bettencourt Meyers succeeds her mother as the world’s richest woman.

Under French inheritance law — which dates from the Napoleonic era — Bettencourt Meyers, as the sole child, must receive at least 50 percent of her mother’s estate. She’s credited with the entire estate in Bloomberg’s analysis.

In the 1988 magazine interview, Bettencourt discussed the role that wealth may have played in her personal relationships.

Bettencourt with her husband Andre Bettencourt in Nov. 1973.

Photographer: Alain Dejean/Sygma via Getty Images

“Obviously, it’s surely more comfortable to be certain that you are loved for your soul,” she said. “But I didn’t have this concern.” She said when she sometimes wondered whether she was loved for her money, “I have smiled and said to myself, ‘If it’s more, so much the better.’”

Secret recordings of Bettencourt, made by a former butler, spawned separate inquiries into allegations of campaign finance violations related to former President Nicolas Sarkozy’s 2007 election. Bettencourt denied the reports. In 2013, French authorities dropped charges against Sarkozy.

Bettencourt also lost money in Bernard Madoff’s Ponzi scheme.

‘Empty Pit’

Liliane Henriette Betsy Schueller was born Oct. 21, 1922, in Paris. She was 5 years old when her mother, Louise, died, leaving Liliane with with what she called “an empty pit nothing could ever fill.” She was raised by Dominican nuns.

Bettencourt described her childhood as dominated by a stern, workaholic father who woke up every day at 4 a.m. When she turned 15, she was sent to one of her father’s factories to glue labels on L’Oreal bottles.

While providing his daughter with France’s biggest fortune, Eugene Schueller had embarrassed her by his politics. Before and during the World War II, he was a staunch supporter of La Cagoule, a fascist group with ties to the Nazi regime.

During the 1930s Schueller hosted La Cagoule’s meetings at L’Oreal’s headquarters in Paris. Bettencourt’s daughter Francoise went on to marry the grandson of a rabbi who died in the Auschwitz concentration camp.

L’Oreal owes its origins — and its name — to Aureole, a nontoxic hair colorant Schueller developed in 1907 and sold to Parisian beauty salons. Two years later, the young chemist registered his business under the name Safe Hair Dye Company of France.

After her father’s death in 1957, Bettencourt entrusted L’Oreal to his best friend, Francois Dalle, who remained chief executive officer until 1984.

Lindsay Owen-Jones, who became CEO in 1988, turned the company into the global cosmetics giant it is today.

Bettencourt had two grandchildren. Her grandson, Jean-Victor Meyers, replaced her on L’Oreal’s board in 2012.

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