The death this week of L’Oreal SA’s founding family matriarch is putting the spotlight on a reclusive 64-year-old heiress who now finds herself as the richest woman in the world.
Francoise Bettencourt Meyers has shunned the glittering social life that her late mother, Liliane Bettencourt, once embraced. Bettencourt Meyers is known for playing piano for several hours a day and has written two books—a five-volume study of the Bible and a genealogy of the Greek gods.
“She really lives inside her own cocoon,” said Tom Sancton, author of The Bettencourt Affair, who noted that even when she was a little girl she appeared uncomfortable in the world of rich people. “She lives mainly with the confines of her own family.”
That kind of seclusion will be harder to maintain as the head of Europe’s fourth-largest fortune. Through family holding company Tethys, she takes charge of her
family’s 33 percent stake in the cosmetics maker, which lies at the heart of a net worth the Bloomberg Billionaires Index values at $43.3 billion.
Bettencourt Meyers steps into the spotlight at a time of increasing discussion about the future of the family’s stake, as well as the 23 percent of L’Oreal held by Swiss food-giant Nestlé SA. L’Oreal climbed 2.46 percent to €180.95 at the close of trading last Friday in Paris, after rising as much as 6.7 percent earlier in the day.
With Bettencourt’s death last Thursday at age 94, analysts have started to float a variety of scenarios, including L’Oreal buying stock back from Nestlé or a takeover bid for the Paris-based company. Bettencourt Meyers has already indicated little will change.
“In this painful moment for us, I would like to reiterate, on behalf of our family, our entire commitment and loyalty to L’Oreal and to renew my confidence in its President Jean-Paul Agon and his teams worldwide,” she said in a statement last Thursday.
The billionaire heiress has shown less interest in L’Oreal matters than her mother did, despite her role as a board member for more than two decades. “She’d show up to meetings but unlike Liliane she never was hands-on,” Sancton said. “Liliane read tons of documents, L’Oreal was her lifeblood. That’s definitely not Francoise.”
In addition to music and study, the bookish and austere Bettencourt Meyers has involved herself in charity work.
“The family doesn’t really mingle with rest of the rich in France,” said Eric Treguier, who has tracked French fortunes for Challenges magazine for more than two decades. “Twenty years ago they hosted receptions at their home that drew politicians, bankers and artists, but as Francoise grew older and Liliane’s husband died, the circle around the family has shrunk.” The Bettencourts have added 19.6 percent this year as L’Oreal’s market capitalization topped €100 billion ($122 billion).
Her $43.3-billion net worth puts her $5.4 billion ahead of Alice Walton, an heiress to the Wal-Mart Stores Inc. fortune, and at the top of the list of 64 women featured on the Bloomberg index, a daily ranking of the world’s 500 richest people. Of the 64 billionaires, 58 are stewards of an inheritance.
Bettencourt Meyers had a difficult and, at times, contentious relationship with her mother. After the death of her father, French conservative politician Andre Bettencourt, in 2007, she spent years battling her mother in court, claiming she was mentally unfit and had been manipulated by her entourage. She targeted one of Liliane’s friends who received about €1 billion in gifts and cash from her. A French judge assigned Bettencourt Meyers and her sons as guardians over Liliane’s interests in 2011.
Raised a strict Catholic, Bettencourt Meyers married Jean-Pierre Meyers, the grandson of a rabbi killed in Auschwitz. The couple’s two sons have shown more interest in L’Oreal, but it remains to be seen whether Bettencourt Meyers will take a more active role at a company long associated with her mother.
“Liliane’s death will probably be a personal relief to Francoise,” author Sancton said. “That was a difficult relationship that she’s now, in a way, released from.”
Image credits: Francois Durand/Getty Images, Mehdi Fedouach/AFP/Getty Images