Karen Fondu is retiring.
Those industry people not fortunate enough to have known and worked with her these many years may not realize just how that is a loss not easily recompensed. For she has been, for 37 years, one of the most remarkable people the mass retailing community has produced, and one of the engines that have driven the beauty care business in America.
For the record, Fondu joined L’Oréal in 1979 as a sales representative selling hair coloring products. She quickly advanced to key account manager, then district manager of L’Oréal Mid-Atlantic, before being named regional manager for the company’s West Coast area in 1982, whereupon she moved to California.
Two years later she returned to New York City to pursue her sales career on a national level.
In 1992, Fondu was appointed vice president of sales for L’Oréal’s cosmetics division, a unit that included L’Oréal Paris and, subsequently, Maybelline, when that brand was acquired. In 2000, she was named deputy general manager of Maybelline, becoming the unit’s president two years later. Six years after that, she was named president of L’Oréal Paris USA.
During this steady climb to the top of L’Oréal’s executive suite, Fondu routinely performed at a brilliant level, achieving uninterrupted business success and professional accomplishment. She became, in time, the fixed point in a changing L’Oréal environment, even as the people around her migrated to other jobs and, occasionally, other corporate environments.
“Over the course of her career, Karen trained, mentored and developed several generations of talent, who have in turn gone on to have remarkable careers,” remarked Frederic Roze, president and CEO of L’Oréal USA, in announcing Fondu’s retirement.
She will step down at year’s end, though she will likely remain in the L’Oréal neighborhood, available for special assignments and projects too delicate or important to be left to others. She will also spend time in South Florida, where she and her husband recently purchased a cooperative apartment.
It is no easy assignment to assess Fondu’s impact on L’Oréal. It is, today, the leading mass cosmetics brand in America, as well as the No. 1 hair coloring company.
Yet the company has traditionally fought from behind, known more as the U.S. division of a French company and one whose upscale brands, most notably Lancôme, traditionally received more recognition.
Along the way, Fondu always found time to pursue such issues as community relations, women’s empowerment and philanthropic initiatives, causes which became central to her company’s reputation in the United States.
Throughout, Fondu didn’t change much. She was invariably open, accessible and available to those who needed her advice and to those who merely enjoyed her company. The legion of friends and admirers she leaves behind will wait a long time before a replacement in terms of respect and admiration is found.
Of the accolades that have surrounded the announcement of her retirment, perhaps none has matched the sincerity and honesty of the remarks attributed to Jean-Paul Agon, L’Oréal’s chairman and CEO: Her “strategic vision and expert knowledge of building brands and infusing them with inspiration and ambition have made her one of the most recognized and admired professionals in the beauty industry. I want to honor with respect, admiration and affection a very great lady of the L’Oréal organization and wish Karen every happiness and success in this new life that lies ahead of her.”