Provence. The mere mention of the place evokes rows of lavender swaying in the bucolic countryside and inspires millions of people to visit the southern French region each year.
This cachet helped turn a modest line of beauty products using natural ingredients, L’Occitane en Provence, into a worldwide concern with more than 2,000 stores in 90 countries.
“The passion for the natural side of Provence, the fascination for this somewhat virgin region with enchanting landscapes — all these universal cliches have contributed to the success of the brand,” says Provence native Olivier Baussan, the company’s founder and now creative director.
Each year about 16,000 visitors, including many from Asia, flock to L’Occitane’s manufacturing base in Manosque, a town of about 22,000 in the heart of Provence.
Baussan grew up reading the novels of Manosque’s favorite son, Jean Giono, who captured Provence’s natural beauty and rural charm.
The region, also the setting of British author Peter Mayle’s hits A Year in Provence and Hotel Pastis — is France’s second-ranked tourist draw after the Paris area, according to Eurostat.
Baussan set up the business in 1976 when he was just 24, having come across an old still that he bought “for half my meager salary,” he said.
“I wanted to revisit this tradition, and I went out into the countryside to distill rosemary,” said Baussan, now 61. “At the time there was a back-to-the-country movement. L’Occitane was forged in that.”
Baussan took the name from Occitan, an endangered Romance language, also known as Langue d’Oc, similar to Spain’s Catalan that is spoken by more than half a million mainly elderly people in southern France.
At first, using old “grandmother’s recipes,” he concocted mixtures of essential oils and sold them to herbalists’ shops.
Then a soapmaker taught him his know-how, and he opened his first shop selling lavender soap in 1981, followed by others, mainly in France.
By his own admission, Baussan is “closer to farmers than to the stock market.”
He left it to his Austrian business partner, Reinhold Geiger, to woo foreign markets, setting up outlets with their trademark ochre colors and tiled floors with wood and wrought-iron furnishing.
Today L’Occitane has 2,384 stores across the world, from New York to Hong Kong — where the company has been listed on the stock market since 2010.
However, success was not immediate.
“At first, people didn’t know us, it didn’t work at all. Then little by little we built a clientele,” Geiger said.
The group is now based in Luxembourg, with more than 7,000 direct employees worldwide.
It projects a production capacity of 20,000 tonnes and 150 million vials, tubs and tubes by 2017, compared with the current 12,000 tonnes and 65 million units, production director Jean-Luc Rohou said.
Ironically France, with its 132 stores, accounts for less than 8 percent of the group’s annual turnover of 1.04 billion euros (US$1.4 billion), far behind Japan’s 21 percent, while the Russian and Chinese markets are showing the fastest growth.
The raw materials — lavender, angelica, verbena, peonies, roses, juniper, almonds — abound in Provence, while Corsica provides “everlasting” flowers, prized for their anti-aging properties.
The yellow flower grows wild on the island and had never been domesticated, but is now being cultivated on eight farms over a total of 50 hectares under a program launched in 2004.
The company’s karite comes from much farther afield — from Burkina Faso in west Africa, where about 16,000 women harvest shea tree nuts to extract their butter, with L’Occitane buying the bulk of their output.
When Baussan started working with them 25 years ago they numbered only about 100.
L’Occitane helped build the women’s cooperatives to their current strength in a project that won kudos from the UN Development Program’s Growing Inclusive Markets initiative.
In a sign of L’Occitane’s growing internationalization, it launched a project in Brazil this year to produce a range made exclusively from local ingredients — one way to create a cheaper complement to the costlier “made in France” model.