It’s Lady Gaga and the Black Eyed Peas, Alessandro Carlucci informs a group of stunned executives, as he carefully mixes one track into another on his iPad.
The chief executive of Natura, who used to be a part-time DJ until he joined Brazil’s biggest cosmetics group in his early 20s, is trying to demonstrate that he still knows how to mix a tune. “I just want to show that I’m not, you know . . . that I can still . . . ”
His voice trails off as he sheepishly puts down the computer.
“I started when I was 12 as a way to earn a little bit of money,” he says, explaining how his father helped him buy decks and speakers so he could set up his own business. During the next few years, he immersed himself in São Paulo’s hip electronic music scene, hosting private parties and even playing sets on local radio stations.
Now, after 23 years surrounded by women at Natura, Brazil’s eco-friendly version of Avon, Mr Carlucci is a changed man. Sitting in his office on the top floor of the company’s headquarters, an architectural feast of glass and steel buried in the forest near São Paulo, there is certainly little of the testosterone that normally oozes from the country’s boardrooms. His bright blue, glass desk is covered with hand cream samples and books with titles such as The Meaning of Life and the Pursuit of Happiness. It could easily be a spa retreat, or what Google’s offices might look like if it made scented soap.
As one would expect of a beauty products company, Natura relies on reams of market research. But the father of three is also a regular reader of women’s magazines and tries out the company’s products himself. “I use almost all of them,” admits the well-moisturised 45-year-old. “We don’t have products like nail varnish yet, but one day we were doing a test, and I painted my nails just to try it out.”
Which colour? “Red,” he replies, laughing. “But I took it off afterwards!”
Learning to give women what they want in their bathroom cabinets, rather than on the dance floor, has certainly proved profitable. Beauty is a big business in Brazil, where women, who typically control the household budget, spend more than five times more of their annual income on beauty products than women in the UK.
By 2013, Latin America’s biggest economy is set to overtake Japan to become the world’s second-biggest beauty and personal care market after the US, worth $48.4bn, according to Euromonitor. “It’s something about being a Latina,” he explains. “They really care about their bodies, about aesthetics.”
Weekly manicures and hair conditioning masques are a norm for the country’s wealthy. But even in some of the country’s most dangerous slums, or favelas, controlled by armed drug gangs, it is not unusual to find teeth whitening treatments or women trying to scrape enough money together for the down payment on some basic liposuction.
For Mr Carlucci, that has meant putting his hedonistic days behind him and getting in touch with his feminine side. “I’ve definitely changed . . . all of us have,” he says, catching the eye of the male corporate affairs officer opposite him – who spends most of the interview signalling at Mr Carlucci to adjust his shirt for the photographer.
“About 61 per cent of our staff are women and I worked in sales for a long time too, and that’s all women.”
Starting as a trainee straight out of business school in 1989, Mr Carlucci later spent five years as the head of sales for Brazil and Latin America, before being promoted to chief executive just a year after the company went public in 2004.
Mr Carlucci believes that being in touch with his feminine side has helped him succeed in a female-focused business. But, he adds, it has also made him a better manager.
“Having developed a feminine soul today is not just a pleasure, it’s an opportunity,” he says. “The business world is normally a more rational world, more objective, more ‘straight to the point’, and so more masculine. It’s not that men are all like that, but if you have to separate the male soul from the female one, well . . . It’s just that we have many women here. The emotional, intuitive, caring side is more present and so I learnt to work in a company where things like that are valued.”
For Mr Carlucci, the son of an Italian entrepreneur and psychologist, defining the philosophy of the company is key to the next stage of its international development.
Natura already has a firm grip over the Latin American market, with more than 1.3m mainly female “consultants” who go door to door selling everything from environmentally friendly lipstick to fennel deodorant.
Since Mr Carlucci took over in 2005, the company has also overtaken Avon in Brazil, opened a shop in Paris, expanded into Mexico, and doubled net sales to R$3.9bn ($2.2bn) in the first nine months of this year.
Mr Carlucci hopes to build on those sales by expanding further beyond its Latin American base. He won the respect of many colleagues for his work outside Brazil, particularly in Argentina, where he led the company during that country’s economic crisis in the 2000s.
The company is now looking for partners with which to set up joint ventures, but they need “to fit with our culture”, he says. “They need to be able to sit by our side and get excited about the same things we do; otherwise we’re just going to end up losing money.”
Part of that culture means an evangelical commitment to sustainability. Natura sources many of its ingredients from villages deep in the Amazon rainforest, and works with scientists, NGOs, universities and farmers to discover new ones. Packaging is recycled and social programmes are an integral part of the job.
As the company’s slogan spells out in big white letters along the headquarters’ glass walls, beauty is about everybody’s well-being, or bem estar bem (literally, “well being well”).
In practical terms, that means lots of vaccinations, Mr Carlucci explains, as he rushes downstairs to meet his next guests: hundreds of the company’s most senior door-to-door sellers who have arrived for a cocktail party. “I’ve been to the Amazon many times: Manaus, Belém, Altamira . . . I once spent 16 hours on a boat,” he says.
As the heavily perfumed women bustle into the reception, many in their 60s and 70s, Mr Carlucci goes to greet them. One elderly lady, wrapped in a big fake-fur coat and wearing bright red lipstick, embraces him and gives him an affectionate squeeze on the cheek.
“They’ve known me since I was a young boy, you see,” he shouts over with a beaming smile, his shiny face blushing.
He may be a long way from the sweaty clubs of São Paulo, but Mr Carlucci, it seems, still knows how to work a crowd.
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