As part of our ongoing commitment to sharing positive brand stories and actions from our community, Making a Difference is a new feature highlighting the often unsung individuals across the luxury industry making a positive impact. It is our hope that this series will be an inspiration to people working in sustainability and show professionals – particularly at the start of their career journey – the many routes there are to making a difference.
This month the spotlight is on La Perla Beauty’s Chief Scientific & Regulatory Officer Les Smith – accomplished chemist, sustainability expert, and rock aficionado.
What qualifications do you have? Did they play a role in getting you where you are today?
I did my undergraduate studies at the University of Stirling in Scotland. I have an Honors Degree in chemistry and a Ph.D. from the Research Institute of Medicine and Chemistry in Cambridge Massachusetts under the supervision of Sir Derek Barton, a Nobel Prize winner. I also did Post Doctoral research at the University of Geneva in Switzerland on photochemistry of organic molecules.
Clearly my academic qualifications placed me in a good spot to continue into academia or industry. However, in my post doc position in Geneva, I was given responsibility for a large group of research scientists and also had to teach undergraduate chemistry in French. I think that this was when I realized that I was a better manager than a practical chemist.
Have you always worked in sustainability? If not, what did you do before?
Believe it or not the overall topic of ‘sustainability’ in the years when I moved into industry was not a clearly defined topic. My first job was with Procter and Gamble in Brussels where I ran a large analytical team and a product development group. In those days – the (yikes!) early ’80s – there was a growing concern about the effect of detergents on the environment. Most specifically of the effect of phosphates on the environment (eutrophication of lake water).
How did you end up in your current role?
When I was with Coty I was asked to set up a global centre of excellence for fragrances in Switzerland. At the same time I maintained global responsibility for a diverse range of departments like toxicology, fragrance development, engineering, analytical, sensory testing, consumer affairs, regulatory, etc. At that time our chairman Peter Shaefer was based in Switzerland and we worked together on a number M&As and had an occasional beer. I met up with him more by accident than design in the Channel Islands back in 2019 and he proposed that I join the start-up La Perla Beauty group. I jumped at the chance since I had been reduced in retirement to studying astrophysics at Princeton University and playing with a rock band in local pubs.
What made you fall in love with sustainability?
It has become clear over recent years that the concept of sustainability goes much further than environmental issues and I’m excited by the rapid expansion of the topic into social responsibility, human safety and of course the love of our planet.
The area is still not clearly defined from a legal perspective but what is very encouraging is how the cosmetic and of course other industries are moving rapidly towards being and promoting the concept of ‘clean’ products. Regulation will inevitably come but I’m proud that our industry is leading the charge.
What does your day-to-day look like?
Being pinned down now in Princeton, New Jersey I live on Microsoft Teams. Thankfully my colleagues are very respectful and rarely schedule meetings before 8 am EST. Start of the day is usually about 5.30am and I check my e-mails from Europe. If there’s nothing urgent, roll over. Sometime later I take my bearded collie Dougal (named after Fantasia’s Dougal of Fife) for his first walk. Most of my days revolve around calls with Europe and the subsequent homework and now with our growing team in the USA I have regular meetings with our Texas and Colorado-based colleagues.
What challenges have you faced?
In the last year clearly the pandemic has been a major challenge. I have to say that our supply chain and marketing teams have done an amazing job. To move from basically a concept a year and a half ago to physical (and fantastic!) products on the shelves says a lot.
What are you most proud of?
Coming from a very working-class background in Scotland I can give myself a pat on the back as to where I’ve gone professionally. I’m also pretty proud that I’ve achieved some notable important things in my rugby career.
I think the shining star however is Coty’s global center of excellence that I built and staffed in Versoix in Switzerland. The company gave me a carte blanche to build and staff a state-of-the-art facility on the lake in Switzerland. I hired the best people and this group continues to be a major component of Coty’s success in the fragrance industry.
What advice would you have for anyone looking to contribute to their company’s sustainability goals?
You need to be conscious of merging regulations and laws worldwide. At the same time I think it is important to work closely with industry groups to maintain and develop our industry’s contribution to sustainability and to steer authorities in the right direction.
What’s next for you?
I have to say that the La Perla Beauty group is a superbly experienced and gifted team. We have an evolving culture which will lead to success in the marketplace. I’d hope to continue to be a leader in the group. After that? Get back on a plane and meet all of my new colleagues in person.
Find out more about Butterfly Mark-certified La Perla Beauty here
Written by - Jacob Corner