NEW YORK • The death this week of L'Oreal's founding family matriarch has put the spotlight on a reclusive 64-year-old heiress who now finds herself the richest woman in the world.
Ms Francoise Bettencourt Meyers has shunned the glittering social life that her late mother, Ms Liliane Bettencourt, once embraced.
Ms Bettencourt Meyers is known for playing the piano 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 Mr 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 within 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 per cent stake in the cosmetics maker, which lies at the heart of a net worth the Bloomberg Billionaires Index values at US$43.3 billion (S$58.7 billion).
The 10 richest women in the world as of yesterday, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, were:
• Francoise Bettencourt Meyers (above) ('L'Oreal) - US$43.3 billion (S$58.7 billion)
• Alice Walton (Walmart) - US$37.9 billion
• Jacqueline Mars (Mars) - US$31.8 billion
• Susanne Klatten (BMW) - US$22.5 billion
• Laurene Powell Jobs (Apple) - US$17.6 billion
• Elaine Marshall (Koch Industries) - US$16.2 billion
• Iris Fontbona (Antofagasta) - US$16.2 billion
• Gina Rinehart (Hancock Prospecting) - US$13.6 billion
• Beate Heister (Aldi Sued) - US$13.6 billion
• Sara Mota de Larrea (Grupo Mexico) - US$11.4 billion
Ms 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 per cent of L'Oreal held by Swiss food giant Nestle.
L'Oreal climbed 2.46 per cent to €180.95 at the close of trading on Friday in Paris, after rising as much as 6.7 per cent earlier in the day.
With Ms Bettencourt's death on Thursday at age 94, analysts have started to float a variety of scenarios, including L'Oreal buying stock back from Nestle or a takeover bid for the Paris-based company.
Ms 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 on Thursday.
In addition to music and study, the bookish and austere Ms Bettencourt Meyers has involved herself in charity work. "The family doesn't really mingle with the rest of the rich in France," said Mr Eric Treguier, who has tracked French fortunes for Challenges magazine for more than two decades.
The Bettencourts have added 19.6 per cent this year as L'Oreal's market capitalisation topped €100 billion (S$162 billion). Ms Bettencourt Meyers' US$43.3 billion net worth puts her US$5.4 billion ahead of Ms Alice Walton, an heiress to the Walmart Stores 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.
Ms 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 Ms Bettencourt's friends, who received about €1 billion in gifts and cash from her. A French judge assigned Ms Bettencourt Meyers and her sons as guardians over her mother's interests in 2011.