Reclusive heiress of L'Oreal now world's richest woman

Mrs Liliane Bettencourt, who inherited billions and her father's controlling interest in L'Oreal after his death in 1957, gave millions to education, humanitarian projects and the arts over the years. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

NEW YORK (Bloomberg) - The death this week of L'Oreal SA's founding family matriarch is putting the spotlight on a reclusive 64-year-old heiress who now finds herself as 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 piano for 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 with 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$58.27 billion).

  • The 10 richest women in the world

  • NEW YORK - The 10 richest women in the world as of Saturday (Sept 23), according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, were:

    1) Francoise Bettencourt Meyers ('L'Oreal) - US$43.3 billion

    2) Alice Walton (Wal-Mart) - US$37.9 billion

    3) Jacqueline Mars (Mars) -US$31.8 billion

    4) Susanne Klatten (BMW) - US$22.5 billion

    5) Laurene Powell Jobs (Apple) - US$17.6 billion

    6) Elaine Marshall (Koch Industries) - US$16.2 billion

    7) Iris Fontbona (Antofagasta) - US$16.2 billion

    8) Gina Rinehart (Hancock Prospecting) - US$13.6 billion

    9) Beate Heister (Aldi Sued) - US$13.6 billion

    10) 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 SA.

L'Oreal climbed 2.46 per cent to 180.95 euros (S$291.04) at the close of trading on Friday (Sept 22) 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 in a statement on Thursday.

The billionaire heiress has shown less interest in L'Oreal matters than her mother did, despite her role as a board member for more than two decades.

"She'd show up to meetings, but unlike Liliane, she never was hands-on," Mr Sancton said. "Liliane read tonnes of documents, L'Oreal was her lifeblood. That's definitely not Francoise."

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 rest of the rich in France," said Mr Eric Treguier, who has tracked French fortunes for Challenges magazine for more than two decades.

"Twenty years ago, they hosted receptions at their home that drew politicians, bankers and artists, but as Francoise grew older and Liliane's husband died, the circle around the family has shrunk."

The Bettencourts have added 19.6 per cent this year as L'Oreal's market capitalisation topped 100 billion euros.

Her US$43.3 billion net worth puts her US$5.4 billion ahead of Ms Alice Walton, an heiress to the Wal-Mart Stores Inc 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.

Of the 64 billionaires, 58 are stewards of an inheritance.

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 Liliane's friends, who received about 1 billion euros in gifts and cash from her.

A French judge assigned Ms Bettencourt Meyers and her sons as guardians over Liliane's interests in 2011.

Raised a strict Catholic, Ms Bettencourt Meyers married Mr Jean-Pierre Meyers, the grandson of a rabbi killed in Auschwitz.

The couple's two sons have shown more interest in L'Oreal, but it remains to be seen whether Ms Bettencourt Meyers will take a more active role at a company long associated with her mother.

"Liliane's death will probably be a personal relief to Francoise," author Sancton said. "That was a difficult relationship that she's now, in a way, released from."

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