The Essence of Provence: the Story of L’Occitane a Book Review
The Essence of Provence: the Story of L’Occitane, by Pierre Magnan, translated from the original French L’Occitane: une histoire vraie, Denoël, Paris, France, 2001, by Richard Seaver, Arcade Publishing, New York, 2nd edition, 2012.
Book Review by Mary-Jane Deeb
About the Author
Pierre Magnan (1922-2012) was a prolific French writer born and lived in Manosque, the largest town in the department of the Alpes-des-Hautes-Provence in southeastern France. He wrote mystery novels, travel books, biographies, works of literary criticism, and a teleplay. Some of his novels were translated into several languages, and others were adapted for film and television. He received some of the most prestigious mystery writers’ awards from France and Sweden, including the Prix du Quai des Orfèvres (1978), the Martin Beck Award (1983), and the Prix Mystère de la Critique (1985).
L’Occitane Story Book Review
This book is a poetic tribute to Olivier Baussan, the founder of L’Occitane, the famous cosmetics company that was among the first to use only natural ingredients in its products. The story of the meteoric rise of Olivier Baussan as he created, out of little else but an idea and the goodwill of friends, products that became a worldwide success is nothing short of miraculous. It is also the story of people believing in Olivier and helping him achieve his dreams, as he helped others achieve theirs.
Magnan narrates the story like a conversation between two old friends bound by their deep love of Provence. Olivier Baussan recounts how his parents, inspired by the Provençal poet Jean Giono, had uprooted themselves from Paris when he was only six months old and purchased an old farm in Manosque in the Department of the Alpes de Haute-Provence. There they tried to earn a living from the land while raising their young family. They soon experienced “the slow erosion of their illusions which one by one fell away: the tractor broke down; the herd of sheep fell ill; the sudden drought endured four months… as a result of which the crops all died or went to seed.” (p. 5) To make matters worse, Olivier’s father suffered an accident which left him an invalid and unable to work on their farm.
At this point, and in a series of repeated occurrences and chance encounters in Baussan’s life, the first of the many “saviors” rescued the family from complete destitution. Serge Fiorio and his brother Aldo, neighbours of the Baussans, took on the farm, tilled the land, and saved the animals. Eventually, Olivier’s father found a job as a newspaperman with the Manosque Meridional, sold the farm, and settled as bureau chief in Digne, the department’s capital. That providential turn of events allowed Olivier to spend his entire childhood in Provence, which would have an indelible impact on his life and career.
At age twenty, while enrolled at the University of Aix-en-Provence, he met André Botte, a charismatic character who lectured on ecology, a concept he had never heard of before. It would become Olivier’s inspiration for L’Occcitane. He became Botte’s assistant, and for a 50,000 francs loan, he bought Botte’s “magical potion,” Texapont N40, a vegetable-based ingredient mixed with essential oils that could be used to produce a bubble bath.
With this formula and the purchase of an old steam distiller, Olivier began producing cosmetic products. He distilled wild rosemary, lavender, honeysuckle, sage, and thyme, creating essences which he then used to manufacture shampoos, soaps, and colognes, that he would peddle around the region in an old Citroen car. Olivier’s products became an overnight success, and demand began pouring in. He hired students, hippies, and even former prison inmates searching for a job to help him make, pack and ship these products. They would become his most dedicated disciples. L’Occitane grew dizzying as people across France hankered for natural household products. “The number of people who were eating only organic food had grown exponentially, and they also wanted to bathe and shower organically, use only organically pure cosmetics and perfumes.” (p. 94)
But Olivier had no business training and just borrowed money whenever he needed it to expand. Very soon, bankers realizing that L’Occitane was a good investment, lent him money in exchange for shares in the business. So just as his company expanded beyond the French market, Olivier was losing control of L’Occitane. Then one night, vandals burnt down the old limestone factory where he made his products, and by morning “L’Occitane was nothing but a mountain of blackened rubble…” (p. 88). Realizing that he either had to go on or go under, Olivier borrowed money and leased an 80,000-square-foot building in the industrial zone of Manosque. He then set up pre-fabricated metal partitions, creating offices and warehouses out of empty spaces, and installed his staff there, who resumed working a week after the fire. Incredibly, it worked, and that period saw phenomenal growth for the company.
As the business grew, so did the cost, including the payment of multiple taxes imposed on the company. Olivier had become heavily indebted and feared losing his business when once again, a “savior” appeared in the person of the mayor of a neighbouring town who told him about an organization that worked with women in Cape Verde who grew a plant called jatropha whose seeds were used to make soap. The mayor suggested that Olivier go to Cape Verde and find a way to make soap there to help poor farmers while promoting French goodwill in the region. And so began Olivier’s African Odyssey, first producing soaps in Cape Verde, then going to Burkina Faso and starting a new line of L’Occitane products using Karité butter, better known as Shea butter, from the Karité tree that grew in West Africa. The Shea products soon became one of L’Occitane’s most popular products and included “shaving cream, facial creams, foot lotions, hand creams…[and] body lotions…” (p. 104). To pay back, Olivier created the Balavoine Foundation to drill wells in parts of Africa that suffered from drought and set up a fund to save endangered species on the continent.
By 1992, however, after a significant advertising campaign to promote his products using a renovated barge that sailed down the Seine River but drained his resources, Olivier was forced to turn over L’Occitane to the bankers from whom he had borrowed so heavily. But once again, he was rescued by a famous photographer Henri Cartier Bresson, who suggested he read Robert Guillain’s The Far East. Enthralled by the book, he flew off to Hong Kong, where he began his Asian Odyssey, travelling to China, learning Mandarin, and preaching L’Occitane’s gospel of natural cosmetics. China soon became L’Occitane’s biggest market, accounting for almost 20% of sales.
The author ends this book with Olivier still travelling around the world, but no longer as the owner of L’Occitane, but as its Creative Director of Development. The company’s new owner, Reinold Geiger, an Austrian billionaire, hired him. Geiger recognized Oliver’s marketing genius and generosity and wanted to retain this Provençal spirit in the company.