Leena Nair, the chief human resources officer (CHRO) of Unilever, was on Tuesday named as global CEO of French fashion group Chanel. Nair, who has spent about three decades at the consumer goods company and is also a member of Unilever Leadership Executive, will take up the new assignment in January and be based in London.
Nair, 52, has the rare distinction of being the first female, first Asian, and the youngest-ever CHRO of London-based Unilever, which is a household name in beauty & personal care as well as foods & refreshment segments.
Chanel, founded in 1910 in Paris by fashion legend Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel, is one of the world's largest luxury goods groups.
In a statement, Chanel said that French billionaire Alain Wertheimer, who owns the company with his brother Gerard Wertheimer, would take up the role of global executive chairman of the group. Nair replaces Alain, who served as the group’s global CEO since the exit of Maureen Chiquet in 2016.
The group said that Nair’s appointment would ensure its "long-term success as a private company."
Nair has risen through the ranks, joining Unilever as management trainee in 1992. As she kept learning and growing in the company, she took on many roles - from Factory Personnel Manager of Lipton (India) Ltd in 1993, to Management Development Planning Manager of Hindustan Lever in 1997, and to Employee Relations Manager of Hindustan Lever in 1996.
She was one of the first female managers to opt for a factory stint, a testimony to her grit and passion. She has been a trailblazer, and joins a small but growing list of female business honchos who have taken top roles at large organisations.
She also placed a great emphasis on diversity and inclusion at the workplace. In an article she authored for People Matters in March 2013, she wrote: "I think women who have managed to grow in this ecosystem, should make the path easier for those after them. Within one month of being made HR Director India, I extended maternity policy, I introduced the flexibility policy to work out of home; these came from the belief that we need to make life for women and men easier. When I joined HUL, women comprised only 3 per cent of the workforce there. Today, 30 percent of employees are women."
In 2007, she became the first woman in the Management Committee of Hindustan Unilever in 90 years to head the HR department. She was also the first woman to be on the Unilever South Asia Leadership Team a year later. She had then taken the responsibility for Unilever's growth in markets including India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Nepal. Nair, an XLRI Jamshedpur alumna, featured on Fortune India’s Most Powerful Women 2021 list, is admired for her people-centric approach to leadership.
"Leena has been a pioneer throughout her career at Unilever, but no more so than in her role as CHRO, where she has been a driving force on our equity, diversity and inclusion agenda, on the transformation of our leadership development, and on our preparedness for the future of work," Unilever CEO Alan Jope said, announcing Nair's exit.