Who is Leena Nair, Chanel's new British-Indian chief executive?

The former human resources executive at Unilever will join the storied French fashion house in January

Leena Nair will take over as Chanel's chief executive in January 2022. Photo: Unilever
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Before her announcement as the new global chief executive of storied French fashion house Chanel, Leena Nair was already a pathbreaker in many ways. She is the first female, first Asian and youngest chief human resources officer at Unilever, a company where she spent 30 years.

The British national, who was born in Maharashtra, India, was on Tuesday picked to run one of the world's biggest luxury groups, succeeding US businesswoman Maureen Chiquet, who helmed Chanel for nine years until early 2016.

French billionaire Alain Wertheimer, 73, who owns Chanel with his brother Gerard Wertheimer, and who had taken over as interim chief executive, would move to the role of global executive chairman of the group, the company said.

"I am humbled and honoured to be appointed the global chief executive officer of @ChanelOfficial, an iconic and admired company," Nair said on Instagram. "I am so inspired by what Chanel stands for. It is a company that believes in the freedom of creation, in cultivating human potential and in acting to have a positive impact in the world.

"I am grateful for my long career at @Unilever, a place that has been my home for 30 years. It has given me so many opportunities to learn, grow and contribute to a truly purpose-driven organisation. I will always be a proud advocate of Unilever and its ambition to make sustainable living commonplace."

Who is Leena Nair?

Born in the city of Kolhapur, Nair, 52, is an engineering graduate who changed course to study management at India's famed XLRI – Xavier School of Management in Jamshedpur. Upon graduation, she joined Hindustan Unilever, the Indian subsidiary of British consumer goods giant Unilever, as a management trainee in 1992, working on the company's factory floors.

Nair then rose through the ranks to become HR manager of Hindustan Unilever in 2000, and within three years was elevated to a global senior vice president role at Unilever and also became the company's global head of diversity the same year. In 2016, she moved to London to take over as Unilever's chief human resources officer.

Under her watch, where she oversaw 150,000 people, Unilever achieved gender parity across global management, according to a Harper's Bazaar profile published last month, which also highlighted her commitment to pay the living wage across the supply chain.

"Being the first woman in every single job I have done, means I get to see just what it means to be in a job that feels built for someone else. I always say, 'We're all in the same storm, we're not in the same boat'," she told the magazine. "My experiences have made me incredibly conscious of wanting the workplace to work for everyone, and knowing that that means catering to individual circumstances."

Nair also serves as a non-executive board member at BT and has previously served as non-executive director of the British government's business, energy and industrial strategy department.

She is a rare outsider at the helm of the tightly controlled family fashion house, known for its tweed suits, quilted handbags and No 5 perfume.

Chanel was founded in 1910 by fashion legend Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel as a hat boutique on rue Cambon in Paris and grew to become a byword for French chic.

The group said Nair would join at the end of January and that the new appointment would ensure its "long-term success as a private company".

Chanel has fiercely defended its independence and only began publishing financial results in 2018. It said in July it expects to increase sales by double digits this year, compared to their 2019, pre-pandemic level of $12.3 billion.

Indra Nooyi is her mentor and friend

Nair's career trajectory mirrors that of Nooyi, the pathbreaking Indian-American who served as the chief executive of PepsiCo for 12 years until 2018. Calling her a "friend and mentor", Nair recently shared the stage with Nooyi for a talk at Unilever.

"Indra Nooyi and I addressed the challenges women face in their careers, the importance of building a community of trust and asking for help when you need it, and how #SisterhoodMatters," Nair said.

Announcing her departure from Unilever, Alan Jope, the chief executive of Unilever, called Nair "a pioneer".

"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,” Jope said.

Leena is married to Kumar Nair, who runs his own financial services company. The couple have two sons, Aryan and Sidhanth.

– Additional reporting by Reuters

Updated: December 15, 2021, 6:01 AM