PARIS – Liliane Bettencourt -- who presided over the L'Oréal cosmetics fortune, becoming the world's richest woman -- died on Thursday after spending decades under the spotlight for her ties to powerful politicians and her role in a bitter family feud. She was 94 years old.
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"My mother has left peacefully," said Françoise Bettencourt-Meyers, her daughter.
In announcing the death, Ms. Bettencourt-Meyers offered assurances that L'Oréal SA, the world's biggest cosmetics company, remained in steady hands with Chief Executive Jean-Paul Agon. Ms. Bettencourt-Meyers controls 33% of L'Oréal along with her sons as guardian of her mother's assets.
"In this painful moment for us, I would like to reiterate, on behalf of our family, our entire commitment and loyalty to L'Oréal and to renew my confidence in its President Jean-Paul Agon and his teams world-wide."
Despite those assurances, investors bet on possible fresh strategic opportunities now available to management at L'Oréal and Nestlé SA, which owns 23% of L'Oréal. That ownership is the result of a stake sale brokered by Ms. Bettencourt more than 40 years ago.
Under an agreement between Nestlé and the Bettencourt family, neither side is permitted to raise their stake in L'Oréal, though they have been free to sell their shares to third parties. The agreement expires six months after Ms. Bettencourt's death. U.S. activist investor Dan Loeb, who earlier this year bought a big stake in Nestlé, has pushed Nestlé to sell its L'Oréal shares.
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"Speculation around the future ownership structure of [L'Oréal] and [Nestlé's] intentions is now inevitable," said analysts at Jefferies, though "it might just be that nothing changes, at least for a good while."
L'Oréal shares were up more than 3% Friday. Nestlé shares were 0.74%.
In a statement, Nestlé said: "We express our most sincere condolences and deepest sympathy to Mrs. Bettencourt's family and to all at L'Oréal at this difficult moment. This is not the right time to make any further comment."
Ms. Bettencourt amassed one of France's biggest fortunes while overseeing L'Oreal's rise from a family makeup company to a globe-spanning colossus. Forbes estimated her net worth at $45 billion.
Born Liliane Schueller in 1922 in Paris, she was the daughter of Eugène Schueller, a chemist who founded L'Oréal. In 1950, she married Andre Bettencourt, a journalist who had been a member of a fascist youth group at the start of World War II but who then joined the French resistance. Mr. Bettencourt went on to become a politician, holding ministerial positions in multiple governments.
Mr. Schueller didn't want his daughter to run L'Oréal. After his death in 1957, Ms. Bettencourt largely followed his wishes, keeping out of the day-to-day operations of the company.
However, she guided one of its more important transactions: the 1974 sale of a large stake in L'Oréal to the Swiss consumer-goods giant Nestlé. Ms. Bettencourt orchestrated the move to fend off a feared nationalization of L'Oréal by the French state.
Toward the end of her life, Ms. Bettencourt was best known internationally for the Bettencourt affair: a family dispute over her relationship with a male friend that broadened into a financial scandal touching the inner circle of former French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
Late in life, Ms. Bettencourt began lavishing money and gifts on François-Marie Banier, 63, a socialite photographer and friend, totaling more than EUR1 billion ($1.19 billion), according to a lawsuit filed by Ms. Bettencourt-Meyers against Mr. Banier. Her daughter accused Mr. Banier of exploiting her mother's mental weakness and asked the court to name her as Ms. Bettencourt's guardian. Mr. Banier denied any wrongdoing.
Ms. Bettencourt opposed her daughter's effort to place her under guardianship, sparking a vicious legal battle between the two. In 2011, a court placed Ms. Bettencourt under the control of Ms. Bettencourt-Meyers and her sons.Her legal team argued that she was happy to be generous with Mr. Banier.
"If I am exploited, it's because I let myself be exploited," Ms. Bettencourt said in 2010. "Good for me! Let me live."
During the trial, 21 hours of secret tape recordings made by Ms. Bettencourt's butler came to light in which she and her financial adviser, Patrice de Maistre, alluded to offshore accounts. The two also discuss possible donations to Eric Woerth, who was Mr. Sarkozy's labor minister.
In the recordings, Ms. Bettencourt seems confused and frail. At various points in the recordings, Ms. Bettencourt doesn't recall having made Mr. Banier the sole beneficiary of her estate, excluding her stake in L'Oréal, which she already had given to her daughter. Neither does she recall giving him a private tropical island in the Seychelles.
On Thursday, French finance minister Bruno Le Maire praised Ms. Bettencourt's time as the biggest shareholder of L'Oréal.
"She assured throughout her life stability in the shareholding of one of France's main businesses," he said. "This stability allowed L'Oréal to develop and become the world leader in the cosmetics industry.
Write to Matthew Dalton at Matthew.Dalton@wsj.com
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
September 22, 2017 06:49 ET (10:49 GMT)