01 Oct 1999
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Eight Among Many: Peter G. Harf

The Fragrance of Success
by Susan Young

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The room lights up when Peter Harf talks about perfume. His enthusiasm is contagious as he discusses a new cosmetics collection. The chairman and CEO of Coty Inc., one of the world's leading fragrance and cosmetics companies with $1.7 billion in annual sales, Harf is a man who has a passion not only for building an international beauty empire but also for the ginger-lily shower gel he is using these days.

As head of the New York­based firm that makes popular scents such as Jovan and Stetson as well as numerous prestige brands, including Davidoff and Jil Sander, Harf oversees Coty Inc.'s two divisions - Coty and Lancaster - and its seven thousand employees worldwide. The Coty Division manufactures mass-market fragrances, cosmetics, and skin-care products that are available in drug and grocery stores, while the Lancaster Group markets prestige brands in high-end stores around the world. All told, Coty Inc. competes in 80 markets in 29 countries.

Harf began working for Coty's German parent company, Joh. A. Benckiser GmbH, in 1981. Ten years later, he became CEO of what is now Coty Inc., a company that he helped to assemble through a series of strategic acquisitions. He has built Coty around the ambitious goal of "being the leader in the worldwide fragrance market and becoming the coolest, most cutting-edge company in the cosmetics business" by focusing on three key areas: core brands, fixed costs, and working capital.

A native of Cologne (appropriately enough), Harf's perfect, fast-paced English is delivered with a German accent. He came to HBS with a grant from the German government after earning a doctorate in political economy from the University of Cologne. Upon receiving an MBA as a Baker Scholar, he accepted a position with the Boston Consulting Group in San Francisco and was eventually sent to Munich to set up BCG's office there. His strong desire to "create something and leave an imprint" then led him to Benckiser. The family-owned, $300 million former chemical company was spreading itself too thin, and Harf, through a series of sales and acquisitions, transformed it into a multinational, $2 billion consumer products enterprise, part of which, Benckiser NV, went public in 1997. (The remainder of the company, including Coty Inc., is still privately held.)

Harf has been active in cancer causes since his first wife, Mechtildis, was diagnosed with leukemia in 1990. When the couple and their two daughters began looking for a bone marrow donor so that Mechtildis could have a transplant, they learned that there were only two thousand people listed in Germany's national registry of potential marrow donors. With the help of Benckiser, Harf founded a nonprofit organization, DKMS German Bone Marrow Donor Database, that currently has 650,000 registered potential donors, the largest bone marrow donor bank in the world.

While Harf's wife did not survive, thousands of others have, thanks to his efforts. Asked to reflect on his life's accomplishments, Harf is not about to sit on his laurels. "I hope," he says with his customary enthusiasm, "my best work is yet to come."

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