December 08, 1975 12:00 PM

“O, Lord,” read a framed needlepoint hanging in Charles Revson’s corporate dining room, “give me a bastard with talent.” When Revson died of cancer last August at the age of 68, the crusty founder of Revlon left his $600-million empire (the nation’s largest over-the-counter retailer of cosmetics) in the hands of a nice guy with talent: soft-spoken, insouciant Michel Bergerac, 43-year-old former head of ITT’s mammoth European subsidiary. The change is far more than just cosmetic. After 14 months as president and barely two as chairman, Bergerac has begun to transform the company from a one-man operation into a smooth-running international conglomerate. The new approach is already paying off—in the past year, Revlon stock has gone from $41 to $74 per share.

The styles of Bergerac and Revson could hardly be more different. Unlike the tyrannical Revson, who once wanted to replace Revlon receptionists with women whose hair matched the newly decorated offices, Bergerac has avoided any overt displays of temperament. Nor has he instigated the kind of high-level purge that his predecessor might have relished. Executives once quaked in fear of the Boss or visits to his huge corner office which is still unoccupied, sealed up like some pharaoh’s tomb. Everyone breathes easier now working for the low-key Bergerac. “The atmosphere around here,” observes one top-level man, “is far more relaxed, to say the least.” Explains Bergerac, who says he got along “perfectly well” with Revson: “Leading people by being mean to them is just not my style.”

When Revson, knowing he had cancer of the pancreas, decided to pick his successor, he launched a talent search that has become a corporate classic. He demanded to know: what man anywhere in the world, regardless of his price or present job, would be the best. Ultimately the choice narrowed to French-born Bergerac (a naturalized U.S. citizen since 1963). He could hardly refuse: he was offered a $1.5 million lump sum bonus just for signing a $325,000-a-year contract. It made him the nation’s highest-paid executive last year, earning him also the sobriquet “Catfish” Bergerac after pitcher Catfish Hunter on whom the Yankees lavished $3.75 million. (So secret were the negotiations for Bergerac that Michel’s older brother, Jacques, a former Hollywood actor and ex-husband of Ginger Rogers, learned of the deal only afterward, although he has been president of Revlon France for four years.) “The offer was extremely attractive,” concedes Bergerac, still sensitive to the awed chatter about his income. “But all this talk is like undressing in public. Not at all comfortable.”

The son of an electric company executive in Biarritz, Bergerac at first aimed for the French diplomatic service by simultaneously attending the schools of law and political science at the Sorbonne. From there, he continued collecting degrees. “This fellow named Fulbright was giving out scholarships,” Bergerac recalls, “so I went to Stanford to earn my master’s degree in business administration.” Meanwhile, his older brother, Jacques, was courting Ginger and starring in B-pictures. Michel went for the outdoor life. “I bummed around for about six months, working as a hired hand on ranches along the Rogue River in Oregon.” Settling down, he married a San Francisco fashion consultant named Norma Langstaff and became “a confirmed Californian. I wanted to stay forever.”

His 1957 move into the corporate world as a junior executive with the Los Angeles-based Cannon Electric Company was, Bergerac insists, “a complete accident. All I knew about the business was that if you turn a switch, you’re supposed to get light.” Not knowing the hardware proved no impediment—”There are always excellent people around who have grown up with the product, and I listen to them.” Bergerac moved up quickly and as international vice-president proved himself a master diversifier. Buying companies, he pyramided Cannon into a $35-million multinational. When Cannon was bought out by ITT in 1963, Bergerac “went with the furniture, even though I hated to leave California.” Sent to ITT’s European headquarters in Brussels where he soon was known as “Mike,” Bergerac acquired more than 100 companies. In three years, he better than doubled annual sales from $2.2 billion to $5 billion.

Since he was a prime contender to succeed Harold Geneen as ITT chairman, insiders have speculated that Bergerac took the Revlon post because the 64-year-old Geneen shows no sign of stepping down. But why Rev-Ion, which is so much smaller than the booming European ITT? “Numbers may mean a lot to some people, but not to me,” he shrugs. “Whether I’m running a $5-billion or a $600-million company, the important thing is that it is my company.”

A seemingly tireless 9 a.m.-to-9 p.m. worker, Bergerac is once again called “Michel” in the haute monde environment of Revlon. Instead of using his limousine, he walks the 14 blocks from the sprawling Park Avenue apartment he shares with his wife—daughter Jennifer, 17, is a student in London and son Randolph, 19, is at Stanford. Bergerac’s office is on the 49th floor of the General Motors building. Ironically he looks across at the black glass-and-marble building where Avon, the only cosmetic company whose door-to-door sales top Revlon’s gross has its headquarters. Holding casual conferences over dinner in Revlon’s chandeliered executive dining room, Bergerac has replaced Revson’s erratic schedule with monthly planning sessions in New York and bimonthly tours of Revlon operations in Europe.

Bergerac’s first major test at the helm is “Chaz,” launched last month as the male counterpart to Revlon’s phenomenally successful “Charlie” line of women’s perfume and cosmetics ($60 million annual sales). “We have not done well in the area of men’s toiletries,” he admits between puffs on an ever-present cigarette.

Bergerac is a big-game hunter (who recently returned empty-handed from a polar bear expedition in northern Alaska), and his appetite for corporate trophies continues high. To expand the health care division that now accounts for about a quarter of Revlon’s gross, Bergerac has already spent $15 million acquiring Norcliff Laboratories (which makes a dental adhesive and a parasite killer) and another $56 million on Coburn Optical Industries, an equipment manufacturer. Most importantly, he raised $100 million with 10 year notes—a move considered highly unusual for a company rolling in cash and whose annual earnings are around $50 million. Unless, of course, there are bigger acquisitions ahead. “I’ve got a few things in mind,” smiles Bergerac. “That is the beauty of running your own company. You have the chance to make your own mistakes.”

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