When Mark Sawchuk joined L'Oréal, his life was never the same again.
Headquartered in Clichy, France, L'Oréal was founded in 1909 when an enterprising French chemist created and began selling hair dyes to Parisian hairdressers. Since then, it's become the largest personal care company in the world with operations in 150 countries.
As a new Lakehead commerce grad, a 27-year career with the beauty innovator famous for the slogan, "Because I'm worth it," wasn't something he'd ever have envisioned for himself.
And it all began, at least in part, with a handwritten application letter.
"L'Oréal actually did hand-writing analysis when screening job candidates," laughs Mark (HBCom'97). "I had to have a hundred different tries to get my application letter right because my handwriting is a mess. I think I was one of the only international students who got an internship...I guess because of my multiple languages, my Ukrainian dancing background, and my Scouts experience, and everything else, they gave me a shot."
As Mark observes, there are often dozens of pieces that go into the puzzle of landing a job and building a career.
Northern Grit and a Sense of Adventure
Born and raised in Thunder Bay, Mark grew up with "100% Ukrainian roots," as he puts it, and far removed from the sophistication personified by L'Oréal.
His parents, Michael and Ollie (Olya) Sawchuk, though, were deeply engaged in Ukrainian arts, culture, and education in the city and beyond, so it was only natural that Mark was too. He admits that the benefits weren't always clear to him as a kid.
"You don't appreciate being forced to go to Ukrainian school two nights a week and learning how to read or write Ukrainian while your friends are outside playing in the street. You don't appreciate waking up at eight in the morning on a Saturday for Ukrainian dance lessons when you'd rather watch cartoons. But when you're older, you do."
Fluency in the Ukrainian language came early. "My parents decided to speak only Ukrainian around the house, so I picked that up first, and then over time, picked up English," he says. "And that helped me in my career, because when L'Oréal was looking to expand overseas, there weren't a lot of people who spoke Ukrainian, so that was my foot in the door."
In addition to countless hours of practice and performance in Ukrainian dance between the ages of 4 and 24, Mark was also involved in Scouting, earning the organization's highest award of Chief Scout of Canada when he was a teenager (an achievement that he's proud to list on his LinkedIn page).
"Scouting is very democratic and accessible," Mark says, "you have kids from different cultural groups, different income levels, and it really brings people together. Plus, it cultivated skills that helped him in the business world. "When you're in Scouts, you have to rely on each other and work as a team. In modern business, you can't do anything unless you have a good team around you."
Mark applied to several universities but ultimately decided that the business program at Lakehead University was right for him (and thanks to his Westgate CVI high school team's success on the Reach for the Top academic quiz show, he had several scholarships). He liked the discovery-based approach of the first two years—where students learned about subjects as diverse as accounting, human resources, operations management, and marketing—followed by two years specializing in an area of interest.
There were several standouts: he credits his marketing professor, Dr. Doug Alexander, with instilling a love of marketing, and his communications professor, Dr. Bill Honey, with fostering great speaking and presentation skills. He vividly remembers a business strategy consulting project where he and a small team of fellow students worked with a Thunder Bay credit union for a year to understand the organization and make recommendations. (Key takeaway: Embrace your local roots.)
Mark also did a year-long exchange program in France during his Lakehead years, attending one of France's top business schools, the Emlyon Business School in Lyon.
"And that led to my hiring at L'Oréal," he says, referring to a summer 1996 internship in Paris, before his final year at Lakehead. "So, I have lots of things to be thankful for at Lakehead, that's for sure."
After graduating in 1997, Mark accepted a marketing position with L'Oréal based in Montreal—but it came with a twist.
"They said 'for a year, you're going to be a salesperson, you're going to be on the road,'" he remembers. "I basically had my car, a map of downtown Montreal, and a list of customers. And that's a great 'school,'" he says, pointing out that talking to the customers and the beauty advisors, having a sales plan, hitting sales targets, negotiating, and just observing how people pick items off the shelf are all musts to be a good marketer.
In 2003, while working from Paris, Mark became L'Oréal's marketing coordinator for Eastern Europe. "I was taking care of a lot of countries, which was my stepping stone to actually moving to Ukraine."
That move came in 2004 when Mark relocated to Kyiv, where he lived and worked for the next 18 years, with his most recent role being country manager for L'Oréal.
Making a Home in Ukraine
"Kyiv is a huge, historic city and in 2004 the country's economy was flying. They'd just had the pro-democracy Orange Revolution and Ukrainians were very very excited about the future and having a Western lifestyle. Seeing the country grow and Ukrainians achieve a better standard of living for their families and their children was just amazing," he says.
As L'Oréal's country manager, and in other senior roles, Mark says that one of the things he likes best is "developing people and watching them grow with each new challenge."
A program called "Beauty for Better Life" was a memorable part of Mark's experiences in Kyiv. Through a partnership with the United Nations, L'Oréal enrolled women who were survivors of domestic and gender-based violence in their training academies so that they could learn to be hairdressers.
"It was fantastic to see the transformation. When women joined, coming from these horrible situations, they didn't have much confidence or self-esteem. But by the time they graduated, they'd learned valuable skills and forged a support network. Many of them found work in salons and some have even opened salons. So, to me, it's a very powerful program."
Alexei Mihailov, a L'Oréal colleague who worked with Mark in Kyiv, has high praise for his management style.
"Mark knows exactly when to apply a particular style of management, whether it's pure delegation or directing you to reach a certain objective, he's extremely inspiring. He would never focus you solely on a number you needed to hit, but mostly on the reason behind the number."
Alexei also admires Mark's communication skills. "He does not distinguish between having a dialogue with his bosses, who are VPs of a global group, versus a conversation with the intern who just joined the company. He can build bridges with anybody."
Some of those skills were undoubtedly honed during his growing-up years, too. Kevin Chony, Mark's cousin, lifelong friend, and a co-founder of Thunder Bay's Zorya Ukrainian dance ensemble, saw how Mark helped teach his fellow dancers during his two decades of Ukrainian dancing.
"He was fair, and he kept things going in a very linear and progressive way so that everyone had the chance to shine." And, he adds, they had a lot of fun.
Mark took on some academic roles in Kyiv as well, lecturing at the Wisconsin International University (USA) Ukraine, the Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv, and the Kyiv School of Economics.
"I jumped at the chance whenever L'Oréal asked me to do a presentation on their behalf and talk about marketing," he says. "I always wanted to keep connecting with universities and share some of my knowledge."
He says his students teach him, too. "I'm talking to future consumers, right? And students will let you have it. They don't care who you are you, they challenge you, whereas when you're a boss, people aren't necessarily going to be completely open with you. I find that with students, you'll have really good discussions, and maybe learn some new things from them."
A Pandemic and a Devastating War
The last few years, of course, have been tumultuous. Mark says his experience with pandemic lockdowns and social distancing challenges was similar to many others.
"However, as we had made the shift to the remote-work culture before the pandemic—all teams already had laptops, communications tools, et cetera—the impact of working remotely was not as bad as it was for other companies and industries who had to adapt quickly. Sadly, in Ukraine, we lurched from one crisis (pandemic) to another (war) in a very short period."
As a Canadian citizen, Mark was receiving regular updates from the Canadian embassy as tensions with Russia escalated. Then, in February 2022 he was on vacation in Dubai with his wife Anya, a Ukrainian citizen, and their toddler daughter Kvitka, when war broke out in Ukraine. They weren't able to return to Kyiv and moved to Paris in the spring where Mark continued to work at L'Oréal's headquarters before leaving for Canada in the summer of 2022.
His wife's family remains in Ukraine.
"Psychologically, it's very tough for them," he says. "But they are extremely resilient people and they're doing their best in a terrible situation."
Now based in Toronto, Mark recently accepted a position with L'Oréal as a general manager for their newly acquired subsidiary SalonCentric.
"This business is very different from what I've been used to doing, and that's great. As long as you're always learning new stuff, having new experiences, and meeting new people, you'll end up better off in the future."