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Making His Mark

The 43-year-old president and chief executive of the Gucci brand laughs when recalling the intense scrutiny that took place at a recent meeting of managers in Scandicci, just outside Florence.

Mark Lee may speak in softer tones and more genteel phrases than Domenico De Sole, who was renowned for his tenacious, tough-talking approach, but make no mistake — Lee is just as ambitious a businessman as his former boss.

The 43-year-old president and chief executive of the Gucci brand laughs when recalling the intense scrutiny that took place at a recent meeting of managers in Scandicci, just outside Florence.

“You’d think that we were on the verge of bankruptcy,” he said. “We kind of dismiss all the things we are doing right and we focus more on the things we can do better…I would say that kind of constant internal criticism for the sake of pushing forward is a constant. [It’s] something I always shared with Domenico.”

Also like De Sole, Lee is a survivor. He joined Gucci in 1996 as worldwide director of ready-to-wear sales and celebrates his 10th year at the company this year. Widely respected as a manager, Lee was the most high-profile fashion executive to stay on at Gucci Group in the wake of the departures of De Sole and Tom Ford in 2004, albeit in a different role. Gucci Group president and ceo Robert Polet plucked Lee from the helm of Yves Saint Laurent in October 2004 to head the Gucci division and replace an outgoing Giacomo Santucci.

“Of all of my colleagues from that time period, he was the most determined and the most reserved,” recalls Gianfranco Ferré ceo Massimo Macchi, who headed Gucci’s watch and jewelry division from 2001 to 2003 and worked with Lee on YSL timepieces.

“It doesn’t surprise me that the French owner picked him for such an important role,” said Macchi, who remembers how Lee’s precise planning style contrasted with that of some of the more informal and easygoing Italian managers at Gucci Group, like Santucci and Bottega Veneta ceo Patrizio Di Marco.

“Mark is the right person in the right place at the right time, and my conviction is fully supported by results,” Polet said.

Not surprising, the man who hired Lee at Gucci takes a similar view.

“I think Mark is excellent. It’s as simple as that,” De Sole said, describing Lee as a rational, factual and very analytical manager. “He has a sense of urgency and gets things done.”

Today, Lee, along with creative director Frida Giannini, provide the strategic direction for the 1.81 billion euro ($2.3 billion) brand, clocking in 12-hour days in one of his six offices in Milan, Florence, Paris or New York.

“People ask me where I’m based, and I say I’m based on the BlackBerry,” Lee quipped. “In a typical week, I’m in an average of three countries.”

The peripatetic executive began his career in 1984 as an assistant buyer of women’s European designer apparel at Saks Fifth Avenue. He moved on to positions at Cidat U.S.A, Giorgio Armani and Jil Sander.

“I kind of worked backward. I started learning the end result of the buying and selling, and then progressively moved to wholesale experience,” Lee said. “Along the way, I built my knowledge and my experience in communications and [moved] up to the process of how products actually get conceived.”

The San Francisco native said that it was a combination of factors that drew him to the fashion industry.

“In this business…you can never get bored because fashion is about change,” Lee said. “I wouldn’t be happy just sitting at a desk and doing the same thing month after month, year after year.”

At Yves Saint Laurent, where Lee was president for about five years, he spearheaded the turnaround of a dusty brand — a process Gucci Group has yet to complete, since YSL is still in the red. Nonetheless, Lee said he’s proud of the work he did at the French house, where he held his first ceo post and coordinated every aspect of the business. “It was the first time I ever sat at the very top,” he said.

YSL offered Lee his first chance to manage and organize all aspects of a brand, from communication to merchandising, marketing and sales, but the job at the Gucci division gave him the opportunity to run a brand about 10 times the size of YSL, and growing. As Polet said almost a year and a half ago, PPR aims to double the size of Gucci from 2004 revenues of 1.59 billion euros into a brand with a turnover of 3.18 billion euros. Lee said Gucci, which grew 13.6 percent last year, is outpacing Polet’s target so far. Lee is bullish on growth prospects for the brand, especially in emerging markets like China, and in untapped venues like e-commerce.

Lee said he thought long and hard about staying on at Gucci Group after De Sole and Ford left. Although he still lavishes both men with praise, he said he decided that Gucci wasn’t a brand “built on just two people.”

In an ironic twist on one of the key sticking points that led to De Sole and Ford’s departure — both men were concerned that PPR was encroaching on their managerial and creative independence — Lee said Polet grants him autonomy to run the business without interfering in day-to-day operations. Polet, a former executive at Unilever plc, had no previous fashion experience before joining Gucci Group.

“He floats above in a certain way,” Lee said. “I think he brings a different perspective. He has an experience in terms of running a portfolio of brands from his past life which is…logical and makes a fit for what he is doing.”

Still, even the most skilled manager faces challenges, and Lee has had his share since taking Gucci’s helm. First, he’s had to contend with changes in creative direction. Gucci’s three-member design team dissolved when women’s wear designer Alessandra Facchinetti left last year after just two seasons and men’s wear designer John Ray stepped down in January after four runway bows. Giannini, originally creative director of accessories, now oversees all product lines for the brand.

Lee also had to fight some internal resistance when Giannini delved into Gucci’s rich archive for a vibrant floral pattern, originally used in a scarf designed for Grace Kelly, and applied the design to a collection of handbags for her debut accessories collection in 2004. Although Ford used archive design elements early in his Gucci career, like the bamboo-handle handbag, he later moved on to a sleeker, more modern aesthetic.

“Frida’s first effort of Flora was controversial inside the company,” Lee said. Gucci has used the pattern in various reincarnations for several seasons now. “I saw immediately what Frida was doing and I saw the magnitude of Frida’s talent.”

It’s clear that Lee and Giannini share a common vision for Gucci, and that seems appropriate. Much like Ford and De Sole, who emerged as a mighty duo in the early Nineties by resurrecting Gucci, Lee and Giannini are mutually dependent on each other’s talents. And it’s clear Gucci is dependent on them.