Gucci Group president and chief executive officer Robert Polet, who is exiting the conglomerate as of March 1, achieved much of what he set out to do when he made the transition from ice cream to luxury goods seven years ago.
This story first appeared in the February 23, 2011 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
“We have not been diverted from our plan set out in 2004, and I am delighted we have achieved most of the goals we set out to realize,” he said. “Gucci has grown significantly and strongly.”
Throughout his tenure, he demonstrated a fist-pumping enthusiasm for the group’s flagship brand, from one of its early ad slogans — “Quality is remembered long after price is forgotten” — to its current remarkable growth in China.
To be sure, the Italian brand has rarely wobbled under his watch, and now accounts for some 66 percent of group revenues, up from 60 percent in fiscal 2003.
“Change is part of business,” Polet said of his exit from Gucci Group, now to be known as PPR’s Luxury Business Group, with the largest brands — including Gucci — overseen directly by PPR chairman and ceo François-Henri Pinault.
“These last seven years have been the most rewarding and exciting of my professional life,” Polet said, hastening to add with a raised finger, “so far.”
He has yet to define his next career move, but said: “What I do know is that I will continue to be active where brands, creativity, innovation and people intersect.”
An affable executive with a firm handshake and a gleaming smile, the former Unilever frozen-foods ceo has a reputation as a charismatic coach with an infectious positive streak.
Given how pivotal Gucci is to the group’s fortunes, Polet said he worked “more regularly” during his tenure with its ceo, Patrizio di Marco, than any other brand head. The two men shared all “key strategic decisions,” and Polet said he cross-pollinated best practices across brands ranging from Yves Saint Laurent and Sergio Rossi to Boucheron and Stella McCartney.
“Being the largest brand, Gucci can offer great perspective to the smaller brands. But equally, Gucci can learn just as much from the smaller brands,” Polet said. “Given its heritage and scale, Gucci offers other labels insights into branding and product development, excellence in retail and consumer understanding and management processes. There is little that a brand of Gucci’s heritage has not seen or experienced in its history and this is, of course, a great benefit to our portfolio.”
Polet noted Gucci’s “dual soul” — heritage and craftsmanship on one side, fashion innovation on the other — is reflected in the brands’ employees, “who are distinguished by a very strong pride of belonging, passion for challenges and indefatigable resilience to whatever may happen.”
Polet could not have anticipated the financial crisis that slammed the luxury sector in 2008-09, yet he credited Gucci’s deep roots for helping to shield it from the brunt.
“We have seen that the larger luxury goods brands with heritage and resonance have proved resilient to the economic climate,” he explained. “A brand like Gucci cannot betray its patrons and must stay loyal to its core and long-term values while continuing to build meaningful relationships with is clientele. [It achieves this] through special focus on the customer experience of the brand — this is long-term strategy, not short-term reactive actions.”
That said, Gucci used the opportunity to fine-tune its assortments, price positioning and the “customer experience of the brand.”
Likening strong labels to living organisms that evolve “to stay relevant and contemporary over time,” Polet said Gucci’s ongoing reinvention involves anticipating its customers’ desires and needs, while collections must be “at the forefront of innovation and glamour, but remain connected with the real world and how society evolves.…I do not mean to disregard the past — our heritage is who we are and how we innovate.”
During Polet’s tenure, Gucci rode the wave of strong growth in Asia, particularly in Mainland China. He noted that Gucci entered China with two stores in 1997, and ended 2004 with four locations. As of yearend, the network reached 39 directly operated stores in Mainland China, plus nine in Hong Kong and three in Macao.
“China is no longer an emerging market for Gucci and is the most important market in terms of size, development and growth potential even in the medium-long term,” he said. In the medium-term, he said he was positive on Brazil-Latin America and India as emerging markets.
Not that it should sway the brand’s vision.
“Gucci will not shift its vision to cater to newly rich nations,” he said. “It is our core values that make us appealing to people and the reason they want to be associated with us. We have to be in tune with the cultures and communities where we are present, but always based on our core values.”
The executive has long been of the opinion that Gucci should live on forever, but his inner coach emerges to ensure vigilance in its quest. “We must never be complacent about our success and achievements. If we do, we will lose our edge. We must never forget that we are all still learning, still improving, and we must continue to do this in our work,” he said. “I think that the people at Gucci understand this.”