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Naim Attalah, Asprey’s Action Man

NEW YORK -- Asprey's Naim Attalah is hardly content with having one field of expertise.<BR><BR>He is a man who steers a luxury goods company with annual sales of $375 million and, at the same time, runs his own London publishing company, Quartet...

NEW YORK — Asprey’s Naim Attalah is hardly content with having one field of expertise.

He is a man who steers a luxury goods company with annual sales of $375 million and, at the same time, runs his own London publishing company, Quartet Books. He even manages to write a book of his own every year, generally one that deals with sociological issues. And he sometimes dabbles in other business projects that interest him, including fragrance manufacturing and film and theater production.

“Having many different interests is what gives me energy,” explained Attalah, who was here last week visiting the company’s U.S. flagship store at 725 Fifth Ave. “I don’t believe in limiting myself to just one pursuit.”

As group chief executive of London-based luxury goods conglomerate Asprey PLC, Attalah has been guiding the 210-year-old company with a similar philosophy. Via a series of acquisitions, he has elevated Asprey from the two-store, $12 million firm it was less than five years ago to a mini-empire of European fine jewelry retailers and design houses.

Asprey’s U.K. divisions range from Garrard & Co. Ltd., a store on Regent Street in London that is popularly known as “the Crown Jewelers of England,” to Mappin & Webb, a 13-store fine jewelry chain, Watches of Switzerland, a 25-store timepiece retailer, and Hamilton & Inches, an Edinburgh fine jewelry store. In Switzerland, Asprey owns Les Ambassadeurs, a five-store operation specializing in watches.

Rounding out the list of assets is Rene Boivin, the Paris fine jewelry design house.

What’s significant about the lineup, Attalah pointed out, is that each division addresses a slightly different consumer need. Garrard, for instance, is for the customer who’s looking for the absolutely one-of-a-kind piece, such as a very special wedding ring. Mappin & Webb, on the other hand, is the traditional shop for gift or self purchases. For the person who wants the highly unusual piece — a jeweled octopus pin with moving parts, for example, there is Rene Boivin’s line.

“I’m obsessive about broadening our customer base,” Attalah explained. There will always be the very wealthy clients for whom money is no object, he noted, but added, “I also want to attract a wide range of customers who will shop and spend at our stores, and cultivate people who represent our customers of the future.”

It was with these clients of tomorrow in mind that he bought yet another company, the British fashion house of Tomasz Starzewski.

“When I first announced that we were going into fashion, everyone groaned and said, ‘Oh no, you’re going to lose your shirt,”‘ Attalah said. “That, of course, is the conventional wisdom when it comes to investing in fashion or film.

“I wouldn’t consider investing in an area that is not right for the company or that I don’t understand, but I happen to understand fashion,” he noted, referring to his involvement in the launch of another British designer, Arabella Pollen.

But in the case of Starzewski, he saw an opportunity to lure even more new customers to the world of Asprey. His plans for Starzewski include a full-scale introduction of the designer’s line here next year. In general, Attalah said, he plans on telling the U.S. a lot more about Asprey.

“We’d like to establish ourselves here because I think the potential for selling luxury goods is tremendous,” he said. “But we need to get away from doing everything the British way when we’re talking about expanding in the U.S. Our approach here has been quiet, and I don’t think that works in this market.”

The Asprey New York store’s introduction of the Sunflower collection last fall was a start, he pointed out. For a week in October, the store windows were decked out with big sunflower displays and pieces from the collection, which includes fine jewelry as well as other accessories such as belts and handbags. This line is a marked departure for Asprey, as it has been designed to cover a wider and more accessible price range than the company previously offered.

“There are many people who aren’t familiar with what we do,” Attalah said at the time of the launch. “This collection is a way to expose them to Asprey through a well-known theme, the sunflower.”

The line, which has also been introduced at the Asprey’s Bond Street store in London, has been successful enough to warrant an expansion, to be rolled out here later this year.

On a worldwide scale, Attalah said he is still concentrating on various areas of Europe for growth opportunities. A Mappin & Webb store is opening in Prague in July, and Attalah sees more potential in Eastern Europe.

The Far East also represents possibilities, he noted. The company is considering putting a Mappin & Webb into Shanghai, although no firm plans have been set.

“I am always alert to opportunities,” Attalah said. “While I’m not planning another acquisition at this very moment, if I should find out about something tomorrow that bears serious consideration, you can guarantee I’ll take a very long, serious look at it.”