Rose Marie Bravo, chief executive officer of Burberry plc, took over a dusty traditional British fashion house in 1997 that was generating $460 million in sales and transformed it into a $1.2 billion global luxury brand.
Rose Marie Bravo, chief executive officer of Burberry plc, took over a dusty traditional British fashion house in 1997 that was generating $460 million in sales and transformed it into a $1.2 billion global luxury brand.
Working 14- to 16-hour days, she and her team successfully reinvigorated the 150-year-old company by trimming and revamping some licenses; adding a new collection called Prorsum; buying back the license in Spain and renegotiating the brand’s deal in Japan; opening flagships, and creating innovative advertising campaigns. In July 2002, Burberry completed an initial public offering.
With its sharp focus on product, Burberry expanded categories such as fragrances, handbags, children’s wear, watches and men’s wear. In all, Bravo achieved a “miraculous turnaround,” which in industry jargon has come to be called “doing a Burberry.” Her previous experience had been as president of Saks Fifth Avenue for five years, and before that, chairman and ceo of I. Magnin for five years.
Here, Bravo chats with WWD editor James Fallon.
WWD: I guess the easy question to start with is why Burberry? What attracted you?
RMB: I was wooed by two gentlemen, Victor Barnett and David Wolfson, and their passion for the concept of reinvigorating Burberry. And remember, I knew it from my Macy’s and Saks days as this really very masculine raincoat company. And I have to say, when they first suggested it, I thought it was just crazy. But the more I got into it and the more I really understood what they were thinking about, I got lured into it, shall we say.
WWD: Did you hesitate about moving from New York to London, or Hackney [where Burberry was then headquartered]?
RMB: I was excited. I always wanted to live in Europe. I thought it would be fun, and my husband was for it. He figured it would improve his golf scores. So we embarked on an adventure.
WWD: Were you heartened with what you found when you dug into the company or were you depressed? Did they hide the secrets in the cupboard?RMB: I was shocked. As you described Hackney, it really brought me from Fifth Avenue all the way back up to the South Bronx where I was born, and I saw the gritty side of life. It was fascinating, though, to understand what had been and looking back into the last century and the history and the archives. That’s what got the company going and that’s what got the team excited.
WWD: Was there one thing you thought you had to do first or was it multiple fronts?
RMB: It was certainly multiple fronts, but I think the thing that encouraged us was this longevity of the trenchcoat. And the fact that they had kept that production still in England, that it was still a beautifully made coat, lasted a lifetime, was a real icon. And that even though the whole company had been tampered with in so many different ways, the fact that it was able to last through all of that encouraged us and gave us the vision and the formula of what could be.
WWD: One of the things often overlooked in writing about the turnaround is that you had a parent company with relatively deep pockets. Could you have done it without that?
RMB: No. We had a fantastic GUS, which, as you know, is a big conglomerate, and plc in England. And we had a champion, really two champions, on the board of directors, these two gentlemen I mentioned who believed in us. And I would suggest anyone trying to do a turnaround, you really have to bank on, as we say, three to five years to really manage it and have people believe in it and believe in you and believe in the team and stick with it. So that’s the real key.
WWD: One of the first things you did, which was interesting, was create two distinct collections. Obviously there’s Burberry London and then you created a high-end Burberry Prorsum. Why did you feel you needed that addition?
RMB: One of the big weaknesses of the brand was that it had a different iteration in every country. When we started to bring in people like Stan [Tucker, vice president of men’s wear worldwide] and Michele [Smith, senior vice president, women’s wear] and Roberto [Menichetti, former creative director] and Eugenia [Ulasewicz, president of Burberry USA] and started to deal with this concept, it was really Roberto who said, “You know, we really need to have one collection that’s the same everywhere in the world.” And so that was the genesis of the idea of bringing Prorsum to market and then being able to sell that, both in our retail stores and wholesale, consistently around the world.So rather than trying to change everything overnight, all those collections that were being managed by various licensees around the world, we decided to introduce something completely new and then start to control the retail and wholesale of that particular branch.
WWD: We are in the middle, as an industry, of seeing some designer transitions at the moment. You transitioned from an Italian minimalist designer to an English street designer, Christopher Bailey. How did you manage that process?
RMB: It was fortunate because I think Roberto brought a lot to us. He was coming right from Jil Sander, he brought this incredible sense of quality, of fabric innovation, of sport and loving sports, which was so much a part of the heritage of the brand. And the fact that he was Italian, he saw Burberry in a different way and I think it was interesting because I don’t know that an English designer at that point would’ve had the same concept. It almost took an Italian who saw it, as someone mentioned earlier, you know you see an Italian gentleman walking down the street, beautifully dressed in Milan, and he always has something Burberry. It could be the lining of his coat or just that wonderful scarf.
And then transitioning and finding Christopher was a bit of luck. That he was British, that he was from Yorkshire, that he understood all the British history of fashion and has brought so much energy and youthfulness to the brand and sort of took it to another level, really.
WWD: Throughout the seven years you’ve always referenced the team. How do you build a good team?
RMB: It’s a fabulous team, and I have to always say those first few that I mentioned who joined me when we really began and really just believed me and trusted that this was going to be a fun adventure have really been with us since, which is great. And we’ve brought in a lot of new people. We utilized a lot of the people that were in the company and brought them along. You know, it’s a lot of communication, we work and we reward people that work together as a team. That’s important to us. It’s a fun business; we’re lucky that we’re in this industry. We’re dealing with happy things like fashion shows and IPOs.WWD: Is it different working in the U.K. and Europe than it is here?
RMB: It is different. And I think you see the U.S. in a different way when you’re living overseas. And those in the audience that have lived overseas I’m sure will agree. You learn a lot from different cultures. And we’re listening today, it’s very interesting to hear about Tesco and Gap and how you want to be global, but yet you have to be local if you’re going to be successful in all the countries. Burberry today trades in 54 countries. So there are nuances and there are cultural differences.
And we have found that as a management team, the more we can cross-pollinate with culture, different kinds of people in our company from different parts of the world, the better we get because we learn best practices from various parts of the world. We learn about the culture and nuances of what works in China versus what works in Germany, etc. So that’s been a very important part of building the company.
WWD: But again, one of the other things Paul Pressler [president and ceo of The Gap] said this morning was building that emotional connection to a brand in 54 countries. How do you do that?
RMB:I have to say, even before any of this reinvention took place, people around the world were emotional about this company. Having traveled to Asia when I first joined, I couldn’t believe how many people loved our company, loved our plaid, loved our brand, loved the coat. So I think it was the fact that we’re around 150 years old, the history of the trench, its World War I associations, the Antarctica. There are so many things that people were interested in, and I think it has an emotional connection with people. People always remember, “My grandfather’s raincoat was a Burberry and it was a hand-me-down and I wear it still.” I think that there is a bond with this particular brand.
Being British is part of it in some parts of the world, like in Spain where we have this huge business. There are a lot of Anglophiles in Spain, which I didn’t know, but they love the fact that it’s British. So there’s that halo effect that participates in the emotional connection.WWD: Is it easy to lose that emotional connection?
RMB: No, but I think you have to keep building. I think you have to keep reinventing. I loved Paul Pressler this morning saying you’re always in reinvention mode. You’re always revamping.
I think you’re really reinventing on a daily basis. And if you ever think, “Gee, you’ve done it, your job is complete, finished,” you’re dead. You’re dead, because you’re constantly looking at new nuances and building the emotions.
WWD: But everybody calls themselves a luxury brand. Can a company claim that for itself or does it have to create it? Is it so overused that the consumer disregards it now?
RMB: I don’t think the consumer knows what a luxury brand means. I think the everyday consumer might love the product, they might think of designers, they might think of companies that they see or brands that they see within a department store, but I’m not sure they know luxury. And I think it is overused and as again someone said today, it could be luxurious to wear Nike shoes when you’re playing tennis. So I think it is overused. And also, people are moving in such a way that you could be wearing a Tesco T-shirt with a Burberry raincoat with a Diego Della Valle [chairman of Tod’s] handbag today and it really would still be OK. It’s in fact what people do.
WWD: One of the areas in your last results statement that you identified for growth was beauty. And obviously through your department store background, you have significant experience in that realm. Is it a different discipline than ready-to-wear?
RMB: Yes, I would say it is. I think you put a lot into the creation of the product and you’re really creating something that’s going to last, and hopefully always in a perfume, you’re hoping that you’re going to get a classic out of it. And then the disciplines of the marketing, of course, are even more important in the perfume business. And presentation and the detail of all that, space and location and stores, becomes so vital.So we think it has big potential for us, and we’ve seen we’ve had a great response to Brit for Men that’s just been launched. And, of course, the women’s was a big success. And all the advertising and marketing that one gets when you launch a fragrance really can help a whole brand in terms of repositioning or creating that emotional bond that you’re talking about. The spend is so much greater than it would be on apparel because you have a different margin structure and all of that.
WWD: So in order to reinvent a brand you need beauty?
RMB: No, I wouldn’t say that. Absolutely not. I think it can help along the way. It’s value-added. You know, every brand has almost a brand circumference and you always want to make sure you don’t extend yourself. I understand Diego [Della Valle] was talking about not going into certain categories that he may not have core competency in. I think that’s important because I don’t think every brand can do every category and do it well. I think you want to test the waters before you just say, “I’m going to go do a perfume.” You have to have something to say.
WWD: Obviously Burberry is now a retailer itself as well as a wholesaler. Is it getting harder to deal with department stores?
RMB: I’ve never dealt with them before. I don’t know. Now I really feel for all the people in the room that have put up with us for all these years. I can’t say it’s harder or easier. I think it’s so competitive today, isn’t it? And I think it’s hard being a department store today. I think the landscape has changed as all the brands, ourselves included, have built our own retail stores.
I remember, 15 years ago when I was at I. Magnin, we would say, “Oh yes, it’s OK for a brand to open a store, it’s just a window.” Well, these windows have become huge and they are big profit sources for the brands. And so what makes the department store exciting today, that whole theater that we heard about this morning that people like Marvin Traub [former chairman and ceo of Bloomingdale’s] have really created? It’s almost more important than ever. And so I think it’s challenging to get that mix right and how you differentiate one from the other.I think so much good work is going on in America with department stores. I feel like there’s a whole renewal in so many ways with so many of the new teams. Exciting people at Saks or people taking risks like Mike [Gould, chairman and ceo] at Bloomingdale’s, opening this SoHo store. People would have said, “Oh gee, how is that going to work post-9/11? Why is he doing that?” And it’s been a big success and has reenergized in a lot of ways what they’re doing. So I think it’s an exciting time to be in department stores.
WWD: Are your flagships marketing vehicles, or do they now have to be profit centers as well?
RMB: With our rule book in the U.K., they all have to be profit centers. It’s important. But I think we made allowances for Milan, for example. The way they work with their so-called key money it’s almost impossible for a brand to make money. And we decided that was going to be a marketing vehicle.
And then we have other fabulous flagships, like our new store that we’ve just recently renovated in Manhasset [N.Y.], which we’re so excited about because we were able to meld the best of Bond Street and the best of Milan into one new store decor. And we’re doing very good sales, and hopefully we’ll do very well profit-wise as well.
WWD: But does that also mean you have to constantly evolve the store design? You can’t say, “Oh, this is the template now, we’ll push it out”?
RMB: I think it’s Prada who really shook up the world of store decor, rightfully so, and said, “You know, people travel so much and it gets boring to see the same thing everywhere you go.” And why not have these fantastic Epi stores, I think they called them, that they’ve created. I think it jars the imagination. It makes you think everything isn’t so predictable, even going as far as maybe every store doesn’t have the same product offering by city. And it puts more onus on the manufacturer. It means more work, because of course it’s easier if everything is cookie-cutter. So therefore you have to be more creative. You have to be able to innovate, you have to be able to test. And I think that makes for a more difficult job on product development, on design. But I think it’s just necessary today because people are bored much more easily today. Everything is at a click and you’re ready to go and you want to see something new.WWD: How important are China and Russia? The amount of the population that can buy luxury or designer goods is still relatively small. How important is it to get into those markets now?
RMB: I think it’s important and I’ve made several trips there earlier this year and it’s quite fascinating. First of all, they have the disposable income. They have the inclination for luxury, they love brands, they travel so they’re seeing everything and they want to be validated in their own hometowns. And then, when they do travel…I’m fascinated by how many Chinese customers we’re now getting from all over the world, but of course particularly in Hong Kong and then in Russia, how many we’re getting in London that are coming from Moscow and St. Petersburg shopping, and in New York.
And I would say in years to come — and it will take years — these markets will really boom. I think they’ll be very big, important markets for a lot of brands.
WWD: We’ve seen this masstige push, and as you’ve mentioned, Tesco T-shirts with Burberry raincoats, etc. Do you see that getting faster and faster and you as a brand have to constantly be sharper and sharper?
RMB: I think so. This whole mix of everything from vintage to very expensive couture almost to, then, High Street, it just makes it so much more challenging for a brand because the customer has moved on. The customer is bored easily, and I think she’s gaining more confidence in how she dresses and she wants to put it together her way. So therefore this idea of “I’m a Burberry girl and I’m going to buy everything from head to toe,” really doesn’t exist today.
I think people are more intrigued by the mix than ever, and I think that means it’s more competitive because you never know. So you never really know where the next big challenge is going to come from, so it’s not bringing the usual suspects. Every day there could be a reinvention or something brand new coming to market that captures the imagination or fulfills a need.WWD: Is the pressure always on to innovate?
RMB: The pressure is always on, your antennae has to be up, and I think the intuition and the insight that we heard about this morning. Those two very important words, you always have to go with your gut. You can study figures, you can read analysis ad infinitum. But in the end you have to have a certain moment where you have to say, “How big can this be?” And you sometimes have to just go with your gut and go with what your designer and your team are thinking and then move with it.
AUDIENCE QUESTION: Are there any categories of business that Burberry isn’t already in, that you’d like to launch?
RMB: I’m intrigued by the home world, and we’ve tested certain categories, more gift-oriented categories like glassware and barware and picture frames just to get a reaction, and we’re just really studying it and seeing. You have an Armani, who has done it his way and done it on his own, and then you’ve observed someone like Ralph Lauren, who has done a fantastic job using licenses and a mixture of things. So that’s an area that I’m intrigued by.
AUDIENCE QUESTION: What achievement are you most proud of personally and what do you wish you might have done differently?
RMB: I always feel the greatest achievement of an executive is their team and that’s the thing that I always get the most excited about. The people who you touch in your life and how you move them on in their careers, I think, is one of the great gifts that we have as executives, and great opportunities.
I think I could’ve done a much better job, I’m still working on it, on balancing things because you can get — and I don’t think this is just for women, I think this is everybody — you can get swept away. You can get so consumed and obsessed with your work, and that doesn’t just mean retail or our industry, it could be any field, that you can lose everything because you can forget about your friends, your family, your interests. And I think that’s the thing that is always the danger, isn’t it? And how you balance that. And some people do it very well, and I’m still learning.AUDIENCE QUESTION: To what extent do you use pricing variants market by market to leverage your worldwide volume? Is that model evolving and where do you think the fashion business will be in luxury and sub-luxury a few years hence in terms of that?
RMB: I see it evolving, really. And in our case, because we still work with certain licensees, pricing is a little tricky for us because we may have a certain license in Italy with a man’s suit that is priced at a certain euro amount and might be very different in Germany. So it’s something we’re really grappling with now, how to make it make sense for the consumer. But we try on an item that’s identifiable to have parity of pricing around the world.
The Japan situation for us is very different because we don’t have the same production in Japan as we have elsewhere. So where some luxury brands almost set their criteria on Japan and then price downward from that point, we don’t have that because we have actually different products there. But I think with the euro and everything getting so much more transparent…I mean, this is an area for our company that we continue to look at and continue to study.
AUDIENCE QUESTION: The fact that you went from this side of the Atlantic to the other and then on to other markets like Russia, what can you say to other American friends on how to get them to cross the Atlantic and get closer to Russia?
RMB: Russia is fascinating. You have an incredible culture and an educated population and, as we said earlier, they are so brand aware. And I think you now have a few very key partners that if you’re an American brand and you want to test the waters you will be able to affiliate yourself with people that you can trust to take care of your brand. I think it is a new day there and I think you can do very well. And in a way I was very impressed. The passion of the Russian people for luxury products is there, the quality of the sales staff that our partner was able to recruit for our little store was at a very high level and the care that they take for the brand, it’s almost as if they think it’s their brand.I think the thing to keep in mind is all of these people travel. So they come to America, they see everything, they know everything, they’re online. And so I think it’s always great to be able to then showcase yourself in a local market and a market that has so many people ready to buy. So it’s quite exciting.
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