Marco Bizzarri, president and chief executive officer of Gucci, believes in sliding-door moments.
“In the life of people as well as in that of brands, certain moments are epochal. If you make the wrong choice, it’s something that can keep you up at night,” he said.
Luckily — at least for his ability to sleep — he realized how momentous certain changes were only after he had made his decision, he added with a laugh, noting: “Acting with lightness is not superficiality, it’s tackling things with a positive spirit — it’s very different.”
This upbeat and instinctive attitude, tempered by moments of reflection, marked a conversation earlier this month with Bizzarri ahead of his talk at the London College of Fashion — where he revealed Gucci’s new antifur stance — and a whirlwind trip around the world that was to take him from Hong Kong and São Paulo to New York, where he is to receive the Edward Nardoza Honor for CEO Creative Leadership. Bizzarri will also speak at the WWD Apparel and Retail Summit on Wednesday — something that, unlike many of his peers, he truly enjoys.
“I adore to hold these talks, there is that adrenaline, the same tension as before an exam, and it’s what I miss in the day-by-day. I like the waiting and the expectancy, the path toward something, and then when I get there, I’m tired of it,” Bizzarri said, breaking out in another laugh.
Sitting in one of the offices in the elegant and classic red brick Mayfair property that houses the headquarters of Gucci parent Kering, Bizzarri speaks in his easy and affable manner — and only a tape recorder can keep up with the executive’s fast pace, of both words and thoughts. The speeches help Bizzarri prepare himself on subject matters that may be new to him and that stimulate his curiosity, he explained.
Curiosity served him well early on when, after studying to become an accountant, Bizzarri started his career at Andersen Consulting, now Accenture. It is a documented fact that he brazenly made a call to that consultancy to ask for a job, which he got after a week.
“You want to be successful, you are like a sponge because you are supposed to be an expert in different sectors, so you read anything you can find and you are bombarded with information [that will get the job done],” Bizzarri said of those days.
He relishes the chance to go back to school occasionally in order to be stimulated. For one week last month, Bizzarri joined other high-ranking executives at Singularity University in Silicon Valley to discuss innovative management and leadership models. Before his trip to Hong Kong, he was headed to Treviso, Italy, for a two-day training at H-Farm, which provides resources to Internet start-ups. (Entrepreneur Renzo Rosso’s Red Circle is an investor.)
“We are creatures of habit; I have to push myself to go back to school, but I know that if I don’t do it, I will dry up,” Bizzarri explained. “The talks oblige me to continue to study, to avoid repeating the same things or I myself am the first to get bored.”
While avoiding boredom is a recurring theme during the interview, it is obvious this is not a concern for Bizzarri at the moment: Gucci continues on its upward trajectory and creative director Alessandro Michele’s designs have put the brand back on the map in Milan and globally — one of the executive’s main priorities from Day One. Gucci’s creative reinvention and clout in fashion are reflected in the brand’s growing business under Bizzarri’s leadership. Organic sales at the maker of Dionysus handbags and Princetown loafers rose 39.3 percent in the second quarter of 2017 to 1.48 billion euros, beating market expectations, and its recurring operating income gained 69 percent in the first half. (Third quarter revenues are to be revealed today.)
So how did Andersen Consulting lead to Gucci? Asked about the progression of his career and his goals starting out, Bizzarri denied ever having any particular objectives back then. “I took the jobs as they came in a natural way and never thought I would be part of the fashion industry,” he said.
He did realize he had grown tired of consulting and sought a different outlet. “I wanted to change. The more you stay in consultancy, the more you feel like a salesman. You never see the final result, because it’s the company that eventually brings a project to conclusion. It’s as if you are running on a treadmill,” he explained.
Leaving Andersen for Mandarina Duck in 1993 was a big leap — the first of many in Bizzarri’s career. “Here I was leaving a centenary, international and large consulting firm for a much smaller, Bologna-based accessories company. I came from a working family and I needed to work, so it did seem risky,” he recalled. Those years were fundamental in shaping Bizzarri, who developed the brand’s international markets, setting up factories in Shanghai, Hong Kong and Hungary. “I learned how to bring results, to be both an entrepreneur and a manager.” After 10 years, he moved on to Marithé + François Girbaud for a brief stint.
His first executive role within Kering, at the time called Gucci Group, dates back to January 2005, when he joined as president and ceo of Stella McCartney. This was also a big jump for Bizzarri because, while the designer’s business was still small, totaling around 10 million pounds at the time, and operating at a loss, he felt he could measure himself within a large group and understand his own value. The first time he sat with all the presidents of the group, he felt he didn’t belong, comparing himself with those he saw as so successful and powerful.
“I asked myself: ‘What are you doing here?’ Then in the end I realized we are all people, each with their own characteristics.” This led him to understand that “there should be no limits to one’s ambitions or dreams.”
The Stella McCartney role pushed Bizzarri to work on understanding the consumer as the collections, despite their qualities, were not performing. In addition to perfecting the offer, he helped develop the designer’s collaboration with H&M — the second designer tie-up for the fast-fashion group after Karl Lagerfeld. That helped raise the brand’s profile, which also benefited from a strong advertising push by the Swedish clothing retailer.
Bizzarri credited his experience at Andersen Consulting for “reading situations quickly.” Asked what he thought were his main talents, he added that “empathy and creating relationships” were top of the list, as well as “this skill of reading the sector very well,” zeroing in on the right strategy. “Perfect execution of the wrong strategy is the worst failure,” he said, stressing that the wrong positioning will get one nowhere.
After building Stella McCartney into a profitable, 60 million pound company, in January 2009 Bizzarri was appointed president and ceo of Bottega Veneta, which presented a different set of problems as the company was profitable and boasted strong revenues, but its distribution was highly unbalanced and too dependent on Japan, which at the time accounted for 55 percent of sales and was suffering generally as a market and in particular in luxury goods.
“I joined a week after the Lehman Brothers’ crash, and all eggs were in one basket — it was risky. My job was to continue to fuel the Bottega Veneta dream by changing distribution of the brand, repositioning it in Europe. We believed that if the brand were strong in Europe, this would have a circular effect. We worked on merchandising, not because there was a problem with product. Tomas Maier is an incredible creative director — as is Stella or Alessandro, each with their diversity, this is the beauty of this sector. Tomas created Bottega Veneta, he connected all the different areas, he knows how to read the brand as nobody else,” he said.
The issues were more related to conservative buying. “No risks had been taken in terms of colors, where Tomas is really strong, or craftsmanship,” Bizzarri explained.
After fixing this, the executive focused on the group’s retail strategy, opening stores and training personnel. “At Stella, it was make it or break it, while Bottega was profitable but at risk on certain parameters in such a delicate moment of the economy,” Bizzarri explained. Moving from a nonleather company to one whose brand signature was the Intrecciato leather weave fueled the executive’s belief in focusing on the project at hand: “There is no formula; each brand is different and the people behind it are different. And the [development] strategy depends on the people around you.”
The relaunch of Bottega Veneta completed, Bizzarri felt boredom creep up on him once more. He was ready for a new challenge and asked Kering chairman and ceo François-Henri Pinault for a new position. “He invented a role for me,” said Bizzarri of his new title. (In April 2014, he became Kering’s ceo of Luxury — Couture & Leather Goods.)
“I was very happy working with all the ceo’s and creative directors over all the brands, but it was too brief. There were all these rumors about me going to Gucci then, as there are now of me leaving, but they were not true then as they are not true now. [Pinault] told me about Gucci at the end of November ,” said Bizzarri, who was appointed president and ceo of the Florence-based firm in December 2014.
Admitting Gucci at the time “was not a piece of cake,” in January 2015 Bizzarri set in motion what has become a textbook turnaround of the brand, famously appointing Michele to the top creative job shortly after his arrival. Michele, who had first joined the Gucci design studio in 2002 and was an associate to previous creative director Frida Giannini, struck Bizzarri on two levels. “I sensed his talent and I liked him as a person, he was humble, respectful and everybody talked about him in a very nice way. I wanted to return the culture of respect to the company,” Bizzarri said.
While he was taking these breakthrough steps, he also set in motion another revolution, one less visible to the outside world. “I was bored with all the black-and-white images of people in the offices, all over the company. We are in the world of joy, emotion and creativity and all I could see were photos of people who had mostly all died. How can you be inspired by this?” he wondered, referring to Giannini’s and his predecessor Patrizio di Marco’s emphasis on the brand’s history and famous supporters, from Grace Kelly to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.
“From Day One, I asked to remove all those images, it was a message saying this was over. We should not disown our past, it has allowed us to be where we are now, but we should take the best from the past and look forward. The world is moving too quickly and young kids don’t care about Gucci’s past.”
Bizzarri argued, however, that the main asset from the past was the pool of artisans working with the company, artisans who were also eager to experiment with new, challenging designs.
In March 2015, there was talk of closing 40 percent of the suppliers working for Gucci, which had about 45,000 people working indirectly for the group in production, because the brand was not selling enough. The situation has been completely reversed today. The company has even launched a web site to recruit new suppliers, monitoring the applicants.
By the end of 2018, Gucci will hire 900 people in the industrial and production arms of the company to support increased demand, with a major impact on Tuscany. Of these, 300 have been hired in 2017. Gucci’s ArtLab, a new center of excellence for leather goods and shoes, is set to open in early 2018 near the Casellina headquarters outside Florence, covering 399,600 square feet and employing 800 people, some of whom will be new hires. At the end of 2016, leather goods accounted for 55 percent of group sales and shoes 17 percent.
Bizzarri emphasized how the products in stores today have nothing to do with the past and that Gucci’s artisans are instrumental in turning Michele’s ideas into reality. “Alessandro is a tornado and our artisans want to show they are the best. We should never think there is something we can’t do. We have such strength in Italy and we must prove to the younger generations that craftsmanship is not less important [than other sectors], with all the new technologies that exist today, with artificial intelligence, 3-D, they can be applied to our sector. Human creativity will remain predominant but technology can help. The government must convey the message that these are modern jobs. Alessandro’s first collection was produced in five days. What other company can do this?” he said.
Despite Gucci’s huge structure, Bizzarri wants the company to be nimble and flexible. “Experience is a prison — it pushes us to do things as we always have. Everything is moving so fast and we are bombarded by stimuli, new technologies, you can’t think that what you learned in school will allow you to tackle today’s challenges,” he explained. “You can’t think you are more expert than those that work with you.”
By keeping up to date, by “knowing that [new and different] possibilities exist, I can stimulate people.”
To “shake the organization,” as he puts it, Bizzarri has created a “Shadow ComEx [executive committee],” and he has been organizing lunches and meetings with young employees. “I asked them what they thought did not work at Gucci, I wanted to hear it from them. Those that are more experienced tend to repeat themselves, if something worked in the past. Our sector is incredible if you do the right thing, there are incredible margins but there are external shocks that can stop you right away,” he said.
One issue that emerged was that there was little interaction, which led to confusion. For example, in merchandising they would sometimes not understand a request from the supply chain. “Through personal meetings, it’s easier to work together and a phone call may replace an e-mail.” This new approach creates bonds and a team, breaking barriers.
Bizzarri reckons that a structure that can easily adjust to changes, especially in mentality, has the opportunity to succeed. He said it was important to ask his employees across the board, not only those directly responding to him, to avoid missing that hidden talent. “How can you see them? How can you find talent? Some are brilliant,” he remarked, an obvious reference to his own selection of Michele, who was chosen over other, more high-profile designers, to succeed Giannini.
This culture of change is also affecting Gucci’s retail network. In September, the Florence-based fashion school Polimoda said it was launching a new master in fashion retail management with Gucci. Bizzarri emphasized the importance of retail for the group, which counts around 11,000 direct employees worldwide. Of these, around 60 percent work in stores. At the end of June, there were 514 stores.
As for the product that fills those stores, Bizzari stands by Michele as the designer continues to build his signature aesthetic. “If you compare the first collection with the last, it’s like night and day. Alessandro is writing a book and each show is a chapter, it’s a story that is evolving. When he is ready or will feel like changing, he will do that, he has proved his value.”
Bizzarri’s goal is to continue to evolve the organization, “with a start-up mentality, based on respect, culture and empowerment. The decision-making progress must become a daily habit. This is what gives me energy for at least the next 18, 24 months. We need to always take risks and accept a mistake as a way to learn. Gucci’s unexpressed potential is enormous. If you free all the talent that is compressed by reports and processes, it’s incredible. If you feel good, you want to create.”