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PARIS — Fierce.

That is how headhunters describe the level of competition today among fashion and luxury firms for scarce management talent, with some predicting an inevitable and growing influx of executives from other industries.

Although past years saw an intense battle for star designers among warring luxury players, the front has now shifted to securing executives who can drive businesses to profitable growth, search specialists agreed.

“They’re demanding more talent and edgy talent to lead their brands,” said Beatrice Ballini, who does executive searches for Russell Reynolds Associates. “What you really need nowadays is a powerful vision of where the brand needs to be five or 10 years down the road, and that is only something a top chief executive officer can have. It is seen as vital.”

The duration of some key searches alone — approaching six months for the head of Prada USA and longer than that for Marc Jacobs, while LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton also is said to be quietly searching for replacement ceo’s for its Kenzo and Donna Karan businesses, according to sources — reflects the needle-in-a-haystack task today’s recruiters often face. Then there are the high-profile searches for replacements for Paul Charron, who is stepping down as chairman and ceo of Liz Claiborne at the end of the year, and for Richard Cohen as ceo of St. John.

“There’s a tremendous amount of competition to find the best talent,” said Maxine Martens, ceo of New York-based Martens & Heads. “People have become more bottom- and top-line focused. It’s very competitive out there and it’s very hard to make money. What all brands need to realize is they need stewards of the brand.”

“It’s a pretty small pool of really talented people,” Ballini agreed. “Every time we open a search, the usual names get mentioned and discussed.”

She and other headhunters declined to give names. But according to market sources, the crop of usual suspects includes the likes of Gucci’s Mark Lee, Samsonite’s Marcello Bottoli, Valentino’s Graziano de Boni, Celine’s Serge Brunschwig and Versace’s Giancarlo Di Risio — plus four executives recently snapped up: Patricia Malone by Christian Dior, Giacomo Santucci by Malo, Kim Winser by Aquascutum and Mindy Grossman by IAC/InterActiveCorp.

This story first appeared in the May 9, 2006 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Martens also suggested many companies have a low threshold for risk, which can prolong searches. “[Companies] are hesitant to give people a chance because they’re big businesses,” she said in an interview. “In the end, it comes down to leadership, personality and fit.”

According to Michael Boroian, managing partner at Sterling International in Paris, several dynamics are making filling management vacancies more challenging. One is “the policy of internal mobility in certain groups such as LVMH, Gucci and L’Oréal, which promote from within whenever possible,” he said. “Companies are becoming very adept at retaining talent by creating new contracts with clauses locking them in via non-compete listings…strong deferred compensation programs and even stay-on bonuses.”

Another is the growing role of private equity funds, which are “increasingly active in working with executive search firms to have already completed their groundwork when closing a deal in order to have a ceo ‘in stock’ for the company being acquired,” he added.

The accelerated growth of high-end businesses also is considered a factor, along with efforts by conglomerates to jump-start some of their ailing or stalled brands, observers said.

Intensifying the competition for managers, fast-fashion and beauty firms also are starting to seek talents in core fashion and luxury, Boroian noted.

Headhunters had varied assessments about the depth of the management talent pool, but most agreed the field is especially limited for ceo positions.

Floriane de Saint Pierre, who runs an eponymous recruitment and consulting business here, said the caliber of executives in fashion and luxury is definitely improving, but options are still limited for chief operating officers or regional heads.

She said she spies a new generation of managers in their 40s who are very well trained and capable of running a business unit or region, “but very few of them have the vision to run a brand.”

Another obstacle is wrenching talent from their current jobs. “Today, good candidates and top managers are extremely choosy about their career moves,” de Saint Pierre said.

According to Harry Bernard, executive vice president and chief marketing officer at Colton Bernard Inc., management searches are superseding creative ones.

“Merchant businessmen and women are needed to balance a designer’s creative vision with commercialism,” he said. “Basically, the designer personality is much less important than before. Usually, designers today are part of the process, rather than the driving force of the business. There are exceptions, of course, but it is money that drives most successful designer businesses today.”

That means the qualities sought in managers are becoming increasingly demanding and varied.

“Investors look for a ceo who is equipped to handle the designer, merchandise the product and manage the cost of doing business, while positioning the brand correctly — a tall order at any time,” Bernard continued. “But now, with designer names popping up on every corner, competing for both retail space and the consumer’s pocket book, the role of the ceo makes greater physical demands on the person as well as the need for more highly polished interpersonal and technical skills. For the fashion and luxury markets, a keen understanding of what makes consumers tick is even more essential when working with strong designers.”

Several headhunters called companies to task for failing to properly nurture and cultivate management talent internally. “We don’t invest in our people,” lamented Elaine Hughes, president of E.A. Hughes in New York, who listed leadership and an ability to manage people as among the chief qualities firms seek in managers. “It’s not necessarily an industry that trains for that.”

“There is very little succession planning in our industry,” Bernard agreed, noting that many leading retailers and manufacturers eliminated training programs because they were too expensive. “Most companies don’t have career path development programs, particularly in the luxury field.”

But de Saint Pierre detected some change, saying groups are more likely today to evaluate in-house talent before exploring outside possibilities.

Opinions were divided on the likelihood of the fashion industry welcoming more outsiders, and most agreed the track record has been mixed. Phil Marineau has struggled to get Levi Strauss & Co. back on track since 1999, after success at Pepsi-Cola North America and Quaker Oats. The jury is still out on Paul Pressler, Gap Inc.’s ceo who came from The Walt Disney Cos., and who is now in the midst of turning the group around.

Observers are focused on how Steve Sadove, formerly of General Foods and Bristol-Myers Squibb, will do in his stint as the ceo of the downsized Saks Inc., and are curious about Bridget Ryan Berman, who left Apple Computer Inc., via Polo Ralph Lauren, to become ceo of Giorgio Armani’s U.S. subsidiary.

De Saint Pierre said many firms continue to resist outside candidates because they typically need managers to make an impact on the business very quickly and cannot tolerate a long learning curve. “The rhythm in fashion is very quick,” she said. “They need people to be immediately effective.”

Hughes agreed the industry has been “very challenged” looking at outsiders, because firms consider the cultural gap too difficult to bridge and are loathe to take the time needed for such executives to get up to speed. “They feel the business is too fragile to allow the individual to make a mistake,” she said.

Elizabeth Pearce, a New York lawyer specializing in the fashion industry, said the biggest risk outsiders pose is “not understanding the sensitivity of the high-end customer in terms of long-term brand value.”

Martens said the risk of recruiting from packaged goods is that such executives “often don’t have a feel and the appreciation for the product,” the elusive “touch” factor.

The trend of hiring from outside the fashion and luxury industry is characterized as a nascent one.

“Luxury and fashion companies feel more comfortable with complementary segments, like dedicated retail, cosmetics and fragrances or department stores,” Ballini said. “The more daring companies have gone into branded products, often from fast-moving consumer goods with a powerful brand attached.”

Mass market retail is another complementary segment where fashion and luxury firms may go fishing more in the future, Ballini predicted. Other headhunters suggested hotels and management consulting firms, such as McKinsey and Bain & Co., are other possibilities.

What matters, Ballini said, is “brand management vision” and people-management skills. “If you think those are the key competencies required, you don’t need to stay within fashion and luxury to find those key talents,” she said. “It’s becoming a more normal path to think outside the usual boundaries.”

Recent high-profile examples include Robert Polet, who came from Unilever’s frozen foods division to head Gucci Group; Hugues Witvoet, who came from supermarket operator Promodes Group, via LVMH’s Asian subsidiary, to take perfumery chain Marionnaud, and Maureen Chiquet, who moved from Gap Inc. to Chanel Inc.

Ballini noted that going outside luxury and fashion to find top executives “brings sanity to compensation levels.”

Hughes estimated that management salaries in packaged goods are roughly half of those of the apparel industry.

“Because few companies are willing to take a chance with a number-two person, and bind their key executives with non-compete clauses, they are forced to consider ‘outside’ executives,” Bernard said. “This route can be hazardous if the experiential background of the outsider — especially the very successful outsider — creates the need for a long-term learning curve — or “un-learning” curve. Some companies will go for out-of-the-box candidates because they have no other choice.”