Thursday, July 11, 2013

A Conversation with Rose Marie Bravo & Fabrizio Freda

Rose Marie Bravo & Fabrizio Feda at the 21 Club
Photo credit: E. Bruce Borner

Fashion Group International ( held  "The Tastemakers" Breakfast & Conversation yesterday morning. The sold out event featured a sit down breakfast at the iconic 21 Club, followed by a conversation with Rose Marie Bravo, CBE Retail Brand Consultant, and Fabrizio Freda, CEO Estee Lauder Companies. Following the delicious breakfast, FGI President Margaret Hayes introduced the dynamic pair (both are legends within business circles for sure), and recited their impressive resumes (not that we needed to be reminded of course).  Rose Marie Bravo is the former CEO and Vice Chairman of Burberry Group Plc. She is currently a member of the Board of Directors of Tiffany & Co., Estée Lauder Cos. and Williams-Sonoma, which she joined in 2011.

Bravo blazed a trail in the retail industry during the 1980s and 1990s. She held a number of positions at R.H. Macy & Co., culminating as Chairman and CEO of subsidiary I. Magnin from 1987 to 1992. Her success there helped her land the job as President of luxury retailer Saks Fifth Avenue with responsibility for merchandising, marketing and product development. Then in 1997 she became CEO of Burberry, where she oversaw a bold reform of the British classic brand, expanding the line of products and boosting sales and profits in the process.

 Mr. Fabrizio Freda has been the Chief Executive Officer of The Estée Lauder Companies Inc., since July 1, 2009 and its President since March 2008. Mr. Freda served as the Chief Operating Officer at The Estée Lauder Companies Inc. from March 2008 to July 1, 2009. Mr. Freda served as the President of Global Snacks at Procter & Gamble Company from 2001 to February 2008.

 While I have met Ms. Bravo in the past (and in fact, she was the subject of one of our Masters of Fashion Interviews, conducted by Grace Mirabella), I have never had the pleasure or meeting Mr. Freda, who showed himself to be wise, witty, and humble (and, THE perfect boss, I might add) during the informative and entertaining several hours.

These are the highlights:

Ms. Bravo (RMB): What were the challenges when you first started?"
Fabrizio Freda (FF): "I didn't expect to find the strength that I did. In 2008 it looked like the world was collapsing. There's nothing like a big crisis to make you re-think business".

RMB: "How did you get everyone integrated and working together"?

FF: "Learning to share knowledge was THE challenge. As well as creating a team of people, creating a new strategy, and one common vision. We are collaborative; a company of very distinctive brands"

 RMB: "How do you keep the vision fresh?"

FF: "The vision is THE single most important thing in any company. It's all about how you form a vision today. You have to know where you want to go and what to do to get there. It's all about the compass: the next 10 years. What the picture of the future will look like 10 years from now. Reverse engineering is what we have to do. It's all about determining the future and then reverse. Reverse engineering makes it happen".

 Ms. Bravo noted that they both share an Italian heritage, where family is key. She started talking about the idea of family values and how important that element is in business.

FF: "Yes, my Italian experience teaches you to lead, and it has helped in making things happen. Italy is very challenging. You know the song "New York, New York" and the line, "If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere"? Well, I think, "If you can make it in Napoli, you can make it anywhere" (this got a lot of laughs and having traveled to Naples, where Mr. Freda was born, I understand exactly what he means).
Ms. Bravo spoke of the famed Lauder Family, and their "amazing values".

FF: "Yes, I value that the Lauder Family is a blue-chip family. They are passionate and have an obsession with quality".

"Leonard (Lauder) always reminds us: "My name is on the door" (this got laughs as well).

"Family companies are investing in the future and are much more for the long term. There's an obsession for the long term''.

 Then Ms. Bravo, who is a board member of Estee Lauder, recalls her first encounter with Mr. Freda at a board meeting that was held at Vassar College. They shared memories and laughs about the cozy, coed dorm - like living situation.
FF: "Meeting the board members in shorts is a challenging moment" he joked. "Can you imagine that the first time meeting my board members, it  was early in the morning and I was wearing shorts?"

 He recalled seeing Vassar's motto which was emblazoned in front of the school, "Semper Novis" which means, "always new" and related how that held a lot of symbolism for his company. "It's something that must always be kept in the minds of those who work in a company. But the wisdom and challenge for the leader of a company, is to have the wisdom to decide what to change and what to accept, and that is a key point for management."

Ms. Bravo recalled that challenge when she first took over as CEO of Burberry, quickly turning the iconic British company into a global fashion mega brand. "At Burberry, I was labeled a workaholic. How do you balance your life and encourage balance in the workplace?"

FF: "The key secret? Take care of your health, get good nutrition, and manage your energy".

"At some point, we have to take a break from work and take care of our selves". "Take your time, organize your day, and take your holidays. I separate work time from family and holiday time".

RB: "What about the importance of (ethnic and gender) diversity"?

FF: "Diversity is the strength. It's important to create teams that collaborate and to leverage strength. We work together and collaborate to create winning teams so we can win. Building on strength is important".

RMB: "How do you manage creative talent, and how does that lead to innovation?"

FF:  "Creativity is the sparkle of everything. Creativity is in everything and it is the key. We need to put creativity in the center of everything we do. Inspiring creativity is THE most important thing".

You need to identify and to know the biggest opportunities, and focus your attention on that. You have to create something the consumer doesn't know they want, but subsequently, cannot live without."

 RMB: "A good merchant went with their guts in the old days. I didn't have a vision for Burberry until I got there. How important is branding and luxury?"

FF: "The world of luxury and branding is key. Image building at the top is key. We are selling experiences and entertainment, and not just a product".

RMB: "What is a great leader?"

FF: "To be a great leader is all about having a vision. Leonard Lauder once said, "If you cannot see your future, you will never get here and you will never lead".

""If you don't see it, invent it. That's the definition of a good leader. And you have to inspire the others to get there. The leaders today have to set the vision and serve the organization and inspire leadership."."

RMB: "It's not lost on me that the new tagline at Estee Lauder is 'Be an inspiration' ".

"What is the future of beauty? The world has changed!"

FF: "Beauty is the MOST exciting market of the future. Women are becoming wealthier and have more money to spend. Their three important things are food, fashion, and beauty."

RMB: "What is the best advice you ever got?"

FF: "The best advise I ever got from William (Lauder): Don't give me any solutions right away. Just listen, understand, and then create."

RMB: "My biggest failure in business is that I couldn't turn around I.Magnin, which I knew had so much potential, no what matter what I did. I learned a lot from that experience."

FF: "I always tell my people, "You have the right to fail". But I always say, "Fail fast and fail cheap!" (this got a lot of laughs)

At the end, members of the audience were invited to ask questions and someone inquired: "What are your goals for Estee Lauder?"
FF: "To keep it a high growth company. We are and want to continue to be the fastest growing company focused on prestige cosmetics".

1 - "We want to bring prestige super high quality products; 2 - offer aspirational brands, and 3 - provide high tech services".

When a man observed that Proctor & Gamble (Mr. Freda's former company) has not been doing that well in the past few years , Mr. Freda quipped: "that's because I'm not there anymore".
-Marilyn Kirschner

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