One of my favorite Fashion Group International (www.fgi.org) events is their relatively new “Tastemakers Series”, an informative, lively, and entertaining one on one conversation between two highly successful legends, at the top of their fields in the world of fashion or beauty (designers, company CEO’s, publishers, etc.). It’s akin to getting into the heads of those who are at the head of their classes, if you will, and as such, it’s guaranteed to be insightful and inspirational. And you know it will be tasty, because it is always a breakfast or luncheon held at an iconic Manhattan dining spot (Le Cirque, “21”, etc.). I always walk away having gained valuable insight and having learned something I didn’t already know. And that was certainly the case on Tuesday, when I attended the latest installation, a breakfast at “21”, featuring a conversation between Rose Marie Bravo, CBE, Retail and Brand Consultant, and Michael Gould, who after 22 years at the helm of Bloomingdales (he served as Chairman and CEO), stepped down in February, in order to relinquish the role to Tony Spring.
FGI President Margaret Hayes made her welcoming remarks and told everyone to enjoy their “lovely and speedy breakfast”, ‘allowing’ everyone 20 minutes to eat (she is always mindful of getting everyone to work on time). She then introduced Rose Marie Bravo (who she referred to as the “Barbara Walters of Fashion” and who, among other things, literally turned Burberry around) and Michael Gould, and reminded us of how many things they both have in common. “They share the same family values; a faith based ideology and philosophy (even though they are of different faiths); a commitment to their respective universities; both are products of the A&S Management Executive Training Squad, THE platinum in retail and management in its day; both share a background in the beauty business; they both ran retail institutions and global brands; they are both merchant CEOs; and they were both great competitors during a certain period of their careers.”
Rose Marie said she was especially thrilled to have this opportunity to sit down with her “good friend”, especially so soon after he stepped down from Bloomingdales. “Who lasts 22 years? Not even Jack Welch!” she exclaimed. She praised his “amazing career” and hailed him as an “inspirational leader, an “extraordinary brand builder”, and a “gallant philanthropist”. She recalled their first meeting when she was in her early 20’s and they were both at A&S “Here was this young maverick that was quickly moving through the company and kept getting promoted”.
Here are some of the highlights:
RMB: “What do think is the secret to your success? Why did you survive that long?”
MG: “Culture trumps all. The culture of Bloomingdales trumps all. What IS Bloomingdales? It is all about the culture. It’s not a typical department store.” (At one point, he actually referred to it as a “Mall; an exciting mall but a mall”). “Marvin Traub, who stepped down in 1991, created an incredible store. It’s all about building on Marvin’s legacy”. “It’s not as high end as Neiman Marcus, or as mass as Macy’s. You can’t try to be something you’re not. We can’t be Neiman’s or Macy’s. It’s about having a balance”. “It’s about accessible, not affordable luxury”. “Bloomingdales is a place of excitement. When I came aboard, the level of service was an abomination. It has drastically improved. It’s not just about product anymore”.
RMB: “What is the key to your success”?
MG: “I always knew I wasn’t the smartest person in the room, but I surrounded myself with the smartest people”.
RMB: “What secrets about longevity can you give this room?”
MG: “What makes Sammy Run? My biggest fear was failure. Life is all about self-discovery, challenges, and growing as a person”.
Michael spoke at great length about Nelson Mandela’s inspirational book about leadership, “Mandela’s Way: Lessons on Life, Love, and Courage”. He has given it to summer interns at Bloomingdales, and he strongly urged everyone to read it (it’s already on my Kindle). He spoke about one chapter in particular, “Have a Garden”, which he especially loves, because it’s a metaphor for finding what you love, what you feel passionate about, and making it grow.
“The book talks about what our role is: a need for connection. Everyone has a strong emotional, social, and professional need for connection. This is a book about connecting, seeing and understanding the Big Picture”. As he succinctly put it, vis a vis the retail landscape: “it’s not about how many mascaras you sell. It’s about connecting to the people you are selling to”.
RMB: “What is your favorite chapter in the book?”
MG: “Know your enemy”, which is the key to being successful. “Know how to put yourself in other people’s shoes.”
At one point, after Rose Marie had given Michael some big compliments, he joked “it sounds like a eulogy” to which everyone laughed.
RB: “Why do you love the beauty business?”
MG: “Beauty gives the store a different level of energy and a personal presence. It’s all about the excitement on the Main Floor, the vibrancy, the energy, and the interaction”. “But we all know color and treatment are the future, not fragrance.” He also admitted that “Sephora is genius at what they do.”
RMB: “When do you know it’s time to move on?”
MG: “Sometimes someone tells you it’s time” (that got a lot of laughs from the audience). “When you stop growing, it’s time. When the person you hired is ready to be President, you move on. There are new challenges to face. Basically, sometimes you just know when it’s time.”