September 20, 2010 12:12 am

Le mandarin de luxe: Shanghai Tang’s chief executive shares his wisdom

 
Raphael le Masne de Chermont of Shanghai Tang

Lifestyle transformation: Raphael le Masne de Chermont has brought the Shanghai Tang brand to the world’s attention

Some people are lucky enough to live a life of luxury. The splendidly named Raphael le Masne de Chermont is different, however – he has devoted his career to it.

After graduating in 1987 with his masters in management qualification from Audencia Nantes School of Management, the French grande école, de Chermont worked for some of the biggest brands in the portfolio of Switzerland’s Richemont group – Cartier, Piaget, Panerai and Baume & Mercier – in the UK, Belgium and Hong Kong.

By 2001, however, he wanted a change from the world of watches and jewellery, and asked Richemont to put him in charge of one of its smaller investments, Hong Kong-based Shanghai Tang. As chief executive he has steered the transformation of a concept based on the traditions of Shanghai tailoring into China’s first luxury lifestyle brand – earning himself the informal title of “le mandarin de luxe” in the French press.

His three years at one of France’s top business schools have helped de Chermont, 46, throughout his career, but there is no substitute for experience. “The business school gives you all the basics, including how to read a balance sheet, marketing, human resources, tax, fiscal studies and so on, so it gives you a broad picture of what you can encounter in the professional world,” he says. “But it doesn’t replace a good first job or a career, because what you’re missing in the studies sometimes is, of course, the real experience of human relationships and how to handle different issues.”

While the cases that students examine at business schools can show how a concept can be turned into a business model, it is important to live that experience too, he says. “Until you are accountable for it, you don’t really feel the pressure. You learn through pain sometimes, and by trying things and making mistakes.”

One surprise for him after leaving Audencia was how much time he would spend selling – and how useful it could be.

“It’s funny, when you graduate from a business school you think you don’t want to sell, because that is not what you’re meant to do, and actually I sold a lot at the beginning of my career. That’s what gave me confidence in business – all my career I’ve been selling. To put in place marketing and brand strategies, you need to understand how to sell.”

This combination of education and experience has helped fulfil de Chermont’s vision at Shanghai Tang. The company had begun as a quirky, art deco Hong Kong boutique, founded in the mid-1990s by David Tang and stocked with Chinese-made clothes and accessories. It became a big draw for the millions of visitors to Hong Kong around the time of its handover to China in 1997, but a second outlet in New York was less successful and it seemed the concept was not travelling well.

“They were a bit stuck,” he says. “They had to bring this concept, based on extremely ethnic, beautiful but not easily wearable [clothes], to the next stage. That’s where my team and I came in. We said, ‘Let’s work on this concept, keep the DNA of what David had created and put it into a proper brand that would travel, have a presence globally, be relevant and wearable, and still be Shanghai Tang and different.’”

One of the advantages of a good education, be it from a business school or elsewhere, is that it can inculcate a desire to continue learning throughout one’s career. This has been important for de Chermont’s mission at Shanghai Tang. “I am 46 and I graduated a few years ago,” he says, “but as long as you keep on learning and being alert, you are fine.”

The need for lifelong learning is underlined by the digital revolution, from e-commerce to social media and other forms of communication – a big development in the luxury sector in recent years, as elsewhere. No business school in the mid-1980s could have had an inkling of the impact it would have on its students as their careers developed, so it is important to keep learning every day, says de Chermont. “Things are changing so fast, and you have to reinvent business models all the time.”

He recalls sending his first e-mail in 1995 when he moved to Hong Kong. “Fifteen years ago we were not using e-mails,” he says. “It has totally changed [the way we communicate] and we have adapted. We may not have learnt about it at school, but we did learn how to adapt there … how to use our common sense and make it work. That’s basically what business schools bring you, through studying cases and basic knowledge. And the rest you learn.”

When recruiting, he is more interested in individuals’ personality and passion for the job than their educational qualifications, but he has found that people who have not had a strong education sometimes have difficulties adapting to changing circumstances. Even so, most of his rich, successful friends in Hong Kong have not been to university, let alone business school, he says. “They came to Hong Kong in the 1980s with hardly any background and started their career in industries such as textiles. They learned the hard way and made themselves a hell of a lot of money.”

De Chermont is in many ways an atypical alumnus of a French grande école. While many former students reach the higher echelons of French society, moving effortlessly between top jobs in the private and public sectors and government, he has never worked in France. Nor does he look as if he is straight from central casting, with his long hair and personal mission to liberate man from the neck tie – a mission enshrined in Shanghai Tang’s Mandarin Collar Society, which he founded in 2007 to champion the modern, chic alternative of the mandarin collar.

But with his high profile and unusual career, de Chermont is ideal for the role of Audencia ambassador. Eighteen of the school’s former students represent it in the countries where they have built their careers, and de Chermont was recently appointed in Hong Kong. “The role is basically to help promote the business school and build a brand awareness of it, but also to help young graduates find a job and develop their career, and to lobby companies to take our graduates,” he says. “I think we have something like 35 students from Nantes in Hong Kong alone. It’s not a lot compared with American MBAs, but it’s a start.”

Looking back on his time at Audencia, de Chermont says one important consequence was the impact it had on his language skills. “Believe it or not, we do learn languages in France,” he says. “I know the French are not very good at speaking English, but business school students do speak English properly, and normally Spanish or German, too, and that does help tremendously in your life.” Learning languages at that stage also helps later, he says – he has picked up a bit of Chinese since moving to Hong Kong.

His three years in Nantes were also fun, he adds, although he thinks US students enjoy themselves more. Part of his course at Audencia involved a spell at Ohio State University in Columbus. There, he was one of 100 students from Nantes on a campus of 50,000. He says: “They were having more fun than we were having. The American campuses have a lot of facilities and many parties. We felt like we were on holiday there.” But it was all part of the learning experience.

Now a new generation of US business school students have had a chance to learn from de Chermont’s success at Shanghai Tang. Last year, the company was the subject of a case study by first-year students at Harvard Business School, looking at how to deal with the often fraught relationship between creativity and sales.

“There’s always a conflict between designers and salespeople, who sometimes accuse the designers of being too selfish and not commercial enough,” he says. “When I read this case, it reminded me of what we were doing in Nantes. I think it’s great when you use a case that is not complex but true and close to the reality of the business environment, and use common sense and a little bit of your knowledge and experience to sort it out. I read the conclusions of the Harvard students and I learned a lot from them.”

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