February 18, 2011 8:49 pm

America’s got talent

 
Ruth Runberg

Ruth Runberg, buying director for Browns

The British may be invading the American media – from Anna Wintour to Piers Morgan – but there’s a reverse invasion happening too. In recent years, American brand and retail executives have become hot properties for British luxury brands with an eye on global expansion.

A quick survey of new appointments at British retailers and brands reveals a growing group of US transplants. Smythson, known for its by-royal-appointment luxury stationery and elegant accessories, hired Anna-Lisa Froman, a former Gap and Banana Republic veteran, as senior vice-president last October. Last month, the London boutique Browns announced that US native Ruth Runberg, formerly of Barneys New York and Saks Fifth Avenue, was going to replace Erin Mullaney, another American, as buying director. At Kurt Geiger, Scott Tepper, formerly a buyer at Bergdorf Goodman, was hired last summer to be the footwear group’s head of luxury.

These are just the latest in a line of US expats including Ed Burstell, who moved to London to be managing director of Liberty in 2008; New Yorker Joyce Avalon, formerly of Barneys, who joined the upmarket beauty boutique Space NK as chief merchant (in charge of buying and selling) the same year; Josh Shulman, who joined Jimmy Choo as chief executive in 2007; and US-born Mary-Adair Macaire, formerly of Chanel, who was chief executive at knitwear label Pringle until recently.

In fact, step inside a big British luxury headquarters these days and chances are you’ll hear an American twang. At Net-a-Porter’s headquarters in Westfield shopping centre, for example, the online retailer’s founder Natalie Massenet employs a clutch of US talents, including Alison Loehnis as vice-president of sales and marketing and Holli Rogers as buying director. At Outnet, the discount designer outlet, British-born Stephanie Phair also cut her teeth in New York as head of merchandising for luxury retailer Portero.com.

Is it just coincidence? “Maybe it’s the capitalist culture. In the US we’re trained to make money,” says Erin Mullaney, now a consultant. “Fashion isn’t seen as just creative in America, it’s a business. You’ve got to achieve 50-60 per cent profit or that’s it. It’s great training.”

Avalon, of Space NK, agrees: “There’s a more aggressive approach. There’s a positivity. Their attitude is, ‘If it can happen, it will.’ Americans also have a more global view of business.” She also believes her fellow Americans tell it like it is and that “there’s something to learn from being as direct as we are. We don’t dance around the issue.” Burstell of Liberty also recognises the direct approach. “There’s no asking how the kids are,” he says. “In the UK there’s sometimes a reluctance to address the real issues.”

The typical American approach has something to gain from the British modus operandi, too. Mullaney says: “It’s too much about merchandising in the US. You’re allowed to be a bit more creative here. It’s the perfect combo.”

The overall appeal of this cultural exchange is simple. Many US luxury brands already operate internationally so employees are exposed to a wealth of experience with new territories, not to mention the challenges of operating in a company that covers several, often very different, US states. Plus, for companies looking to expand into the US, American employees offer first-hand perspectives and contacts.

Karen Harvey, a retail recruitment consultant with her own agency, says: “The US is great at producing merchants who understand the importance of the product and knowing your consumer. Many top chief executives are merchants.”

The US migration started with Rose Marie Bravo, whose turnround of Burberry has become the stuff of retail legend. In 1997, Bravo, who for five years had been chairman of Saks Fifth Avenue, was brought in as chief executive to transform Burberry, then an ailing British outerwear brand. Bravo recruited Kate Moss as poster girl and added Christopher Bailey, then at the Gucci Group, as creative director. The results were impressive with the company expanding rapidly in the US, doubling sales from $470m to $1bn and operating profits to $115m in the six years to September 30, 2003.

Three years later Bravo handed the reins to fellow American and Liz Claiborne veteran, Angela Ahrendts. She has had similar success, with Burberry last month announcing a 26.3 per cent year-on-year rise in third-quarter sales to £480m. Andy Janowski, another American, is chief operations officer at the company. (Interestingly, Bravo recently joined another blossoming British brand, Jack Wills, as non-executive director, in addition to being on the board of Tiffany and Estée Lauder.)

Joyce Avalon says Americans bring an outsider’s perspective. “You can play to the strengths that you know are strengths globally,” she says. Karen Harvey agrees: “They can understand the DNA clearly and put it back on track.” Maxine Martens, of executive recruitment agency Martens & Heads, adds: “We can see the potential, not just the past.”

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