Bluebell Group president and CEO Ashley Micklewright says the French luxury distribution company is focusing more on diversity and digital plays to counter the retail malaise.

The outlook for Singapore’s retail scene is bleak. Manpower woes and fierce competition in a weakening economy have resulted in increasingly challenging retail conditions. According to the URA, vacancy rates in malls in the Orchard area rose to 9.2% in 2Q2016. This marks a fiveyear high that echoes the distress in the global fashion industry where big brand names are posting disappointing earnings, and shutting stores across the US and UK, with some even filing for bankruptcy.

Bluebell Group has not been spared. But thankfully, the luxury fashion and lifestyle group has weathered enough downturns in its 62-year history in Asia to have reacted nimbly to the retail malaise.

The French luxury distribution company arrived in Singapore in 1967, just two years after the republic gained independence from Malaysia. It introduced luxe to the island with the likes of Louis Vuitton and Davidoff. The latter is Bluebell’s longest brand partnership to date, but the group sold its interest in Louis Vuitton about two decades ago.

Today, the family-owned company distributes over 100 brands in eight countries. It has more than 400 points of sale across Asia, in product categories such as fragrance, beauty, fashion, accessories, jewellery, watches, homeware, tobacco and gourmet food. It recorded US$1 billion ($1.4 billion) in revenue worldwide and employs more than 2,500 staff globally.

In Singapore, Bluebell’s brand partners include Davidoff, Moschino, LeSportsac, Repetto, UGG, Brunello Cucinelli, Carat, Castaner and Marc by Marc Jacobs.

Davidoff, purveyor of fine cigars, has been in the local market for almost half a century and the company is “always happy with the performance of this brand”, says Ashley Micklewright, president and CEO of Bluebell.

Italian fashion label Moschino, going strong at 26 years here in Singapore, is undergoing “a revival at the moment all over the world due to the new designer, Jeremy Scott”, while LeSportsac, the American lifestyle brand of casual nylon bags that has been in the local market for 12 years, is “another stalwart of our portfolio that always performs somewhere between good and great”, offers Micklewright.

French ballet shoe brand Repetto and American footwear company UGG (famed for its signature boots that were all the rage several years ago), however, are having difficulty finding their feet in the fashion scene these days. They have both been in Singapore for three years now.

It is still early days yet for Italian fashion house Brunello Cucinelli but sales have been “getting better each month” since the brand was introduced to Singapore two years ago. It also happens to be one of Micklewright’s favourite brands: “The clothes are simply beautiful — to wear and to look at. So elegant, not only for men but for women too. No, especially, for women.”

This year Bluebell also acquired the distribution and retail rights to iconic footwear brand Manolo Blahnik, Anya Hindmarch designer bags and accessories from London, and Venchi fine Italian chocolates. It is too soon to tell how they will perform in the local market but Micklewright says initial sales have exceeded expectations for Manolo Blahnik so far.

The new acquisitions reflect Bluebell’s strategy in response to the retail slump. “In line with our strategy elsewhere in Asia, Bluebell is focusing less on ladies apparel and moving towards lifestyle brands and brands with an affordable price positioning,” says Micklewright.

“These brands offer us diversity. However, given the size of the market in Singapore, it is unlikely that we will open more than two stores for Manolo Blahnik and Anya Hindmarch. For Venchi, on the other hand, we can see up to five or six points of sale in the city,” he adds.

It is a strategy that reflects the increasingly challenging retail conditions “not only in terms of rents, which are now so high it is almost impossible to pay them and still make a profit given the turnover generated by high-end ladies’ apparel — but also the increasing impact of digital on the traditional retail business model,” says Micklewright. “Consumers are better informed of alternative offers and, as such, traditional pricing discrepancies cannot continue.”

The company is now looking at “pure digital plays” to complement its retail expertise. Functioning as an end-to-end partner to manage omni-channel strategies, Bluebell also offers its brand partners consulting and digital services such as e-store operation, technology and system integration, marketing and CRM services, and payment system integration.

“This is an area we see as both a threat and opportunity. We’ve started by taking minority positions, with an advisory role,” shares Micklewright.

The group also has what it calls the Bluebell Studio — a lifestyle division that acts as agent, wholesale importer and distributor, and buying consulting agency across Asia.

The company is in ongoing discussions to bring other new brands into Singapore but Micklewright is reticent about revealing any names. “Competition is so fierce and the world is just too small now,” he says.

He does, however, disclose Bluebell’s selection criteria for choosing brand partners to work with: “We have a process that involves grading each brand according to a number of criteria. There are about 20 in all, varying from the level of international awareness, to the ownership structure and, very importantly, the long-term vision. Interestingly, we seem to end up favouring brands that have a product line that is clearly distinctive.”

Asian persuasion
The story of Bluebell dates back over 60 years when its founder Peter Goemans opened a little perfume shop in Cannes on the French Riviera. The year was 1948; World War II had concluded three years earlier and economies were revving up again. The Far East was a hive of trade; with the foresight of early explorers, Goemans began selling perfumes and luxury goods in these duty- free markets.

In 1954, the company introduced European luxury to Japan with the opening of its first boutique in Asia. It established its Singapore and Hong Kong office in 1967, steadily gaining such a strong foothold in Asia over the decades that the company’s head office is now located in Hong Kong, where Micklewright is based.

The Englishman has been instrumental in Bluebell’s growth and expansion in the luxury sector, particularly in Asia, since joining the company more than two decades ago. He first joined Bluebell as operational controller and within a year was promoted to chief financial officer before taking on the role of chief operating officer.

Micklewright is credited for successfully steering the company through one of Asia’s most turbulent periods including the Asian financial crisis of 1997 followed by the SARS epidemic of 2002 and 2003. Under his leadership, Bluebell emerged from the turmoil stronger, more focused and with a firmer foundation to build upon.

As COO, he oversaw the setup (and subsequent sale) of the joint ventures with Moschino, Folli Follie and Jimmy Choo, as well as the setting up of Coty Prestige in Japan. He also had an integral role in bringing brands such as Paul Smith and Anya Hindmarch into the company during that era.

After five years as COO, Micklewright toyed briefly with the possibility of retirement for a six-month period, but returned to Bluebell as CEO in November 2010.

“In this industry, the finance function is almost a dirty word. It’s also a French company and I’ve been the only English guy they’ve ever recruited — and everyone knows how much the French like the English! So getting to be the CEO of a French luxury distribution company with a finance background is pretty cool,” Micklewright muses.

Some of Micklewright’s key successes as CEO include increasing turnover by 35%, leading Bluebell back into mainland China and Indonesia, embracing the challenges of the digital world, and encouraging diversification into non-apparel businesses through the acquisition of French patisserie Laduree and Danish jeweller Pandora.

Affordable luxury
With Micklewright at the helm, the company had also begun investing in brands with a price positioning nearer to affordable luxury, without jeopardising the company’s traditional core values and competencies in Asia’s high-end luxury market.

“It has been a pleasure not just to deal with the beautiful brands and their professional management teams, but to also be part of their growth in the region. We’ve brought brands to Asia that the average Asian consumer has never heard of, and made them into household names. That’s pretty cool too,” he adds.

What is it that makes Micklewright such an effective leader?

“I don’t like ‘yes-men’. And although it’s difficult to sometimes accept, I want to be challenged and constructively criticised,” he reflects. “I know my weaknesses and [therefore I] surround myself with really capable people, most of whom have the strengths I can only dream of. I don’t favour the word ‘boss’, and avoid saying ‘I’, preferring to say ‘we’. Let’s not kid ourselves… The company is bigger than me, but I am the leader so I have to lead.”

His character, he says, is the polar opposite of his work persona: “I’m quiet and inherently shy; I don’t like being in the limelight, the centre of attention. I prefer to be in the company of a small group of close friends rather than a large number of acquaintances. Professionally, I have to be the opposite!”

But you would not find the head of the fashion and lifestyle conglomerate in flamboyant threads. Micklewright’s personal style mirrors his reserved personality. He prefers to “keep it simple” on a typical workday with slacks or jeans, a white shirt, a jacket and a tie “only if I’m told to”.

Jamie Nonis enjoys writing about luxury lifestyle, business and holistic wellness.

This article appeared in the Options of Issue 757 (Dec 5) of The Edge Singapore.