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Global careers: Sarah Lim

The head of CTPartners’ UK retail & consumer practice on placing senior level candidates overseas

Should UK retailers recruit locally or export talent from the UK to international markets?

Expats will appreciate the brand values, the heritage and what the brand stands for and will ensure that is [communicated] right within the local market. Many locals in China are drawn to [Western] luxury groups because they will work for an international chief executive [who] is not local Chinese and has a different outlook and philosophy. They are going to learn more from that chief executive.

Which UK skills are in most demand?

UK retail skills are in high demand because the UK is seen as a very competitive, mature market. If you look across into Asia right now, there have been a couple of fairly high-profile moves with Lane Crawford recruiting Andrea O’Donnell from John Lewis and Sebastian Picardo from Burberry.

The US market is more difficult because of the visa restrictions, so unless they’re prepared to sponsor you it’s a less easy move. The challenge with continental Europe is that there aren’t enough people that speak languages. Particularly if they’re coming in at senior management rather than top executive level, because at senior management level they’d be running teams. You can’t do that through delegation.

What benefits does working abroad offer?

You have a wider appeal if you’ve worked in a range of different markets. One always has to temper that with the fact that you need to spend sufficient time in a job to prove that you’ve not just developed strategy but you’ve actually executed it and it’s delivered the results as well.

However, you have the potential to move up more quickly with international experience. Look at someone such as [Coast managing director] Margaret McDonald.

She’s Irish by background, has worked in the UK and the US, and is already on the landscape with a wide variety of different brands. Someone of her sort of profile would be really interesting for a lot of the US brands. The sheer scale of retailing in the US market is far bigger than what we have here, which takes it up another level again.

Which fashion businesses do you think have got it right when it comes to internationalisation?

One would probably look to the luxury brands rather than the classic UK retailers. The one that stands out for me is Burberry. It has done a fantastic job in terms of bringing in that range of people and has a really high calibre of talent.

You also look across at some of the people at Ralph Lauren. It’s a US business, which has physical presence in the UK, but it’s got its head office in Switzerland, so you’re automatically starting to look at a much more international pool of talent in its vice-president and senior vice-president level roles.

Premium high street retailers are now looking to these businesses and thinking that the talent that resides in some of those brands could help them take their brand to the next level, both in terms of realising ambitions of moving towards more aspirational luxury, and also the different mindset around working at an international level. 

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