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How I got here: Phase Eight's Hilary Kavanagh on why travel broadens the mind

Experiencing different cultures is a passion for Phase Eight’s head of European retail.

Hilary Kavanagh

What does your typical week involve?

On a Monday I usually meet up with the human resources, merchandising, marketing, online, visual merchandising, retail operations and logistics departments to review trade from the previous week. We also look at what we’ve got coming up over the next few weeks in terms of promotions and new product drops, as well as analysing sales activity in the eight countries I cover, namely Norway, Belgium, Sweden, Switzerland, Germany, Holland, Latvia and Estonia. I also work closely with our head of international development, Rosie Stringer, to review trade and look at new spaces suggested by our concession partners.

On a Tuesday I tend to fly out to visit one of our European stores and then the rest of the week I’m out in the field. I visit stores and meet up with the store managers and concession partners, as well as looking at potential spaces and reviewing if a proposed site is right for our brand. One week I actually ended up in three different countries in one day.

How many territories or stores do you look after worldwide?

Last year we opened 70 points of sale worldwide, which we define as concessions in department stores or standalone stores. Across Europe I look after approximately 100 points of sale, which includes 15 standalone stores. Six weeks ago I added Latvia and Estonia to my portfolio and soon I will be managing Italy when we launch there in September.

Which are your key markets?

It depends on the needs of each market, as even though there may be key markets where we have more sites, sometimes if we’re new in a market I need to visit more often to review performance. This varies from basic store visits to meetings with concession partners.

If we have new stores opening we travel to the county to check everything is as it needs to be. This means that pretty much every week there’s a country getting a visit. I manage a team of 11, including three people in retail operations in the UK, two regional managers in Germany, as well as one manager in Belgium, Holland, Sweden, Norway, Latvia and Switzerland, respectively.

Depending on the country some are grouped together by location. For example Belgium and Holland are grouped in terms of logistics, whereas Germany is geographically so big that we split it in two, with one regional manager for the northeast and one for the southwest.

Have these markets changed over time?

I’ve been in charge of retail in Europe for about a year and a half, but if we put it into context three years ago all we had was a wholesale business in the Middle East and now we have 151 points of sale worldwide. We look at each country and assess the market’s viability, looking for growth potential and opportunities to expand. We have 38 points of sale in Germany and 37 in Switzerland, which are our biggest markets in Europe. Phase Eight also has 20 concessions in the Middle East, which is where we started off internationally. Over the next five years we plan to examine emerging markets to see where opportunities may lie.

What are your top tips for building relationships with partners overseas?

Meet them face to face. Make sure you’re maintaining regular contact and keeping in touch over Skype, email or phone. Be supportive and listen to them because they know their market really well. It is also important to keep a common goal in mind.

Which is your favourite international retail market?

I think from a fashion perspective it would probably have to be Switzerland and Sweden, because they are quite different to the UK. I love Swedish fashion. It’s very elegant, simple and clean cut. Swiss taste is very chic and it’s also a beautiful country to visit.

What is the best thing about your job?

One great thing about my job is the people. I get to work with some really interesting, entrepreneurial people. It’s a really fun place to work because it’s very busy, diverse and we’re always evolving.

Getting to travel and experience cultures in so many different countries is also something I really enjoy. When I go abroad my schedule is very busy, but regardless of what time I arrive in a city I make a point of having a walk around to look at what people are wearing.

What is the most important lesson you’ve learnt?

A real life lesson in terms of trading and retail has been the rise and fall of the Celtic Tiger, the period of rapid economic growth and then contraction in Ireland. Being Irish and living through this period I learnt how to manage my business through good times, but also how to trade through the difficult times and try to keep everybody motivated.

What advice would you give to your 18-year-old self?

The main things would be to get out there and travel. I’ve always enjoyed travelling on a personal level, but I never thought I would get to do it as a career. So I would say see the world and learn a language. Do as many different things as you possibly can job wise to get a broad range of experience.

If you didn’t work in fashion, which industry would you want to work in?

Would you believe originally I wanted to be a maths teacher, but then I thought I’d rather get into something a bit more people orientated. At one stage I was looking at going into the beauty sector and opening up my own business, but I’ve been in retail all my life and absolutely love it.


October 2013 to present – Head of retail for Europe, Phase Eight  

April 2012- October 2013 - Head of UK retail, Phase Eight

2011 –2012 – Area manager, Southwest England, Topshop/Topman                                      

October 2008 – 2011 – Area manager, Ireland, Topshop/Topman                             

July 2003 – 2008 – Area manager, Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland, Clarks

2002 – July 2003 – Concession manager, Arnotts, Dublin, River Island

October 2001 – 2002 – Store manager, Liffey Valley, Dublin, River Island

October 1999 – 2001 – Store manager, Liffey Valley, Dublin, Clarks

October 1989 – 1999 – Store manager, H. Samuel                               

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