Who is Paul Price? That was the question on everyone’s lips as news of the appointment of this relatively unknown figure to the top job at Topshop and Topman was announced yesterday.
“Don’t put my name to this, but I didn’t know who he was,” admits one industry insider. She is not the only one. Headhunters, known for keeping their contacts books bulging with all the key names in retail, are none the wiser.
Unlike, say, Christos Angelides, who was appointed CEO of Reiss in February, Price’s public reputation does not precede him. Perhaps this is not so surprising given his current employer: Burberry is a notoriously private company that keeps its staff away from the press.
What we do know is that the Princeton-educated American has spent the past 10 years as chief merchandising officer at Burberry. His LinkedIn profile shows he was previously executive vice-president of Lucky Brand Jeans and vice-president at kitchenware company Williams Sonoma. Price will replace Topshop’s longstanding managing director, Mary Homer, who held the role for 11 years.
Headhunter Fran Minogue believes he brings a strong skillset to the role: “He’s a merchandiser by background and will have a good analytical side. He’s also running a global business and can bring that global perspective. And with Topshop in the US, there’s a lot of opportunity for the business to expand.”
A source who knows Price describes him as “a nice, warm man with a big personality”. He adds: “He’s flamboyant. He’s a likeable personality with lots of energy. He’s got a clear, strong view point on things. He’s not your traditional chief executive – he’s ultimately a product guy.”
It is thought that his biggest recent achievement at Burberry was streamlining the labels from three to one.
Another headhunter, Harveen Gill, says the appointment of Price speaks volumes about the wider trend of retailers making hires from outside the traditional retail leadership sphere: “It’s indicative of the fact that wider business skills are required to lead businesses – it’s not the same old, same old.
“He’s coming from a premium brand and has a background in merchandising – he’s not coming from the ‘usual suspect’ pile. It’s a pattern we’ve seen recently. The DNA in a leader is different now and he’s reinforcing that.”
However, Gill warns that it could signal a wider problem: “It highlights a lack of talent in the fashion industry. There’s a complete lack of leadership. We have talent at the 50-plus-year-old level, but we haven’t cultivated that level of talent at a younger age.”
Critics argue that Topshop and Topman have lost their magic in recent years. Once the go-to for edgy, cool fashion, shoppers are shunning Topshop in favour of high street competitors such as Zara and Primark, and online players such as Boohoo and Missguided, whose constant stock of new designs with cheap price tags has won over its “Generation Z” target market of 16-to-25-year-olds.
“The competition is increasingly online from the likes of Asos and Zalando,” says Minogue. “Topshop needs to improve its digital offer, and provide a joined-up and slicker experience. It also needs more of a real sense of style – it has to keep upping its game. It needs to move forward creatively. It used to have a strong leading position.”
Topman’s problems are similar, believes Minogue: “It seriously needs to up its creative and design credentials.”
Independent analyst Richard Hyman agrees: “Topshop has certainly lost some of its edge. My interpretation for a while has been that it’s been dumbed down for the US market – American consumers are far less fashionable than Europeans, so to hit the spot with American fashionistas, I think the handwriting has been diluted.
“The customer at [US Topshop stockist department store] Nordstrom is a bit older [than the standard Topshop customer], less fashion forward and less of an early adopter. In my opinion, that’s where the business has fallen down, and it’s impacted performance.”
In addition to addressing product, Price will have his work cut out for other reasons.
“Trade is poor and morale is low because of Sir Philip Green’s public persona and the company’s press coverage,” adds Gill.
Burberry, on the other hand, has carved out a name for itself as the pre-eminent luxury British brand. Whether Price can sprinkle some of this success over Topshop and Topman remains to be seen.
“We need to reserve judgement,” says Gill. “We can’t write him off before he even gets in there.”
One thing is for sure, he will feel the pressure early on from a very hands-on Green.