With the experience of UK professionals now much sought after in emerging retail markets abroad, those bold enough to make the move will find more opportunities to quickly progress their career.
W ith emerging markets across Eastern Europe, Asia, the Middle East and South America expanding their retail operations, these countries are becoming increasingly hungry for the experience of UK fashion operators, meaning there is more opportunity for those seeking to climb the ladder overseas.
Fran Minogue, managing partner at executive search firm Heidrick & Struggles, says globalisation means there is increasing international movement.
“Everyone thinks they’ll go to the US, but it’s very hard to get a green card now,” she says. “In emerging markets like India and China, there’s great demand for UK workers because they don’t have the skills [there].” Minogue adds that UK merchandisers are some of the most skilled in Europe.
Moira Benigson, managing partner at executive search company MBS Group, says: “South Africa, the Middle East, Asia, particularly Thailand and China, are where the most opportunities are. Many countries have good ex-pat packages including paying for accommodation and kids’ schooling.”
Mary Anderson-Ford, director for retail at Whitepeak Group, says: “Opportunities for buyers and designers are in abundance [abroad]. The global view is that UK merchandisers, in London especially, which is the heartbeat of retailing in the UK, are in hot demand.” However, she warns about the difference in terminology of job descriptions: “In India, a merchandiser [works] in technical and production [roles], in the US a merchandiser is a buyer. Australia calls its merchandisers ‘planners’.”
A better climate, a new culture, not to mention favourable tax rates in some cases, are attractive to many people. But the pitfalls to contend with are how fluctuating exchange rates can impact your salary, and making sure that if you are intending to move with a spouse that they can get a visa too.
But for Minogue, the motivation for many senior retail people with ambition is simple: “If you want to get to the top in an international business you have to understand international markets.”
Among those that have made the move abroad is former Moss Bros chief executive Philip Mountford. Now chief executive of Hunkemöller, the Dutch lingerie retailer, which was sold to private equity business PAI from Dutch retail group Maxeda in November last year, he oversees a 500-strong chain that is in the middle of a large retail expansion.
“Even if I wasn’t officially based in another country, in all my jobs I’ve spent large amounts of time in other countries and I’ve always loved it,” he says. “The UK has some of the best management people in the world. They are good at cutting through all the layers. International businesses appreciate that.”
Although Mountford has a “never say never” attitude about returning to the UK, he says it can be limiting for someone with global ambitions.
“At Hunkemöller, we have 500 stores, and I’m opening a new store about every seven days. In the next 18 months, we’ll have 600 stores worldwide in 13 countries. EBITDA is 15% of sales. If you want to be part of a truly global business, all the best opportunities are abroad. If you look at the UK, which [fashion business] has an international presence? It’s only a few and it’s pretty small.”
Another international high flyer is Brit Samantha Jones, head of design for kidswear at department store chain C&A, based in Vilvoorde in Belgium, and who has also worked for Next in Portugal, Zara in Spain, and Turkish fashion retailer LC Waikiki, before moving to C&A.
Jones says her moves have been prompted by an opportunity to step up in her role and career. “[Working] abroad, you are more exposed to the day-to-day problems, while in the UK you are sheltered a little bit,” she says. “[International businesses] are more hands-on with the manufacturing process. Things are more verbal, more team-oriented, there’s less hierarchy with less time sitting in front of a computer. There’s also a lot of training available.”
Jones joined C&A one-and-a-half years ago. “It’s a truly multicultural business in 19 countries, they speak English in the office, and it’s been the easiest integration I’ve had. There’s been a big recruitment push - a lot of designers and UK candidates keep coming up.”
For Jones, the career advantages of working abroad are clear. “You can get experience abroad that you wouldn’t get so quickly in the UK and you can move faster in your career,” she says.
David Riddiford, former chief executive of Arnotts department store in Dublin, has had international roles during his career. His early career was UK-based, including holding the roles of merchandise director at Harvey Nichols and buying and merchandising director at Selfridges. But in 2004 he went to be president of Hong Kong department store business Lane Crawford.
“They [people in Hong Kong] are interested in working hard, making money and shopping,” he says. “[The team] never like to leave the office before the management, and once when myself and some colleagues were working late, we left the building and walked around the block, waiting for everyone to go home before we went back in.”
Although he has always been attracted to working in different cultures, he says there are distinct professional opportunities available outside the UK. “Regions like Southeast Asia and the Middle East are developing at a very fast rate and the opportunity to get involved in building a business is a lot greater compared with a more mature market like the UK.”
He advises: “You have to recognise it takes time to assimilate and to just live inside the British bubble is a mistake.”