Some people are lucky enough to live a life of luxury. The splendidly named Raphael le Masne de Chermont is different, however – he has devoted his career to it.
After graduating in 1987 with his masters in management qualification from Audencia Nantes School of Management, the French grande école, de Chermont worked for some of the biggest brands in the portfolio of Switzerland’s Richemont group – Cartier, Piaget, Panerai and Baume & Mercier – in the UK, Belgium and Hong Kong.
By 2001, however, he wanted a change from the world of watches and jewellery, and asked Richemont to put him in charge of one of its smaller investments, Hong Kong-based Shanghai Tang. As chief executive he has steered the transformation of a concept based on the traditions of Shanghai tailoring into China’s first luxury lifestyle brand – earning himself the informal title of “le mandarin de luxe” in the French press.
His three years at one of France’s top business schools have helped de Chermont, 46, throughout his career, but there is no substitute for experience. “The business school gives you all the basics, including how to read a balance sheet, marketing, human resources, tax, fiscal studies and so on, so it gives you a broad picture of what you can encounter in the professional world,” he says. “But it doesn’t replace a good first job or a career, because what you’re missing in the studies sometimes is, of course, the real experience of human relationships and how to handle different issues.”
While the cases that students examine at business schools can show how a concept can be turned into a business model, it is important to live that experience too, he says. “Until you are accountable for it, you don’t really feel the pressure. You learn through pain sometimes, and by trying things and making mistakes.”
One surprise for him after leaving Audencia was how much time he would spend selling – and how useful it could be.
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“It’s funny, when you graduate from a business school you think you don’t want to sell, because that is not what you’re meant to do, and actually I sold a lot at the beginning of my career. That’s what gave me confidence in business – all my career I’ve been selling. To put in place marketing and brand strategies, you need to understand how to sell.”
This combination of education and experience has helped fulfil de Chermont’s vision at Shanghai Tang. The company had begun as a quirky, art deco Hong Kong boutique, founded in the mid-1990s by David Tang and stocked with Chinese-made clothes and accessories. It became a big draw for the millions of visitors to Hong Kong around the time of its handover to China in 1997, but a second outlet in New York was less successful and it seemed the concept was not travelling well.
“They were a bit stuck,” he says. “They had to bring this concept, based on extremely ethnic, beautiful but not easily wearable [clothes], to the next stage. That’s where my team and I came in. We said, ‘Let’s work on this concept, keep the DNA of what David had created and put it into a proper brand that would travel, have a presence globally, be relevant and wearable, and still be Shanghai Tang and different.’”
One of the advantages of a good education, be it from a business school or elsewhere, is that it can inculcate a desire to continue learning…