Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Origins of Innovation in the Retail Business

When it comes to innovation, two industries come to mind: technology and fashion. Not surprisingly, in New York City, one has plenty of opportunities to partake in discussions on that very topic: where do fashion and technology intersect? And how does one define innovation as it pertains to retail?

On March 29, I attended one of Yuli Ziv’s, (Fashion 2.0 Entrepreneur and Founding Member of Style Coalition) successful meet ups. Ziv brought together a panel of experts to discuss the trends of E-commerce, a sector that seems to be constantly in flux both because of the rapid advances of technology today but also because fashion itself has become fast. The following day, I found myself in the second row at the amphitheater of the French Institute /Alliance Française (FIAF) where renowned French jewelry designer, Lorenz Bäumer spoke about his work (

When I booked the two events I had very different expectations from each one. In retrospect, I realize that both evenings offered uncannily similar points. This validated for me the direction the market seems to be taking these days, especially as this direction manifests itself in mergers, acquisitions, and generally speaking, intense market consolidation.

Ziv’s Fashion 2.0 event took place on March 29 at a venue in the Flatiron District of Manhattan. While the 200 attendees who crowded the space were primarily bloggers, developers, and fashion enthusiasts (with the occasional investment banker hiding near the bar), the panelists represented a very specific sector of the industry, namely small to medium size private companies in the retail business. They are presented here in alphabetical order: Katia Beauchamp - Co-Founder, BirchBox, a subscription retail company that combines a curated physical product with online editorial and ecommerce that was launched in September 2010. Michelle Madhok - Founder and CEO, SheFinds Media, an editorial website that aims to make shopping online easy and fun for busy women, highlighting only the best products with independent reviews and links to buy. SheFinds was founded in 2004. Pranay Mehra – Head of US Web Marketing, YOOX Group, the global Internet retailing partner for the leading fashion and design brands and has established itself amongst the market leaders with its multi-brand stores and, as well as with several mono-brand stores, all "Powered by YOOX Group. YOOX was founded in 2000. Erik Lautier - Director of Ecommerce, Lacoste, a high-end apparel company founded in 1933 that sells high-end clothing, footwear, perfume, leather goods, watches eyewear, and tennis outfits. The company can be recognized by its green crocodile logo.

In contrast, the event at FIAF was more formal.  It addressed an equally large audience that comprised corporate executives from major department stores in New York City, salespeople in jewelry retail, journalists from major fashion publications, but also those genuinely interested in art. The difference of context was justified by the mere fact that Lorenz Bäumer is a luxury brand within the world of jewelry. The brands that presented on 3/29 are not part of the luxury sector with the exception of Lacoste (which is an upscale brand trying to reposition itself at the upper tiers of upscale). Finally, Lorenz Bäumer did not address Ecommerce because it does not apply to precious jewelry but he spoke as passionately about social media as the four panelists did the evening before.

Despite the differences, the main point of convergence for both events is the fact that smaller, younger, and specifically private companies are often forced to be innovative in order to compete with the giants of the industry and their exorbitant budgets. Innovation therefore derives from the need for better and faster technology, original content, and genuine dialog with the customers. When one is small, young, and private the opportunities to pursue all of the three aforementioned avenues that lead to innovation is relatively easy. And the more one hones in on these particular skills, the more agile the company becomes. More agility ultimately means greater market share.

These were exactly Lorenz Bäumer’s challenges when he began his career as a jeweler working with precious stones and had to measure up to the legends of Place Vendôme in Paris. He focused on providing personalized service to his clients, original content (which is how he differentiated his product), while he kept a genuine dialog going—in person and online. But these challenges presented also an opportunity for him to clearly articulate his brand, which he has accomplished with great precision, coherence, and flair. This is exactly why he was hired as the creative force behind the newly launched LVMH jewelry line. LVMH recognized in him the agility, imagination, and closeness to the market that a big group cannot have—unless it acquires it. This is what several of the Fashion 2.0 entrepreneurs confirmed as well.  The retail industry is undergoing major changes, not only because of the innovation in content and technology, but also because innovation becomes very desirable to those who have not been able to generate and implement new ideas on their own. As a result, the retail industry will be undergoing intense consolidation in the next two to three years and until some very powerful, large groups have been formed. The questions that we will be exploring at that point in time will concern perhaps issues of synergies and how those will keep the wheels of innovation going.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Investing in the Media and Entertainment Business

I did not know that private equity firms and venture capitalists take creative businesses seriously. Only recently was it made known that private equity investors took interest in fashion houses. Which other creative business could become a target for investment and growth? It turns out most of the media and entertainment businesses may appear appealing to savvy investors. This is what I learned last Friday at the MBA—Media and Entertainment Conference (MEC) organized by the best business schools in the US: Columbia Business School, The Wharton School, MIT Sloan Management School, Duke The Fuqua School of Business, and NYU The Leonard N. Stern School of Business.

The conference took place on Friday February 25, 2011 at Columbia’s Low Library. McKinsey & Company, Goldman Sachs, and AOL were the underwriters of the event while a great number of MBA students from the aforementioned schools took charge of the logistics. Throughout the day, great discussions unfolded and hundreds of other MBAs and many professionals were able to participate.

The main point of the keynote address by Leslie Moonves, President and CEO CBS Corporation was that content is key, especially now that digital technology is enabling the industry to transform structurally. This struck me as an interesting point of differentiation between this conference and the one on the Retail Industry I attended a few weeks ago also at Columbia University. There I learned that retail/fashion/design brands are using digital technology as a means of distribution and a new way to interact with their customers. At the MEC I heard from those who own distribution channels and who invest in new digital technology to transform these channels while they also strive to develop proprietary content. What type of content? Anything that is based on good writing, such as films, TV series, books—after all CBS owns the esteemed publishing house of Simon & Schuster. What a remarkable moment this is: media companies capitalize on inexpensive productions (such as reality shows) that bring spectatorship numbers up while creative companies (fashion, design, advertising) experiment with new content to take advantage of the new digital technology. One wonders for how long these two industries will be approaching what seems to be the same target, whether the two will merge under a new order or whether yet a third type of business will spring up to dominate both directions.

Content is the driving force either for those who produce it and wish to increase its reach or for those who have been facilitating its distribution. Content was the catalyst behind the acquisition of The Huffington Post by AOL, a business transaction that took place just days before the conference and as a result stirred an exciting discussion between Arthur Minson, CFO of AOL, and John Martin, CFO of Time Warner.

Content is what impels Contour Venture Partners, Canaan Partners, Warburg Pincus and Zelnick Media to invest in new ventures in the media business and not technology alone. Content is what inspires film financing, an area that most private equity investors avoid, unless they have a solid (low to zero correlation) strategy as Chip Seelig Jr. Partner and Managing Director, Dune Capital Management facetiously admitted. Apparently, the film industry remains the most elusive to investors. Even with a well thought out approach to content, a production does not always respond to the audience’s psychographic wants and often results to “flops” (creatively and financially speaking) mused Brent Stone, Partner ABRY Partners. Finally, the one industry where content itself remains elusive is the art market. “The Art Market in the 21st Century,” was the last panel but rather than crowning my day with new insights on the visual arts industry it sadly highlighted the discordance between the uninitiated (to art) public and the uninitiated (to business) art professionals. Except for the “black swan” of course: right now this would be Manish Vora, Co-Founder, former investment banker and driving force behind a major transformation that even the arts industry is about to face.

Next year, the conference will take place at NYU’s Stern School of Business. In one year’s time, a whole new generation of ventures will have come and gone with plenty of valuable lessons for those who find the creative fields to be an appealing investment. 

Monday, February 7, 2011

Retail Reborn

The Department Store shaped America. As a new type of building in which to trade clothing, home appliances, and a variety of other goods it penetrated American life and changed its course. There are a few notable examples in Europe; think of La Samaritaine and Le Bon Marché in Paris, two very prominent examples that changed the retail business in France, or the Schocken Department Store in Germany. But it is only in the US where this model of retailing changed life for good. It changed entire cities, their history and architecture. It changed people’s needs and wants. It became the cornerstone of new urban settlements and the center of social life. And while it spurred American consumerism, it also ignited manufacturing, entrepreneurship, and financial savvy all of which have defined American identity for at least the last one hundred and fifty years.

The decision to invite Michael Gould, Chairman and CEO, Bloomingdale’s to deliver one of the two keynote addresses at Columbia’s Business School Fifth Annual Retail & Luxury Goods Conference was truly enlightened.  The conference took place on February 4, 2011 at the Low Memorial Library, Columbia University in New York.  Aniza Shah (’11) and Derrick Chan (’11) hit the right note with that decision and also put a most interesting program in place for their audience.  They also echoed a similar decision the NYU Stern Luxury Retail Conference Committee made a little over three months ago ( when they invited Lord & Taylor CEO Brendan Hoffman to be the keynote speaker.

This means that student committees know how to read the pulse of the market and put together programs that many a professional organization would envy. It also means that New York City is blessed with two wonderful institutions, each one with its own character and approach to student life but both with a very rigorous business curriculum. These two schools have traditionally staffed executive positions both in the Garment District but also in the great department stores that dot the city’s grid. It seems that these two schools are also producing the executives for several retail and luxury brands that have already expanded their businesses oversees—and wisely so, as Rick Darling, President, Li & Fung, USA pointed out in his keynote address, later that afternoon. (

It is not easy to summarize the speakers’ main arguments in one entry only. But the same points kept returning in both key speeches: staff training and development and brand development strategy. The former raises questions of leadership (should it be top-down? Or should one lead and manage from behind? How does one reach out to recruit?). The latter is the outcome of two important events: a. manufacturing has very little future domestically (within the US) and is rapidly developing in new hubs in Asia (Central China, Thailand, Bangladesh for example); b. the size of the American market is not enough in itself for brands to maintain their competitive advantage. It may have rendered a variety of brands complacent because the opportunity to record substantial revenues within a consumerist society of the size of this country has always been present. However, today, when new economies are emerging and grow to consume, a brand’s viability and its competitiveness are proven on an international level. For this to be successful, brands need to study and understand their new markets rather than rely on outdated models supplied by the saturated by now American reality.

These are tough points to digest but Profs. Ketty Maisonrouge and Mark A. Cohen who moderated the panel discussions had planned a series of thought-provoking questions that allowed the panelists to express a variety of perspectives across brand levels (from mass-market to upmost luxury). It did not hurt that the audience (mostly Columbia students but young professionals as well) was particularly sophisticated and added to the discussion with pertinent, and rather challenging questions. I will make sure to return to a few of the most novel ideas that were presented last Friday in subsequent entries. Certainly, I am looking forward to the Sixth Annual Retail Conference of 2012.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Bottom-Up Reassessment

I feel I have come full circle.  Last year, I began this blog inspired by my former professor’s, Edward Altman’s, work at the Leonard N. Stern School of Business. A year later, in December of 2010, he gave me his latest paper to read, “Sovereign Default Risk Assessment From The Bottom-Up,” where he and Herbert Rijken elaborate on their new model, based on Altman’s classic Z-score, and how it measures sovereign default risk based primarily on the health of privately held companies within each country. (You can find a copy of his paper here:

Yet, this last year was more than just reading papers. The year took shape for me by going to conferences, attending meetings, and joining online discussions. All these activities had one thing in common: they evolved around those who manage private companies (small, medium, and large) and the problems that they face each day.

Ironically, I have been pedaling backwards for the entire year. I attended several private equity conferences where the Who’s Who of the financial world stirred as much thrill from the public as Bono does every time he appears in concert. I backpedaled my way to meetings on Venture Capital and realized that the major players had already had a whole other life in seed investing, often as entrepreneurs themselves—on the “other” side, that is. Naturally, I began following what’s happening in the start-up world but from the entrepreneur’s side. Funding ceased being a concern (although it very much is for every single one of the entrepreneurs I met last year).  Building the business, gaining traction, creating a product the customer wants, these have been the primary questions on my mind since last summer.  In the process, I met wonderful people who are inspiring, imaginative, and generous with their advice like Peter Shankman of HARO, Graham Lawlor of Ultra Light Start Ups, Carrissa Reiniger of Silver Lining and so many others.

While I continue feeling the attraction for companies that remain detached from the public markets, what happens in each sphere (private vs. public) is very much intertwined. Vistage, a West-Coast membership organization for CEOs of small and mid-sized companies, has been reading the market’s pulse on a quarterly basis and has been predicting consumers’ behavior and its effect on the businesses with which it works. No matter which side one takes, every decision has consequences and this is what I learned as I studied a few companies that had made a difference in the way the business world is functioning and re-structuring.

My hiatus from this blog for almost three months was due to my own desire to try the market out and build something for myself, a company that caters to those who have not had the chance or the time to learn how to appreciate and incorporate luxury into their lives ( And while the dice has not been cast yet on my venture’s longevity, I am thrilled to return to this blog and keep you posted on what the conference/meet-up and real life circuit has in store for all of us inquisitive minds this year.