From frozen food to hot leather

An interview with Robert Polet, president, CEO, and chairman of Gucci Group.

By Robert Friedman, Fortune international editor

(Fortune Magazine) -- When Robert Polet, former head of Unilever's frozen-foods division, took over the luxury group in 2004 after the departure of celebrity designer Tom Ford, industry insiders predicted a meltdown. Polet has proved them wrong. Last year profits at the group soared 44 percent, to $741 million. Fortune's international editor, Robert Friedman, talked to the 52-year-old executive about how he silenced the skeptics.

Your numbers are up. What's the secret?

At the end of 2001 we went from mono brands and local operations to having real portfolio brands and a global group. We tilted the organization from a leadership of two to a leadership of 20. We had the essence of each brand, a three-year plan, brand by brand, and we put teams of a CEO and creative director with each brand.

So you came in with this in mind?

When I came in July 1, 2004, after 3 1/2 weeks I said to my wife, "I won't be joining you guys on a holiday." I packed my bags, stepped on a plane, and went around the world visiting 168 of our stores. I spoke to or met 2,500 of the 11,000 people working in Gucci. I visited 100 stores of the competition. I had the chance to actually discover the company, the culture, the people, the competition, the rules of the game. I came back with knowledge and a good view.

After Tom Ford left, a lot of people thought Gucci (Charts) would suffer. What is it about the brand that's so powerful?

Last year Gucci had its 85th birthday, and I would say it's still young and as relevant for my 20-year-old daughter as it is for my mother, who's 76. Here lies the secret of brands: They need to be managed for the long term. There will be CEOs and designers who come and go. So the brand is always king.

But some brands vanish. How do you manage them long-term?

One word: consistency. Imagine the brand is a friend. If that friend becomes inconsistent, the first time you say, "Hmm, strange." Second time it happens you say, "I'm not sure I feel comfortable with this person anymore because they're unpredictable." The third time you say, "I'm going to look for a new friend." That's exactly what happens with a brand. If it is managed in an inconsistent way, the consumer distrusts it and starts moving to another. That's how a brand dies.

What in retail excites you?

Customers get educated by the retail experience they have. So a customer who goes into an Apple store, or an H&M or Zara, will be influenced by the way the merchandise is presented or how quickly and how often the merchandise is shifted. If the customers have been educated to expect new collections every seven or eight weeks, that's what they'll expect in our stores.

So are you speeding up your processes?

Yes. It's important that customers know that every two months it's a good idea to go in because there might be something new. And you'd rather have your customers in your store ten times a year than only three or four times.

How is H&M's disposable mindset affecting luxury brands?

What you see when customers have the self-confidence and are informed about brands and products is that they dare to choose to wear Gap jeans with a $3,000 Bottega Veneta handbag. So they mix and match. I think it's an expression of self-confidence, and it's natural and totally right as well.

Do you want your creative directors to become stars?

No, the brand is the hero.  Top of page