My Life’s Work | Helen Brocklebank, CEO, Walpole

In this weekly series, we meet a Walpole member chief executive to discover what makes them tick, how they define success, and what keeps them awake at night. This week, Walpole’s own CEO Helen Brocklebank, on getting British luxury the recognition it deserves, what she would be doing in a parallel life, and her guiding principle.

Helen joined Walpole as CEO in February 2017. Before joining Walpole, she ran her own content agency but spent the majority of her career in publishing, working with luxury brands.

What does British luxury mean to you?
British luxury has a unique sensibility – its products and experiences make the country famous throughout the world for creativity, craftsmanship, inventiveness, quality, heritage and the ability to conjure stories from a magical past and make them new, exciting and relevant. Against a backdrop of geo-political uncertainty, British luxury brands represent stability, a belief in the long-game, the power of the beautiful. They’re the very best ambassadors Britain could have.

What’s your vision?
I’m determined to get British luxury the recognition it deserves. Luxury contributes so much to the UK: it’s not just about the economic value, though £32.2 billion makes luxury bigger than both fashion and automotive in the UK. It’s not even just about the soft power, but as a truly regional business, luxury creates sustainable employment the length and breadth of the country.

What do you consider your greatest achievement?
I’ve only been at Walpole ten months – give me a chance! I’m thrilled about this week’s Awards – it was wonderful to be able to celebrate the many achievements of the sector, and very encouraging it generated so much press. I’m also really proud of Walpole’s inaugural trade mission to the US, the world’s largest luxury market, which was a huge success: the US is such an open door for high end British brands, we plan to focus hard on that market over the next three years to maximise our impact. I’d love to say I had something to do with Brands of Tomorrow, Walpole’s next gen programme; we celebrated its tenth anniversary this year and it was amazing to see how many well-known brands Walpole helped to develop when they were at early stage – Bremont, Nyetimber, Charlotte Olympia to name but three.

How do you define success?
I’m much more interested in being of value.

What’s your greatest extravagance?
I can’t pass a bookshop without buying a book, so I joined the London Library in the hope that I could get behind the sharing economy. It’s one of my favourite private members’ clubs, so is in itself quite an extravagance but it’s the only place in London where one can enjoy complete silence. A favourite indulgence is sneaking in for a spare hour and in one of the leather armchairs in the reading room overlooking St.James Square.

What inspires you?
Listening to Walpole members’ success stories, particularly when they’re investing more in manufacturing or making in the UK.

What frustrates you?
Brexit is an endlessly frustrating phenomenon particularly as 30-60% of the British luxury workforce are EU nationals and retaining talent is so fundamental to success. I’m also hugely frustrated that the high end and luxury industries are recognised as a special sector by the EU, but not by our own government. However, that gives me something to aim for. Watch this space.

Your guiding principle?
Vincit qui se vincit – [literally, she who conquers, conquers herself] if you want to win life’s important battles, you need to get over yourself. Admittedly, that’s a fairly colloquial interpretation of Publilius Syrus’s maxim.

Who, living or dead, do you most admire?
My grandmother was splendid – she was twenty-three when all women over 18 got the vote in 1928, and never lost her fierce pride in having won the right to have her say, so I never, ever pass up the opportunity to put my X in the ballot box. She also had very glamorous clothes and smelt of face-powder and Chanel No.5; as a child, I thought her the acme of sophistication.

Which words or phrases do you most over use?
‘Amazing’, ‘Blimey’, and ‘It gives me the pip’

What keeps you awake at night?
Ah, the long dark teatime of the soul, when all the things you did badly, or left undone, the ways in which you fell short, line up accusingly at the end of the bed and glower at you. But on the whole, I am an expert sleeper – I’m like one of those dolls whose eyes close once they’re horizontal, and I sleep like the dead until the alarm goes at six.

What do you most value in your friends?
As Evelyn Waugh once wrote, “We cherish our friends not for their ability to amuse us, but for ours to amuse them”. My friends have been very patient with me as I’ve thrown myself into my job in my first year at Walpole, for which I’m very grateful.

In a parallel life, what would you be doing?
I’d be a gin-soaked ex-pat in 1930’s Tangier, squinting through the smoke from a Turkish cigarette as I bashed out obtuse and unsuccessful novels on an Olivetti typewriter.

What piece of advice would you give someone entering the luxury industry now?
Be relentlessly curious – the best ideas won’t come from looking at what other brands are doing, but from looking outside the business, particularly to art and culture; Giles Deacon’s couture is inspired by Visconti’s film of The Leopard, Christopher Bailey by Henry Moore and Virginia Woolf and Bentley’s Stefan Sielaff by Vogue. What’s past is always prologue.