Grace Under Fire: Luxury leadership in troubled times | Culture Club – what links an Argentinian football manager, an Italian designer and a British barrister turned luxury brand owner?

Walpole star columnist Peter Howarth, editor, content expert and CEO of luxury creative agency Show Media, talks to luxury’s leaders about their approach to the crisis, and shares his insights into these extraordinary times.

In the latest in this series, Peter Howarth speaks to two men who see the power of a positive corporate culture as key to success – Brunello Cucinelli in Perugia and Nick Brooke in Long Eaton.

A few weeks ago, my wife Emma was reviewing the papers on The Andrew Marr Show when a minor Twitter tremor took place. It concerned whether the picture of the grey-haired middle-aged man that was barely visible behind her on the bookcase was of Leeds United manager, Argentine Marcelo Bielsa. The Leeds faithful started to ask each other on social media whether Emma, who is editor of The Sunday Times, was actually MOT with them (“Marching on Together” is the Leeds United anthem).

The truth is, one of our boys, Billy, 20, had replaced a picture in a frame of his younger brother with a photo of Bielsa, for the “bants”, as he would say. And the effect it had took him, and his mother, by surprise. Who knew so many Leeds fans watched Andrew Marr? And that their eagle eyes would pick out their hero from a jumbled bookcase well in the background of the shot, broadcast from a laptop camera from a South London kitchen?

Billy has been a die-hard Leeds fan all his life, and in Bielsa he has found a man worthy of his worship. The manager frequently comes up in conversation around the family dinner table. Last season, Leeds were top of the league until stalling at the very end and just missing promotion. This season, when lockdown struck, they were top again and on course for joining the top flight for the first time since 2003. You can tell I’ve been well-schooled.

But it is not actually the winning that is the point, Billy will tell you – and frequently tells us. As a student of Philosophy and Ethics at Leeds (of course), Billy has a theory that Bielsa is, in fact, the perfect modern-day embodiment of what Kant calls a deontologist. This hypothesis was expounded at length at dinner the other evening, and went something like this: ‘In moral philosophy, you have two schools of thought,’ said Billy. ‘Utilitarian, which believes that right and wrong is determined by outcome and says that the ethical choice is the one which will result in the greatest good for the greatest number of people; and then deontology, which was invented by Kant, which says that you pursue morality according to your duty, not because of the outcome.’

I was struggling to keep up here. Billy went on: ‘The difference is that whereas the utilitarian sees action as a means to an end, the deontologist always looks to the action as an end in itself. I cannot think of anyone who more perfectly represents this than Marcelo Bielsa.’

What?

Everything Bielsa does, Billy explained patiently, is based on his notion of his duty as a football manager. And this duty is not to win games but to make his players play in a style that is entertaining and brings pleasure to the fans that watch it. He is notorious for choosing to work with clubs that are rooted in their communities, where football is really important to the social cohesion and sense of place. This is the reason why though he has won few things with his teams – an Olympic Gold in 2004 when he was coaching Argentina is the exception – he is so respected by many in the game, including fellow managers such as Pep Guardiola and Mauricio Pochettino. Because, says Billy, he has a clear idea of how football should be played, which is not based on winning at all costs.

The epitome of this attitude came last season during an important home game with Aston Villa during the promotion battle at the end of the season. An Aston Villa player went down and his teammates stopped playing. Leeds carried on and scored. It wasn’t illegal, but it was not in the spirit of the game. And it was certainly not in the spirit of Bielsa’s game. So incensed was the Argentinian by his players’ disregard for sportsmanship that he instructed them to let the opposite side kick-off and to not contest the ball at all, thus giving Villa a free run to score in turn. It was an extraordinary move. The visitors duly equalised and the game ended 1-1, which ensured that Leeds’ promotion rivals Sheffield United achieved automatic elevation.

Afterwards when questioned about his decision, Bielsa said simply: ‘English football is known around the world for its noble features.’

Billy’s point is that the obsession with winning in sport means you lose something. You lose the idea of your team and their exertions representing something greater than just a striving for a podium place. That is not to say Bielsa doesn’t want his charges to do well. His cult status began when he managed the Chilean national side and radically improved their performance, and Leeds will almost certainly go up into the Premiership for the first time in 17 years in this, only his second season as manager, if the FA can work out how to bring the 2019-20 fixtures to a satisfactory conclusion.

But, says Billy, Bielsa is all about footballing culture and the culture of the team he is leading. ‘He once found out that one of his cleaners had to get two buses to get to work at the stadium. So he bought her a car.’ Leeds also took the decision for all board members, senior management and players to take a 100% pay cut when Covid-19 descended so that the non-playing support staff would not have to be furloughed and could continue to earn their full pay. The Argentinian also ordered Covid testing kits of his club in January.

I have never asked Italian designer Brunello Cucinelli whether he knows of Bielsa but I’m betting that as a football fan of almost exactly the same age as the manager, he must. In his office in Perugia, one of the first things to strike you is a vintage suitcase on the floor overflowing with coloured footballs. Indeed, the 66-year-old still plays regularly, twice a week, with his friends in an amateur team.

Two other things you notice when you enter his workspace are the huge glass windows with a view of the beautiful Italian countryside and the medieval town in the distance atop a hill, which is where he has headquartered part of his business. And that – as Billy would surely understand – he has a curious assortment of portraits of people along one wall, a kind of rogues gallery he describes as ‘my wall of heroes and icons – the people I take inspiration from.’ The selection is eclectic: Socrates, Marcus Aurelius, Dante, Shakespeare, Le Corbusier, JFK, Martin Luther King, Steve Jobs and Italian comic Roberto Benigni among others.

Brunello Cucinelli is a peculiar man. The son of a farmer, who, by his own admission, became ‘a student of Engineering with low achievement’, he has built a global luxury fashion empire from the hills of Perugia – or specifically this one hill town of Solomeo. The story goes that in 1978 he started making knitwear in Perugia with some friends before moving the venture to the old medieval hamlet that was his wife’s hometown in 1985. He then set about restoring and renovating the 14th-century castello to become the centre of his burgeoning cashmere business. Over time he has taken over more and more buildings in the place and built a neo-classical theatre and a library for the use of his workforce. He has also launched apprenticeship programmes in the old castle to teach not only the art of tailoring and knitting, but also masonry and horticulture, practises rooted in the local region. When his manufacturing requirements outgrew the hilltop he took over a factory down below but converted it so that it is now flooded with light so his workers can see Mother Nature outside. He landscaped gardens with fountains for them to look at for inspiration.

As for the wall of heroes… well, Cucinelli is essentially an unashamed humanist. Marcus Aurelius is not here by accident. ‘The human being is supposed to work with his or her dignity respected,’ he explains. ‘We must relaunch the value of manual work.’ He talks of how he pays his blue- and white-collar workers the same rates. ‘I grew up on a farm,’ he says. ‘I know what hard labour is. I know I cannot alter the toughness of labour, but I can make human work more human.’

Cucinelli tells the story of a dinner in the 15th century hosted by Lorenzo the Magnificent at which he sat a 15-year-old Michelangelo next to a philosopher, a blacksmith and a carpenter. ‘Lorenzo the Magnificent considered the arts and crafts to possess the very same degree of dignity,’ he points out, approvingly.

The point is, he says, that if you expect young people today to work manually after they have been educated and have almost certainly travelled, and have aspirations to live a modern life, then you have to make the work as appealing as possible. ‘It is the dream of my life to have people working in humane, healthy conditions. Especially people who work manually,’ he explains.

Hence his initiatives to make the workplace as pleasant as he can – by installing windows in the old factory building he took on and cultivating gardens around it; the extra-curricular cultural facilities he has built – the theatre and library; his strict rules about leaving work on time – electricity is shut off in the factory at 6pm; and his projects designed to make his team feel valued, like serving olive oil from the estate in the factory canteen and his showrooms around the world, or the ad campaign he shot that featured a huge trestle table in the open air where an Italian feast was taking place – the meal was for real, and the “models” 600 of Cucinelli’s staff and their families.

The argument for this focus on the culture of his business and the wellbeing of his workers is not just about attracting and retaining good people, though, explains Cucinelli. It is also about instilling pride in the work.

This, he says, means that the product will in the end be made better, with more care, more love, more soul. And so have greater appeal to the consumer. It is a philosophy that he describes as ‘humanistic capitalism’.

The last time I visited Cucinelli, it was to see how he had concluded a 30-year programme of investment in Solomeo and its neighbouring valley. A new vineyard had been cultivated and a cellar built to produce wine on site; a “spiritual forest” had been planted on the hilltop of cypresses, oaks, pines, ashes and cypresses; an 18th century church had been restored; the 200-seater theatre had been completed, along with an open-air amphitheatre; and a large travertine marble monument of classical proportions had been created on the hillside, employing ancient techniques: the “Tribute to Human Dignity”. The whole thing felt like a celebration of a simpler, bucolic life, deeply connected to the earth and the seasons.

You may not think that the sun-dappled countryside of Perugia has much in common with Long Eaton in the Midlands, but it was Cucinelli’s conviction that fostering a positive corporate culture leads to better results that came to mind after a conversation I had with Nick Brooke, CEO of British knitwear firm Sunspel, last week.

While much smaller than Cucinelli’s operation in every respect, and with a more limited product offer largely based around classic pieces of knitwear and underwear, Sunspel is a British gem with one of those idiosyncratic histories that you find throughout the British luxury industry.

Like Brunello Cucinelli, Sunspel was founded by an engineer. Though in this case, it was in Nottingham in 1860, and the engineer was Victorian Thomas Hill, who had served his apprenticeship with an industrialist who owned big textile factories, a man called Samuel Morley. Morley ended up as a Whig MP and was much involved in improving the lot of people working in factories. Sunspel’s founder Hill built some of the first steam-powered factories for Morley and then for himself in Nottingham. Part of that process says today’s owner Nick Brooke, was linked to improving working conditions. ‘He was an innovator – in the way he imagined he could produce fabrics, and how they could be produced. He continually experimented with fabric development to create the perfect underwear fabric – light and soft. That process has essentially continued because it was passed down the ages from person to person in the family.’

In 2005, Brooke, a former barrister, decided to acquire Sunspel from the founder’s great grandson, the 81-year-old Peter Hill. There was something special about the company, he says. ‘For me coming in to the business I really understood the brand and I knew that if I was to make a success of it I would have to capture and bottle that culture.’ Brooke feels that corporate culture is the crucial element in building a long term brand-based business. ‘You look at these luxury businesses that people buy and you can see them thinking, “It’s got a nice name, a bit of history, now we’ll just invest in some marketing.” If you get lucky, you can grow a business in that way, but then the chances are you hit a ceiling and then these businesses stop; and then they die. They die because they don’t have culture; they don’t have much behind them.’

Sunspel, by contrast, does have a strong culture, he says. It is still housed in the same building it has occupied since 1937 – interestingly, given Covid-19, a time at which it downsized because of the reduction in its export orders occasioned by the Great Depression. And although Brooke is not actually family, Sunspel is still a family business he says: ‘Thomas Hill founded it for his son. It then passed from generation to generation, and I first heard of Sunspel through my wife’s aunt, who was the companion and confidante of Peter Hill, the man I bought it from. Now the family element is represented by the workforce: we have different generations working here.’

The reason people like working for Sunspel, says Brooke, is that collectively they have a common goal. ‘The first thing you need to do is instil a sense of purpose into the activity of creating the product. Making T-shirts could feel monotonous – if you have people working like automatons with the garments being passed to each other, from one machine to another, with everything broken down into separate tasks. Or you can approach it like a craft. Which is what we do.’

He explains that this is largely to do with the types of fabric Sunspel uses. ‘We have a long tradition of fabric development and it’s not easy to work with very thin lightweight cotton and long-staple cotton, like Supima cotton. So everything we do is handmade. And we don’t use a traditional production line – all our craftspeople can, and do, carry out different operations, which means they get variety.’

As he talks of the products that Sunspel has pioneered over the past century and a half, it also becomes clear what Nick Brooke saw in the company that attracted him to buy it 15 years ago. The T-shirt is something that Sunspel has been making for more than 100 years; the boxer short was effectively introduced into this country in 1947 by Sunspel, and it was its plain white model that had a supporting role, literally, in the famous 1980s Levi’s ad set in a laundrette; the polo shirt, too, is a style the firm has been making for years – since the 1950s – and its current Riviera style has a fit based on one developed specifically for Daniel Craig when 007’s look was rebooted in Casino Royal. Knowing they are working for a firm that takes pride in its history and can boast so many “greatest hits” helps keep the workforce happy too, says Brooke.

All of which helped when lockdown was announced and he decided to keep the factory open. ‘I knew that we would have to close our shops, but we have a strong digital business and I was determined to keep that going,’ he explains. ‘The product is something that lends itself to digital – it’s easy to buy online as we make classic, timeless pieces that are simple to understand, and that you don’t need to try on. I knew we could serve our customers online.’

When I ask how the staff responded to the suggestion that they should continue working when the whole country seemed to be heading home, it is clearly Brooke the former barrister who answers: ‘I gathered them together and I explained that we would follow the government guidelines to the letter. I do think that the government were very poor in their communication of what they advised; if you took the time to read the official line carefully it was very clear: people should work from home if they can and certain businesses must close. There was a long list of these that included retail stores, non-essential stores, gyms and hotels and the like; and then it said very specifically: if you cannot work from home you should go to work if procedures can be put in place to ensure social distancing. And they said, in fact, that it is important that you do so. And I think they said that because they didn’t want to completely crash the economy.’

Brooke says that not only were the guidelines not well communicated, the detail of what social distancing might mean in an industrial setting like his factory were also pretty sketchy. So he reached out to other companies abroad to see what they were planning to do to protect their workers and decided to do the same.

I say that, just like a barrister, he still hasn’t answered the question! He laughs. ‘There was no push back at all. I later discovered that a few people said they were a bit nervous, but that reservation vanished very quickly once we started working in a new way. We are lucky in that our factory is big, so social distancing is not a problem.’

But more than this, he feels that the culture at Sunspel came to his aid. ‘I explained what the government was actually saying – I read it out. And I then said that I thought it was very important that everything should not come to an end overnight, and that we would work together to make sure that the way we are working is safe. I also talked about the history here, and of how Sunspel had been through some really tough times. Much tougher than this – like the Second World War and the Great Depression, when the business contracted so much that it had to reimagine itself and move from Nottingham to Long Eaton. That was far worse. I still think that by comparison we are a gilded generation.’

One of the reasons Brooke thinks that his people went along with him so willingly is that he has worked hard to, as he says, ‘bottle the culture’ he inherited when he took the company over. ‘All our store staff come up to Long Eaton to meet the workers, and while they are here they get to make a garment so they can see what it’s like. We want to create a positive culture that gets projected to customers.’ And where the looming coronavirus crisis was concerned, Brooke had already made it clear that he had the wellbeing of his workers front of mind. As things gathered momentum, well before lockdown, he had decided that nobody should come in if they had any of the symptoms of Covid-19. He went through the symptoms with the team and said he’d pay full pay to people who had to self-isolate, not statutory sick pay.

Then when he asked everyone to keep working after the prime minister’s address on Monday 16 March telling people to work from home if they could, there was only one woman who voiced concern. She’d worked for the company for 50 years and had an elderly husband she was worried about. Brooke immediately suggested she take early retirement. He then announced that only the shop staff would be furloughed. Everyone else would either be working in the factory or redirected to support digital retail. This meant asking people to do completely different jobs, but everyone responded with enthusiasm.

‘There has been a real positive here,’ he explains. ‘If anyone was in any doubt that the team running this company was concerned about them and thinking about them, they have seen now that this is genuinely the case. And as that has become clear, over time, people have really fallen in behind our approach and they now feel absolutely safe here.’

He describes how one of the things that he’s implemented is a one-way system, which has had the unintended effect of making everyone walk past his office door. ‘Now everybody pops in on their way past for a chat and tells me what’s going on. We really have developed a new esprit de corps. Everyone feels they are in this together and pulling in one direction. That is what happens, or can happen, in response to a crisis.’ And, he says, as he is now the only person who sits on the mezzanine above the factory – as everyone else usually on this floor is employed working from home – he can hear what is going on down below. ‘There is a lot of laughter.’

Sunspel has also set up workstations to make protective masks and cotton bags for nurses in hospital in which they can put their uniforms and wash them. ‘Quite a lot of nurses travel to and from work in their uniforms, which is not ideal,’ explains Brooke. ‘A friend’s daughter was working on one of the wards locally and she was asking for large pillow cases, so that she and her colleagues could change at work, put their uniforms into one, take it home and wash it without having to get it out again. We thought, “You can make a bag like that at one workstation.” So we started to.’

In the end, Brooke says it’s all about whether you care or not. ‘The word for me is “caring”. In the slow nature of how we develop and make our product we show that we care enough about what we are making to take the time to do it properly and to use the right materials and skills to produce something worthwhile. In this way, we show that we care about our customers too. And caring about the people who make the product for them is just an extension of that.’

It is, he explains, about community: ‘We want to be part of the community of people who care about certain things – within products, but also more widely. Let’s face it, we’re not trying to be super fashionable, or make fast fashion for that matter. Instead, we are hoping to find that group of people out there who do care about the culture of creation and how things have been made. There’s a big difference between buying something that has been made for the lowest cost possible in an environment where the people making it are not looked after well, and buying something that has been crafted in the way we do.’

And this is not just about altruism. Rather like Marcelo Bielsa, whose determination to have his teams play the beautiful game beautifully means that he also delivers results, Nick Brooke believes that his approach has a positive effect on what Sunspel produces. ‘I really do think you can tell the difference as a consumer. You probably need prompts, and I confess we’re not great at telling that story as we’re not into shouting about ourselves – we’re very English in that sense.’

But how do you quantify something like that? How does a consumer tell the difference? ‘It’s a hugely difficult thing to quantify,’ admits Brooke. ‘The way I can explain it is to say it’s a bit like the difference between a ruthlessly efficient car and a Ferrari. Maybe your Ferrari is a bit more temperamental. But it creates more desire. It has more character.’

Brunello Cucinelli would understand this. And he would certainly agree with Nick Brooke that your working methods and the spirit in which they are undertaken are somehow distilled into the garments that you send out into the world. Cucinelli believes passionately that he is exporting a little piece of Solomeo with every soft unstructured jacket or cashmere waistcoat or sweater he ships to the 60 countries he now sells to around the world.

He also, as you might expect from a humanist, believes that we can learn from the Covid-19 experience. In a couple of open letters he recently published, he suggests we are turning a corner: ‘The rising of a new time has already begun from the shadows of a painful night.’ The future is hopeful: ‘Something has been transformed and it will make us see things and life in a different, beautiful, enchanted light.’

These are the words of someone who quotes Michelangelo, Confucius, St Benedict and, indeed, the father of deontology himself, Emmanuel Kant, as if they were the blokes he shares an aperitivo with at his local café.

However, we need to tread carefully and mindfully, says Cucinelli. His most recent letter concludes with a call for vigilance: ‘When the end of this eclipse comes, and the sun returns to colour life, then our hearts will be filled with joy; but that will be a moment of utmost caution,’ he says. ‘If we know how to set the pace, if we continue for a little while to comply with the tested rules of painful events, if we focus on the language of Creation, we will naturally return to our usual life equipped with some extra values, fascinated by everything that is worthy of being called “human”.’

Could it be that we could come out of this, like Nick Brooke at Sunspel looks like he will, with a stronger and better sense of purpose? Brunello Cucinelli thinks so. In the first of his two letters he says: ‘In today’s suffering there is also the good of the moral reaction that will make us better, and perhaps tomorrow, when the memory slips away along with the suffering, we will come to the same conclusion as Aristotle, who once said that even calamities have a soul and can teach us a wise life.’

I must ask Billy to tell me about Aristotle.

brunellocucinelli.com; sunspel.com

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