Navigating the Crisis | Xavier Rougeaux on leading Smythson through COVID-19
“With a slow return to global travel anticipated, we’ll be focusing efforts on our domestic customer as we re-open our stores, but our forward-thinking business model firmly places digital at the epicentre of the brand and we’re continuing to invest in an ever more localised, and so familiar and trusted, experience for our global audience.”
Xavier Rougeaux, the Chief Executive of iconic stationery and leather goods brand Smythson, is today’s ‘Lockdown Leader’, and reveals how he is leading the 133-year-old business through the COVID-19 uncertainty, how Smythson is supporting the NHS, and what the future holds for the company, its employees and its customers.
Xavier Rougeaux is Chief Executive of Smythson, the luxury stationery and leather goods brand that prides itself on British excellence, having been started by its enigmatic founder, Frank Smythson, in 1887. It marries unequivocal British quirkiness with incredible functionality through exquisitely handcrafted goods made in Britain and Italy. The Smythson brand boasts an array of iconic pieces, most notably the Smythson diary and notebooks, both made with the brand’s trademarked Featherweight paper, and their classic tote bags. These products have been the accomplices to global travel for over a century, a fact not overlooked by Walpole, who last year named Smythson winner of the British Luxury Overseas Award.
How are you navigating Smythson through the current COVID-19 crisis?
My priority lies primarily with the health and safety of our teams and customers. We are taking measure of every decision and ensuring that it is not only the right decision for right now, but also the right decision for the long term. These decisions are being made with as much sensitivity and humanity possible, while also being strategic to ensure the long-term future of the company. Of course this is completely unknown territory, not only for Smythson but the world, therefore we accept that mistakes will be made. My aim is to learn from these mistakes and push onward.
What has the situation taught you about leadership?
This situation has reaffirmed my belief that communication within a company, as well as the communication we share with our customers is key, and I ensure that my leadership style reflects that notion. I am in frequent contact with my executive team, exchanging daily information via video conference and making decisions collaboratively, which in turn allows them to feel empowered and extend this information efficiently to their respective teams.
I’ve also learned that during this time of uncertainty it is of great importance to be consistent and re-confirm the brand’s vision to ensure the whole company keeps its focus. Smythson is set apart by a very British sense of tension that defines our aesthetic: refinement and quirk; tradition and irreverence; not to mention a true sense of functionality that sits at the core of each product. Innovation is at the heart of the brand, with an early example being Frank Smythson’s innovative Featherweight paper found in our iconic diaries and notebooks. It is this inherent innovation that gives us the opportunity to challenge the status quo and reinvent ourselves, and I intend to enable my team to do exactly that.
And what has it taught you about your business?
It has shown me how crucial it is for the business to be agile; to be able to pivot plans and adapt to changing demands and to be able to work with high levels of ambiguity. In grappling with this state of flux, I have drawn confidence from the authenticity of our brand proposition, the genuinely well-crafted pieces we create and the permanence of this amidst so much change. I have returned to the stories from our archive, Frank’s legacy, going back to the origins of the business to reconfirm what we stand for and the reason our customers engage with what we do. But the greatest inspiration has come through the response of the Smythson family; whether working or furloughed, the effort to ensure the long-term future of the brand is remarkable and spear-headed by the support and guidance of the owner and Chairman, Jacques Bahbout.
How are you – and the wider business – supporting people?
This has been a time of great community effort, and Smythson’s aim has been to engage the community that needs it the most. We’re sending our thanks to the emergency departments and ICUs of hospitals. A simple thank-you card expressing our gratitude for all that they are doing. Within the card, we’re inviting NHS staff to be involved in the design of our special edition charity Christmas Card, the proceeds of which will go to NHS Charities Together initiatives. We’re hoping it will provide a moment of distraction from all that they’re going through. We’ve also been sending out note cards to NHS teams so that they can write to their colleagues, sending their support as part of the #NHSthankyoucards idea.
What do you see as the potential long-lasting changes to Smythson as a retail business?
Luxury customers have always been discerning, but the pattern we’re seeing is for them to be ever more demanding of products having a real purpose, whether that’s for the product functionality to work hard or for the product to meaningfully enhance their life. We’ve seen customers turn to our stationery, notebooks and diaries during the period of lockdown, as they seek to document their experience or pursue a creative passion. Equally, we’ve seen growth in our classic leather goods; iconic pieces such as our totes, briefcases and SLGs… hardworking accomplices to life rather than ephemeral fashion items, there only for the season. With a slow return to global travel anticipated, we’ll be focusing efforts on our domestic customer as we re-open our stores, but our forward-thinking business model firmly places digital at the epicentre of the brand and we’re continuing to invest in an ever more localised, and so familiar and trusted, experience for our global audience.
How are you, on a personal level, dealing with lockdown?
This time has acted as a reminder for me to take a moment and respect the world around me, as well as time to recharge my energy, reevaluate ideas and an opportunity to reinvent and be more creative. I have immersed myself in reading as a means to explore art and culture, travelling from my sofa, if you will. I am reading the book on the stunning Luc Tuymans’ exhibition I saw last year in Venice at Palazzo Grassi. The collection of works is filled with such a strong narrative and by re-visiting this, I am reigniting the emotions once again and enjoying a brief escape from the confines of lockdown.