Luxury fashion brands are brought to the region by Ashley Micklewright's firm Bluebell (Asia)
Over the last 20 years, Ashley Micklewright has worked his way to the top of an organisation whose name may be unfamiliar to the general public, but whose impact on the fashion and luxury goods scene is hard to miss.
As president and chief executive of Bluebell (Asia), he is now responsible for extending the company’s successful 60-year track record of bringing top international brand names to the region, establishing their sales and reputation and, when appropriate, leaving the owners to step in and assume full control.
With the company representing more than 100 brands and generating turnover of US$1 billion-plus in retail value from over 400 sales outlets in Asia, it is a business model which clearly works.
By definition, each brand stands as something unique, but the mechanics of sales, marketing, logistics and reporting can run along common lines. And if, by mutual agreement, a Jimmy Choo or Louis Vuitton does decide to move on, new contenders can always be found, each eager to benefit from the network, know-how, systems and experience to help them make it big in the region.
“Generally, we travel around Europe and the US to look for small Up -and-coming brands to set up in Asia,” says Micklewright, who joined as an operational controller in 1995 and was both chief financial officer and chief operating officer before assuming his current role in 2010. “We do the distribution, recruit staff, and organise points of sale, and anyone walking into one of our stores has no idea that Bluebell is running the operation for, say, Moschino. We set terms at the beginning and say leave it with us for five or 10 years to promote the brand and adapt it to local tastes. Then, if you’re happy, come back and buy us out.”
Hong Kong-based for much of his career, Micklewright’s connection with the city in fact stretches back to his schooldays.
Son of a Cathay Pacific pilot who flew the Manila route, he has fond memories of late 1960s holidays in the New Territories between terms at boarding school in Britain.
“We lived on Castle Peak Road, overlooking the beach. It’s completely different now but, for me, Hong Kong is still one of the most exciting cities in the world.”
Having studied economics and accountancy in London, he landed two job offers, one trading Eurobonds – about which he knew nothing – the other to qualify as a chartered accountant with a firm in Cornwall, which he took. Nagging away, though, was the underlying ambition to run his own business, which happened when he opted to set up a firm publishing children’s books.
There was venture capital backing, a good product and eight years of climbing sales, but also a difference of opinion.
“When I got to about 30, I wanted to expand the business to America,” he says. “But my partner was a much older guy, 65 or 66, with very different objectives. He was happy to stand still and didn’t want to put in more money or sell to me at a reasonable price, so we couldn’t agree on what to do. That is the only big mistake in my career so far, going into business with someone with such different long-term goals and not writing a good shareholder agreement.”
However, there was a fortunate twist. The original venture capital backer offered a job and a special assignment in Hong Kong in 1993. As things unfolded, it was to prove an invaluable learning experience, with more than a few bizarre aspects.
The project in question was to buy the retired luxury cruise liner, the Queen Mary, move it from Long Beach to Hong Kong, berth it alongside the West Kowloon reclamation, and convert it into a hotel and entertainment attraction.
“That was a fascinating period, trying to bring across an iconic British emblem and becoming involved in the political pros and cons,” he says. “In the end, after two years, we just couldn’t get everyone together at the same time and I had to kill the project.”
Summoned back to London, Micklewright opted instead to stay on in Hong Kong, trusting to luck and sensing the opportunities.
After a nervy few months, the call came offering a role with Bluebell, who saw the plus points in hiring a one-time venture capitalist into an organisation which essentially operates as a private equity company finding and developing businesses, but with a sales and distribution arm too.
“For the first year, I travelled to every country and looked at every store to have something solid in my mind,” he says. “Later on, that helped when overseeing operations, negotiating contracts with brands, knowing which shops to open or close, and deciding where to invest.”
At present, his key priorities include putting more emphasis on non-apparel items and re-establishing the company’s business in on the mainland.
The challenge, though, is finding a viable business model to retail luxury goods in mainland cities – and it is proving immensely difficult. That’s because 67 per cent of mainland spending on luxury goods is done overseas, where prices are usually lower.
“Overall, it’s probably only a matter of time before prices for popular items are in a very narrow band,” Micklewright says. “But if prices come down in mainland China, that doesn’t mean rents will. Therefore, I’m spending a lot of time with brands and landlords to say we’ve all got to change.”