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A voyage of discovery for Tumi's Asia MD Fernando Ciccarelli

Published on Friday, 10 Apr 2015
Fernando Ciccarelli, managing director, Tumi Asia
Photo: Gary Mak

Luggage maker’s regional head is taking the company to new places

In today’s corporate world, individuals who follow their instincts are something of a rarity. Even rarer are those who, in mid-career, decide to step back, pack up their family and take off to travel the world with no fixed timetable or guarantee of what will come next. But in both respects, Fernando Ciccarelli has taken the path less travelled and things have turned out just fine.

Now Asia managing director of upmarket luggage firm Tumi, he is overseeing a push to expand the company’s regional profile with new outlets, enhanced levels of customer service, and product launches and events to tie in with its 40th anniversary celebrations.

The role is some distance from his early days as a financial analyst with IBM in New York.

There, at a young age and with a degree in business, he had what most would regard as a plum position at one of the world’s largest companies in a field where the future looked bright. He was working on projects to drive sales of hardware and software, and was based close to childhood friends and family.

While he had no cause for complaint, he also had a growing sense through the 1990s that Asia was the place to be. That intuition was reinforced by a first trip to Japan for IBM, which opened his eyes to new possibilities. The experience also sparked a realisation that there was no merit in just sitting and waiting for the wheels to turn in a multinational.

His first step was to join luggage maker Coach in a finance and inventory management role in New Jersey. “I wanted to get into an organisation that was smaller and more entrepreneurial,” he says. “The most noticeable thing when I joined was that everyone seemed so young, and they were all making decisions. But I also made a point of letting people know I was interested in Asia and, in 2001, when the chance came to form a joint venture in Japan, I put up my hand.”

Coming in as CFO, the immediate challenge was to learn how the retail business worked in Japan. It was also essential to figure out how to lead a team with a limited knowledge of English and to show them what it meant to work for a US-based international business.

Ciccarelli devised a style of management that puts special emphasis on three Cs. The first, collaboration, was all about encouraging colleagues to be part of the decision-making process. The second was to improve all-round communication, creating greater transparency within the team and with partners. The third asked individuals at every level to be curious and question accepted practice, while being open to new opportunities.

At a time of rapid business growth, there was also an increasing focus on recruitment, training and general acculturation. This came as new staff were introduced to the process of establishing the right targets, methods and vision of what the brand should be.

“Any expanding company with its own retail model wants a level of consistency around the world,” Ciccarelli says. “But in establishing it and supporting it with stores, marketing and customer service, you realise there is no such thing as an easy business in Asia. It is a very competitive environment, and you have to earn the trust of consumers every single day if you want to win their business.”

The Japan experience paid dividends when, following a two-year spell working back in the US, the company asked him to take up a CFO role for Coach China and Coach Asia, based in Hong Kong. He stayed in the role for five years – which included a stint as interim general manager of Coach Taiwan – before making a move that surprised many. In the summer of 2013, he felt it was time to step back for a while and take a sabbatical travelling through Australia, New Zealand and the South Pacific before being a full-time parent back in New York.

“I saw a need to reconnect with my wife and kids. Having a break, escaping from business, and then coming back to Asia to join Tumi in mid-2014 made it fresh and exciting again. For a year, life centred around the family. Returning to the industry, I have a different perspective, but still a lot of confidence in my experience.”

His new role offers a chance to be entrepreneurial, launching new lines and using distribution partners to expand sales in China and across Asia. “We have to lead with our products, which now means getting involved with digital marketing campaigns and social media,” he says. “Our philosophy is to be where the consumers decide to shop, so we will develop e-commerce as the opportunities come along.” 


Traveller’s tips

Fernando Ciccarelli shares five factors he relies on to keep Tumi’s business growing fast in Asia

Collaboration “Keep working closely with distribution partners who manage around 380 outlets in 15 countries around the region to improve inventory control and marketing and add new points of sale.”

Differentiation “Show consumers who know Tumi as a travel brand that it is more than that with the introduction of seasonal collections and a wider range of business backpacks, women’s bags and casual backpacks for younger users.”

Set high standards “Aim to become more ‘retail-centric’ and able to command a premium by virtue of design, innovation, use of high-quality materials, and after-sales service.”

Tap into growth “In mainland China, especially, build brand awareness in order to capitalise on the ever larger number of tourists and business people travelling with greater frequency.”

Use the data “Recognise that retail is now a very metrics driven, business where you have the data to look in detail at traffic flows, which products are being bought where, and consumer profiles comparing, for example, what men and women typically buy.”

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