Putting Creativity at the Center of Luxury Goods MagicFRANCESCA BELLETTINI, BOCCONI ALUMNA AND PRESIDENT AND CEO OF SAINT LAURENT, SAYS PASSION, INTEGRITY AND TEAMWORK ARE THE INGREDIENTS FOR BEING A SUCCESSFUL CHIEF EXECUTIVE
«My secret dream? It’s always been to manage a company.” No sooner said than done. Francesca Bellettini, a Bocconi class of 1994 graduate and 2018 Alumna of the Year, became Saint Laurent’s president and CEO in 2013. She then led the brand toward the €1.5 billion-mark in turnover. By delivering steady annual double-digit growth, the manager has put the fashion house in the Olympus of the world’s best-performing luxury brands. And has earned herself the Legion of Honor, presented a few days ago, on 29 February, by Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo. “My secret? I created a corporate culture that supports creativity and dreams. But at the beginning, there is my personal experience at Bocconi.”
➜ You were named Alumna Bocconi 2018 for having represented Bocconi values to the fullest. Which ones do you most cherish?
Certainly the value of professionalism, and the integrity and responsibility it entails: we cannot strive for a goal solely for the purpose of increasing revenues, because this would lead to the destruction of the brand in the medium to long term. Similarly, we cannot compromise if we feel a market trend is not consistent with the DNA and positioning of the brand. To this, we must add the qualities of the heart that allow every person to make the difference. Passion is what makes it possible to achieve goals, to work well with others and create a team of excellence: a CEO does not get anywhere alone.
➜ Speaking of integrity, did you find it at Bocconi?
My professor strongly believed in this value and acted accordingly. In particular, Mario Monti was a concrete example of integrity. I was lucky enough to attend his class in Economics just before he was appointed Bocconi Rector: as it was impossible to do both well, he had to leave his beloved course to another professor. This taught me a lot about issues of fairness, consistency, and choice.
➜ What was your greatest satisfaction at Bocconi?
That Bocconi was not only a personal success but a victory of the whole Bellettini family, which always pushed me to become who I wanted to be: I wanted to be just like Marisa Bellisario. I can’t forget the look of satisfaction on my father’s face the day I graduated, when I walked with him through Bocconi’s main door between the bronze lions. I am sure that today, if he were still here with us, he would be equally proud of my award as Alumna of the Year. He did not leave me a company to run, but rather the chance to graduate at Bocconi and embark on a successful career.
➜ And what competitive assets did you get at Bocconi?
Bocconi gave me a complete professional education and today it continues doing so with the younger generations: I can still see it through my niece's eyes in her current experience as a Bocconi student. Then as now, Bocconi stays ahead of other universities and this is certainly an advantage. Those who are ready to seize all that the University has to offer can bring home a wealth of unique knowledge. In my own time, for example, when it came time to choose the foreign exchange program, I went to Chicago where I attended an MBA with students who were already working: my semester in the United States was much more educational than a traditional Erasmus and allowed me to approach the professional world with greater confidence than many other graduates.
➜ Does acquiring excellent skills stimulate ambition?
Yes, but humility is also needed. Bocconi taught me you have to start from the bottom to get to the top. As a graduate I did an internship at Citibank and my job was to reclassify balance sheets: a totally repetitive job, but I decided this could be an opportunity to understand something more about the companies that worked with the bank, so I started to read balance sheets of companies strategically. That positive and proactive approach ended up making the difference, because it opened the doors of Goldman Sachs for me: I showed I was able to put passion even in what most people considered boring.
➜ What kind of advice would you give to a young Bocconian like your niece?
Take advantage of everything that Bocconi can offer, without focusing solely on exams and grades. You have to live the University to the full, discussing with professors, creating exchange groups, and actively participating in class. It is essential to immerse yourself completely in the Bocconi culture, and also learn how to deal with what you don’t especially like.
➜ And what about the study plan?
My advice is not to choose only subjects for which you have a natural predisposition, but also to take strategy courses which have the power to open your mind, as well as classes on very technical subjects, such as accounting, because they can be very handy on the job.
➜ How do you become a good manager?
Apart from specific skills, a good manager must be curious and know how to build a team composed of different people. True equality lies in the recognition of difference: the good manager, like the good parent, is the one who knows how to enhance the specific qualities of each person. Not everyone should pursue a vertical career, because there is value also in activities that are not in the first line of attack. However, all this is possible if a relationship is based on trust and great mutual respect is established.
➜ In a world that is changing so quickly, how do you keep your knowledge current?
One of the ways is to return to a university desk: I often go back to Bocconi to talk with students, but also to exchange views with faculty members and the Rector. It is an honor to sit on the board of the SDA Bocconi School of Management, as well as on the board of the Kering Foundation and the Kering executive board. These are extraordinary opportunities for personal growth: they allow me to talk with people who are very different from me. The predisposition to listening is a formidable tool for learning and therefore for individual transformation. We need to know how to change because the world and society are constantly evolving.
➜ Young people embody such transformation. Sometimes you get the idea that luxury companies are focusing on teenagers to create consumers in advance of them actually being old enough to purchase. Is that the case?
Yes, absolutely. Today social media allow you to work in this direction. I do not think that all the followers of Saint Laurent on social networks are consumers of the brand, but surely each of them feels close to the brand and aspires to the dream that it conveys. Young people, in particular, want to enter in an exclusvie relationship with fashion houses. Our task is to create content that arouses in users a significant degree of involvement, what we call engagement. To do that, Saint Laurent uses social media in an emotional way: the mood and the aesthetics of the brand become more important than the product itself. The success of this process was largely the work of our creative director, Anthony Vaccarello, who made our Instagram account take off, from 350,000 to over five million followers.
➜ Speaking of Vaccarello, are modernity and creativity closely connected?
In the luxury industry, being modern means putting creativity at the center. It is an indispensable combination when you are selling dazzling dreams: the spending effort that is required to buy a Saint Laurent garment is repaid by the satisfaction of being able to belong to that world of enchantment. The magic comes alive when our creative director is free to express himself because only he is able to identify taste and translate aspirations into creations: that's why CEO and stylist must respect and count on each other; then they must join hands and take the leap together.
by Ilaria De Bartolomeis