The former John Lewis stalwart has turned Fortnum & Mason around and with bold international and multichannel plans there is growth to come. Jennifer Creevy reports

Beverley Aspinall is braced for a busy couple of weeks. Not only is Christmas a key time for luxury department store Fortnum & Mason but the snow that hit hard last week kept some customers away, forcing them to pack their shopping into the last two weeks of the festive period.

The famous Piccadilly store is likely to be creaking at its seams as customers seek out own-brand goodies such as King George Christmas Puddings, St Clement’s Mince Pies or St James Christmas Cake.

“The final couple of weeks before Christmas are always busy but the snow came really early this year and hit our footfall,” Aspinall says. “While many shoppers went online instead, we expect many will still come into the store later as Christmas is special and the shop is such a magical experience.”

Aspinall has certainly worked some magic on Fortnum, which was founded by one of Queen Anne’s footmen in 1707. She joined in 2005 from the John Lewis Partnership when the famous shop was operating at a loss.

Having steered the retailer through a £24m refurbishment, the corner has been turned and last week revealed Fortnum & Mason had made a modest profit of £100,000 for the year to July 18, compared with a £5.7m loss the previous year. Sales climbed 9% to a record £51.2m, and gross margin increased from 31% to 34%.

When Aspinall arrived at the distinctive mint-green fronted store, she says that while the brand was “always loved”, the store was not operating as efficiently as it could. The layout needed work, she says, because customers could not easily navigate the shop.

Having proved she could manage large-scale projects with the £100m refurbishment of John Lewis’s Peter Jones department store in Chelsea the year before, Aspinall was headhunted to lead Fortnum’s transformation in time for its 300th anniversary in 2007.

Aspinall says the refurbishment -and the category management that accompanied it, meaning that 80% of Fortnum’s food is now own-brand - was the first part of the turnaround. It also meant she could introduce more retail theatre such as cookery demonstrations and other events.

Two other growth routes - multichannel and international - were also key in driving sales, says Aspinall, who adds “we were able to drive the bottom line by controlling costs”.

She says: “The recession was a catalyst to making every penny count in business but we needed to do it anyway, and that helped us move into profitability.”

For Aspinall, who is married to a classical musician, there is more growth to come for Fortnum & Mason. She is pleased to have revealed the strong trading results just before Christmas to give staff some good news going into the festive period. But she describes the profit as “modest”, and that it can make much more money.

Like-for-likes between the year-end and the start of December advanced 20%. Next year, the retailer will push its multichannel and international operations harder - particular targets include the Middle East and China. Fortnum already wholesales in countries such as the US but overseas stores are also on the agenda.

Aspinall, who enjoys gardening at her home in Norfolk, was born in Bedfordshire and joined the John Lewis Partnership as a graduate. She says: “I wanted to be a fashion buyer but got involved in all aspects of retail at the Partnership and caught the retail bug.”

While it was a difficult decision to leave the Partnership, she could not resist leading the refurbishment of one of the UK’s most famous department stores. “Customers love being served by a man in tails or enjoy afternoon tea with us, the whole experience is what makes us,” she says. And with international growth on the agenda, Aspinall will be taking that experience to more overseas customers soon.

Career history

2005 Joined Fortnum & Mason as managing director

Prior to that Spent 25 years with the John Lewis Partnership, in various roles including buyer, merchandise manager, managing director of the Peterborough store, then managing director of Peter Jones in Chelsea