The downturn has forced Spanish fashion giant Cortefiel to review its UK expansion, but global franchise boss Alex Cara tells Amy Shields that growth is still on the agenda for the retailer

Cortefiel franchise boss Alex Cara’s retail career began in the stockroom at a Benetton store in Southend-on-Sea, Essex. It was a fairly standard route in to the industry, except for one problem. Cara is colour blind.

“Imagine being a stockroom boy, where everything is every colour,” he laughs. “On the first day, 160 boxes came from Italy and I had to code them up. I had to memorise all the colour codes.”

Cara’s determination led to the discovery of a flair for product and for making sales, and kick-started a love affair with retail. By the age of 20 he was managing the store.

These beginnings are far removed from the jet-setting world of global franchising in which he now operates. Before joining Spanish apparel giant Cortefiel, Cara – who was born in the UK to a South African father and Indian mother – had been in charge of 400 stores as retail director for Central and Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Africa for sports brand Nike.

“I wanted to get back in to pure retailing,” he explains of his move to Cortefiel. “It was a global role with the scope to launch more brands.” Cara joined in 2005 to continue the retailer’s expansion of its younger fashion brand Springfield and lingerie retailer Women’s Secret. Within a year, he launched the group’s eponymous fashion brand overseas.

The changes in ownership of Cortefiel at the time of his joining – private equity giants Permira, PAI and CVC bought Cortefiel for E1.4bn (£1.24bn) in July 2005 – made the brand more “interesting”, he adds.

“Also, after five years being based in Holland with Nike, enjoying the bread and the cheese, the flowers and the windmills, Spain was definitely of interest,” he laughs.

Until he joined, the “prime focus” at Cortefiel had been to develop company-owned stores in Spain and Portugal. “Back then it was apparent we needed to give some more focus and supporting strategy to global. So the remit really was to manage the existing franchise business and identify new markets and new partners and see what we could do with the business model and put a team together. That was quite exciting,” he says.

When Cara joined, the group had about 230 franchise stores around the world. Now it has more than 500. Since his arrival Cortefiel has entered a further 15 countries.

Last autumn, Cara launched five concessions for the Cortefiel and Springfield brands in Debenhams stores in Guildford and London’s Oxford Street.

“It has been a roller coaster in the UK,” he admits. “The strength of the euro hasn’t helped. We have had to bite the bullet and help Debenhams with margins.” Consequently, expansion in the UK is on hold.

“Somewhere like the UK is very competitive and is in recession,” he explains. The group has had to place other markets “higher up the ranking” of importance, he says.

This year, Cortefiel will open 90 stores globally. It has launched Springfield in Melbourne and will debut in Sydney in the spring. It has opened Women’s Secret in Azerbaijan and wants to snap up another three stores in Egypt, taking its total there to 15. Cortefiel and Women’s Secret will also open in Damascus, Syria, over the next couple of months.

The retail group will finish its fiscal year at the end of this month. “We are more or less in line to meet our forecasts,” says Cara of the group, which has been dogged by stories of circling vulture funds and rumours of an IPO to enable its backers to exit the business.

It is also scrambling to boost sales in a home market – alongside rivals such as Inditex and Mango – that is in serious decline as Spanish shoppers cut back on clothing purchases.

Cara says despite the similarly challenging UK climate there has been “a good response” to its brands in the UK.

“In terms of the UK, we understood that we couldn’t go in there gung-ho and shout about who we are because it is so competitive,” he says. “It was a strategic decision that we didn’t want to come here and open own stores at a difficult time, so we have tested corners and concessions and we will see how that goes.”

For now, all Cara can do is ride out the storm that lies ahead in 2009 and then take stock.

Rising stock

  • Age: 40

  • Lives: Madrid

  • Family: married, with three children

  • Likes: gastronomy, travel, sports, music

Career History

  • 2005-present: global franchise managing director, Cortefiel

  • 1999-2005: franchise operations EMEA; retail director Central Europe, Middle East and Africa – Nike

  • 1996-99: international franchise manager Wallis; operations controller Adams, Spain – Sears Group

  • 1989-95: Europe brand manager, Ton Sur Ton

  • 1987-89: area manager, Benetton UK