Sharon Flood has a diverse portfolio career that spans Network Rail, the Science Museum and French luxury brand ST Dupont, where she is driving UK expansion.
The mathematician turned retailer has certainly earned the luxury of being able to pick and choose such an intriguing spread of roles.
From her time at Kingfisher, when she worked on the transformational acquisition of Screwfix in 1999, to helping to lead John Lewis’s evolution into a multichannel brand through pioneering initiatives such as click-and-collect, Flood’s CV is peppered with key milestones that have given her a reputation for innovation.
“I was literally picking up the phone in my early 30s to somebody and saying ‘we’re interested in buying your company’”
Sharon Flood, ST Dupont
Flood started life as a consultant but crossed over into retail, attracted by the use of analytics and technology. “I was at the vanguard of the real analytical approach to retail,” she says. “Online really catapulted that – not only did you have analytics but tech-savvy people were choosing retail as the place they wanted to be.”
Flood was one of those people, although she shies away from calling herself tech-savvy.
“I was very lucky to be on the ground floor of multichannel,” says Flood. “I was literally picking up the phone in my early 30s to somebody and saying ‘we’re interested in buying your company’ [Screwfix] then running that through to completion.
“I could see strategically that was the right way to go. At that time people were spending a lot of money on their own websites with no real idea how they would make money out of them. For me it was about finding a business that already had the fulfilment capability and build the online bit off the back of that.
“Which is what Charlie Mayfield did with John Lewis. He bought Buy.com and I was lucky enough to be part of the team that took a separate business and really integrated it and created a true multichannel business.”
In both retailers Flood held a finance role but each time she stepped outside the realms of accountancy and broadened her skills.
“Towards the end of my time I ran IT for John Lewis, which was really interesting. I wouldn’t say that I was hugely technological but when you are at that level it’s more about people and leadership and about not being afraid of technology, about thinking ‘I can make sense of this’.”
Move to ST Dupont
That breadth of experience has culminated in her appointment as chairman at ST Dupont.
But how does an Englishwoman end up at the helm of a French luxury accessories business?
Flood says Sir Dickson Poon, 80% shareholder in ST Dupont and also owner of Harvey Nichols, tempted her to the French business when Joseph Wan stepped down as chair, at the same time as relinquishing his role as chief executive of the premium department store.
Flood says it was a meeting of minds. “Dickson likes accountants, and the UK is strong for retail and I think he thought I could bring something extra to the team there.”
ST Dupont is steeped in French history.
It began life as a luggage maker to Empress Eugénie 143 years ago and has since become world famous for lighters and pens – indeed it was Jackie Kennedy who inspired the latter product line when she asked ST Dupont to make her a pen in the same design as her lighter. The Classique was born and is still one of ST Dupont’s core lines today.
Focus on core customers
For Flood, St Dupont presents a new challenge. The company was enduring tough times when she joined in September 2014. Turnover for 2014/15 was €69.5m, down from €79.6m the year previous. It fell into an EBIT loss of €900,000 against a €4.4m profit.
Flood has tried to instil a more strategic focus, and has prioritised core customers, improved product delivery and visual merchandising, looked at ranges and price architecture, and identified cost efficiencies to enable investment in key areas.
She says her skills complement those of chief executive Alain Crevet.
“We met and we realised we were very complementary in our approaches – I have an analytical approach and bring some strong financial skills and Alain has a very creative, very French approach, he’s the guardian of that French heritage,” says Flood.
Unlike many chairmen, Flood devotes a day and a half every week to St Dupont as she aims to grow it into a €100m business “delivering decent margins comparable with rest of the luxury world”.
Targeting new audience
Flood believes the brand can target a new, younger customer and tie-ups with Star Wars and McLaren are aimed at tapping into that market. It also has a longstanding relationship with the James Bond franchise and has partnered with the Rolling Stones.
“Star Wars is going to be amazing, we’ve got some really high-end product,” enthuses Flood. The more wealthy Star Wars fans will be able to pick up a levitating lightsaber pen for £20,000, for instance.
“Our customers really value these limited edition creations,” says Flood.
She says ST Dupont has neglected the UK in recent years in favour of expanding in the Middle East, Asia and its home country. But that is about to change.
“We’ve redoubled our focus on the UK and reinvigorated our relationship with our partners,” says Flood.
The brand sells through other retailers and its key partner is Harrods, as well as Selfridges, luxury accessories store William & Sons and cigar shops such as Davidoff and James J Fox. It is also launching a transactional website here later this year and has long-term plans to open a standalone store.
Flood also aims to better leverage its relationship with sister retailer Harvey Nichols. At the moment ST Dupont only sells through its Manchester department store but believes the relationship can be developed as it better appeals to a younger audience.
Difference in cultures
So how do French businesses differ to their British counterparts? “It’s very collegiate, and there’s a bit of a pace issue without a doubt,” says Flood. “You have to bring some additional pace to what you do.”
ST Dupont owns a factory in Lake Annecy and Flood says conversations with trade unions there can be challenging. “You can imagine in France, with some of the traditional working practices of the 35 hour week etc, you have to work with the unions to inspire them to understand the need for change and how that will benefit them and the whole business,” says Flood.
“Having come from John Lewis I am used to that style of working, what I can bring is a sharp commercial focus without damaging the creativity and Frenchness of the business.”
Flood knows a little about ‘Frenchness’. She lived in the country for a year while studying at Insead business school and studied French at school. So keen was she to keep her French up at university in Bath she used to sneak into French lectures despite studying maths.
Flood says ST Dupont colleagues are “generous” in their attitude to her English ways, but she can get caught out every so often. “We had a consortium of French banks in the factory, and there were moments then when I thought ‘ooh this is a challenge’. The business really appreciates though that they have an English woman who is willing to make an effort.”
It is that grit and determination that has earned Flood her highly coveted spread of roles as she progresses her portfolio career.
Flood on leadership
Flood says she learned a lot about leadership at John Lewis. “It is the king of leadership, I was able to build on all my analytical skills and inject that people leadership element,” she explains.
“I like to listen to people before I make my decisions. When I joined ST Dupont I didn’t have a fixed view of what the strategy should be.
“I like to learn and lead by example. It’s about getting people to realise that change is good and will be beneficial to them and supporting them through that process while being really clear about the direction you’re trying to take and the standards you expect.”
Flood says her humble upbringing – her mother was a bank clerk and her father a lift engineer – means she feels able to “speak to people at every level”.
“I find it easy to go and talk to frontline staff. I started as a Superdrug Saturday girl, which is as frontline as you can get. But with my academic training I’m very confident in the boardroom and am confident dealing with anybody on an intellectual level. Leadership is about being able to stand your ground intellectually while being empathetic and able to relate to people at all levels of the organisation.”
2014 – present Chairman ST Dupont
2012 – 2014 Group chief financial officer at Sun European Partners
2005 – 2010 Finance director of John Lewis
2001 – 2004 Finance director for Woolworths
1997 – 2001 Head of Strategy and later director of finance at Kingfisher
1994 – 1997 Strategy consultant with OC&C