Nicolas Bos is chief executive of Van Cleef & Arpels, part of the Richemont Group.
Q. What is your family background?
A. I was born in December 1971 in Paris. I was an only child in a traditional French middle-class family. My maternal grandparents were farm workers in Normandy and my mother became a schoolteacher. My father comes from a family of wood craftsmen and became a chiropractor.
Q. What is your educational background?
A. I went to public school. I was a good student and excelled in every subject except sports. I skipped years and graduated high school at age 16. My parents wanted me to do something practical, like get an engineering degree, but my passion was literature and culture. I wanted to become a literature professor or work in publishing. In the end, we compromised on business school. At 17, I entered Essec, a school near Paris.
Q. Did you enjoy business school?
A. Not really. I was too young and very idealistic and the business school environment was far from interesting to me.
A friend who worked for Cartier at the time told me about the Fondation Cartier pour l’Art Contemporain, a new art center run by the brand that combined luxury business and culture. I found the venture intriguing and thought a business degree could help me get a job at the Fondation.
By 1992, when I graduated, my friend had become administrator of the Fondation and offered me an internship. It was a miracle that I got a foot in that door and a dream come true.
Q. What did you do at the Fondation Cartier?
A. At that time, art institutions were beginning to look at commercial activities, like producing catalogs and other products, to generate revenue. As assistant to the administrator and later as secretary general, I worked mostly on budgets and procuring financing for art projects. But over the eight years there, the most fascinating part of my job was the interaction with art curators and artists and being involved in the numerous exhibitions we organized.
Q. What did you learn from that experience?
A. I learned that I could do anything. There were days when in budget meetings, I would present balance sheets, and in the afternoon, I would roll up my sleeves and help install the stage for an art performance. I enjoyed doing both equally.
Q. Did you have a mentor?
A. From that first year, I worked for someone who reported directly to Alain-Dominique Perrin, founder of the Fondation Cartier and president of Cartier. He was an important figure in the luxury industry, and still is a fascinating person. Mr. Perrin was my mentor. Years on, he is still my boss on some activities within the Richemont Group.
I also met Isabelle Guichot, then the right-hand woman to Mr. Perrin. She became president of Van Cleef & Arpels in 2000 when it was acquired by Richemont. She is the reason I am here today.
Q. You established an important professional network early on.
A. Many of the people I worked with later became pillars of the art world and of the luxury industry and still are. But back then, I was in my early 20s and reported to people who were themselves in their 30s. We all grew up together. There was a lot of loyalty in that group and still is.
Q. How did you make the move to a jewelry brand?
A. In 2000, Mr. Perrin had moved to Richemont and Ms. Guichot became president of Van Cleef. She asked me to join as marketing director. I did not want the job, but I knew that I had to move on from the Fondation Cartier: I had no art history background and could not move to the art side, and I did not want a finance job at a public institution.
I was quite surprised to be offered the job at Van Cleef. Everyone knew I wasn’t an expert in jewelry, so I was not deceiving anyone. I put my trust in my mentors, and accepted on faith.
Van Cleef was then a relatively small family-owned operation, compared to Cartier. It was exciting writing strategy for the company not knowing whether we would be successful. My mandate for the first five years was to sum up the story of the house’s creativity, launch new collections, identify collections that could be resurrected, understand and run the business without disrupting the workshops.
Q. How did your prior experience help with your position at Van Cleef?
A. At the Fondation Cartier, I was accustomed to working with artists from different fields, and knew where to respect their choices and where to give orientation within a business framework. In creative fields, being too rational and bogged down with a marketing approach can result in the product losing its edge. I have a feel for the delicate balance between business and creativity.
Q. In 2013, at barely 42, you became C.E.O. but you were also creative director at Van Cleef. How do you put the business and creative aspects together?
A. I am neither a jeweler nor a designer. My job is to initiate creative projects and ensure that they generate revenue. I am not running the show by any means. In jewelry, craftsmen, setters, polishers and designers are hierarchically at the same level. There is no cult of the flamboyant creative artist. Title is not important. I set the tone and push for excellence. As for the rest, I learn on the job.
Q. What is your management style as chief executive at Van Cleef?
A. I am fair but extremely demanding. I usually see the glass half empty. I must work on acknowledging the good and not just seeing what needs improvement. I value expertise and try to be objective. When you get criticism from me, there is an explanation. It is important in creative fields to explain why a design is not ideal or the product not suitable. But I have common sense and am able to change my mind.
Q. Is there added pressure in being both creative and business-minded in your job?
A. I don’t feel the type of pressure you hear about in the fashion industry. Our business rests on team effort. Distinguishing between creative and business-minded types in the luxury industry does not make sense in my view. Luxury companies only last if they are both creative and good businesses. The idea that creative types are romantic figures, disconnected from reality and creating in isolation is unfounded.
Q. How do you manage across cultures?
A. In team management, I am sensitive to cultural and legal differences. In France, you will never get people to work beyond the strict limits of the law. In California, you must keep your office door open when speaking to female employees. In Japan, there is a different sense of hierarchy. We are very cautious in understanding and respecting local traditions and managing the expectations of our teams.
Q. You are now 44, relatively young for a C.E.O. Does your youth give you an edge in business today?
A. I am not that young, and my edge comes from my experience. I am the most senior person at Van Cleef with the exception of a few artisans in our workshops. My age allows me to envisage projects over the next 10 to 15 years without contemplating retirement.
Q. What is the best advice you have received?
A. To favor the long term. This advice comes from management at Richemont. We disregard the low-hanging fruit if it is not good for the long term, even at the expense of short-term results.
Q. What is the difference between a good leader and a great leader?
A. A great leader has the vision and the ability to share it with and motivate teams.
Q. What would you tell your younger self?
A. To not skip the boring classes like accounting and tax in school. I spent many late nights trying to reconcile balance sheets on the job and took years to catch up on those subjects which I had elected to skip in school.
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