CEO Talks with Enrico Roselli: A Brief on Authentic Leadership
La Martina has been captivating the world of polo since its foundation in 1984. The premium sportswear and lifestyle company, loved by polo players of the highest rank and led by the prominent CEO, Enrico Roselli, manages an international network that is uniquely positioned to be the market leader in the organization and support of polo. The brand is built on a genuine passion for the game of the global elites and focused on the production of technical equipment, fashion apparel, and accessories.
Enrico has been leading the business extension for the last 20 years, embracing the values of polo, and developing the culture of this sport through the support of clubs, associations, professionals, and amateur players.
Under his patronage, La Martina has become the official supplier of the Guards Polo Club (the British Royal Polo Club, founded by HRH The Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh) and the Federation of International Polo at all international tournaments. The company also equips the university teams from Harvard, Yale, Oxford, and Cambridge, the Royal Academy of Sandhurst, colleges of Eton and Harrow (UK), as well as the College of St. Xavier in Mumbai.
In an insightful talk, Enrico covered topics ranging from the role of strategic partnerships in business to the challenges a premium lifestyle brand faces nowadays, and also:
What are the key components of successful leadership in fashion
How to connect with your customers when they are royals and global sport celebrities
What it takes to build a true brand within the polo environment and why authenticity makes a difference
What is the ‘survival formula’ for a premium fashion brand in the pandemic
Why honesty is the new sustainability
And how to create a strategy that keeps a retail business running during lockdowns
IK: You’ve gone from being an attorney to being a long-term CEO (exactly 20 years now) at La Martina. How did your executive journey begin?
ER: At that time, I was practicing law in a law firm specializing in intellectual property and related legal issues. Lando, the La Martina owner, was one of the clients of this firm that, by the way, was one of the biggest in Italy. Being a very demanding client, he was given to me as a young lawyer. It was the starting point and the reason why we got in touch.
There was another reason why I decided to change the course of my career. Actually, two. Being a lawyer, I always felt the need to adopt a specific way of thinking. Whatever you do: whether you assist a client in a lawsuit or a contract negotiation, you always have to think about what can go wrong. What the other party can do against your interest. And that's not the mindset I wanted to live with. It's very negative. It's all about preventing damage rather than building something.
So I was pretty sure that it was not my way of looking at business and life. I felt that it was important for me to believe in what I was doing. It means to believe and to share the principles and codes of the owner of the company you're working for. As soon as I lost that perception, the reason to be in the business disappeared. I think everyone needs to believe in what they're doing. At least I do.
At the same time, Lando offered me the opportunity to work with him and I decided to change. By chance, I got to know Lando, by chance the law firm I was working for failed to confirm certain promises and principles we shared. That was pretty much a jump into the dark. Because there was no office, no structure, no nothing.
IK: Okay, and from your experience after 20 years in the role of CEO, what does the leadership in the fashion industry look like?
ER: In the last few years, I think, it changed quite a lot because the fashion industry has been constant and invariable for a long time. Digitalization is obviously an important change driver.
But this is not just about the platforms. It's also about what the company communicates to the public. The transparency between the company and the customers becomes vitally important.
In my opinion, the leader of a company in the fashion industry, besides being passionate about the brand world, should also be extremely flexible.
It is important not to stick to what someone used to do before, but to try new ways and new business formulas. To look into the new, to learn from other industries that is not very common in fashion. Fashion is very much self-centric.
So these are the key elements: to learn fast, to change, and to be flexible. In addition, leadership in fashion requires the ability to take the best of the people you work with. So it's not about a traditional leader when the one makes all the decisions. It’s more about someone, enabling the talents in the company to come out.
IK: Customer is the king nowadays. How do you build customer loyalty when your customers are royals and global celebrities (a demanding and refined audience)?
ER: First of all, I don't think it's right to say that our objective is to create customer loyalty at such a high level. The question is right in general, but not for this customer segment. I think that, first of all, you have to be respected and appreciated. This often brings loyalty as an additional benefit.
But the objective shouldn't be the loyalty itself. It should be the way you behave. We are a premium brand, well known in the luxury segment thanks to our authentic link with the sport of polo and its heritage. So we are sort of midway.
Kuldip Singh Dhillon (Chairman, Cirencester Park Polo Club), Enrico Roselli (CEO, La Martina), Unknown Guest, Prince Harry (Duke of Sussex), Adrian Simonetti (President, La Martina), Unknown Guest. Maserati Polo Tour 2015. Maserati Jerudong Park Trophy, Cirencester, England.
One of the first things I learned at La Martina was that just to be in that segment of the fashion industry you have to respect certain codes. The way you behave as a company, as a person, has to respect something that sometimes is not even written. So you have to be careful with all marketing communications when it comes to royals. We can refer to the Polo Club of the Queen (The Guards Polo Club) or the event that we host together with her majesty in the UK. But there is a thin line and we always respect it.
Adrian Simonetti (President, La Martina), Prince Harry (Duke of Sussex), Enrico Roselli (CEO, La Martina). Maserati Polo Tour 2015. Maserati Jerudong Park Trophy, Cirencester, England.
Besides, you should be authentic. It's absolutely important. That is the basic task from the market and business perspective. Being in such an environment requires authenticity and it makes a difference.
La Martina is perceived as the true brand within the polo environment and we constantly strengthen this position by investing in safety and the most important events worldwide. This puts our company in a completely different position. It’s not just about a marketing strategy. It’s a long-term vision.
IK: We are in the middle of the pandemic. How did your customer behavior change during the current crises? How did this change influence the La Martina product strategy?
ER: It's not over yet. We are speaking while everything is still happening and we don't know what comes next. Customer behavior has changed in one way, accelerating what was already happening before. Digital channels became extremely important both for marketing communications and sales.
Also, there has been a shift of interest of the general public towards other topics rather than fashion. Fashion is perceived as glamorous, attractive, but not vitally important. While the last year made us think more about what is fundamental in our life.
We discovered again the importance of emotions and emotional links with people. Your truthfulness and authenticity could create an ultimate link with the customers. That's an important change. This brings sustainability. People became more sensitive to this topic. However, in my opinion, it shouldn't be used as a marketing tool. It should be the core and the essence of the company.
Instead of being accelerated, the product strategy has been delayed. There is a trend for creating more capsule collections, and collections less linked to genders or seasons. The lockdowns slowed down this process globally, due to the closed shops. The previous collections should be sold first and the new ones will be released afterwards. Another issue is that people do not travel thus tourist destinations experience a lack of sales. So the strategy is to redirect sales from traditional towards digital markets.
IK: Are you experiencing a slowdown in sales? If so, what’s the 'survival formula' for a premium polo brand in the time of the pandemic and global market digital transformation?
ER: We are definitely experiencing a slowdown in several markets and obviously depending on geography. Our strategy is to be leaner in terms of structure, to bring the maximum efficiency we can, to be flexible yet find new solutions to new problems.
Our big advantage is that we are relatively small compared to other brands on the market. Thus there are always new markets that we can open. By opening markets, we balance the slowdown and as a result, there are plenty of areas where we can grow. That's a winning solution.
You can get rid of your old business structure and processes, but it doesn’t necessarily mean employees. We are a small company (around 50 people in the EMEA branch), so cutting personnel isn’t the solution. Instead, we believe in delegating new tasks to people and make them grow.
I will say something uncommon, but this crisis has helped companies like ours. In a normal situation, when someone comes to you and delegates additional tasks, you start wondering ‘okay, is there something wrong with me, are they trying to get rid of me?’. The pandemic justified such actions and facilitated relationships inside the company.
IK: What will your brand prioritize in 2021?
ER: Digitization is definitely our priority for many reasons. Not just because e-commerce is skyrocketing these days. When I say e-commerce, I mean different ways of doing e-sales that might be marketplaces, e-tail, your own digital platform, but also an integration of your partners (retailers and licensees) into your online system.
IK: It’s clear, digitalization. How about sustainability? Is it important for your customers?
ER: It's definitely important, but we have to be honest with ourselves and our customers. We are still far from a sustainable company. What we have to do is to start taking the first steps towards sustainability today.
Fairness is also a way to be sustainable. Sustainability is not only about the natural environment. It is about the way you employ and treat people. So our strategy starts from the way of dealing with others.
We also work on sustainability in terms of design and manufacturing processes with a lower impact on the natural environment. In January, we launched the first model of sneakers and the backpack that are 85% sustainable. They are made of leather from apples, bananas, and re-rubber (recycled rubber).
IK: They say you can’t predict the future of fashion retail. But you can prepare for it. How did you prepare La Martina for the upcoming challenges?
ER: The first and most important step is to make the product available wherever it is needed and for whoever is looking for it. Besides the technology, it's also important to have established relationships with the partners - sellers and resellers. To have a sort of omnichannel approach. We have to mix all the possible channels to create the best customer experience.
Another thing is that the number of stores will decrease dramatically worldwide. I’m talking about mono-brands and multi-brand stores. That's going to be quite challenging. We won’t suffer because our distribution chain is very selective and, therefore, easier to manage.
Still, we have to keep the number of our shops balanced. For example, we have three shops in the Emirates and it’s too much. We need one mono-brand, possibly very complex, providing the best customer experience, creating a community around the brand, and being connected to the digital channels. So out of three, we have to close two.
We do not need mono-brand stores in small cities. We have to choose the best multi-brands instead. Plus, we should definitely be present on different online marketplaces.
IK: Brand collaboration is one of the most-used marketing techniques in the premium market segment. You pioneered collaborations since the foundation of the company and continue this strategy nowadays with Maserati, Pininfarina, and other well-known brands. What is the real (measurable) outcome of such collaborations?
ER: It works both ways for us: create awareness and generate sales.
Most of the time, the challenge is big, because it's not just about generating business for us. It's about generating business for us and for our partners.
We have been pioneers of co-branding since the company was founded. So that is in our DNA. When you’re a premium brand, you should be selective and choose carefully with whom you’d like to associate your business. And you should definitely choose unexpected collaborations to stand out.
Prince William (Duke of Cambridge). Maserati International Polo Tour, Beaufort Polo Club, Gloucestershire.
You should look for common ground, but different contexts. It may create this chemistry and something that is not contrary to your identity, but also fresh and surprising. The surprise is an important element of a successful co-branding campaign. What makes the co-branding work well at 360 degrees is when there is a company that wants to invest in polo and grow as a business in such an environment. We become the best partner to get into the polo world because we know everything about it.
The Snow Polo World Cup, St. Moritz.
Currently, we are working on new collaborations. And that’s where the partnership with Pininfarina comes in.
IK: Can you tell us more about your collaboration with Pininfarina?
ER: Oh, that’s really interesting. We were searching for each other at the very same time and it was quite a coincidence.
We needed a partner who has been well-known and widely recognized for the last 70 years. A family-owned business. Although they are not such a company anymore, they are still perceived as family-owned, representing Italian design globally. Years ago, they were associated with Ferrari. But for the last 20 years, they have been designing yachts, interiors, and buildings.
Pininfarina masterfully combines design and functionality. This makes them attractive for us, because in fashion very often design is just visual art. We have a sport heritage and polo design is meaningful. La Martina became famous as a brand thanks to big numbers and big patches on its clothes. These design solutions originated from the real need of polo players.
Imagine the situation when you go watch a polo game. Sipping champagne with binoculars isn’t comfortable. These big numbers help to understand who is who on the field. The polo field is five times that of a soccer field, so you can always see the logo of the supplier and main sponsor, the name and number of a player. This meaningful design has become widely appreciated by the market.
Last but not least, the unexpected element was to bring someone from car manufacturing, design or interior design, into the fashion industry. Even though we aren’t purely a fashion brand. We’re a lifestyle brand.
IK: Currently, we are experiencing massive lockdowns in most of the European countries and in reality, it’s not clear when they end. What do the extended lockdowns mean for the fashion business and for your business?
ER: E-commerce provides good growth if you are good at what you do. So the solution is to be present both on your own e-commerce platform and on marketplaces.
Plus, as I said at the very beginning, we still have to open new markets. This will help us to mitigate the slowdown in some countries.
We changed the agency responsible for our distribution in some countries. It came along with the brand repositioning, new product design, and new communication strategy. We definitely needed a sales force to be able to distribute our brand in the stores in line with our new image.
We also reviewed our licensee networks to have more dynamic companies able to design a product that is more in line with the new brand strategy.
So the strategy is to review business processes, build consistency through all your actions and if you're lucky to target the right customers, you will make it.
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