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Just in time expert – Charles Kessler

Article Credit: Esprit Magazine http://www.esprit-magazine.co.uk/ © Copyright esprit Magazine 2015


Born into what has become a retail-merchandising dynasty, Charles Kessler Chairman of Kesslers International and a member of the 4th generation of the family to run the business – his brother George is Group Director – understands almost by second nature how to express in a physical sense the spirit of a brand in-store, on time, every time. And as launch lead times have contracted in recent years from five or six months to a matter of weeks, just in time expertise is now invaluable to the success of any launch.

As the owner of a 130,000 square feet design, engineering, assembly, installation and brand distribution facility spread over two buildings within a stone’s throw of the fast emerging Olympic Village in Stratford, East London, Kesslers’ International’s business stands apart from a sector largely populated by individual designers running small entrepreneurial firms.

Employing over 300 staff, the scale of Kesslers’ operation is without rival in the UK. Employing a large team of graphic designer and production personnel, all manufacturing takes place in-house and much of its work is carried out on an international basis for global brands. It has won numerous POPAI awards for the quality of its work across Europe and further afield. In addition to its core business, Kesslers International also owns a major logistics firm, BDM Logistics & Management.

Charles began working part time with Kesslers as a schoolboy in 1973, the year Revlon launched Charlie, its legendary fragrance. A graduate of the world renowned Sorbonne Business School in Paris as well as the University College of Wales, Cardiff, Charles spent a brief time as a journalist with BBC in W ales before leaving the Corporation to join Unilever in brand management with Impulse. He was still in his 20s when he returned to work full-time at Kesslers International. He is married to Ann, a former personal assistant to Mrs Estée Lauder.

The Kesslers International story began way back in 1893 as a manufacturer of umbrellas but early mass ownership of automobiles reduced the necessity for people to carry what was then also the leading fashion accessory. Seeking a new direction for his business, Charles’ grandfather switched his focus to the exciting emerging ‘science’ of retail marketing.

An early breakthrough contract was won with Parker Pens – still a client today – to manufacture a freestanding shop display unit. Many further contracts soon followed but it was William Kessler, Charles’ brilliant father, who in the period following the Second World War took the business on to a whole new level with his pioneering work for the movers and shakers of the beauty industry, including Max Factor and Yardley. Kesslers’ business thrived during the early heady days of the commercialisation of beauty and the sector remains at the heart of the company with its work today for a plethora of major brands owned by all the main players in the industry including Procter & Gamble, L’Oreal, Estée Lauder, Coty and LVMH as well as numerous smaller companies.

For Charles the challenge of expressing the values and position of a brand in a three-dimensional way in-store is “endlessly fascinating”. It starts, he says, from a basic premise: “We have all learnt in economics about the concept of the rational consumer. However, you know immediately that the words leave your mouth that the consumer is not strictly rational. Beauty brands appeal to that sense of irrationality. Our work in 3D Communications, as we refer to it, concerns brand expression; it is about conveying a position and a dream that reaches beyond the logic to idealism and hope.”

But how do you capture the essence of a brand like Christina Aguilera in a physical way? “It’s back to umbrellas,” he says. “It is about expressing these ideas in a very closely defined area. We have achieved it with unitary, with a design that appeals to its position in the consumer market. We also had to make it fit the propositions of all the different retailers because what will be right for Boots will not work in a House of Fraser, Selfridges or Superdrug. And all this has to be achieved without in any way compromising the core brand values.”

Experience and knowledge are keys to all this, of course and Kesslers is probably as aware of the technical restrictions imposed on ‘fixturing’ by each store group as the stores are themselves. “Our clients have a right to expect this level of knowledge and service from us,” says Charles. But while command of such detailed additional information is invaluable, Charles also thinks it is important at times to step-back and consider the broader picture, to get people thinking about the wider aspects of branding. And so twice a year the company holds innovation seminars with eminent speakers from the retail and design industries at which Kesslers’ staff and guests learn about overcoming challenges in related sectors. Speakers on brand strategy have included Michael Wemms, Retail Director of Tesco, Nigel Duxbury, Property Director of Superdrug and Ralph Kugler, Deputy Chairman of Unilever.
Despite current economic conditions, Charles and his fellow directors are optimistic both about the company’s future and that of the beauty industry itself and has demonstrated this through a £500,000 investment in a new production line and a further £250,000 capital investment agreed at a board meeting the night before this interview took place. “We have had double-digit growth for each of the last four years, while our history shows that we have grown more in economic downturns, particularly in the 80s and 90s, than at other times. I believe this is attributable to companies taking less risks with their money, coming back to professionals and looking very carefully at the effectiveness of their spend.”

But surely there are some clouds on the horizon? He readily agrees: “I think the industry is at a crossroads. The whole market has upped and changed and if companies do not recognise that, then they are riding for a fall. People’s expectations and view of luxury are quite different now and brands need to recognize this when they talk to people. I also think there will be an explosion of niche products and this could be a challenge for even the biggest firms. The really large multinational corporations have many things in their favour, but flexibility is not one of them. It is not business as usual, there are going to be fundamental changes over the next five years, far more so, I believe, than in the previous five.”

The changing methods of brand communication are something that all brand owners must appreciate, he believes. “The growth of global branding and the decline of above the line media are both so significant. This is communication without frontiers, without language. So you see a display for One Million, for example, and you know that it is the same communication in London as it is Stockholm or New York. This and the internet are the fastest growing areas of marketing, so you know where the opportunities are. Media fragmentation, a consequence of which has been the decline in the power of television, is here to stay and one has to work with it. Unless you are soap powder brand, it is no good just whacking your money on TV and hoping for the best.”

“The most successful brands during the last 15 years have been almost entirely television free. Google has never been involved with TV advertising, while Microsoft after dabbling with it pulled out very quickly. This shows that you can grow huge, huge brands away from television. You can do exactly the same in the beauty business with the strength of PR and retail display in-store or online. If all parts of the marketing mix lineup, the packaging, the P R, retail display, you greatly multiply the power of your marketing spend. In one sense this is so very obvious that you wonder why it is considered a new approach.”
Reflecting on his success at the helm of Kesslers International, I ask him which people has he particularly admired over the years and have influenced the way he runs his business. “Kenneth Green (Chairman of Kenneth Green Associates) has been an enormous influence, he has shown me how to be incredibly successful but in an absolutely straight forward professional way. Kenneth behaves like a gentleman at all times. Dominic Garnier, Vice President of Christian Dior Parfums is also a close friend and mentor, he gave me an insight into the French view of beauty which differs markedly from that of the English. It also helps that we share rugby as a common interest. Other than that, my father, of course, has been incredibly important to me, both personally and professionally. I have learnt so much from him.”

So is he happy for me to call him a ‘just in time expert’? After a brief laugh, he replies: “I suppose that is an apt description, after all we have no choice. But you couldn’t be just in time unless you have been working with someone in the same marketplace for a long period and you know ways of speeding up the process. And that sums us up I suppose,we have reached a certain level of expertise and we are consequently an important part of the process of brand communication. It’s strange how we have waited 120 years to become an overnight sensation!