The retail dynasty with a billion-dollar ambition

Photograph by Josh Robenstone

THE RETAIL DYNASTY WITH A BILLION-DOLLAR AMBITION

While retail struggles, meet the dad and daughter building a global family business on old smarts and digital know-how.

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PILLAR: RETAIL It was 2015 when 22-year-old Bianca Vagner-Cromb stood in the doorway of her father’s office, hands on hips, insisting that customers of her family’s women’s clothing business, Kookai, be able to shop online.

Her father, Kookai Australia managing director Rob Cromb, now admits he’s glad she did. Within the first 12 months, online sales were the equivalent of the brand’s largest retail store. “It’s certainly the fastest growing part of our business, up 70 per cent on last year,” Cromb says. “That’s the result of our marketing approach.”

Vagner-Cromb, who started out in the family business as a sales assistant on the shop floor at 18, is now the brand’s marketing manager. “Social media is the biggest platform to speak to our customers,” she says. “Many customers walk into our stores with a phone in their hands, with a picture from Instagram, saying ‘I want this’. And this customer is also tech savvy, so they’re buying online, too.” With more than 685,000 Instagram followers, Kookai launches its seasonal campaigns on social media, using the app to live broadcast runway shows. Vagner-Cromb herself has almost 16,000 followers. Once she wears certain outfits in posts, they sell out within hours online. “The dress (blogger) Rozalia Russian wore to our latest show sold hundreds within hours,” Vagner-Cromb says. “Influencer marketing is big for us. It’s organic. What makes us different to a lot of other brands is that we don’t pay for posts. Many of our customers are influencers, they love the brand and have worn it growing up. We built relationships with them and we found once we posted photos on social media, there was huge engagement and the clothes would sell out.”

Cromb says the presence of bricks and mortar stores also contributes to e-commerce success. “You almost need to be in a position where you have presence physically and you have your social media being cultivated properly,” he says. “For us they go hand in hand.”

Many customers walk into our Kookai stores with a phone in their hands with a picture from Instagram, saying ‘I want this’.

Bianca Vagner-Cromb

Kookai has almost 200 retail outlets worldwide and Cromb sees the size of the business doubling over the next five to 10 years. The aim is to reach almost $500 million in revenue in that time, with sights set on expanding into the United States and South-East Asia.

Cromb has opted to try the US first as he says being an Anglo-Saxon market, it’s not too great a jump for Australian retailers. He says Europe is more of a Latin market and there are cultural differences in the way women dress, so it takes more work to understand the market there – work that will be done with the company’s Paris office.

Currently, Kookai has an online presence in the US, but Cromb admits that despite growing by 50 per cent at one stage, he wants to set up a physical store. But he isn’t convinced Los Angeles and New York, flooded with tourists, are the best options. 

He wants to look to states like Ohio or Atlantic City, where he can capture the Middle America market. “Sometimes in retail you spend the first few years trying to work out how the market works, who the market is, how that demographic is responding. So, the broader the exposure you have, the better.”

In the past 25 years, Kookai has become a staple in Australian women’s wardrobes. Known for its basics, the brand has branched out to include footwear and jewellery as well as seasonal on-trend pieces of clothing inspired by its Parisian roots.

Expansion of the brand in Australia has gone full circle. Cromb and his then-wife Danielle Vagner launched Kookai in Australia in 1990 under a franchise agreement with the brand’s French founders. And the first Kookai store opened on Chapel Street, Melbourne, in 1992. “I was an accountant and I bought it so I could make some extra money to pay for Friday night dinners out,” he says. “There was a little part in my head that thought I might run a global business one day. But you really never think about it, because building a business is about one step at a time. I still function that way. I’ve never tried to do too many things in one go. You have big goals in the back of your mind but you don’t tell anyone about them.”

Four years ago, Cromb took his eldest children out to dinner to suggest he sell the business. The pair (including brother Viktor) convinced him to keep it and have since taken up roles. “They’ve got a lot to learn. When we started it was a $300,000 idea. Today these kids are stepping into multinational businesses and that is quite daunting.”

Last year Cromb bought the global Kookai business from apparel company Vivarte, taking on stores in Europe. “When they asked me to go over, I thought they were going to ask to buy me, so that was a shock,” he jokes. “We were sceptical about taking on another market. We spent the first nine months watching the operation and giving them more freedom to make decisions. We are a vertical operation here in Australia, so ultimately we would like to see France adopting that model a bit more, because it mitigates your risk – generally a faster response time and it reduces producing excessive amounts.”

Cromb says he’s always thought that if someone could get Kookai right it would be a multibillion-dollar operation. “When you think of the market it chases, it’s big,” he says. “There is a big opportunity for the brand, provided we get the fundamentals right. There isn’t a homogeneous solution to our product around the world. We localise the product, our thinking and expertise, so that the brand effectively engages with a similar demographic across each country. So that’s our solution to tackling other markets.”

Surrounding yourself with the right people is crucial in any business, but even more so when handing on to the next generation.

Rob Cromb

PwC Private Clients Leader Sanjiv Jeraj has been working with the company for a decade to help Cromb grow the business. Cromb says surrounding yourself with the right people is crucial in any business, but even more so when handing on to the next generation. “You hope they’d run it differently, you’d hope they would run it better,” he says.

The Press is a publication by PwC Australia, aimed at sharing expertise, capturing insights and working together to solve important problems.

This article first appeared in Edition 6 of The Press
By Lucille Keen, Senior Reporter, The Press

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