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ALL IN THE FAMILY

‘The House of Gucci’

(First of a series)

Back in March at the start of the pandemic, my former psychology professor Allen Tan sent me a New Philosopher article titled “Grandstan_ding in the Family” by Antonia Case, which discussed family business feuds, with emphasis on the Gucci clan. A wide reader, Allen competes in bridge tournaments as a member of the Singapore senior team. Anything Allen sends is definitely worth pondering.

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I knew Gucci was also a Harvard Business School case study, so I delved into the family, and finally came across fashion editor Sara Gay Forden’s book “The House of Gucci,” from which most of the information below was derived.

What a “sensational story of murder, madness, glamor and greed” it turned out to be, as we discuss in a series this month.

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Guccio Gucci, formerly a lift boy at London’s Savoy hotel, started the handbag and luggage empire in 1921. But his children and grandchildren battled each other over corporate ownership, vision, direction, products and everything else. One son went to jail, one grandson lost all his wealth, and still another grandson (the last of the Guccis to head the company) was murdered allegedly upon his wife’s orders (she was released from jail a few years ago).

In 1999, the French group Pinault Printemps Redoute acquired control of Gucci, and today Gucci is a subsidiary of the luxury conglomerate Kering.

But for more than half a century, Gucci was the most revered fashion brand worldwide. After the birth of each new grandchild, Guccio said, “Let him smell a piece of leather, for it is the smell of his future.”

Aldo, son of Guccio, was the one mainly responsible for taking the company global. He rarely went on vacation, and traveled more than a dozen times a year between Florence and New York on business. Once when a friend asked him about his hobbies, he merely laughed.

Even if he was supposed to be relaxing on a weekend, he would pop into the nearest Gucci store to check up on things. Once when he visited a store franchise, he discovered some dust on a shelf, so he canceled the franchise immediately.

Aldo was like a “one-man market research firm,” an employee told Forden.

Aldo demanded attention to detail. “Everything must be perfect,” he said. “Even the bricks in the walls must know they are Guccis!”

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He was also the consummate salesman, and female customers flocked to him. “Every kiss on the hand of a wealthy lady of Palm Beach meant the sale of another handbag!” another employee said.

Aldo’s gift of gab appeared to be more of a help than hindrance. “He could come in out of the rain and look you in the eye and tell you it was a gorgeous sunny day outside,” former CEO Domenico de Sole said.

Customers’ needs came first. After experimenting with lunch shifts for employees, Aldo decided to have them eat at the same time, even if this meant the store was closed momentarily for lunch break.

He did not want customers to experience slow service—or even the absence of their favorite salesperson—because of rotating lunch breaks for the staff.

But he also treated the staff like family. If lunch hours were staggered, some employees might not eat till late afternoon.

“I decided that the customers would understand [even if the store closed for lunch] and now everybody eats lunch at the same time,” he said in the mid-1970s.

“Instead of hurting business, the practice [of closing during lunch time] only seemed to raise Gucci’s cachet,” Forden said.

“Aldo stimulated the people who worked for him; he promised them a lot individually,” an employee said. “That made them work very hard.”

Because of Aldo’s personal dedication, employees took pride in their work.

Even in a risky business climate, Gucci did well.

In 1980, on the eve of the opening of a glamorous store on Fifth Avenue in New York, Aldo said, “Where are the people who buy these things in time of recession? I have a saying about beautiful women. Only 5 percent are truly beautiful. But 5 percent is enough to make us smile.”

(To be continued)

Queena N. Lee-Chua is with the board of directors of Ateneo’s Family Business Center. Get her book “All in the Family Business” on Lazada and the e-book version on Amazon, Google Books, Apple Books. Contact the author at [email protected]

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