Alumni Profile - Julia Massey MBA, Chief Operating Officer, Nicole Farhi

28 April 2016

Alumni Profile - Julia Massey MBA, Chief Operating Officer, Nicole Farhi

Alumna Julia Massey talks to Henley Business School about her personal leadership journey

Alumna Julia Massey talks about her personal leadership journey, which has seen her work across the globe, most recently as Chief Operating Officer at Nicole Farhi.

In this short profile, we chart Julia’s career and introduce some of the factors that influence and inform her leadership style:

Julia completed her Henley MBA in 1990 and describes it as ‘a turning point in her career’. Having been sponsored by PA Consulting Group (who had generously paid her fees and her salary), she realised that she wanted to be inside a company rather than a consultant. Specifically she wanted to work in the area of retail brand, strategy and product – themes that have been woven throughout her subsequent career.

Julia joined Reebok International, initially as Strategic Planning Director at International HQ in London. Reporting to the President, she created and implemented new strategic processes and frameworks for the International Division, collaborating with MDs of subsidiaries and owners of distributors. After two years, she moved to the firm’s Global HQ in the United States, with responsibility for a range of products, growing sales to more than $50 million. But some of the biggest challenges were personal. ‘We may speak a common language but it's not the same; you have to adjust and use their words. The culture is different too; when the British TV show The Office was shown on Public Broadcasting, I told my American colleagues they must watch, but they didn't find it funny. The humour is so different.’

From a corporate perspective, Julia found life in the US much faster than in the UK. But she appreciated the greater emphasis on diversity and that there were far more senior women within the organisation. ‘Women were empowered and, in my own case, I was able to gain a great deal of respect for my knowledge and understanding of European markets.’

Following a move to Atlanta and the birth of her twins – for which she had four weeks’ maternity leave – Julia took two years out to look after them and, that, she says, was harder than working in business! But in 2005, she moved back to the UK, joining global private company Pentland Brands, initially as Global Licensing Director and then Managing Director of Red or Dead, a subsidiary that traded in apparel, footwear, optical frames, bicycles and accessories. As MD of one of ten or so Pentland brands and part of the leadership team, she was the only one with a degree, and the only MBA, which she didn't tell them about. She was also one woman among young men whose main topic of conversation was football. But the contribution she made to the business and her ability to think strategically demonstrated the value of her previous experience and qualifications.

There were other personal challenges: ‘It is said that, for every year you spend away from your own country, it takes a year to re-adjust, and that was my experience.’ She found that her values had shifted – in the US, there's very much a sense that America is best. Coming back, she found business moved a bit more slowly. ‘In the US, the whole focus was on getting results; whereas, in the UK, things were more well thought through. The ideal position is probably somewhere in the middle.’ But overall, moving to the US and back to the UK made her a lot more resilient.

On arrival at Red or Dead, Julia's challenge was to take a 30-year-old business that had had its heyday in the 1990s and grow it. Julia's style is collaborative and she used this quality to good effect: growing some of the licensed products she’d inherited and taking on new ones. ‘It's essentially about building good relationships with people’, she says. Red or Dead became one of the most profitable brands within Pentland, with great partners and great products, and achieved £40 million in retail and wholesale sales, an increase of 50% under Julia’s leadership.

One of her proudest achievements was to launch a bicycle product. Prompted by a FutureLab presentation that talked about the number of women taking up cycling, she asked the creative director what a Red or Dead bicycle would look like. The creative director came back with a printed bike and matching helmet. They called Raleigh, as the top brand in cycling, and told them ‘your bikes aren't good for women’. Raleigh listened and together they set up a co-branded joint venture. ‘It was up to Red or Dead to get the bike into bicycle stores’, says Julia, ‘but these tend to be quite conservative. The bicycle didn't make a lot of money but it was great PR for Red or Dead and won us an award for best new product licensing.’

Nicole Farhi presents Julia with a very different set of challenges. The day-to-day running of the business enables her to put her strategic skills to good use. This privately owned small business has come out of administration and is in the process of restructuring. Julia's remit is to move into the premium, luxury market, while taking cost out. ‘Not an easy thing to do’, she says. ‘We have withdrawn from some department stores and closed a sub-brand.’ Julia has quite a young team across all disciplines and they are responding well to her collaborative and supportive style. ‘It’s early days and the market is challenging for both luxury and high street brands. e-Commerce is growing and represents a good opportunity, but it’s hard to differentiate yourself. Suppliers are supporting our online business, but you really need excellent photo shoots and very good copy, so you have to invest to do it well.’

On top of her busy job, Julia is active with the Business School's special interest group for Marketing and the Women in Leadership Forum. As a successful woman, she says: ‘the important thing is having confidence and believing in your ability. Men will take a job description and say they can do it all. Women will say they are able to do a, b and c but not other things. We have to be more like the men. And it’s incredibly important to network; it enables you to grow and develop, it brings the outside in.’ Julia increasingly values the Henley network and is now in a position to give back to others facing similar challenges to herself.

Looking back on her career, Julia recognises the importance of organisations investing in you as an individual. ‘When they offer you training or development opportunities, seize them; don't take them for granted.’

When not working, Julia likes to cook, read and travel. She’s been to about 50 countries for business or pleasure, including a recent holiday to Vietnam, which she loved. She also organises a book club that she finds relaxing; a good way of switching off. It’s a very exclusive book club, however, ‘You have to move into a house on my road if you want to be a member!’