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Exclusive interview: B&S steps up its great transformation

Prologue: B&S Group is a giant of the travel retail industry but few travelling consumers are aware of it. Even…

By Staff , in Ecommerce Marketing , at October 24, 2021


Prologue: B&S Group is a giant of the travel retail industry but few travelling consumers are aware of it. Even within the travel retail community, the company has a low profile despite a heritage that dates back to 1872, being listed on the Euronext Amsterdam exchange since 2018, and delivering close to €2 billion in turnover last year.

 Now the company is determined to increase its visibility to both consumer and trade alike, part of a sweeping transformation process being led by CEO Tako De Haan, who assumed the leadership reins in August 2020. De Haan considers B&S “a hidden treasure” in the consumer goods industry, citing its extensive distribution network across six diverse segments – beauty, wines & spirits, food & confectionery, personal care, health & wellness, and its direct retail operations in airports and ecommerce.  Martin Moodie found out more in a fascinating interview conducted earlier this month with De Haan and Willem Tuk, Managing Director of B&S Beauty, a key and growing division of the B&S Group.

B&S people in profile

Tako De Haan has served as Chief Executive Officer and Chairman of the Executive Board of the B&S Group since 2020. A Dutch national who joined Mexx International in 1996 and subsequently took on senior leadership roles in Mexx and other companies.

In 2006, he joined Nike EMEA and later worked with renowned fashion retailers such as Triumph, Old Navy, GAP and Toms Shoes before joining B&S Group.

A tech-oriented leader with a strong track record in value chain optimisation, De Haan has over 25 years of experience in running successful commercial operations characterised by a focus on organisational efficiency, digitised supply chains and sustainable bottom-line growth.

Willem Tuk, Managing Director of B&S Beauty, a branch of the B&S Group, is a Dutch national with close to 30 years of entrepreneurship in the beauty industry.

Almost straight from business school, he co-founded JTG, a distributor of branded premium fragrance in the Netherlands, later expanding it to the US and other markets. B&S Group acquired a majority stake in JTG in 2007 and increased its share in 2020.

Tuk was instrumental in the 2018 acquisition of Fragrance.com, initiating a strong strategic direction towards digital and direct-to-consumer development.

Tako De Haan might be new to the B&S world but he is an acknowledged expert in reorganisation, having worked in the fashion industry for almost 30 years including senior roles with Nike, Gap, Mexx International, Old Navy, Tom’s Shoes and others. And it was those qualities that attracted B&S Group Vice-Chairman of the Supervisory Board (and CEO until 2004) Willem Blijdorp during a chance meeting in 2020 at a mutual acquaintance’s birthday party.

Soon after, De Haan found himself as CEO of a company with a 149-year history, tasked with driving a sweeping transformation of its structure and its identity.

“We have made some big steps over the past year,” he says of his and fellow management’s efforts to reimagine the company. “When I joined, I did over 100 interviews with a lot of people across the company and at all levels of the organisation. There were only a few storylines that I could connect to another – we are a publicly traded €2 billion company and yet nobody could tell the same story.”

De Haan set about changing both the internal and external perception of B&S. “How can we bring this altogether?” he asked himself. A simple sounding but in reality deeply challenging conundrum, especially against the backdrop of a raging global pandemic. During the transition phase, he and his senior team examined not only how they could optimise and better integrate the different business strands but also how they could build B&S as a brand.

“People needed to start recognising what we stand for, who we are and what product segments we have in our portfolio,” De Haan recalls. “We are a company with a very strong logistical network. We can serve any company and any brand in the world. We reach places that nobody can get to. We served the military in Afghanistan, where you had to go through a multitude of security checkpoints to get to your destination. So we have mastered our logistical network to the smallest detail and I think that is where we are unique in the world. Yet not everybody knows about it.

“So we are positioning B&S on the one hand as a brand that has a very strong global network. We’re able to reach everybody everywhere in the world – whether that’s wholesale, B2C, B2R or owned retail and ecommerce platforms. On the other, we have all these product segments – in fact, it’s incredible to see how much diversity we have in our product portfolio.”

To build a brand you have to market it. As a result B&S created a full marketing department tasked not only with promoting the overall corporate identity but also four distinct brands within it. “With our logistical set-up, we can serve brands end-to-end into places where they don’t have any establishment or in regions where they have no stronghold,” De Haan comments. “We can help them set it up because we have a partnership with a hypertargeting company called Social Database, which helps us find the right audiences and target the right people. So we help brands to build a presence in new regions and new countries.”

One year on, progress is “really starting to kick in”, De Haan says. “We can see the effects of it in many ways already and that is something totally new to B&S. We want to bolster the business that we have but we also want to look at different business opportunities, particularly ecommerce, which is fairly new to B&S. We’ve invested into building our own ecommerce platform but also linking our business to B2R platforms.

“We are doing this to over 100 B2R sites. So we supply the big boys across the world. We have built our own ecommerce platform in the last year so that we can have our B2B ecommerce and also have B2C sites on that same platform. So it’s fully integrated with our ERP system.”

B&S’s ambitions are underpinned by an extensive global set-up. The Netherlands serves as the group’s home base but the group also has an office with over 100 employees in Dubai; a New York base with FragranceNet; warehouses in New York, Atlanta and Reno elsewhere in the US; a presence in Australia; multiple locations in Africa; a flourishing China operation; and a new venture currently being established in Singapore. “We’re very well spread across the world,” says De Haan.

Making a beauty statement: B&S is underlining its credentials in the critical beauty products sector at the TFWA World Exhibition in Cannes

As a majority shareholder in FragranceNet, B&S has been very successful in growing the business in China (under the Fragrance.com banner). “Last year, really just before Corona, we opened up in China which was a huge success,” says Willem Tuk, Managing Director of B&S Beauty. “We’re still doubling numbers every month and it’s really big. Besides Fragrance.com in China, we also opened it in Australia with our own warehouses so that we are closer to the Australian consumers. We are opening up this month in the Middle East. So our goal is to really be a global player for the end consumer.”

As part of its China aspirations, B&S helps brands get established there by working with fellow Dutch company Social Database, which has connections with WeChat and Weibo. “So we can really market our products on different websites or individually to consumers in China,” De Haan points out.

“With beauty, B&S Beauty is really integrated in the Chinese ecommerce business,” adds Tuk. “Besides FragranceNet, which acts as a single website to consumers, we also host brands which might have difficulties distributing in China. We are the distributor, for example, for Kim Kardashian Perfumes in China. They know everything about the US but for them China is a different and challenging commercial set-up. We have a good team in China who can help on the marketing side and connect all the different players to the right groups.”

Through Social Database, B&S works closely with selected Chinese influencers, each with a vast network of followers. “So by connecting to one influencer you have maybe a million followers in China, they’re stunning numbers,” says De Haan. “And Social Database helps us to find these influencers that are particularly interested in beauty products. We use WeChat, Weibo and all these other social platforms to connect to those influencers.”

‘King of Reach.’ The company prides itself on being efficient and timely in delivering goods all over the world. Click to enlarge.

Liquor & beauty momentum

B&S is also stepping up an ambitious roll-out of its B2C network across Europe in ecommerce liquor. The group is already delivering wines & spirits on a B2C base in five European countries with three more to follow this year. “So our strategies are really kicking in and starting to work,” says De Haan. “And that gives us the opportunity to work with the industry and see how we can further develop together.”

Beauty is considered to have the biggest growth potential, a status reflected by B&S Group exhibiting at TFWA World Exhibition in Cannes next week with Signature Beauty – its brand partnership and representation company for selective distribution in Benelux and travel retail.

“We see the need to grow the ecommerce business and our business in general in beauty – it’s a super growth opportunity for everybody,” De Haan comments. “We have the network to distribute it anywhere in the world. We are expanding not only in China but in Europe, the US, Australia and in the Middle East. Willem is helping us leading that beauty segment to the next level.”

B&S is a near €2 billion company, well-poised to grow rapidly across divisions and geographies. Click to enlarge.

To help deliver that goal, B&S recruited Antoine Lafourcade, the highly regarded former Managing Director and Vice President of Puig’s global travel retail unit in a consultancy role to grow the business and work more closely with brands. “We want brands to recognise the power we have and what it could mean for them, something we have not been utilising until today,” Tuk comments. “If you talk about transformation and beauty, that’s something we’re working on and we think it will be interesting for the brands to hear what we have to offer at the global level.”

While B&S is well-known for working in the open channel with brands, Tuk says that the direct to consumer business is a very different proposition and one that B&S is uniquely well-placed to leverage. “With all our knowledge, all our customer data and the fact that we have over 10 million customers worldwide, we know exactly what consumers are buying, when they’re buying, and how much they’re paying. We really want to tap further into our data analytics strength, which is something we have to offer on top of the super audience skills of Social Database.”

Consumer and customer-facing brands will enjoy their own identity as the new-look B&S takes shape

Going forward, B&S will be the overarching B2B brand that expresses the company’s reach and logistical strength while the consumer and customer-facing brands – significantly consolidated – will enjoy their own identity. “We are really well-organised to do that. Most B2C companies start with the website and then figure out how logistics work. But we have everything on that side already sorted out, so we just need to get the connection to the consumer through the ecommerce sites,” says De Haan.

Direct retail stores to get stronger identity

B&S also runs a total of 26 duty free stores, including the highly successful Royal Capi-Lux (Capi) consumer technology and electronics retail chain.

A key mission is to ensure that there is common consumer recognition of all group stores in the future. “Our end goal should be that everybody knows who B&S is,” De Haan concludes. “Everybody in our sector should know about our product portfolio and every consumer should know that we can deliver anything in the portfolio to them. We have a slogan,  ‘King of Reach’, because we can reach anywhere.

Cutting edge: In 2020 Royal Capi-Lux (Capi), the airport retail brand of B&S Group, partnered with Samsung to open a pop-up at Amsterdam Airport Schiphol Lounge 2, showcasing the latest Samsung technology

“I could talk for an hour alone about the beauty opportunities that we see but we are also doing something similar in food, in medical-related items and in liquor. The opportunities that we have on our hands are countless.” As B&S approaches its landmark 150th birthday celebrations, the mood within the camp is unmistakably upbeat. That chance birthday counter is adding extra shine to the King of Reach’s crown.

B&S is a diverse powerhouse spread across multiple business segments. Click to enlarge.

Entrepreneurship, adaptability and investment focus

While B&S enjoys a powerful distribution footprint, CEO Tako De Haan says the company brings much else to the party.

“It’s about how we bring solutions by utilising our business acumen, smart logistics and IT to better service our brand suppliers, wholesalers, retailers, and most of all consumers all over the world,” he comments. “Via our hi-tech platform we make the best premium consumer goods available in every corner of the world.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has severely impacted some areas of the B&S Group (and specifically the travel retail operations) but helped reinforce other segments, De Haan notes, underlying the value of being such a broad-based enterprise. More importantly it has allowed the group to overhaul its business processes, strengthen the teams and start rethinking and redesigning its business models.

Asked to sum up the company’s key tenets, De Haan offers three key principles – entrepreneurship, adaptability and an investment-orientated mindset.

“Our heritage breathes entrepreneurship,” he says. “We are fast movers and see business opportunities that are not ‘everyone’s business’. We excel in serving selected niches and non-standard markets that require in-depth business knowledge and expertise. In our 150 years in business, we have always been a growth partner to our suppliers, brands, and customers.

“Secondly, our business model is very adaptive. Whether it be in expansion plans in travel retail; in personal care; in online B2C; or in territories such as UAE, USA, China, Australia, B&S never stops considering opportunities where they best appear. We turn challenges into new business opportunities by refocusing our business mix and expanding our ecommerce businesses even more rapidly than already planned.”

B&S controls FragranceNet, Fragrance.com, Topdrinks.com and several other ecommerce platforms, a key strategic focus for the future. “Our strong financial position of course was of enormous value as well – we were able to keep investing in times of hardship to come out of this pandemic stronger, De Haan observes.

“B&S continues to pursue its M&A strategy as well as investing in its core capabilities and in its current organisation. We are focusing strongly on digital platforms and developing more phygital concepts – stores focused on digital experience/easy access and ordering etc.”

B&S not only invests in business, but it also invests in people, he insists. With the continued development of its core commercial and operational competencies and expertise, the new dynamic has accelerated the onboarding of capabilities through in-house development plans or external hiring in areas such as digital, brand management & collaboration, marketing services and others.

B&S can reach anyone anywhere

De Haan describes B&S as a growth partner along the entire value chain. This starts with the strength and reach of its distribution network and capabilities. The company prides itself on being efficient and timely in delivering goods all over the world.

Drop-shipments, expertise in delivering to high-risk areas, fulfillment, consolidation, labeling and repackaging, are all assets that make the company a trustworthy distribution partner, he says. “B&S can reach anyone anywhere,” is the company claim.

Through a robust, modernised and scalable infrastructure, B&S enjoys an impressive level of efficiency in inventory management and in speed to market with its automated and bonded storage facilities, while complying with the highest standards in logistics operations. The company aims to provide a range of complete solutions that optimise the supply chain for brands.

As noted in the main feature above, in an increasingly digital era B&S has stepped up its expertise across digital commerce and communication. In particular it has embraced Direct-to-Consumer strategies by investing and developing in-house B2C capabilities with the likes of Fragrance.com and Topdrinks.com and by enhancing B2B relationships with digitalised ways of working. B&S has also been building B2R experiences through growing partnerships with several major ecommerce platforms.

Marketing expertise enhanced

The B&S Group’s expertise in retailing and e-tailing has strengthened its ability to drive in-store activation, hyper audience targeting, performance management and digital campaigning.

The group is collaborating with Social Database, a partner company that provides a unique solution to ‘Super audiences’ – a highly innovative and effective way of targeting through social media data analysis – to complements its own inhouse online and offline retail and marketing expertise.

Partners (brands, retailers and distributors) now have the tools and services to build their brands while accessing their targeted markets and consumers. “This offers unmatched exposure to fast-forward your sales,” B&S says.

Sourcing strength

B&S officially partners and collaborates with some of the leading brands across a wide range of categories including beauty, liquor, food, personal care and electronics. Importantly, the company plans to step up its efforts to build direct relationships with brands across all its

activities. By working hand in hand with brand houses, B&S believes it can provide consumers and partners with adapted assortments that cater to varying market needs; offer consumers access to premium brands; stay in tune with changing market trends; and offer best services and conditions.

Zooming in on Beauty

B&S Beauty is the biggest department within the group by revenue and EBITDA generation. As a result, this core department is being restructured to follow through on key strategic and tactical developments for the future.

The main strategic focus areas are:

1. Digital (Direct-to-Consumer) – Fragrance.com

Fragrance.com is currently deployed in the US, China, Australia and the Middle East. The company identifies further possibilities in Europe as well as a potential Brick & Mortar add-on for the site. B&S says that its DTC strategy can be enhanced through additional M&A opportunities.

Developing direct sourcing for stronger brand partnerships is key, the group believes. Fragrance.com is building consumer experiences through a combination of trade marketing, consumer marketing activations, brand content and visibility to provide the best platform for brand expression and consumer experience.

2. Brand Representation – Signature Beauty

B&S Beauty has put together a team of experts in building brands in the selective distribution market (at this stage in the Benelux). This company is specialised in creating its own brands (The Voice), licence brand agreements (Balr.) and in representing brands for distribution in local and travel retail markets (Chopard, Roos&Roos, KKW fragrances, CTZN Cosmetics, Naïf skincare and more to follow).

3. Owned Brick & Mortar

B&S is present with owned shops in travel retail (led by the Capi chain) and is seeking to expand into owned retail stores in key markets such as the US. Such expansion will help build the direct relationship needed to support the brands and offer them a new level of expression, the group says.

B&S also sees rich potential in terms of global distribution opportunities, leveraging its strong international network of partners across multiple distribution channels, driven by a high level of efficiency in sourcing, servicing and delivering beauty brands.

4. Semi-selective and value retail distribution

This re-distribution activity is centered around B&S-owned companies such as TopBrands and JTG, targeting end retailers in Europe and anywhere in the world such as A.S. Watson, Action, the REWE Group and others.

5. Reseller Platform Partnerships

This activity revolves around B&S-owned companies HTG and Checkpoint for the purchasing and reselling of consumer goods within and outside of Europe towards ecommerce platforms and other wholesalers. The main focus is on creating and enhancing partnerships for online marketplaces and platforms (more than 100 are being serviced today) thanks to B&S’s end-to-end solutions.



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