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Josh McDonnell reports on the newly appointed Michael Hill CEO Daniel Bracken.

Daniel Bracken is no stranger to baptism by fire. In fact, his corporate resilience has been tested many times since relocating to Australia in 2011, following a 15 year stint at iconic London-based brand Burberry.

It was then that Bracken took on the role of The Apparel Group CEO, before moving to Myer where he spearheaded the controversial ‘New Myer’ strategy, a $600 million initiative aimed at creating a department store of the future.

He then re-emerged as CEO and managing director of Specialty Fashion Group (SFG) in February 2018, leading a $31 million brand sell-off that included Millers, Katies, Crossroads and Rivers.

Taking the top job at SFG, Bracken was charged with the job of turning around a business that found itself in dire straits, with three years of back-to-back poor results and a host of under-performing fashion brands.

“If I roll the clock back close to a year ago, the business was really not performing well at all,” Bracken reflects.

“The board took the view that the business needed a significant and strategic step in a different direction and I was hired to lead that structural review through the course of the first six months of this calendar year.”

While Bracken originally planned a turnaround strategy, it soon became clear it wasn’t the most viable or profitable option.

Bracken says the eventual sale of each business to the Noni B group in July, which left plus-size women’s brand City Chic the lone brand in the SFG stable, was the best move possible.

“We did have a view that those five brands could all be turned around but it was a two to three year time horizon and we felt that the share holders had been patient long enough and this was the best possible outcome,” he says.

Now SFG has its sites set on consolidation and a significant retail roll out for the City Chic brand. Earlier this year, the business recorded positive sales results, with overall sales revenue up 5.5%.

The brand has also lifted its online transactions to represent 36% of its total sales, with all eyes now firmly fixed on City Chic general manager Phil Ryan.

The consolidation marked the end of Bracken’s short tenure as CEO, having stepped down at the end of September, with Ryan taking over the position.

Bracken has now moved to a new role: Michael Hill CEO, a position that has a probationary period of six months and no fixed term.

He assumes the role from former CEO Phil Taylor, who has stepped down due to health reasons.

In typical Bracken style, it will not be an easy position to fill, with the jewellery brand in a phase of restructuring and consolidation. It has recently closed its under-performing US business, as well as winded down its embattled Emma & Roe diffusion chain.

“What I see as the sort of role that would stimulate me is a CEO leadership role because I enjoy the environment of transformation but equally I enjoy rapid growth,” Bracken says of his industrious career choices. “It has to be a high energy business with either a growth or a transformation agenda, with a medium to large footprint in retail and distribution and digital at the forefront of their thinking.”

While Michael Hill has consolidated major areas of its business, the retailer is also expanding its core brand across Australia, New Zealand and Canada.

Chair Emma Hill says Bracken has what it takes to build its flagship brand.

“Phil’s leadership during his period as chief executive has been outstanding in what has been a period of recalibration.

“Daniel’s global experience and strong commitment to create engaged customer centric brands is aligned with the board’s commitment to see Michael Hill become a globally relevant leader in the premium jewellery category,” she adds.

As for the industry, Bracken says retail has never been in a greater period of change, brimming with both challenges and opportunities.

“There’s always going to be winners and losers in this market but take a look at Kmart, they have certainly been the most phenomenal force to deal with for discount department stores over the last few years. They’ve done an amazing job,” Bracken says.

“I look at specialty retail and it definitely strikes me that it’s the brands in this space that really know their customer.

“It’s all about customer centricity: that’s why City Chic been so successful. They’ve really stuck to who their customer is, and effectively, they’re a niche brand.

“I look at other brands in the market, Smiggle or Peter Alexander as examples. They really know what their role is in the market, know their customer and that they’re playing in a niche category. That’s when you find strong success.”

He says the most obvious challenge remains Amazon, despite its slow start in the Australian market. Bracken adds that doom and gloom is also a misconception in regards to the retail giant’s impact on Australian retailers.

“They may have had a little bit of a slow start but they’re not as successful in every other market in the world without the potential for them to be that successful here,” he says. “It provides a prime opportunity for vertical retailers and specialty retailers, it’s just a new channel for them.

“It could be slower for Amazon here because the world has caught up with businesses running marketplaces but there is no doubt in my mind, it will be a success.”

Outside of competitors and difficult consumer climates, Bracken concludes that one of the real issues retailers must continue to keep their eye on is political confusion.

He says times like these, where consumers are caught up in concerns of leadership with new Prime Minister Scott

Morrison in power, can lead to quiet trading periods and spending hesitation by the public until certainty is realised.

“It’s never good when there’s constant political turmoil and changes in government, historically, wherever I’ve worked in the world it always seems to have an impact on retail,” he says.

“People just get distracted, people will start to worry about, you know, their own finances and consumer confidence wanes as a result so I think it’s something everyone needs to be aware of.

“If you don’t have your customer service central to your thinking and you don’t have digital at the forefront of your thinking, you’re going to struggle.”

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