Enjoying a cup of tea in the sunshine on the roof terrace of Harvey Nichols, Manju Malhotra is clearly in her element, the quietly confident boss of one of the UK’s national treasures.
Her first visit to the department store in Knightsbridge was several years ago: she treated herself to a John Smedley sweater after graduating in economics. Malhotra says she never dreamed at the time of being one of the few elite women of color to head up a major retail brand in the UK.
The down-to-earth Londoner’s first role in the capital’s high fashion temple was as head of audit in 1998. She now chairs an empire of eight stores in the UK and Ireland, including major outlets in Edinburgh, Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester, as well as a specialist beauty salon in Liverpool and five overseas branches.
Founded as a linen shop in a terraced house on the corner of Knightsbridge and Sloane Street in 1831, Harvey Nichols became the focal point of a lifestyle celebrated and mocked by Patsy and Edina the absolutely fabulous in the 1990s. It is now as well known for its restaurants as it is for its fashion, with a suite of restaurants that includes the Oxo Tower by the River Thames.
Malhotra’s early retail experiences were far from the marble floors of Knightsbridge. Hers is a rag-to-riches story: she grew up helping out in her parents’ fashion store just off Brick Lane in London’s East End. “It was the entry level of the market, before fast fashion,” she says.
Family Married for 25 years, two children.
Education University of Warwick, BA in Economics.
Pay Undisclosed (company is privately owned).
Last holidays Dubai.
Best advice she’s ever received? Think and behave like an owner.
Biggest Career Mistake She worked briefly in New York, but would have liked to spend more time living and working abroad.
Words she abuses Many analogies.
how she relaxes Hang out with friends and family, have lunch or a drink at Harvey Nichols.
Huh dad was the buyer and his mom worked in the shop. “I always remember trends and how retail and fashion reflected popular culture,” Malhotra says. “When Frankie Goes to Hollywood was big, ‘Frankie Says Relax’ t-shirts were everywhere. You couldn’t keep them in stock.
While studying finance, she took summer jobs at Russell & Bromley and Marks & Spencer, and was fascinated by the “dynamic” nature of consumer culture.
In recent years, this dynamism has grown. Covid-19 triggered a tectonic shift in shopping behavior as physical stores closed and customers turned to home deliveries and online browsing.
Malhotra had risen to the top job just 10 days before the pandemic hit. But she says her inexperience was not a problem: “At the time, it didn’t really matter: no one in a similar role – or any organization – had been in this situation before. And I had knowledge of the trade. If I had been the CEO of a company I had never worked in before, it might have been more difficult.
In nearly a quarter of a century with the company, she has held various positions. She says she never felt left out as a woman of color and focused on gaining experience by raising ‘both hands’ whenever a new project was in the pipeline. discussion course.
Another plus was the fact that the store’s owners, Hong Kong-based luxury firm Dickson Concepts, had dealt with pandemics before, having negotiated during the Sars and Mers outbreaks.
“They were more realistic about the timeframe and how long it might last,” Malhotra says. “People in the UK were talking about it for weeks or months, but they realized it might take a few years.”
Guided by this, Harvey Nichols planned long-term change, working on how to deliver online experiences, from beauty masterclasses to Friday night DJ sets.
The company made the decision to close its stores ahead of the government mandate and sent stock to its warehouses so it could fulfill online orders at the height of the spring/summer shopping season.
It was a complete reinvention for the venerable store, which had previously focused on finding creative ways to bring crowds back to the high street. There had been live experiences, from beauty treatments such as cryotherapy and electro-sonic facials to private business advisers and high-end restaurants and bars.
Online sales took off during the shutdowns, but Harvey Nichols still suffered. Sales fell 45% to £121.3million in the year to March 27, 2021, according to accounts filed at Companies House. The group cut capital investment by 52%, focusing spending on developing its website, but pre-tax losses still more than doubled – to £39.6m from £16.3m. pounds sterling the previous year.
The owners injected £24.5m in March 2021, bringing the group’s total borrowings to £41.2m. He has since refinanced himself with a £35m five-year bank loan and a £26m shareholder loan.
Malhotra says that with the end of restrictions, shoppers have returned to stores, buying outfits for weddings and other occasions as the social whirlwind kicks in again. It is now focused on developing more online food and beverage services, including corporate gifts and entertainment.
“What kept me here is that the business is constantly evolving and there are always investment opportunities,” she says.
While much has been said about the death of the department store, given the collapse of Debenhams and Beales, the sale of House of Fraser and the setbacks of John Lewis, Malhotra thinks Harvey Nichols still has a place.
“We have an organized offer. We do the legwork for our clients,” she says. “And people look to us for that authority.”
She is finding her way back to profitability with the help of a female-dominated board, which is still extremely rare in retail, although around 80% of store employees and a similar proportion of buyers are women.
“We are very customer-focused,” says Malhotra. “We have to be obsessed with what customers think, so it’s great to have that on the board.”
She says the owners of Harvey Nichols made it easy for a diverse group to get to the top. “We celebrate individuality. And always have.
Patsy and Edina would probably agree.