To a life of luxury

Philip Corne (BEc ’78), chief executive officer of Louis Vuitton Oceania, shares the philosophy and wisdom that have seen him rise to the top of the luxury retail domain in Australia.
Image of Phillip Corne

There is no mistaking the Louis Vuitton Sydney Maison for anything other than an expression of luxury, entirely consistent with the evocative impression that even the mere mention of the brand itself tends to have on people.

The store’s bespoke interiors are simply beautiful, from the immaculate presentation of the Louis Vuitton product through to the architectural features that serve to anchor the European brand to its antipodean home.

Housed in a heritage-listed building, deep in the heart of the Sydney CBD – the former home of the Blacket Hotel, the Louis Vuitton flagship retail premises effortlessly draws the eye of passers-by, even amidst the competitive hustle and bustle of the city’s main thoroughfare.

As I walk the retail floor with Philip Corne, the Chief Executive Officer of Louis Vuitton Oceania, I can clearly hear pride in his voice, alongside a quietly understated, yet very powerful and contagious, enthusiasm for the brand.

It’s been a long journey for Philip, who left his Blue Mountains home at the age of 18 to study a Bachelor of Economics at the University of Sydney. Similarly, his current opulent surrounds are a far cry from his $20-per-week share house in Newtown, where he lived with three school friends while studying towards his degree.

“Going to the University of Sydney was much more than a conventional education,” Philip says, “but that education was everything to me. If I hadn’t been accepted into the University of Sydney, and completed my degree there, then I am sure that my life would have followed a very different direction. I most certainly wouldn’t be sitting where I am today.”

Philip graduated in 1978, and stepped out of university into a period of economic recession. He was lucky, as he puts it, to be offered a position with Peat, Marwick, Mitchel & Co the predecessor to KPMG.

Between explanations of the individual elements of Louis Vuitton’s extensive product offer, Philip stops to point out a carved wooden relief that adorns one vertical element of the stores fitout, depicting the unmistakably Australian shape of a gumtree. Its presence speaks volumes about the company’s connection with its local clientele, and provides an insight into one crucial element of Philip’s approach to leading the organisation.

“Working for Louis Vuitton is about having a constant attention to detail,” Philip says, “Innovation and creativity are two words that are spoken every day within the company, and we are always trying to improve today what we did yesterday. People often look into Louis Vuitton and acknowledge that we have executed an event or product launch to the highest standard. However, internally this latest achievement, merely sets the base upon which we build to deliver to even a higher standard, next time around.”

Philip admits that leading Louis Vuitton in the current retail climate is not without its difficulties. The global financial crisis might be a distant memory to some, but with responsibility for a network of 13 stores and more than 300 employees, Philip recognises how critical it is to understand what will further build the relationship and trust the brand has with its clients.

“Looking at the Australian market, we’ve seen over the past few years that the consumer has become very conservative,” Philip says.

“They’re actively paying down debt, and they’re shopping very economically for the basics of life. However, when the very same consumer wants something that’s important to them, they’re heading straight to the top. They want brand, service and quality – and they want products that they can rely on, that are going to serve them well.”

“We are seeing growth, but it is not so much through increased traffic into the store which is evidence of that general conservative mood of the consumer who does not want to be tempted to shop. However, the clients that visit Louis Vuitton are entering the store with a firm intention to buy and they are responding, first and foremost, to the service we provide – closely followed by the quality of the product offered by Louis Vuitton, and the fit of that product to their personal needs.”

Philip’s firm grasp of the retail sector, coupled with his reputation as a business leader, made him a major draw card at a recent Emerging Leaders Program event. Presented in partnership with Australian Financial Review BOSS Magazine, the Business School recently hosted Philip as guest speaker before a capacity crowd, where he revealed that Louis Vuitton has an MBA graduate recruitment program in place.

“Over and above all other considerations, we recruit based on attitude,” Philip explains. “We employ people who really want to be in retail, and who have a positive and proactive approach to the way that they embark upon their career.”

“With the MBA program, the key message when we interview candidates is this,” he says. “We can have the brightest people, we can have the best product, we can have the best stores in the best locations, and we can have the best advertising campaigns. But if, as the product meets the client, the service experience and relationship is not there – then it’s all for nothing.”

“If you want to have a career with Louis Vuitton, you will need to have a very good understanding of what’s most important when the product is presented to the client,” Philip says. To make that happen, MBA graduates who enter the Louis Vuitton program will find themselves starting that journey by working the retail floor.

“That experience gives our managers of the future not only the knowledge and the understanding of what a day in the life of our retail teams is like, but it also gives them the credibility and hands on experience to manage, and lead a luxury retail business,” he says.

Philip recalls his own experiences, moving through the ranks of KPMG from 1979 to 1988, before embarking on his journey to the top at Louis Vuitton. That journey included a five-year posting with Louis Vuitton in New York, where he was steadily promoted before assuming the role of Senior Vice President and CFO for the LVMH Fashion Group America’s. But even now, as CEO of Louis Vuitton Oceania, Philip maintains a very clear set of principles, which has undoubtedly contributed to his success.

“In the early days of my career at KPMG, I realised that I was surrounded by a team who were very capable, and highly professional,” Philip says. “I never approached any new assignment with the attitude that I knew all there was to know in relation to the client, or that was necessary to successfully complete the task at hand. I always worked on the basis that there was knowledge that I could gain from the people around me.”

“Also, I was told very early on in my career that you should assume that everything that you say will be repeated, and that everything you put in writing, you will be held accountable for,” he says. “I’ve since added to that; everything you put on the internet will be there forever.”

“Lastly, I think that individuals need to invest in themselves,” Philip says. “You need to be honest with yourself about where you’re at, and be sure in yourself that you are happy with what you are doing, and understand that with every step you take, you will be building on the brand that is ‘you’.”