This article was first published in the November/December 2013 UK edition of Accounting and Business magazine.
It’s raining in Bicester Village, but that doesn’t put off the bargain-hunting coachloads of retail tourists descending on the Oxfordshire luxury outlet shopping centre. Even in the middle of the week, under the greyest of skies, the fashion boutiques are doing a brisk trade, with offers of at least a third off the price of their stock. Famous names such as Alexander McQueen, Ralph Lauren and Yves Saint Laurent line the main pedestrian thoroughfare alongside a host of other internationally recognisable brands, all vying for the attention of today’s savvy, if somewhat damp, shoppers.
Which is all good news for Lynne Hunt FCCA, the village’s administration and finance director. In what must be a shopper’s dream job, Hunt is responsible for the smooth running and financial control of not just Bicester Village, but also Kildare Village outside Dublin, Ireland. The villages are two of nine Chic Outlet Shopping villages in Europe developed and operated by Value Retail, a company that specialises in luxury outlet shopping. Bicester Village is made up of more than 130 boutiques and numerous restaurants and cafés.
Hands-on with the brands
'We are a very hands-on business,’ explains Hunt. ‘As landlords we don’t just give a key to a retailer and let them get on with it. We have a whole army of people who work with the brands to help them maximise their sales potential. Our own retail team will help them ensure they have the right products at the right price points.’
Products and prices are integral to Bicester Village’s success. The products will have been available in a brand’s own store for at least a year and will go on offer in the village with at least a one-third price cut. ‘The brands will offer the same quality of products, the same guest experience that is available at their own flagship stores,’ Hunt says. ‘Our development team will work with the brands to design the shop fit; they have to be of a very high standard and quality. The luxury brands that we have here are the top brands; they expect the best and we will keep an eye on how they fit with the village.’
It is a recipe that clearly works. Last year, despite ongoing economic difficulties (indeed perhaps because of these difficulties), the collection of villages attracted more than 30 million visits, six million of them to Bicester alone. Bicester Village employs in excess of 2,000 staff, many of them drawn from the local community by means of apprenticeship schemes and job fairs.
Likewise, many of the services supplied to the village’s boutiques, such as cleaning and landscaping, are also provided by local businesses wherever possible.
But while the village might aim to employ staff from the local community, its target customer base goes much, much wider. In fact, the village sees itself as a tourist destination in its own right. Some 350 tour groups roll through the car parks every week in the height of summer, and there are special express travel services laid on from London, not to mention the tax refund facilities on offer in the village itself.
‘We don’t see ourselves in the retail business per se,’ Hunt says. ‘We see ourselves in the shopping tourism business, so it is all about how we can attract the international tourist.’ And the clientele is truly international. Chinese shoppers make up the largest element of the international shopping brigade, followed by the Middle East, South East Asia, Hong Kong, Russia, Korea, India, Egypt, Nigeria and Taiwan. On a good day, the centre might look like an outing from the United Nations, which accepted Chic Outlet Shopping in 2012 as a UN World Tourism Organization affiliate member – the only one from the retail industry.
Getting on the tourist map
Closer to home, Hunt has been involved in setting up express coach and train services to and from central London – it’s all part of the customer experience that Bicester Village is keen to promote. ‘Our tourist team meets with travel companies to tell them about the villages,’ Hunt explains. ‘What we want is to get people to visit us, and for the travel companies to tell people about us.’
This international outlook has helped Bicester Village weather the fierce economic storms that have been blowing through the retail sector. ‘Our customer is international, discerning, savvy, and expects a superior service level together with value for money. It is all about the guest experience, and we want it to be memorable,’ says Hunt.
As well as the experience, there are also practical advantages; visitors from outside the EU are able to claim back VAT on their purchases, which can make them a good deal cheaper than they are back home.
Bicester was the first shopping village in the collection, and Hunt also has responsibility for the group’s most recent addition, Kildare Village.
Here, Hunt says that domestic trade is holding up well, and an increasing number of brands are looking to join the village. Last year Kildare Village welcomed 2.3 million visitors. ‘It is certainly doing well when compared with the rest of the economy,’ she says.
The running of the villages is split between a number of departments – operations, retail, marketing, tourism, retail development, leasing and legal. Hunt’s finance team supports all the other parts of the business. ‘We work across all the departments, and I like to think of us as advisers to the business. We work closely with them to find solutions to any ideas they might have and make them happen,’ she says, adding that knowing how to present ideas in the right way can also be important. ‘If something is going to cost a lot of money, it’s good to know what the return on investment will be.’
She cites a new luxury coach service between Bicester Village and London: ‘We suggested a new model for the team to consider, one based on risk and rewards.’ Hunt’s suggestion was to find a tour bus provider, ‘because we are not in the bus business’, and join forces to provide the service. Such a model shares the risks – and the rewards. ‘It is a concept that has worked really well, and helped us because the tour coach provider knows the service inside out, they know what they are doing, they know when to change the coach size,’ she explains.
Hunt heads a team of nine, which covers both Bicester and Kildare – a finance manager, two chief accountants, two general accountants, two brand accountants and two accounts payable accountants. They look after billings, service payments, collections, royalties and compliance, as well as keep an eye on retailers’ weekly sales, quarterly sales certificates and annual sales audits.
‘My role is to ensure that the finance team are effective in their performance, that they are accurate and that they are meeting deadlines. At the same time, I am an adviser to the business on all activities, and I do like to challenge costs and services wherever necessary.’
Hunt has not always been in the retail and tourism business, so how did she get here? ‘My career really changed once I passed my ACCA exams,’ she says. ‘I did them as a mature student, and it has been a winding road to this particular point.’ She began her ACCA studies while living in Belgium and recalls sitting her exams in the British Council, with just three other students. ‘When I came back to the UK, I would sit my exams with 300 other people!’
Shortly after qualifying, she was offered a job at CMI, a food safety company. ‘It was probably one of my most important career moves,’ she says. She joined as the designated FD and took her seat on the board after three months. It had a turnover of £3.5m when she joined, which had grown organically and through acquisitions to £16m by the time she left 10 years later. ‘It was an SME, which allowed me to have lots of fingers in lots of pies,’ she says. During her time there she set up a human resources function, put corporate governance procedures in place and established a good financial controls environment.
A different perspective
She was also the only woman on the board, and likes to think she brought some balance to it. ‘I would be asked my opinion as a woman, which wasn’t done in any sexist way.’
The business was eventually sold to NSF International, a US-based public health and safety business. ‘They wanted a foothold in Europe, but we also had offices in Brazil, South Africa and India, so we were able to give them a great opportunity.’ From her point of view, Hunt was especially satisfied that, during the due diligence process, there was not a single penny shaved off the purchase price.
‘I got a note from some very happy shareholders,’ she recalls.
And then the boutiques beckoned. ‘If I’m perfectly honest, it was more the idea of Bicester Village than anything else that brought me here,’ she says. ‘I had seen the village grow, as I live just 30 minutes away and had been a shopper here over the years.’ But when she arrived, it was a shock. The retail aspect was exciting, but also challenging. ‘But what I really enjoy about my role is that it isn’t just about the numbers; we all have a voice, we can all contribute, whatever our background. I’m not a retailer but I am a consumer, and as soon as I walk out of the office I can see it, live it and breathe it.’
Aside from looking after the financial running of two large shopping villages, Hunt finds time to sit on ACCA’s Council, to which she was first elected while working for CMI back in 2007. And again, she relishes the international elements of the organisation. ‘There are 36 councillors from all over the world,’ she says. ‘It is so diverse.’ Her experience as a mature student is also being called on, as she has been put forward for the ACCA’s qualification committee, which is looking at, among other things, computer-based exams.
Back in Bicester Village, despite the rain clouds, the outlook remains sunny. The double-digit growth reported by Value Retail since Bicester Village’s opening has not been impaired by recession, and judging by the queues forming under umbrellas outside a number of well-known fashion brand boutiques, shopping tourism is here to stay.
Philip Smith, journalist