The CA who became CEO of UK’s largest luxury jewellery retailer
The key to success in business can have as much to do with where you are from as to what you can do, according to Aurum Holdings CEO Brian Duffy CA, who spoke about his career journey at a recent ICAS event in Glasgow.
“I think we highly underestimate how well-regarded Scots are in the world.
“I find that it opens doors, it gets people to immediately respond positively to me because they assume, because I’m Scottish, because I talk with this strong accent that I’m going to be hard-working and trustworthy.”
International repute is a definite advantage in Brian’s line of work. Aurum Holdings is the UK’s largest luxury jewellery retailer, responsible for the Mappin & Webb, Watches of Switzerland and Goldsmiths stores that cater to the country’s elite.
He started off with KPMG, qualifying as a CA in 1976. From there his career has taken him to London, Paris, Geneva and New York under the umbrellas of huge brands like Polaroid and Playtex, bringing him into contact with colleagues in France who “thought they were bilingual until they met me”.
Despite the translation issues associated with a ‘Castlemilk drawl’, working abroad is definitely something Brian would recommend for CAs.
“I think there’s a great value and great benefit in experiencing different cultures, experiencing the different rules and regulations in other countries, different ways of doing business and it’s just a great learning opportunity.
“The more that you do internationally, the more I’ve found you learn and develop as an individual and as an executive.”
His travels may then contribute to his record of success and savvy.
“I have always had an innate ambition to do the best I possibly could for me, for my success, for my family and that’s what’s really driven me on.”
Best illustrated, perhaps, by his first action after making the notable switch from CFO to Playtex General Manager.
From lingerie to luxury
Brian spearheaded the famous 1990s “push-up and plunge/Hello Boys” Wonderbra campaign that catapulted him into the business world spotlight.
“We caught the public imagination. I had gone from presenting to bankers and analysts in New York to giving interviews for TV, radio, newspapers, magazines about underwear and how women felt about sexiness.”
In 2002 he made a somewhat daring change and stepped away from the world of retail to enrol in the Academy of Contemporary Music in Guildford.
“I think that it’s important to have other aspects to your life so you don’t just work and work.
“What’s great about music is that it’s relaxing. Particularly if you play it. You can’t really think about anything other than the music itself.
“It’s limitless in terms of what you learn and how you can progress so it’s a lifelong passion.”
However, Ralph Lauren came calling in 2003 with an offer that proved too tempting for Brian to pass up.
“The biggest advice I can give is to know when the opportunity’s there and just grasp it. I took every big opportunity that came my way.
“I wish there was things that had come sooner, I loved my time at Ralph Lauren, I wish I’d started 10 years earlier so maybe that’s a small regret.”
Brian does, however, admit that he almost missed his final interview in favour of seeing Celtic FC play in Seville.
‘Preparation is fundamental to success’
Talking to an audience of CAs about his journey to Aurum’s C-suite in the very same building, no less, that used to house the judiciary courts where he earned his financial chops, Brian’s passion for his product was obvious.
He spoke about the history of Swiss watchmakers, of the delicate and traditional work that goes into the most complicated and coveted timepieces.
One in particular, the record-breaking Supercompilation Pocket Watch, summed up the luxury industry perfectly.
"A watch that sold at Sotheby’s auction for $24m that tells the time less accurately than your phone – that’s luxury.
“That’s art. That’s exclusivity. That’s having something that nobody else has.”
When asked about his own watch, he admitted he had hoped someone would bring it up and delightedly outlined the features of his blue-faced perpetual calendar Patek Philippe.
Looking at a career spanning four decades and involving some of the biggest household names, it’s hard to believe how much Brian attributes to luck.
“I honestly think that I’ve been in the right place at the right time.”
His advice for success is nonetheless as valuable as the finest of his storefront wares.
“I really believe in being very clear in your objectives and being really prepared, whatever you’re doing.
“I always prepare to make sure I know what I want to say to say and, more importantly, to not say what I don’t want to say.
“Preparation is fundamental, as is taking opportunities when they come, being self-confident in your own abilities and just going for it.”
Have you heard Brian speak at an ICAS event? Tell us in the comment below.