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EXCLUSIVE: Marco Bizzarri Embraces New Career Phase

The former president and CEO of Gucci is kicking off a new chapter with a first investment in the Italian fashion brand Elisabetta Franchi.

EXCLUSIVE: Marco Bizzarri Embraces New Career Phase

Marco Bizzarri

MILAN – Marco Bizzarri is back in business, after exiting Gucci in September last year, and this new chapter of his professional life will see him as an investor in fashion, luxury and design.

In an exclusive interview, the former president and chief executive officer of the Italian luxury brand revealed he is investing in Italian fashion brand Elisabetta Franchi through a personal holding called Nessifashion. Effective April 15, Bizzarri will become chairman of the company.

He is acquiring 23 percent of Elisabetta Franchi through Nessifashion, named after “nessi,” a regional term of endearment passed on through generations from Bizzarri’s father and on to his children.

While wearing a different hat from his CEO days, nothing much has changed in his manner and Bizzarri, firing on all cylinders, said he was enthusiastic about committing to “prioritizing investments in creative entrepreneurs, business leaders and great Italian brands.” He touted Elisabetta Franchi, who founded her namesake brand in 1998, as a “charismatic leader” who has developed her brand “with clear vision and strong leadership.” He also remarked on the strong growth potential of the brand.

“I was 37 when I first became a CEO and after 25 years of leading companies of different sizes, cultures and life-cycles and after nine years at Gucci, I was ready for a different challenge, still involved in fashion but also with a birds-eye view on similar sectors,” said Bizzarri.

The executive first dipped his toes into the investment fund pool in 2021, when he took a stake and became a partner in Orienta Capital Partners, which specializes in investments in small- and medium-sized companies with strong growth potential.

Franchi approached Bizzarri last year following his exit from Gucci and he recalled how he was “very curious about this self-made woman from Bologna. I was impressed by the company’s success and profitable business, and the woman behind the brand, the unique personal connection she has developed with her clients and her strong, deeply loyal community of women who want to be part of her lifestyle. In a world where communication often feels hierarchical, Elisabetta’s approach stands out as refreshingly authentic.  She is very intuitive and was one of the first designers to embrace social media; she talks to her customers directly, remaining relevant and a point of reference for them.”

The designer’s parent company, Betty Blue, which is set to close 2023 with sales of 170 million euros and a margin of earnings before interest and taxes of 31.8 percent, relies on its own production chain. The brand is present in 78 countries and counts about 100 monobrand stores.

EXCLUSIVE: Marco Bizzarri Embraces New Career Phase

Elisabetta Franchi

“She has continued to grow the company through the years, despite all the changes in the industry and with such high profitability. She is very much hands-on, and, while a designer, she is also a businesswoman alone in command for years, very energetic and of great intelligence,” said Bizzarri.

The company was expected to launch an initial public offering on the AIM segment for small caps of the Italian Stock Exchange in 2020, but the project was shelved due to the pandemic.

“I am very intrigued and curious to work with her and create a structure for the company that can be sustainable in time, so that she can focus on design,” said Bizzarri.

The arrival in February of Gabriele Maggio as CEO was a first sign of changes at the brand, which pointed to further international expansion and the strengthening of its position as a luxury fashion label.

Maggio, whose career in fashion spans more than 25 years, was previously president and CEO of Stella McCartney, which he exited in December, succeeded by  Amandine Ohayon. Prior to McCartney, Maggio was general manager of Moschino and previously held several senior executive and board-level positions at both Gucci and Bottega Veneta. His curriculum also includes experiences at Giorgio Armani and Prada.

Claudia D’Arpizio, senior partner at Bain & Company, is also due to join the board of Elisabetta Franchi.

EXCLUSIVE: Marco Bizzarri Embraces New Career Phase

Elisabetta Franchi, fall 2024

Asked about his experience at Kering, Bizzarri opened up about it for the first time since his exit.  

“I spent 18 years with [Kering chairman and CEO] François-Henri [Pinault] and he always was and will always be a point of reference for me,” he said. “He gave me the possibility to manage some of the most beautiful brands in the world. And I will thank him forever for this. I think it’s not been easy for him to take this decision, because of the mutual respect that we have for each other, and our friendship, and for this I respect him even more.” 

Bizzarri led a textbook turnaround at Gucci, selecting Alessandro Michele to succeed Frida Giannini as creative director in 2015. Michele left in November 2022 and in that time span, the size of Gucci had tripled, reaching sales of 9.73 billion euros. However, the brand was struggling with slower growth than many of its luxury peers, which prompted Michele’s exit. While Bizzarri’s contract had just been renewed for three years, the executive left Gucci last September as part of a major Kering management shuffle and was succeeded by  Kering’s then-managing director Jean-François Palus.

“However, I think this has been the best professional decision that I ever took,” continued Bizzarri. “Giving me the possibility to start a new professional journey with longtime friends and with incredible talents I had the chance to cross in my career. And at this stage of my life this is the best possible gift.”

In fact, Orienta Capital Partners was cofounded by Mario Gardini in 2011 and he and Bizzarri go way back as they are both from the Emilia Romagna region — as is Franchi — and worked together early in their careers in Bologna at both Arthur Andersen and Mandarina Duck in the 1990s.

Bizzarri started his career at Andersen Consulting, now Accenture. Leaving Andersen for Mandarina Duck in 1993 was a big leap — the first of many in Bizzarri’s career. He developed the brand’s international markets, setting up factories in Shanghai, Hong Kong and Hungary, and, after 10 years, he moved on to Marithé + François Girbaud for a brief stint. Incidentally, he pointed out that Mandarina Duck is based in Cadriano, which is a few minutes away from Granarolo dell’Emilia, where Franchi’s company is headquartered.

“I laughed thinking how it’s almost coming full circle,” said Bizzarri.

His first executive role within Kering, at the time called Gucci Group, dates back to January 2005, when he joined as president and CEO of Stella McCartney. After building Stella McCartney into a profitable company, Bizzarri was appointed president and CEO of Bottega Veneta in January 2009. The relaunch of Bottega Veneta completed, Bizzarri in April 2014 became Kering’s CEO of luxury, couture and leather goods, but was soon appointed president and CEO of Gucci in December of the same year.

Here, in a joint interview, Bizzarri and Franchi discuss shared views, women’s empowerment and the potential growth avenues for the brand.

WWD: [to Elisabetta Franchi] Why did you think it was the right moment to take in a shareholder?

Elisabetta Franchi: Back in ’98, when the company was established, it was a collaborative effort between my husband [the late Sabatino Cennamo] and me. However, by 2008 [the year he died], it had transitioned to solely me. This shift to the singular “me” also brought about a sense of solitude. You see, the collective “us” symbolized a dialogue and support. But when it became just “me,” my team and a mirror, it was undoubtedly challenging, and not because I am a woman; I believe this kind of transition is difficult for both men and women alike.  And at times, when faced with important decisions, even though you may have a thousand highly skilled collaborators, the ultimate decision rests with one person. Finding myself at the helm of crucial decisions at times has been quite taxing.

WWD: In your path, did you follow your instinct?

E.F.: Yes, there are instances when I recognize that my intuition is correct and instinct plays a pivotal role yet, for me, the process of sharing and comparing ideas is essential. As the company grew, I was courted by numerous funds, and let’s say I even slipped away from some of them on my “wedding day” [laughing] when I felt their vision did not align with mine.

WWD: I gather you did not necessarily need a financial investment.

E.F.: Absolutely not. I was looking for either an industrial partner or someone to share my vision with. My company, I say this with great pride, I founded it with a small loan, and I’ve never had any debt. So it’s always been self-financed, and it became attractive to investors because of its very important financial statements and equally significant EBITDA.

WWD: Yes, a margin of 31.8 percent, that’s significant.

E.F.: Marco, in many ways, embodied the Prince Charming for me. And I was convinced he would never meet me.

WWD: [To Marco Bizzarri] Why did you think that out of so many brands out there, Elisabetta Franchi was the one to invest in?

Marco Bizzarri: When everything unfolded, I found myself at a crossroads, unsure of my next steps. However, there was one unwavering desire within me: to collaborate with individuals whom I admired and could select freely. Throughout my career, while I have had a say in the people I worked with, I was chosen by others too. It’s a profound gift to be able to work alongside individuals whom you genuinely admire and respect. During a lunch at [his son’s Stefano] Dalla Gioconda restaurant, I realized there was a spark. When it seems like the other anticipates what you’re about to say, it’s something very difficult to find. But, as you say, there are many brands, there are so many people I could work with. But I really wanted to find something that intrigued and fascinated me. I like the potential to bring together a team, to create something sustainable in the long run for everyone involved. Fortunately, for both of us, it’s not about finances or monetary gains; at this stage in our lives, it’s simply about doing what we’re passionate about.

WWD: At this stage, what are your goals and growth objectives with the arrival of Marco and the fund?

E.F: I did not want to confine myself within a company solely created and molded by my own efforts. When you initially establish a company, it feels like your own, but over time, it evolves into something that I believe should be able to thrive independently, regardless of your direct involvement. So, with Marco’s arrival, our first priority is to establish a foundational team, an initial structure where my skills might have been lacking. Those who resonate with our journey inherently grasp our vision, while those who do not may never fully align with our mission. With Marco, I am optimistic that we will further the brand’s global reach. We have a balanced presence, with 50 percent of sales in Italy and the remaining 50 percent abroad, but there are untapped markets, particularly in America.

M.B.:  Certainly there are different phases in the life of a company, and while it’s true that she didn’t establish a management, over 25 years she has maintained the company’s relevance, both in terms of operational processes and aesthetic appeal. This is no small feat considering the numerous companies that have faltered in similar timeframes. Operating within a sector dominated by large conglomerates poses its own set of challenges. Financially, these giants are formidable and it’s not easy to find individuals willing to work for a small-sized company in a location that’s not Milan or Paris, and that’s crucial. Today, there’s a unique opportunity for significant expansion, both geographically and in terms of product categories. However, there will be a transition that requires not just organizational restructuring but also a shift in mindset — learning to trust others to handle tasks she’s long been accustomed to managing herself. Surrounded by experienced professionals who understand the nuances of business operations, Elisabetta is well-positioned to navigate these transitions.

While decisions ultimately shape success or failure, there’s also a factor of luck. And I see myself as lucky. There are many colleagues and collaborators who hold positive memories of our time together. I’ve earned their trust by delivering good work and building successful companies. So when I reach out to them and suggest working together again, they’re usually eager to jump on board. In 99 percent of cases, that is [chuckling].

EXCLUSIVE: Marco Bizzarri Embraces New Career Phase

Elisabetta Franchi, spring 2024

WWD: The company employs 300 individuals, so in light of the further development are you planning on expanding the team and the human resources?

M.B.: It really boils down to finding the right individuals. The company is thriving as it stands, but we need to ensure we don’t disrupt the momentum; that’s paramount. It’s not merely a matter of reorganization; it’s about fine-tuning and refining.

E.F.: I believe this is where Marco’s strength lies because when we started talking, I expressed my concerns as he is accustomed to dealing with substantial figures, but from the start, I was surprised by his remarkable ability to adapt to the specific business circumstances he faces. To me this is absolutely crucial; I don’t want to change the identity of the brand.

M.B.: You can’t apply cookie-cutter formulas. Our aim is to nurture the company’s evolution, not to overhaul it.

WWD: Where do you produce?

E.F.: It’s 80 percent made in Italy, all around the Emilia-Romagna region.

WWD: You have been very careful in avoiding the dilution of the brand. Is children’s clothing the only license?

E.F.: I have just  partnered with Pronovias [and the collection will be available starting in the fall]. Over the years, my loyal customers asked me to design bridal gowns for them. I thought it was a world that needed to be approached seriously, not just by designing five dresses and putting them in the store. Accessories are also a potential product extension with the help of Marco as now apparel represents 85 percent of sales.

I remain steadfast in my belief that the brand caters to women who embrace their femininity and this should not be viewed as a weakness but as a strength. I’m not just a designer, I’m a woman and the driving force behind this company and this is a profound message of female empowerment.

WWD: Have you reconsidered the idea of going public?

E.F.: During the first roadshow, I realized I was speaking a completely different language — picture me, a petite woman in my pencil skirt, navigating the intricacies of the IPO process. But I embraced the challenge and mastered the trade. Brunello Cucinelli once said to me, “If you can handle it, it’s a fantastic world.” And I believe it could be one of the projects on the horizon, why not?