Is Valentino setting the foundation for a much-anticipated initial public offering?
Sebastian Suhl is joining Valentino SpA as a new managing director of global markets, starting in January and reporting to CEO Stefano Sassi. Suhl has the remit to support the Rome-based company’s ongoing expansion globally. But could his arrival signal Sassi’s increased focus on an IPO? In March, the CEO said an IPO was “not on the table” for 2017, and “we’ll see what happens in 2018.” Added Sassi: “We’ve shelved it because of market conditions. If things change, we’ll review [the project]. We are not talking about it internally at the moment.”
Sources in Milan now say Valentino could be exploring a listing for the second half of next year.
“I would not be surprised to see the IPO in the second half of 2018 although we don’t have visibility on the timing and, as usual, the IPO would depend on market conditions, whether a certain window is favorable or not,” said Daniele Alibrandi, who’s involved with European equity research of luxury goods at Intermonte SIM. “In the first half of 2018, luxury companies will report really very good half-year figures for 2017 and there are no specific reasons why the trend should worsen — a trend that in these months is in line with the positive third quarter of 2017.”
Alibrandi said he did not see any stumbling block for Valentino’s listing, “except perhaps a potential interest from a French group that has not made acquisitions, but is overperforming in the sector: Kering, once it has sold Puma, as it has already said publicly in the first half of 2018, will have to reinvest. I don’t think it’s looking at problematic companies to restructure since it is busy with Bottega Veneta and expanding its small and medium-sized brands. So Valentino, from my point of view as an observer without knowledge of the facts, remains valid.”
“Suhl will be a breather for Sassi on the daily management,” said Armando Branchini, deputy chairman of Milan-based InterCorporate. “Suhl has a positive track record. This is a good move. I was expecting it because there was a need to strengthen the team following the exit of Massimo Piombini.” Suhl effectively succeeds Piombini, previously the worldwide commercial director of Valentino who left to helm Balmain in April, and is understood to be much respected by Sassi. “You need a strong team for an IPO and the company needs to continue to grow ahead of that moment, and Sassi can focus on the more strategic aspects leading to the listing,” Branchini added.
“The idea of an IPO makes complete sense. Sassi has done a great job and it is reasonable for shareholders to want to reap the rewards,” said Luca Solca, head of luxury goods at Exane BNP Paribas.
In its latest Pambianco Strategie di Imprese study on companies that have the most potential to publicly list, Valentino last year jumped up to the second position after Giorgio Armani from its previous, seventh spot. Carlo Pambianco, president of the Italian fashion consultancy, presenting the 11th ranking of the “listable” 65 fashion, luxury goods and design companies last year, explained that “the aim of the research is to identify those companies with the prerequisites to launch an IPO in the next three to five years, regardless of whether a listing is even in the plans of the firm.”
To be sure, no firm date had been forecast, as Valentino, which last year reached the threshold of $1 billion in sales, is in no hurry. The company is controlled by Qatar-based Mayhoola Group, which invested in Valentino in 2012. One analyst wondered, however, if the blockade against Qatar by other Gulf nations led by Saudi Arabia may be affecting the group’s investments in luxury, seeing a Valentino IPO as a means to focus on the country’s other businesses.
In March 2016, Sassi insisted Mayhoola “has [Valentino] and wants to keep it, with ambitious plans to do even more,” alluding to the expansion of the fund’s fashion and luxury stable with the acquisition of Balmain last year. Mayhoola also controls Pal Zileri and is a minority shareholder in Anya Hindmarch. Sassi is said to be involved in the decision-making on several fronts, spurring rumors that he could also be promoted to a position of overview across all brands under Mayhoola. One analyst, though, was skeptical about any change within the group ahead of a possible IPO. “Why change things ahead of an IPO, especially in light of the fact that the CEO did such a good job? It’s not a good option if they want to propose a strong equity story.”
Suhl was previously CEO of Marc Jacobs International, whose parent company is LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton. He left the New York-based fashion house in the summer after a three-year stint, charged with, among other things, readying the house for an IPO. Suhl spearheaded the elimination of the Marc by Marc Jacobs label launched in 2000 and consolidated the signature brand, focusing on accessories and tightening the brand’s vertical retail footprint.
In 2014 Suhl arrived at Marc Jacobs from Givenchy and was seen as a rising star among LVMH’s senior executive ranks. It was a moment of profound change for the brand as the designer Marc Jacobs had just wrapped up his 16-year stint at Louis Vuitton to focus solely on his namesake label, which remains in a challenging phase.
Suhl had joined Givenchy in 2012 after an 11-year career at Prada Group; he saw the Milan-based company go through a lengthy process for a public listing. Prada eventually launched its IPO on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange in 2011. At Prada, Suhl was promoted to CEO of the Asia-Pacific region in 2005 and named group chief operating officer in 2009, reporting to CEO Patrizio Bertelli, and heading the retail, wholesale, e-commerce and marketing departments for the Prada, Miu Miu and Car Shoe brands.
Giovanna Brambilla, partner at Milan-based executive search firm Value Search, said Suhl “is an executive of great experience, whose knowledge of the Asian market will be an added value. He knows not only the markets, but also the consumers in that region.” According to the Altagamma Worldwide Market Monitor 2017 and a study by Bain & Co. presented in Milan in October, local spending by increasingly fashion-savvy Chinese customers has boosted sales in China 15 percent to a market size of 20 billion euros (or slightly more than $23 billion) and buying abroad has also increased, with the share of global personal luxury purchases by Chinese nationals reaching 32 percent in 2017. For 2018, this sector is also expected to grow at an average 5 percent clip, lifted by newfound confidence among local European, Asian and American consumers, as well as by traveling Chinese shoppers. Brambilla also noted that Suhl could help Sassi following Piombini’s exit.
Born in New York, Suhl received an MBA from the Barcelona business school Esade, and joined Prada in 2001 as general manager of France, following stints at Deloitte & Touche and the fashion houses Courrèges and Thimister.
Suhl said it was “a great honor” to join Valentino. “I look forward to partnering with Stefano, Pierpaolo [Piccioli, creative director,] and the teams on the further development of this extraordinary house — I have admired it for quite some time,” he said.