Have you ever wanted to ask someone questions about their career path? “How I Did It” asks those questions for you. Guy Bodart, MBA’88, is CEO of Chanel Brazil. He talks about the value of international experience and how he ended up in leadership for one of the world’s most distinctive luxury brands.
Q. What do you do?
I manage the operations of Chanel in Brazil. The brand is considered one of the leading companies in the luxury industry and Brazil is one of the most challenging emerging markets in the world. That makes my job anything but boring. Brazil is one of the most protectionist markets in the world (the big ones are China and Russia). This translates into extremely high costs of importing and retailing products. It’s also a very inefficient market. Logistics, administration, legal aspects and bureaucracy are dreadfully slow, increasing operation costs.
Q. What was your focus at Vanderbilt?
I majored in marketing, but enjoyed finance, operations and other science-focused courses. All classes had some level of relevance in my career, although stats, math, strategic thinking and operations have proven particularly useful.
Q. What was your first job?
Prior to joining Owen in 1986, I worked odd jobs. I worked as an assistant financial assistant at Merrill Lynch at their Geneva office, then as a commodity trader at Baytur S.A., based in Geneva and Istanbul. These first jobs opened my mind to the real world, taught me to be disciplined and structured, and allowed me to travel a little. I also valued my experience waiting tables at New York restaurants, driving a cab and selling bathroom towels at Bloomingdales. I would never trade this experience for anything. It teaches you to be relentless and how to bounce back.
Q. What drew you to Vanderbilt?
Two factors, and in no particular order of relevance. My very best childhood friend from Belgium had moved to Nashville to pursue music business at Belmont College. I had visited him in the summer of ’85 and fell in love with the area.
The second factor was the interest Vanderbilt showed in my international background. [Bodart grew up in Belgium and Switzerland.] At that time, the program had only a few international students and perhaps they felt adding me would help propel the school’s reputation overseas. I hope I contributed a little.
Q. How long have you been with Chanel and how long heading up the Brazil operations?
I joined the company in April 1996 as a vice president of sales for Central and South America at Chanel’s Panama office. After working in this position for 10 years, I was promoted to managing director of the Mexico operation. I moved to Mexico City in late 2006 and stayed until early 2013. I have been in charge of the Brazil operation since April 2013. Because of the complexity of doing business in Brazil, every one year of experience counts for double! Because of its sheer size, it will and should be considered an attractive market, but until deep-rooted and fundamental changes are implemented in fiscal and legal aspects, Brazil will remain a costly and complicated market to do business.
Q. How did you get into the luxury goods business?
I never really intentionally wanted to get into the business. It was more about joining a multinational company where I could make good use of my background and language skills. At the time I was working for a French bank at its Miami office and commuting every other week to visit my family in Panama. That put a lot of strain on me both professionally and personally. So I decided to look for new opportunities in Panama and eventually got a job with Chanel. I had no experience in sales or marketing consumer package goods, let alone luxury fragrance and cosmetics, but it did not seem to matter. What mattered is that it was a good fit. Chanel was looking for a multicultural, multilingual individual with strong finance background, hence the good fit.
Q. What would you say was your big break or opportunity that put you on this path?
Most certainly, my decision to pursue the opportunity at Chanel in Panama having absolutely no knowledge of the consumer packaged goods industry. It was sort of a leap of faith, for both the company and me. I was young and willing to risk it. I was also joining a great company.
Q. What was—or has been—your biggest challenge?
I am living it as we speak. I’ve had to face very tough challenges in Brazil after having a happy ending in Mexico. When I arrived in Mexico, most high-level executives wanted to leave, the economic and political outlook was uncertain, and the company was under tremendous financial pressure. In a matter of four years, my team and I managed to turn it around and weather the storm of the 2008 financial crisis and the swine flu pandemic—rather like a fairy tale ending
In 2012, when the Brazil opportunity was offered to me, I was happy, proud and I felt indestructible, like Arnold (Schwarzenegger) in The Terminator. The Brazil job made me go back to the drawing board. I had to learn to be humble again, to listen and not order, adapt and not impose. It has been rough but incredibly refreshing and educational. It’s a clear proof one should always be ready and willing to learn—even if you think you know it all.
Q. If you could give other alumni and current students’ one piece of advice, what would it be?
Be curious, learn languages and if possible, get experience out of your comfort zone.
Watch an interview with Guy Bodart.