Pierre de Villemejane: Picking up the pieces at Wedgwood

The fine china icon is back from the brink under a new French boss
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The Independent Online

Pierre de Villemejane lists among his interests hunting wild boar in France's Loire Valley and being a huge fan of modern art and sculpture. Indeed, the Frenchman's wife is a painter and sculptor, which seems appropriate for the chief executive of Waterford, Wedgwood and Royal Doulton (WWRD), the holding company behind the world-famous china and crystal brands.

However, there was nothing artistic about the spectacular collapse of the 250-year-old Waterford Wedgwood into receivership in early January 2009 after it buckled under debts of £396m at the peak of the financial crisis.

The US private equity firm KPS Capital Partners revived the company, when it acquired certain assets and its four key brands: Royal Albert, Waterford, Wedgwood and Royal Doulton. It named Mr Villemejane as chief executive of WWRD on the same day in March 2009.

The Frenchman gives an honest assessment of how the maker of Wedgwood pottery and Waterford crystal had lost its way. He says: "I think it was a classic case of a company that had too much debt and it did not take responsibility for the reality of having an infrastructure that was much bigger than the reality of its trading position and its sales level."

Its problems were compounded by consumers' migrating to cheaper options – such as those from Ikea – and formal dining falling out of fashion with modern lifestyles.

Mr Villemejane says: "The company had not put enough focus on making sure that the Wedgwood products – but it is also true for Waterford and Royal Doulton – were relevant for the day-to-day consumer."

Since KPS's acquisition, WWRD – which sells its products in UK department stores from John Lewis to House of Fraser – has turned around its performance by concentrating on two key areas. First, it has "realigned the infrastructure and resources to the current level of sales", says Mr Villemejane. Second: "We refocused the brands – particularly Wedgwood – to appeal to a broader customer audience."

For instance, WWRD sought to give some Wedgwood products a more contemporary look to attract a broader demographic of customer, while at the same time maintaining the traditional tableware patterns of other ranges.

Mr Villemejane said: "The key vision is to really transform Wedgwood from a traditional typical tableware company to an exciting and vibrant brand, a homestyle brand that becomes the reference for English elegance. We are starting to evolve our designs to appeal to more contemporary tastes."

To this end, WWRD in June introduced the Wedgwood & Bentley collection, which includes the Gilded Borghese Vase priced at £30,000. However, sticking to its goal of selling products at "accessible prices for people", the cheapest Wedgwood plates can still be bought for £25.

KPS has also trimmed the group's cost base, such as by closing its factory in the Irish city of Waterford. WWRD opened a new factory in the city on a different site which still makes high-end Waterford crystal.

Indeed, the Waterford facility is the "second most famous tourist attraction in Ireland after the Guinness factory", says Mr Villemejane. WWRD also owns and runs two others factories, in Indonesia and Barlaston, Stoke-on-Trent, where Wedgwood and Royal Doulton are made. In fact, Barlaston is not far from Burslem in the Potteries region, where Josiah Wedgwood founded the brand in 1759.

The changes implemented by KPS appear to have worked. Mr Villemejane declines to provide a figure but says WWRD became profitable inside 12 months of KPS's acquisition. It had been losing £61m before collapsing in 2009.

Asked if UK sales are still declining, he says they are "actually stable if not growing".

However, the real growth opportunity for WWRD – which employs 3,200 globally, including 800 in the UK – is overseas. The company's biggest market is the US, with the Americas accounting for 40 per cent of global sales. Australia is its second biggest market, followed by Japan.

While the tsunami and earthquake in Japan in March had a devastating effect on the country, Mr Villemejane says it has had "very, very little impact" on WWRD, adding that: "Japanese business is thriving."

In fact, he says that Japan – where Wedgwood is particularly popular – offers clues about how the group can "significantly" grow global sales. This is due partly to the popularity of guests at weddings in Japan giving Wedgwood as a gift, which the married couple reciprocate.

Mr Villemejane says: "The Japanese have a very strong respect for the heritage and authenticity of the Wedgwood products and the Japanese people are buying them for their own use, as well as gift giving."

But Mr Villemejane – whose accent is a hybrid of French and American, where he now lives – also waxes lyrical about WWRD's opportunity in countries, including China, South Korea, Taiwan, Mexico, Brazil, Russia and the Middle East. In China, for example, consumers are now not just buying luxury fashion, but also tableware products for entertaining at home and for decoration.

Indeed, Mr Villemejane is convinced that the "made in England" label remains key to its global plans. He says: "We are seeing a resurgence of interest in authentic brands with a strong heritage and therefore Wedgwood is absolutely responding to that type of trend, coupled with this appeal for English elegance."

No doubt Josiah Wedgwood, the "Father of English Potters" would have tipped his hat at such a vision, although he would probably have been surprised that it was an American private equity firm targeting consumers in Tokyo and Shanghai that kept his dream alive.

From Stoke to New York

He cut his corporate teeth in management positions in the UK and France, including in the sales and marketing department at L'Oréal. After leaving his home country 18 years ago, the Frenchman also did a stint in Stoke-on-Trent for Cookson. KPS hired him as chief executive of Speedline Technologies, a manufacturer for circuit board firms. In March 2009, KPS then hired him to run WWRD.

The art of hunting

Mr Villemejane is married with three children and lives in Westchester, near New York. He "loves" sculptures and art, naming Picasso and Matisse among his favourites. Back in France, he hunts in the Loire Valley for wild boar, pheasant and duck. The 44-year-old "used to be good at tennis but is getting old".