Londoner Manju Malhotra has come a long way from her parents’ small fashion outlet in London’s East End to the marble floors of the flagship Harvey Nichols luxury department store in central London’s swanky Knightsbridge district
50-year-old mother of two, Manju Malhotra graduated from the University of Warwick with an economics degree long before she became the first official chief executive of British luxury retailer Harvey Nichols in five years (since a 2017 leadership team reshuffle saw then-CEO Stacey Cartwright move into the role of deputy chairman) and has successfully guided this national treasure of UK retail through the pandemic that was declared just days after she took the helm.
Malhotra, a quietly confident and extremely competent lady, first joined Harvey Nichols back in 1998 as an internal audit officer, only to progress through the ranks of the company in positions including group head of finance and CFO. She effectively led the business from 2018, as co-COO alongside Daniela Rinaldi, only to be left to go it alone when Rinaldi resigned in December 2019 and Malhorta was formally appointed CEO in January 2020, just days before the pandemic hit and ultimately forced the department store to close its doors for months.
She officially reports to Dickson Poon, chairman and owner of Harvey Nichols, and works closely with Pearson Poon, Dickson’s son and the company’s executive director.
Speaking at the time of her appointment, Dickson Poon explained the choice: “over the past 22 years, Manju has repeatedly demonstrated her ability in finance, and through her time as chief operating officer, and in particular this year, she has demonstrated her leadership in developing strategies and optimising business performance during one of the most challenging business environments in recent history. With our continued investment, I look forward to building a new long-term success for Harvey Nichols as a global luxury omnichannel platform with Manju.”
Speaking herself on her new role, Malhotra said back in 2020: “I am delighted with my appointment to CEO. Whilst the short-term retail outlook is unpredictable, I am hugely excited about the future plans and opportunities for the fantastic Harvey Nichols brand.”
She couldn’t have imagined her rise to the top of Harvey Nichols the first time she visited the Knightsbridge department store to treat herself to a luxury sweater after completing her economics degree. Indeed, she admits that back then she would never have dreamt of being among the rare women of colour that are running major UK retail brands.
The grounded economist’s first role at this famous temple of high fashion was back in 1998 as audit manager, while she now holds the reigns of a veritable empire that includes eight stores in the UK and Ireland, encompassing – alongside its original central London store – large outlets in Birmingham, Bristol, Edinburgh, Leeds and Manchester, as well as a specialist ‘Beauty Bazaar’ at Harvey Nichols Liverpool and five overseas branches, including a store in Dublin’s largest shopping centre, Dundrum Town Centre.
We are very in tune with the customers. We have to be obsessive about what customers are thinking, and so it is great to have that on the board
Over the almost quarter of a century that she’s spent at the company, she says that she’s never felt marginalised as a woman of colour, while she’s focused on gaining experience by putting “both hands up” whenever a new project was being discussed.
It was way back in 1831 that Benjamin Harvey first opened a linen shop in a terraced house on the corner of London’s Knightsbridge and Sloane Street, only to expand his operations four years later by taking over the adjacent unit. The growing popularity of Harvey’s linen shop would result in it continuing to expand to encompass successive properties over the following years. Harvey hired one James Nichols a decade after first establishing his shop. Nichols was promoted to management in 1845 and married Harvey’s niece, Anne Beale, in 1848, only for Harvey to die two years later, leaving the business to his wife Anne. The widow opted to form a partnership with Nichols and thus Harvey Nichols & Co. was born.
The business continued to go from strength to strength and – following the 1975 opening of the Harvey’s restaurant on the store’s fifth floor – is today as well known for its dining as its fashion, with a suite of restaurants that includes the Oxo Tower beside the Thames.
Malhotra’s tale is one of rag trade to riches. Born into fashion retail, she grew up helping out at her parents’ own fashion shop in London’s East End. “It was the entry level of the market, before fast fashion,” she explains.
Her father took on the responsibility of procurement manager, while her mother worked the shop floor. “I always remember the trends and how retail and fashion reflected popular culture,” Malhotra says. “When Frankie Goes to Hollywood were big, ‘Frankie Says Relax’ T-shirts were everywhere. You couldn’t keep them in stock.”
It was while studying at Warwick University that she first experienced consumer culture from the retail aspect, through summer jobs at Russell & Bromley and Marks & Spencer, and became fascinated by its “dynamic” nature.
And she’s seen that dynamism in a big way since taking on the top job, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic that hit almost immediately and caused a seismic shift in shopping practises, with physical shops shutting their doors and customers turning to online shopping and home deliveries. However, she insists that her lack of experience wasn’t an issue: “At the time, it didn’t actually matter: no one in a similar role – or any organisation – had been in that situation before. And I had knowledge of the business. Had I been CEO of a business I’d never worked at before, it might have been more challenging.”
She was also aided by the fact that Hong Kongbased luxury company Dickson Concepts, which owns Harvey Nichols, had previously dealt with pandemics, having operated through the Sars and Mers outbreaks.
“They were more realistic about the timeframe and how long this might last,” she explained. “People in the UK were talking about it lasting a few weeks or months, but they understood that it could be a couple of years.”
This helped the company plan for long-term change and come up with the idea of offering online experiences, from beauty masterclasses to Friday night DJ sets. Taking the decision to close its stores before the government mandated it to do so, it consigned its stock to its warehouses in order to be able to fulfil online orders at the peak of the spring/summer shopping season. Online sales did indeed take off during the lockdowns, but Harvey Nichols still suffered. Sales fell by 45% to £121.3m in the year up to 27th March 2021, while the group cut its capital investments by 52% and focused spending on developing its website. Pre-tax losses nonetheless more than doubled – to £39.6m, up from £16.3m a year prior.
With restrictions now lifted, Malhotra says that shoppers have flocked back to stores and she is now focused on developing more dining and drinking options, as well as online services that include corporate gifting and entertainment.
What has kept me here is that the business is always evolving, and there are always investment opportunities. We have a curated offer. We do the legwork for our customers and people look to us for that authority
“What has kept me here is that the business is always evolving, and there are always investment opportunities,” she says. “We have a curated offer. We do the legwork for our customers and people look to us for that authority.”
She is finding a way to make the company profitable again, and is doing so with the help of a board that’s dominated by women, which continues to be a rarity in UK retail, despite the vast majority of both shopworkers and shoppers being female.
“We are very in tune with the customers,” says Malhotra. “We have to be obsessive about what customers are thinking, and so it is great to have that on the board.”
According to this highly experienced senior executive, who has led her business to deliver growth and enhanced consumer experience across luxury Fashion, Beauty, Food/Drinks and Hospitality, the owners of Harvey Nichols have made it easy for such a diverse group to make it to the top. “We celebrate individuality. And always have done.”
As well as being responsible for Harvey Nichols entire business – encompassing Buying, Marketing, Finance, IT, E-Commerce, Retail stores, HR, Property & International franchises – Manju is also a Non-Executive Director of both Workspace Group plc and London & Partners.
Declared one of London’s most influential leaders by the city’s Evening Standard newspaper, she has been included in the Drapers Fashion Retail 100 and on the Power List of Retail Week. An alumna of Asian Women of Achievement, since 2013 she’s also been an ambassador and mentor to the Camden Spear Trust, a charity that focuses on improving the lives of underprivileged youngsters. And as if all that wasn’t enough, this pioneering businesswoman is also an ambassador of Retail Week’s Be Inspired, which supports the next generation of business leaders.