INTERVIEW: Ann Summers MD Vanessa Gold

Ann Summers managing director Vanessa Gold talks exclusively to Kat Slowe about her new role and the big changes that she will be implementing in the company over the next few years.

"One of the guys in The Sun actually described me as being a prude,” says new Ann Summers managing director Vanessa Gold in horrified tones.

The offensive comment was made in the aftermath of Gold’s appearance on Undercover Boss, a Channel 4 program that aired in July, 2011, on Channel 4. The program marked the beginning of a particularly busy season for Ann Summers which, last month, celebrated its first ever pop up shop for Halloween in Selfridges and launched a new store in the Westfield Stratford Mall.

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Yet, for Gold, the program was significant for an entirely different reason. The documentary, which saw her don a wig and spectacles and investigate her family company’s stores incognito, was the first taste of celebrity for the media shy businesswoman. And, The Sun journalist’s comments left her in a state of shock.

“I actually tweeted him saying I cannot believe you thought I was a prude,” Gold goes on to reveal. “I was mortified that people would actually believe that this was the person that I am.

“I am on Twitter and you can start seeing these tweets coming through saying ‘oh, my God, you are so nervous. I never realised Vanessa was such a nervous person.’

“I’m thinking, I’m really not nervous. I wanted to go out there, put an advert out in the paper saying ‘really, I wasn’t nervous, it was my poor acting.’”

Gold was chosen for the show after the makers of Undercover Boss decided that her sister Jacqueline, the chief executive and public face of the Ann Summers brand, was too easily recognisable.

When she first opened the e-mail from the company’s PR agency, PHA Media, Gold was still deputy managing director of the company and instantly assumed that it was meant for her big sister. She forwarded the e-mail to her and was very surprised to read Jacqueline’s rapid response.

“I got this e-mail straight back saying, ‘no, darling, it is for you,’” Gold says. “And, before I know it, I’m sitting in a wig and glasses.

“I would never do it again… Not many people – unless you are Katie Price or Peter Andre – are used to having a camera literally sitting on their shoulder the whole time. You are taken away from everything you know to be put into a bedsit up in Blackburn or Reading. You are not allowed to wear a wedding ring. You have to wear a wig. You have to wear flat shoes and drab clothes and you are then stuck with a sound man, a camera man and told to go and look natural.

“It was an impossible situation. And then, in your ear, you have got the director saying to you, ‘stop sounding like you know what you are doing. Just look like you don’t know what you are doing. Look nervous.’”

Gold discovered that she was being promoted a month after the show was aired. As deputy MD, she had been responsible for buying, merchandising and logistics, and a lot of her time was taken up working over these three areas.

It was a big shift in focus for Gold, who had to learn rapidly about new areas of the business, but she revelled in the new responsibilities and challenges inherent in the role.

“I did feel information overload for the first couple of months,” she says, “trying to take it all in and trying to work out what information I had to retain and what information I could dispose of.

“It has been a really exciting time and that challenge of getting under the skin of the three sales channels has been really, really interesting.”

And Gold has not had a lot of time to stand still and become adjusted to her new role. Her move comes at a time of significant transition for Ann Summers, which is currently in the early stages of a three year plan to secure its future in a rapidly shifting market place.

One aspect of this plan is the re-vamp of the company’s website, which Gold admits has failed to keep up with the rapid developments in online retail.

“I have to be honest with you, our website is actually quite rigid,” she says. “There are things that we want to do and the computer keeps saying no.”

The new website, which will go live this month, aims to provide increased flexibility and greater ease of navigation for consumers.

It will be able to both recommend products and remember visitors on their return to the site. New features include the ability to zoom in on products and to view them from a variety of different angles.

But, as exciting as the new website and the recent launch of the Ann Summers’ new look Stratford store are – the latter of which could lead to a refurbishment of the company’s entire retail chain – Gold’s greatest pleasure stems from a project that has come about solely through her own efforts.

Before Undercover Boss, the concept of a new business stream was not something that Ann Summers had seriously considered. However, after the program brought the company into the forefront of the public awareness, Ann Summers reportedly received considerable interest from several people on how it could take the business forward. It was this new interest that led to the Halloween pop up that launched in Selfridges in October.

“Funny enough, I was in Selfridges the other day and the woman from Selfridges said to me, ‘what do you think of it?’” Gold says. “I’m standing looking at it and thinking, wow, for the first time ever Ann Summers is sitting in first of all an iconic store, but somewhere that we are not responsible for. It’s not our own store, it is not our own internet and it is not our own party plan. I was so proud to see our brand sitting amongst Agent Provocateur, Myla, La Perla, and there we were, right in the middle. It’s fabulous.”

It’s a level of fabulous that Gold is determined to maintain. Despite a new business stream not being part of the retailer’s original strategy for the next three years, she is now committed to exploring the concept further.

Gold is currently investigating potential retail partners and is convinced of the profits to be made from exploiting external retail channels.

“It is obviously a long project,” she says. “But to be able to say that is something that I did would be wonderful.

“We have shoehorned new business streams into our strategy, so we can start really doing the investigations over the next few months and, as we go into next year, we can then start saying, ‘right, what will that look like?

“The focus is very much around how to get the most out of retail, internet and party plan, but the fourth arm to that now is, ‘okay, where else could we imagine marrying our brand up with?’ That’s hugely exciting.”

The business stream could be the vital factor that tips the scales in favour of success or failure over the next few years. With an influx of new intimate apparel retailers entering into the UK high street, the market is becoming increasingly competitive.

In 2012, fresh names such as Boux Avenue, Baci Lingerie and Victoria’s Secret will all be competing for market share in uncertain economic conditions. However, Gold does not seem overly concerned.

“It is certainly going to be a crowded market,” she says. “When you have got the likes of Boux Avenue, La Senza, Victoria’s Secret, Baci Lingerie, it is going to be crowded. But, I have to say, if I was going to be any one of those retailers, I would want to be Ann Summers, because at least we have a different product proposition.

“I mean, La Senza and Boux Avenue – beautiful shops, but they look exactly the same. I think our product mix makes us very unique and, therefore, I think we have a fighting chance to be offering the sexiest product. I have to be honest… I am going to be keeping a close eye on it, but I am not concerned.”

And, it helps that Gold has the support of her family. Though family businesses are notorious for in-fighting and often costly disputes, Gold insists – convincingly – that the relationship with her sister and her father, Ann Summers shareholder and West Ham chairman David Gold, is extremely strong.

“My father David, Jacqueline and myself absolutely adore each other,” she says. “I know that probably sounds a bit of a cliché, but we do.”

Though David is currently focussed on West Ham with the football season in full swing, Jacqueline and Gold continue to work very closely together at the Ann Summers head office in Croydon. The family also makes an effort to regularly meet up, once a week, for dinner.

“We have done that for hundreds of years,” Gold says. “Jacqueline and I are the best of friends and our husbands are actually best of friends, as well. So, it just works. We know that we are really lucky.

“Both my father and my sister Jacqueline are brilliant… I think they are both in their own way fantastic ambassadors for this business. I have never had any interest in being in the spotlight… We all have very different roles and I think that is probably one of the reasons why there is no jealousy there.

“I think this only the second interview I have ever done, so I hope I am doing okay.”

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