Jonathan Ramsden has been Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer of Abercrombie & Fitch since December 2008 and is a key part of a team trying to guide the retailer’s global expansion while managing something of a remake of its domestic operations. Going Concern caught up with him recently to find out how he sees A&F’s business and what else is on his mind.
Prior to joining Abercrombie & Fitch, Ramsden was CFO of TBWA Worldwide, a global marketing services company with operations in over 70 countries. He began his career with Arthur Andersen, spending nine years in the firm’s London and New York offices. He is a graduate of Oxford University and a UK Chartered Accountant. Jonathan lives in Columbus, Ohio, with his wife and three children.
Going Concern: I’ve got to start by asking how analysts got Abercrombie’s early-year outlook so wrong. One early year report out in the Wall Street Journal anticipated an ugly same-store-sales decline, and the next day you post an 8% increase in January sales in stores open at least one year. February and March were good for you too. Why the gulf between predictions and performance?
Ramsden: Our business improved at the beginning of the year and, since we don’t give forward looking guidance, the analyst consensus was modeling a continuation of the prior trend. We have also consistently said that one or two months do not constitute a trend, and that month to month results may be volatile. Our focus is less on monthly sales figures than doing what we think is right for the long-term health of the brands and the business.
Going Concern: Do you see it as part of your job to find metrics that allow shareholders and analysts to make more accurate predictions and better comparisons, or does that really fall beyond the CFO’s purview? What can you do as CFO to help people better understand the company’s business?
Ramsden: We try to provide data that enables shareholders and analysts to understand the underlying dynamics of the business. Since the beginning of last year we have not been giving forward looking guidance on sales or earnings since we think that implies a degree of precision about future results we have not had in the environment we have been through.
Going Concern: How do you expect Abercrombie to perform this year overall?
Ramsden: We feel very good about our international business, which continues to affirm the global appeal of our brands. We have been through a challenging time domestically, but are working hard to improve the domestic trend of the business. Protecting the global appeal of our brands remains a paramount objective, and we have been willing to take some pain domestically to do that.
Going Concern: Is it fair to say that the growth will now come overseas? Expanding abroad can be fruitful, but it’s also a big investment. What if sales soften more quickly than expected?
Ramsden: We do believe that the future of our business is tied to our international strategy. At the same time, if we can achieve a sustained improvement in our domestic productivity, that will be very significant to both sales and earnings. There are certainly risks associated with an international expansion, but we have been very encouraged by the results so far.
Going Concern: There seems to be a wane in the company’s popularity here in the States. Does the company agree with that statement and what’s being done to address it?
Ramsden: We believe that our brands retain a strong appeal. 2009 was a challenging year in the US, but we think we can improve the domestic business going forward. Firstly, we continue to work on our pricing. Secondly, there are a number of initiatives in place on the marketing front that we think will help us to better connect with our core customer. We feel better about the assortment than we have in some time. Lastly, we expect that we will need to close a number of stores that don’t really fit in the portfolio, particularly for the A&F brand.
Going Concern: Has Abercrombie & Fitch actually cut costs over the last couple of years? How involved have you been in that and can you explain a little about the process behind identifying excess cost in the business?
Ramsden: We went through a reorganization of our corporate “Home Office” about a year ago, which included some significant lay-offs. The company had never been through anything like that before so it was a difficult process, but we believe the company will be more efficient as a result. The entire leadership group was involved in the process. At the store level, on an ongoing basis we have been looking to find efficiencies in variable costs such as store payroll, packaging, supplies and so on. The biggest component of the margin erosion we have incurred has been in store occupancy costs (rent, depreciation etc) which are relatively fixed in the short term, but which we think we can make progress on over time, including through store closures where appropriate.
Going Concern: What are your biggest challenges as CFO with respect to financial reporting in the coming year?
Ramsden: As we roll out internationally, we have to ensure that our local reporting is to the same standard as our US reporting. In addition, the international rollout adds to the complexity of our US reporting.
Going Concern: Have you started laying the groundwork for converting to IFRS? If so, when do believe the conversion will be complete? Can you give us a sense of the scale of this task and who is helping you with it?
Ramsden: We have done our initial assessment of what would be required to convert. The area of greatest complexity for us would be moving from the retail to the cost method of accounting for inventory.
Going Concern: A recent survey by Financial Executives International/Baruch college stated that only 44% of CFOs anticipate an increase in their hiring and that 25% expect to cut back on their rate of hiring? What kind of cost saving measures (as they relate to employees) did A&F utilize in 2009? Have economic conditions improved to the point that further cost saving measures (e.g. salary freezes, layoffs, reduced working hours) won’t be necessary? What are A&F’s plans with regard to hiring for 2010?
Ramsden: During 2009, as well as layoffs, we took a number of other measure such as deferring and reducing raise pools and reducing retirement plan contributions. Our current direction is a gradual return to normalcy. We are hiring where we need to, while seeking to keep the overall headcount close to the current level.
Going Concern: You were previously a CFO at a global marketing-services company. How difficult did you find it moving sectors? What are the main differences you see between overseeing the finances of a services operation as opposed to a retail operation? (What would you say to a senior level business finance executive who is switching business sectors?)
Ramsden: There are some significant commonalities. Both A&F and TBWA are full of creative, energized and driven people. During the ten years I was at TBWA, we were seeking to build a cohesive global brand. For A&F, the next 10 years are also going to be about international expansion. The starting points are quite different, but many of the challenges of running a global business are the same. I think there are a core set of CFO skills that are transferable and that make up a significant part of the CFO role in any organization. Industry knowledge is definitely valuable, but coming from a fresh perspective also has some value. Clearly there is also a huge amount of instituational and industry knowledge at A&F.
Going Concern: In overall terms, how do you view your role as CFO?
Ramsden: There are some things that are black and white, but most are not. As the CFO, you need to be surrounded by people and processes you trust. Good processes will take care of the black and white stuff, and having people you trust in key positions will take care of most of the rest. So you have to have complete confidence in the people you work with, and you have to ensure that systems and processes are effective. The CFO also needs to challenge conventions.