Family spirit as tough as leather
Three generations ... Elizabeth Hunt (left), Sophie and her children Gretel, 9, and Isobel, 5. Photo: Tomasz Machnik
When it comes to negotiating today's tough retail industry, family businesswoman Sophie Hunt looks to the past to help steer her into the future.
Lessons learnt in the early 1990s recession and her late father's business philosophies provide a guiding light for the Sydney mother-of-two, who heads up Hunt Leather.
The luggage and leathergoods business was founded by her parents John and Elizabeth in 1975 and has weathered many a retail storm.
“In '91, we went down to three stores from eight in the late '80s," Hunt, now 42, says. “We lost the warehouse and the family home, but my parents were extremely tenacious.”
In her six years as managing director, Hunt said nothing compared with the tough times of the recession. But there was a silver lining to those lean years.
“We learned a big lesson from the recession and that was being grateful we were all healthy and well," she says. “My father really taught us that work's not everything.”
In addition to her parent's tenacity, the family business had the staunch support of quality suppliers. Hunt says her father fostered business relationships built on loyalty and trust, which helped keep the company on its feet.
“The key was those long-term, supportive relationships with the suppliers," she said.
“Because of that, my parents were treated with respect everywhere.
“During the '90s we got on more solid footing and we own the office now and the warehouse.”
Hunt Leather stocks exclusive European and US brands including luxury label Longchamp, a well-known French family business.
Hunt Leather now has five storefronts - two in Sydney and one each in Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth. The Hunt business also operates the only three Longchamp boutiques in Australia.
Hunt began working on the shop floor of the family business after graduating from her commerce course at New South Wales University in 1991.
But working with mum and dad was never part of her original plan.
“It was never my intention to work for Hunt Leather," she said. “I thought I'd work for somebody else doing other things!”
A two-year backpacking adventure through Europe and Africa with her future husband took her away from the family business, but necessity brought her back.
“I was 24 years old when I came home from overseas and completely broke," Hunt said.
“So my parents asked me to come and work with them just over Christmas. I did everything - unpacked boxes, bookkeeping.”
When the travel bug hit Hunt again, John Hunt suggested his daughter take on an internship with US-based luxury travel goods company Tumi.
It was while working in the States that Hunt realised her heart lay back in her family's business.
“I think I'd been spoiled!” she said. “The pleasure, reward and responsibility I was given by my parents was a key factor. And I think that's what's moved us strongly into next generation, the way I was treated with respect.”
Looking back on her childhood, it's no wonder Hunt returned to the family fold.
Like older brother Bruce (the only Hunt child to work outside of the family business) and younger brother Sam, Hunt was always kept in the thick of business talk at home.
“Because both my parents were involved in the business, the conversation was constant,” she said.
“They talked work at the dining table and in the car. We all practically grew up in the business.”
Such was her father's passion for the business, his influence remains an important factor in the company's direction nearly seven years after his death.
Mother Elizabeth is the owner and director of the company. She also continues to source new product from overseas in her role as a buyer.
Hunt describes her as the “soul of the business”.
Even in today's competitive retail industry where cheaper overseas manufacturers are a constant threat, Hunt employs the same business tactics her father taught her by maintaining solid relations with traders and fellow family businesses.
“Choice of brands is the key," she said. “ We choose brands that are very protective of their brand.
“Brands like Longchamp and Rimowa don't allow their product to be splashed around everywhere.
“They're very careful about where they're going and who they supply to.”
Hunt said the main threat to Australian retailers was “ridiculously high rents”.
“I regularly hear the refrain that Australian retailers are overpriced, but that's because rental and wages are really high," she said.
“Seeing other retailers go into administration is terrifying. Darrell Lea, Fletcher Jones - all long-running family businesses. It gives me a shiver.”
But after nearly 40 years in the business Hunt Leather is in for the long haul, says Hunt.