It is hard to imagine that the head of Britain’s largest travel goods chain once prepared his staff for company insolvency.
South African-born Stephen Spitz is the chairman and CEO of the multi-million pound Brentano Group, which specialises in the retail and wholesale distribution of top travel brands under sub-divisions Case London and Pelham Leather Goods.
The 48-year-old boss took the divisions from imminent insolvency to success after signing a company-saving deal with Harrods boss Mohamed Fayed at the height of the travel industry crisis — which suffered a 65 per cent dip after the September 11 terror attacks, London bombings and bird flu scare between 2001 and 2006.
“People suddenly stopped travelling and buying suitcases,” recalls Mr Spitz, whose lost £2 m during the crisis.
“Accountants and lawyers told me to go into administration. It would have made my life a lot easier but I refused.
“It’s a terrible concept and I didn’t want it attached to my reputation.”
The retail boss negotiated payment plans with suppliers (including Tumi, Samsonite and Delsey who were collectively owed £3 m), landlords and slashed the number of Case London stores from 30 to 11.
“I called in my team and we ran the business for one year as though we were going into administration,” he says. “It was the most humbling experience I have ever been through.”
In 2006 the company secured a “turning point” deal and took over the largest travel concession in the world.
“Mr Fayed walked into the room, looked at us and said ‘they look like nice people — let’s do it’.
“That was our one big break and worth more than all the shops we closed.”
Mr Spitz spent £1.3 m revamping the 80,000 sq ft space into a marble-infused open plan layout. “In another life I would have been a designer,” he quips.
The company recovered the losses and “last year was our best year yet,” adds Mr Spitz. “When we took over at Harrods, the section was turning over £4.5m. We set ourselves a target to turn it into £10 m in five years. We’ve exceeded that.”
The Mill Hill synagogue member says: “I think God was looking after me. I promised Him that if I came through this, I would give back a lot more to the community.”
He is now chair of Jewish Care’s Holocaust Survivors’ Centre in Hendon and co-chair of the Jewish Youth Fund.
Mr Spitz bought the niche British luggage Revelations shop for £82,000 in 1988 after graduating from the London School of Economics. He bought back the chain for £1 m and renamed it Case London in 1998. It now retails 43 brands from Tumi to Delsey.
“I have never been interested in owning brands, just distributing them,” adds Mr Spitz, who comes from a line of retail geniuses.
His grandfather Sam Spitz, a Lithuanian cobbler who moved to Johannesburg in 1924 and opened the Barnes shoe chain, shared his preference for high-end distribution. Sam went on to buy shoe brand Kurt Geiger after hearing about the Austrian Holocaust survivor’s death on Yom Kippur in 1969.
His father David Spitz, who co-founded shoe chain A&D Spitz in South Africa, established sister-shop Carvela before selling in 1987.
“I was shocked,” recalls Mr Spitz, who moved to the UK in 1977. “It was the right deal for the family but I had planned to work for my father.
“That was when I went to my bank manager and bought Revelations.”
The Brentano Group has grown into licensing merchandise and property development offering serviced offices around London.