The Moodie Davitt Report brings you the latest instalment in our popular series Ten Easy Pieces*, in which we get up close and personal with leading travel retail personalities via ten snapshot questions.
This time we speak to Jonathan Holland, Managing Director of Jonathan Holland & Associates, the quintessential English gentleman who swapped life at sea to settle in Asia.
1. Where were you born and raised?
I was born in Southport, Lancashire in the UK. I grew up with a brother and two sisters. My father, Peter Holland, was a toffee manufacturer working in the family business, Hollands Toffee, a company my great grandfather had founded.
Its marketing slogan was ‘Best on Earth’ to reflect the company’s global ambitions: It was the first British toffee company to export to the USA. I remember the main US distributor, who made regular business visits to England. He would come home for Sunday lunch and loved the traditional British Sunday roast. I have fond memories of his kind and friendly manner towards my siblings and me and especially recall that he would always bring us wonderful gifts whenever he visited.
The toffee factory was like a second home to us children. We visited often and the workers would show us how to twist off pieces of toffee from the long cooling trays and how to analyse the taste. Naturally, we were in heaven every time we went there. My favourite products were multi-flavoured ‘Penny Arrows’ and Devon cream milk toffee which simply melted in your mouth. The latter product was to become a top-selling toffee for Marks & Spencer, under their own house brand label.
It was an interesting time in British manufacturing when unions were gaining strength and setting heavy demands to management in their backing for the workforce. At Hollands Toffee, apparently it was the workforce themselves who shunned and kept the unions out of the company in view of their very happy working conditions and packages. I recall my father was extremely proud of, as well as appreciative of, the workers’ loyalty.
I have met people connected to Hollands Toffee many times over the years. Invariably, they would have something positive to say about my father or the company. These moments were very heart-warming to me particularly as they brought back good memories of my father who was a thoughtful, modest and caring person.
2. Aged 11 you were sent off to boarding school… good or bad memories there?
I was boarding at Holmwood Prep School in Lancashire from age 11 years and then moved on to Malvern College in Worcestershire at 13. Boarding school was the perfect place for me; being independent, sociable and sporty, I thrived. Even better, social life was a ball because Malvern was surrounded by seven girls’ schools! Add in the extensive sports curriculum and adventurous outdoor activities… halcyon days indeed.
Besides the sporting front (team sports mostly) I was also active in the CCF (Combined Cadet Force – essentially army cadets) which provided the outdoor physical entertainment I loved.
When I was 16, a timely visit by a Royal Navy Careers officer to the school changed the direction of my future. I loved sailing and, of course, the sea which was the impetus for my decision to join the Royal Navy after my ‘A’ Levels. I applied for the Officer Training Course at Britannia Royal Navy College at Dartmouth and was accepted.
3. So you joined the navy to see the world, and…?
My five years in the Royal Navy were perhaps some of the best years of my life. The experience was uplifting for a young lad of 18 years and I thrived on the excitement of being in the thick of the action.
After Dartmouth I was initially posted to Prince Charles’s ship, HMS Bronington. This was followed by a stint on a helicopter cruiser (HMS Blake) which led me on to an exchange posting with the US Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean. I was involved in numerous multi-national exercises and joint forces operations. Subsequently, I was posted to Hong Kong as the Gunnery Officer of one of the ships in the Hong Kong Squadron.
That was my first taste of Asia in 1978, and wow, was it exciting! My eyes were opened to this amazing part of the world and even today, 40 years later, I still feel that buzz.
Conversely, I was also exposed to the dark side of Asia where people were pushed into taking desperate measures to escape their harsh life in their home countries. One of our many naval responsibilities was to guard the Hong Kong sea borders and our squadron was tasked to assist the Royal HK Marine Police to intercept and return illegal immigrants (II’s) and to hold refugees for encampment before they could be re-assigned to third countries to start a new life. Particularly during the late ’70s we would be picking up hundreds of both II’s and refugees every week.
“That was my first taste of Asia in 1978, and wow, was it exciting! My eyes were opened to this amazing part of the world and even today, 40 years later, I still feel that buzz”
On our many patrols, we came across little ‘sampans’ (a local wooden dinghy), over-crowded with dozens of people, bedraggled men, women and children, attempting to row their unseaworthy boats towards Hong Kong. I recall on one of them there was an old man on board who had had both his hands severed. It was an old wound and the man seemed resigned to his condition. On another occasion we even picked up a man who was floating in the sea, the water around him swirling in his blood as one of his legs had been bitten off by a shark. The poor man had been trying to swim from south of China across Mirs Bay to the Sai Kung peninsula of Hong Kong.
There were many other such incidents which opened my eyes to the harsh and ruthless realities of life which were so different from my own comfortable, stable and more civilised environment in the UK. Until then I had not known what it meant to be destitute or to be desperate enough to take life-threatening risks to gain a perceived better life in another country. I believe one learns to be more humane in the face of suffering and others’ wretched circumstances. Certainly, I found my sailors, normally gruff and tough, were extremely compassionate in their dealings with the people we picked up from the cold seas of Hong Kong.
“There were many other such incidents which opened my eyes to the harsh and ruthless realities of life which were so different from my own comfortable, stable and more civilised environment in the UK”
Life in exotic Hong Kong outside of my naval duties was interesting and entertaining. The expat sports and social scene was very inclusive and I made many good friends with whom I played rugby or sailed around the islands on our off days. Two years on and the place had grown on me.
After returning to the UK to complete my five-year commission, there was only one place to which I was going the day after receiving my discharge papers from active duty and that was back to Hong Kong.
In the end, I didn’t see the whole world with the Navy, but my naval training gave me life and man management skills which I have used ever since. More importantly, I believe the training also created in me a strong work discipline, tenacity and critical decision-making skills, all of which were essential when I decided to leave the Navy to forge a brand new career in the commercial world. And, just to make it even more challenging, in a country far from home.
These same life and work skills were again crucial when I embarked on the journey of starting my own agency many years later.
4. When you first left the Navy, you found yourself involved with a Japanese company with a totally new product, right?
Yes. A company called Taito had created one of the first video games, Space Invaders, and the business was going wild. Being a cash business where trust and integrity were paramount, Taito was really looking for ex-Hong Kong police inspectors and brought several of them onboard. One of whom, Richard ‘Dick’ Ferne, became a lifelong friend.
So there I was, the solitary ex-Royal Navy Officer amongst the team of ex PI’s, selling Space Invaders. Dick and I had several interesting ‘adventures’ and through it all we both evolved into Space Invader wizards! In hindsight, Taito was the perfect stepping stone to the duty free world for both of us. We would both go on to cultivate long careers, respectively in liquor, tobacco and cosmetics.
5. From Space Invaders to travel retail. What sparked your move into duty free and travel retail?
In 1982, an opportunity opened up to join Rothmans International. Based in Singapore, the job was to manage the Indian sub-continent duty free business. To me, this was yet another new and truly challenging adventure. I didn’t smoke; I knew nothing of the duty free industry, and my sole knowledge of anything Indian was on the little menu of the curry shop on Hennessy Road in Hong Kong!
In the end, during nine years with Rothmans I chalked up many fascinating experiences. Culturally, the Indian sub-continent was truly enlightening. I shall never forget the many amusing and highly entertaining dealings with our customers from remote areas of Afghanistan, right across to Nepal and Bangladesh, and all the way down through India to Sri Lanka. I spent about 220 days every year travelling around this vast region. My customers were some of the warmest and most friendly people I have ever encountered, and, without exception, they took wonderful care of me. Often I was invited into their homes, to meet their family and friends, and I experienced superb hospitality. It really was a very special time which is indelibly etched into my memory. I believe I have enough unique anecdotes from those nine years to fill up a book!
One time I was in Afghanistan, in the home of one of our distributors. There were about 20 family members for dinner. The dining area was devoid of furniture but laid out with beautiful Persian carpets, and along the walls of the room were colourful cushions placed as seats for the guests. There was a large tablecloth in the middle of the floor, with naan bread in front of each ‘seat’.
Whilst chatting with a wizened old man with a long grey beard and an Afghan turban on his head, a well-built and very muscular young man came over and asked me “Do you want a fight?”
I was rather taken aback.
“Pardon,” I said.
“I am simply an English man who loves a good laugh and who enjoys the thick camaraderie of deep friendships”
He repeated his question and added: “It’s a tradition here that we fight before dinner”. My reply that our English pre-dinner tradition is to drink gin and tonic met with roars of laughter around the room.
“Well,” he continued, “If you won’t fight me, what about my younger brother then, he’s only 17?”
Again I politely declined. It transpired that the older brother had wrestled for Afghanistan in the then recently-concluded Olympic Games in Seoul and he proudly showed me his Olympic authentication passes later. The younger brother, and supposed easier opponent, happened to be the current Under 18 Kabul Champion.
There were many other similar incidents, all of which showed me the innate sense of humour of these hospitable people. I really appreciated the camaraderie and open-heartedness that featured in every one of these gatherings.
It was during this period, in 1984, that I met two customers who would become my lifelong duty free buddies: Sunil Tuli and Rakhita Jayawardena, who worked for the Indian Tourism Development Corporation and Air Lanka (now SriLankan Airlines) respectively. Fun days indeed with two loveable rascals with enormous charm and such a great sense of humour!
6. After nine years with Rothmans you entered the world of cosmetics – how did that happen?
It was by accident! I had been looking at new challenges, both within the tobacco world as well as in liquor. Then, out of the blue, I was approached by Elizabeth Arden (EA). I burst out laughing and told them that I knew absolutely nothing about cosmetics; not even the difference between a cream and a lotion! I told them they had approached the wrong person.
But they were persistent and so I joined the company as their Worldwide Key Account Manager for DFS. It was probably the best move I ever made. For the next five years I learnt from the world’s best duty free operator. It was an extremely productive period in my career.
In 1996, I was sent to Korea to restructure EA’s subsidiary there. It was a big task I needed to repeat because of the Asian financial crisis the very next year. Following that, I was promoted to Managing Director for Asia Pacific Duty Free & Domestic markets, based back in Singapore. In 2000 YSL Beauté knocked on my door and offered a similar regional leadership role, with the main mission to restructure their company, as I had done for EA. The next four years with this French cosmetic company were fulfilling and extremely interesting, especially working alongside the elegant and fascinating Chantal Roos.
7. How did Jonathan Holland & Associates evolve?
After 23 years in multinationals, my final three roles all involved with restructuring and overhauling business infrastructures, it made sense to build something for myself. I was still young and energetic and still looking for new challenges in my life. That was back in 2004. Naturally there have been many ups and downs over the past 14 years, mostly normal issues faced by most SMEs. But we weathered them all. I’m really happy that Jonathan Holland & Associates is still going strong today. I am very fortunate for the support of the industry and our principals.
Obviously, there have been conflicting emotions whenever it was time to hand brands back to our principals, after building their duty free business to represent a significant and sizeable contribution to their bottom-line. We felt a sense of pride and fulfilment for our achievements and yet sad that we could no longer enjoy the fruits of our labour. But I am realistic that this is the nature of our business model. What matters most is that I have the opportunity to do what I really enjoy: building brands in an industry I know and love best.
Our current project is developing the Korean skincare brand Dr. Jart+ in global travel retail. After 15 months, we have achieved solid sales growth across Asia Pacific, so much so that we are now starting to tackle European markets. Very soon, onward to the Americas for Dr Jart+!
It has been so refreshing for me and my team working with Dr Jart+. Its management is supportive and the brand, and its products, are exceptional. We are all so motivated and confident to build this brand up to, and beyond, the level of what we had achieved for previous brands.
8. What do Dutchy, Guns, Captain Lipstick and Chaps have in common?
For some reason I’ve always been given nicknames. In the Navy I was ‘Dutchy’ for obvious reasons and also ‘Guns’ as I was the Gunnery Officer. ‘Captain Lipstick’ was coined by my rugby mates during an overseas team tour. They all thought it was quite a hoot that I worked for a cosmetics company.
Finally I acquired ‘Chaps’ about 18 years ago at an Alternative Awards Dinner with friends in the duty free industry. They presented me with an OBE medal and, after the rather English phrase ‘C’mon Chaps’, decided this name was suitable for me.
I guess whatever the nickname, I am basically the same person to all my different groups of friends. I am simply an Englishman who loves a good laugh and who enjoys the thick camaraderie of deep friendships.
9. Your outlook on life?
I am essentially an optimistic realist. I believe one should have a dream but that to achieve it, there is no alternative to working hard and to be persistent in spite of adversity. I truly believe in the mindset that nothing is impossible if we are single-mindedly stubborn about our dream and we take responsibility to look at all possible avenues to get there. That’s sometimes easier said than done!
But persistent optimism and being surrounded by optimistic people really is key. Of course in our industry, where we deal with branding and we sell status and materialism, I also believe it is important to keep daily contact with our conscience: To remember loyalty, trust, integrity and kindness.
10. So how do you spend your leisure time now?
My wife, Eleen, and I share a love of travel and a sense of adventure: new challenges, new experiences, and new knowledge. We love to go on unusual breaks.
After many years of playing rugby at school, in the Navy and across Asia, and with many rugby mates who are lifelong friends, I’m now returning to my former love of sailing which is a little less physical. Also I’m enjoying golf, although my handicap, unfortunately, is my handicap!
In the pipeline are a sailing holiday around the Caribbean islands, to explore its naval history, and to drive Route 61 in the USA, to pay homage to Blues & Jazz music and to Elvis. I also have a new interest in vintage and classic car rallies which is starting to take shape. And then I have a pact with an old rugby buddy to climb three volcanoes in East Java & Bali. He’s one of those ‘first-to-the-top’ characters. Let’s see who wins!
But Eleen and I also love chilling out at our bolthole on Penang Island where we go whenever possible to wind down and enjoy a slower pace for a few days.
You know, I’ve been very fortunate in life with the multitude of opportunities that have come my way throughout my career. As well, I have met many wonderful individuals whom I am honoured to call my friends. Of course, hard work has been prevalent throughout but it has all paid off in allowing me to continue doing what I enjoy.
The adventure continues but with it a growing mindset to give back in a more meaningful way. Charity work will certainly figure in the coming future. As a quintessential English leader (Winston Churchill) once said: “We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give”.
*PREVIOUSLY FEATURED TEN EASY PIECES PERSONALITIES INCLUDE: