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.
Meet Maui Jim Senior Duty Free Sales Director Giles Marks, the shy Canadian who has spearheaded the sunglass brand’s development in global travel retail.
1. Where were you born and raised?
I was born and raised in Toronto to British parents. Courtesy of John Marks, my Etonian father, I was fortunate to attend Upper Canada College boarding school where I excelled in sport but not so much in the classroom.
My parents returned to the UK with me in tow at the ripe age of 15 and I went on to complete my O and A levels at the International School of London. That was quite a change from my Canadian roots; a new life in London and in a Camden Town school made up of 40 international students. The teachers were from all around the world as well.
I loved Speakers’ Corner in London’s Hyde Park on a Sunday morning and Piccadilly Circus on a Saturday night. I also loved that they never asked for ID in the pubs.
London opened the door to exercising and working out. I joined a gym for the first time there and enjoyed training and weight lifting (I still do). I made the most of London life and culture and came close to remaining in the UK, but Canada beckoned.2. As a teenager οr young man did you have a plan for your future?
I don’t recall having a plan for anything really. I was a pretty quiet kid but did get very involved in rugby. I played in the UK at the International School and with the Roslyn Park Football Club, a rugby union club based in South London.
I was a winger, fortunate to have quick hands and feet; no way would I get close to a scrum. It’s a great game, on and off the field. I always enjoyed the pub ‘meeting’ afterwards. I reckon we were the best club in the Southeast; we made the finals of a local competition in 1975, but lost to the Metropolitan Police Cadets.
In 1976 I had a summer job at Harrods of all places. I worked in the golf section and was making £29 (US$37) per week. Ugh!
I continued playing rugby when I returned to Canada to go to university. I was in a basic first year Arts programme but quickly realised I wasn’t an academic. I didn’t have the desire or ‘smarts’ to pursue a dedicated profession; the working world, with all its potential opportunities, beckoned me.
I was 22 and very keen to support myself in a role where I could determine my career and eventual success.
I replied to several jobs and eventually started in sales with Essilor optics.
Did I have optics in mind? No, I just wanted the opportunity to work and be paid accordingly for my success, or failures. I never planned to get into that sector. It just happened; like I didn’t plan to be in sales.
3. And that opened the door to travel retail?
No, not right away, but it did open the door to a career in sales.
I was a foot soldier, traversing the province of Ontario selling optical frames. My first job led to others and I found myself working on commission for about ten years; some good years, and some very challenging, lean years. As they say, adversity makes you stronger.
“Like so many occupations, the early years were difficult and not without some regret; but, looking back, they were, ultimately, valuable building blocks for my future.”
And selling became a part of me. Not by nature; you quickly learn to master this skill or you don’t survive; it’s that simple.
Like so many occupations, the early years were difficult and not without some regret; but, looking back, they were, ultimately, valuable building blocks for my future.
After several years, I evolved into my first sales management role in 1990 with a German optical company. The market, however, was dominated by a few very strong companies, and eventually the Canadian operation was closed.
At the age of 40 I was out of work. And it was pretty grim until an Australian head-hunter, who was living in Toronto, contacted me regarding Maui Jim and their plans to expand into Canada. That was in 1998.
Did I know the brand? Absolutely not. They were looking for an Account Representative for Eastern Canada. I found myself back ‘on the road’ again, introducing Maui Jim across half the country. Four years later, I was appointed Canadian Sales Manager and began hiring reps coast to coast. They were truly exciting and successful years. To this day, I’m proud to say Canada remains Maui Jim’s top international subsidiary from our global total of 16.
By 2006 Maui Jim decided to move into the duty free business and I was looking for a new challenge.
4. What were your first impressions of the industry?
Initially, I was very scared. I was a novice in an industry I knew very little about. I quickly realised I was not in the sunglasses business; I was in the ‘branding’ business and I had to learn to survive and succeed.
It was very, very different to the domestic market. Suddenly, I was thrust into the world of margins, promotions, establishing retail space for my brand and competing with both large corporations and immense retail categories. There was the challenge of building and establishing a brand that few had heard of.
I did wonder what I had done but there was no turning back.
I had great support internally to secure the slow and organic growth of Maui Jim in the travel retail marketplace. I was fast-tracked into the industry and attended my first travel retail exhibition in Singapore 2006. With our traditional Hawaiian shorts, shirts and flip flops Maui Jim made quite a first impression… a far cry from the corporate world of traditional duty free attire. Oh yes, we did create a stir.
“I still believe to this day, if you incorporate fun into your job, success will follow.”
That turned a few heads and I think some people were slightly appalled by our approach, but others quickly embraced our culture and our sunglasses. We had, after all, ‘Aloha’. [According to Wikipedia, the Hawaiian word for love, affection, peace, compassion and mercy, is commonly used as a simple greeting but has a deeper cultural and spiritual significance to native Hawaiians.]
And we incorporated Hawaiian Hula dancers at many global trade shows around the world. It’s a wonderful extension of our culture while providing colourful theatre.
Thankfully I have always had tremendous support from my Maui Jim colleagues who have turned into mentors… Harry Rhodes, Mike Dalton and Rhonda Bessert, to name a few. My initial duty free hire, Martine Larroque, guided me through the early years of travel retail. We had success and tremendous fun.
I still believe to this day, if you incorporate fun into your job, success will follow.
5. How do you describe Maui Jim’s approach to travel retail?
The Aloha spirit transcends all – the markets and the cultures we work in – and Maui Jim embraces it. Maui Jim is very much the proverbial small fish in a big pond. Privately owned, and the only monobrand company in the sunglasses category, we have only one brand to promote and are still very much the new kid in travel retail.
6. What are the challenges facing the sunglasses category and what is Maui Jim doing to meet them?
Since our entry into travel retail in 2006, Maui Jim has been, and continues to be, a David competing against Goliaths.
The challenges and hurdles to become established as a leader in the premium polarised sunglasses category are significant, and competing against the multi-branded optical giants for space and recognition is no easy task.
Monobrands, from all categories, are faced with limited resources to brand themselves in one of the most competitive retail environments, airports, cruise ships, border shops, and inflight. Are we granted the same rights and concessions as the giants? For the most part, simply put, we are not.
And I believe that is bad business and poor, short-sighted decision making.
Brand loyalty is critical to succeed, for all brands and monobrands must fight smarter and stronger than multi-branded products. We must establish a niche, and support that niche with distinctive culture, professional people, exceptional service, and above all, success for our partners, the retailers.
As Maui Jim enters the next decade in travel retail, the success we have earned over the last ten years has been built around sound fundamentals. Those are to create brand visibility, provide exceptional service to our retailers, train and motivate sales associates, and bring uniqueness and energy to the sunglass category.
Most importantly, we fully understand and appreciate that the consumer who purchases our products are the number one resource we have. They have the power to drive our brand to a higher level of success and recognition.
I believe Canadian author Malcolm Gladwell sums things up pretty well: ‘Giants are not what they think they are. The same qualities that appear to give them strength are often the sources of great weaknesses’.
7. And your own style of working?
My style of working probably hasn’t changed too much over the years although quite recently my base has.
In 2016 I married Valerie Mills, Senior Director Travel Retail Americas for Luxottica, who works from Miami. This created some interesting situations working in the sunglass category and certainly no shortage of experience.
I have the privilege to direct my wonderful, small but mighty global team from my home base, either in the Toronto area, or Miami during the winter months. They truly allow me to simply be the rudder; they are the engines to our success in travel retail.
I manage in the same manner I enjoy being managed. I try to provide leadership and direction while promoting autonomy and decision making and feel very fortunate to have such a successful team.
I don’t micromanage because I simply can’t. If you hire well, this will allow you to empower your colleagues to run the business in their region accordingly. This typically leads to great success – and I believe we have achieved success, but there is so much more to do.
Over the years I’ve learnt to adopt the ‘KISS’ principle. That’s an acronym for ‘keep it simple, stupid’, a design principle noted by the US Navy in 1960. KISS states that most systems work best if they are kept simple rather than made complicated; therefore, simplicity should be a key goal in design and management and that unnecessary complexity should be avoided.
That just about sums up my approach.
8. How important is giving back?
In one word, it’s invaluable, both from the company perspective and, hopefully, at a personal level.
Maui Jim gives back to the community, particularly on our home island of Maui, through time and donations to charitable organisations dedicated to helping people in need and preserving Hawaiian culture.
The brand is passionate about giving back but Walter Hester, the owner, is quite humble when it comes to his, and the company’s, charitable giving. It’s rarely spoken about; it just happens.
Maui Jim sunglasses are a regular feature at fund-raising events in Lahaina and donations to local non-profit organisations are ongoing. We are a company that got its start on the beaches of Maui; it may be one of the most beautiful places on earth but that doesn’t mean there aren’t many people who need help and support.
Maui Jim gives back to a community which has taken such good care of the company for years. Walter leads by example and his employees gladly follow suit. The philosophy is to live the Aloha spirit; and Maui Jim walks the talk. The Hale Makua Health Services, Imua Family Services and Women Helping Women are just three of many charities which the brand has and continues to support.
9. People you would like to share a special dinner with. Who and why?
That’s a difficult question to answer. I’ve had the privilege to work, and dine with, some wonderful people and mentors in my life. Many are no longer alive.
Beyond that, and this may seem weak, I would love to sit down with my lovely mother, Cassandra, who passed away in 2004.
10. Wind-down time. How do you relax?
I’m a straightforward type of guy. As a very proud Canadian and Torontonian, I have been a passionate Toronto Maple Leafs hockey fan all my life. And I’m optimistic that the 52-year championship drought is almost over.
My involvement in sport dates from way back, be it teaching tennis, (only doubles these days) or playing competitive squash, and continues to be a very big part of my daily routine. Away from work you’ll find me either on the courts or at the gym in an exhausting cycle/spin class.I enjoy most music and I’m not a big social media fan. It has little personal interest to me but I fully understand and support the power of this resource in the business arena.
And I enjoy fine dining; good food and wine. My favourite cuisine would have to be Italian which I have enjoyed from childhood. Having said that, given the choice of eating in a wonderful restaurant, or eating at home with my wife, the answer is easy. Home every time; Valerie is a wonderful cook and a great partner.
By nature, I’m incredibly shy. OK, put me on a stage to talk about Maui Jim and I will go forever. This brand truly makes me passionate, even 20 years on. Away from business I’m quite the opposite; I’m very comfortable in my own company or in a small group of close friends.
That’s me. Aloha and Mahalo.
*PREVIOUSLY FEATURED TEN EASY PIECES PERSONALITIES INCLUDE: