Most days you’ll find Laurent Claquin cutting a commanding figure in a trim dark suit, crisp white shirt, and leather loafers as he heads up American operations for the French luxury conglomerate PPR . But his role to further grow the company’s brands such as Gucci, Bottega Veneta, and Balenciaga, among others, is informed by a lesson learned wearing an apron and wielding a fish-gutting knife when was just 14.
In a factory on the French coast, Claquin toiled alongside a diverse group of workers who cut up fish and put them in boxes to be shipped all over Europe. “At the beginning you want to do everything by yourself,” Claquin told Fast Company. “But you can never achieve anything without the others.” The time spent sifting through entrails also taught him the importance of learning each person’s strengths, so a team could work in harmony, “like an orchestra,” he says.
After his two-month tour of duty with the fishes, Claquin went on to earn several degrees and embark on a wide-ranging career that took him from consulting at Coopers & Lybrand to communications for the contemporary art museum Galerie Nationale du Jeu de Paume and the Pompidou Center, to senior vice president of corporate social responsibility for PPR. But Claquin credits his time as chief of staff for Francois-Henri Pinault, PPR’s chairman and chief executive, as paving the way for his current position. “Everything in life is a question of timing,” he adds, “and the time was right for me and for the company.”
PPR, it turns out, had a bit of an identity crisis. Once best known for timber, it had grown a portfolio of brands including a furniture company and a distributor of consumer goods and health care products. Pinault decided to refocus on luxury and lifestyle brands and sold off its unrelated assets. It turned out to be a smart move.
Though the economy continued to shudder, especially in the wake of the debt crisis in Europe, PPR stayed strong with covetable luxury goods from the likes of Yves Saint Laurent and Gucci. In 2011, PPR's consolidated revenue  from continuing operations amounted to €12.2 billion ($16 billion) with nearly 20% coming from North America. Even a luxury company can’t afford to miss opportunities to build market share, so last year, PPR acquired the indie surf and skate label Volcom as its first American brand. The next logical step was to establish a new American presence.
Act Like a Startup
Though he spent over a decade working closely with Pinault in Paris, Claquin admits, “I like the blank page and starting from scratch.” Tasked with everything from finding an office for the new headquarters in New York City to building an executive team, Claquin notes this is just one way PPR keeps the agility of a startup within a multi-billion-dollar company. “We leverage the power of the group, but there is freedom within the framework,” he explains.
He cites that concept often to underscore PPR’s philosophy on managing a portfolio of 16 brands and some 47,000 employees. Put simply, it means sharing the big things such as legal expertise, back office systems, and best practices for hiring, but leaving the brands free to develop their distinctive cultures and designs. “Our strategy [for North and South America] is to focus on organic growth in new markets and new channels; to push the brands to look beyond for globalization,” Claquin says.
Pound the Pavement
To do this, Claquin goes shopping. He’ll hit the road once a month and spend a day at each brand’s store (in different locations each time), shadowing sales associates and observing customers who range from diehard skate and snowboard enthusiasts debating the finer points of a pair of cargos to chic fashionistas clamoring to snap up Stella McCartney’s cruelty-free, glittery pumps. Armed with this knowledge, Claquin believes he can better guide the efforts of each brand’s executive team.
“You have to have your feet on the ground,” he says. “The key for a leader is to keep the strategic vision and be very operational and pragmatic. Even if I don’t make any decisions, I can help [by offering] the right tools and strategic vision.”
Clean Out the Inbox
Though he meets with the CEOs of each brand four times a year, Claquin stays in constant contact via email and teleconference. With many scattered across the globe, Claquin often wakes up to over 60 emails each morning. Still, he tries to clean out the entire box daily but points out that while he does read notes on the weekend, he defers answering until he gets back to work. “Usually everything can wait until Monday.”
While traveling, he “never connects to Wi-Fi” on the plane, preferring to use the time to read the paper or think about strategy. “It’s the only time you are really alone and able to take a step back,” he says.
Don’t Reinvent the Wheel
With over 50 years of expertise working in its favor, it might have been a given that PPR would pull its resources together to create its own e-commerce platform. Instead, PPR is working with Milan-based YOOX , a leader in luxury e-commerce for the past decade, to support its step into virtual sales. “It is high priority because a lot of people go online to prepare for the their purchase,” he says. But it’s not without challenges. Recreating the luxury shopping experience online without compromising efficiency of a few clicks is top of mind for Claquin.
Rather than pushing a ton of video and runway pictures, Claquin says YOOX is helping streamline the sites to provide customers with targeted information to make the sale. “We think there is still a lot to invent in terms of service,” he says, explaining PPR’s quest to provide the right service for tailoring apparel after someone buys it. Ultimately the goal, he says, is “When you go to Balenciaga, you will have the right tools to buy the dress in three clicks and get it in 24 hours.”
At a time when every corporate giant is clued into the fact that innovative ideas can come from customer service as easily as they do from six-figure salaried strategists, Claquin says PPR’s done that all along. “Creativity is so important because it drives the fashion business. If you ask someone what they want to wear next season, they don’t know. We highly depend on nurturing our businesses with new talent,” he says.
Claquin notes that projects such as the collaboration between social media site TheFancy (which PPR invested in) to run a student competition  at Parsons were two-fold. One, the winning student would take an internship at one of PPR’s brands and maybe turn out to be the next big design talent. The other is to continue to build on what TheFancy does best: social sharing of striking images that seed the imagination of the crowd.
Claquin says creativity is inherent at every level and every stage at PPR from cutting-edge fabric designs by Nicholas Ghiesquere to Bottega Veneta pushing the limits of artisan crafted leather goods, to Puma’s effort to manufacture sustainable shoes with no plastic or PVC. “We have a mindset to empower and use creativity to lead to innovation.”
And now if you’ll excuse him, he’s got to prepare for Paris Fashion Week.
An earlier version of this article stated that PPR owned TheFancy. It is only an investor.