Manju Malhotra: down-to-earth Londoner at the Harvey Nichols helm

Just days into the job when Covid hit, its chief executive has steered the temple of fashion through a major retail crisis

Enjoying a cup of tea in the sunshine on the Harvey Nichols roof terrace, Manju Malhotra is clearly in her element, the quietly confident boss of one of the UK’s national treasures.

Her first visit to the Knightsbridge department store was many years ago: she treated herself to a John Smedley sweater after finishing her economics degree. Malhotra says she would never have dreamed back then of being one of an elite few women of colour running a major UK retail brand.

The down-to-earth Londoner’s first role in the capital’s temple of high fashion was as an audit manager, in 1998. She now presides over an empire of eight stores in the UK and Ireland, including large outlets in Edinburgh, Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester, as well as a specialist beauty shop in Liverpool and five overseas branches.

Founded as a linen shop in a terrace house on the corner of Knightsbridge and Sloane Street in 1831, Harvey Nichols became the focal point of a lifestyle celebrated, and mocked, by Patsy and Edina on Absolutely Fabulous in the 1990s. It is now as well known for its dining as its fashions, with a suite of restaurants that includes the Oxo Tower by the Thames.

Malhotra’s first retail experiences were a long way from the marbled floors of Knightsbridge. Hers is a tale of rag trade to riches: she grew up helping out at her parents’ fashion store just off Brick Lane in London’s East End. “It was the entry level of the market, before fast fashion,” she says.

* * *


Age 49

Family Married for 25 years, two children.

Education University of Warwick, Economics BSc.

Pay Undisclosed (the company is privately owned).

Last holiday Dubai.

Best advice she has been given? Think and behave like an owner.

Biggest career mistake She has done one brief stint working in New York, but wishes she had spent more time living and working abroad.

Words she overuses A lot of analogies.

How she relaxes Spending time with friends and family, and having lunch or drinks in Harvey Nichols.

* * *

Her dad was the buyer and her mum worked the shop floor. “I always remember the trends and how retail and fashion reflected popular culture,” Malhotra says. “When Frankie Goes to Hollywood were big, ‘Frankie Says Relax’ T-shirts were everywhere. You couldn’t keep them in stock.”

Harvey Nichols with ‘bring on 2021’ window display
Harvey Nichols was closed for months in 2020. Photograph: James Veysey/Rex

While studying finance, she took summer jobs in Russell & Bromley and Marks & Spencer, and was fascinated by the “dynamic” nature of consumer culture.

The past few years have seen that dynamism writ large. Covid-19 sparked a tectonic shift in shopping behaviour as physical stores closed and customers turned to home deliveries and online browsing.

Malhotra had stepped up to the top job just 10 days before the pandemic hit. But she says her inexperience was not an issue: “At the time it didn’t actually matter: no one in a similar role – or any organisation – had been in that situation before. And I had knowledge of the business. Had I been CEO of a business I’d never worked at before, it might have been more challenging.”

In almost a quarter of century at the company, she has held a variety of roles. She says she never felt sidelined as a woman of colour, and focused on gaining experience by putting “both hands up” whenever a new projects was being discussed.

Another plus was the fact that the store’s owners, the Hong Kong-based luxury company Dickson Concepts, had dealt with pandemics before, having traded through the Sars and Mers outbreaks.

“They were more realistic about the timeframe and how long this might last,” says Malhotra. “People in the UK were talking about it lasting weeks or a few months but they understood that it could be a couple of years.”

Guided by that, Harvey Nichols planned for long-term change, working out how to offer online experiences, from beauty masterclasses to Friday night DJ sets.

The company took the decision to close its stores before the government mandate and sent stock to its warehouses so that it could fulfil online orders at the peak of the spring/summer shopping season.

It was a complete reinvention for the venerable store, which had previously been focused on finding creative ways to bring crowds back to the high street. There had been live experiences, from beauty treatments such as cryotherapy and electro-sonic facials to private shopping advisers and high-end dining and drinking.

Online sales took off during lockdowns, but Harvey Nichols still suffered. Sales slid by 45% to £121.3m in the year to 27 March 2021, according to accounts filed at Companies House. The group cut capital investment by 52%, focusing its spending on developing its website, but pretax losses still more than doubled – to £39.6m from £16.3m a year before.

The owners pumped in £24.5m in March 2021, taking the group’s total borrowings to £41.2m. It has since refinanced with a £35m five-year bank loan and a £26m shareholder loan.

Malhotra says that with restrictions gone, shoppers have surged back to stores, buying outfits for weddings and other occasions as the social whirl restarts. She is now focused on developing more dining and drinking, and online services including corporate gifting and entertainment.

“What has kept me here is that the business is always evolving, and there are always investment opportunities,” she says.

While there has been much talk of the death of the department store, given the collapse of Debenhams and Beales, the sale of House of Fraser and the travails of John Lewis, Malhotra believes Harvey Nichols still has a place.

“We have a curated offer. We do the legwork for our customers,” she says. “And people look to us for that authority.”

She is finding a way back to profitability with the help of a board dominated by women, which is still extremely rare in retail, despite about 80% of shopworkers and a similar proportion of shoppers being female.

“We are very in tune with the customers,” says Malhotra. “We have to be obsessive about what customers are thinking, and so it is great to have that on the board.”

She says Harvey Nichols’s owners have made it easy for a diverse group to make it to the top. “We celebrate individuality. And always have done.”

Patsy and Edina would probably approve.


Sarah Butler

The GuardianTramp

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