Great strides at Levi’s

first_imgRelated posts:No related photos. Previous Article Next Article When Bruce Robertson joined Levi’s as the UK’s HR director, he found acompany culture at variance with the sociable image of the brand. Paul Tyrrellreports on how he began to transform its people practicesLevi Strauss & Co, the jeans-maker, whose advertising included a famouslaunderette striptease by Nick Kamen, celebrates its 150th birthday this year. It is one of the best-known brands in the world, and an innovative employer– the first multinational company to develop a code of conduct to ensure fairtreatment of all its staff, and one of the first to offer flexible workinghours. However, the company no longer looks invincible. Worldwide sales fell from apeak of £4.25bn in 1997 to £2.45bn last year, largely due to a massive rise incompetition in the jeanswear market, and a fall in the amount spent by youngpeople on fashion. Since early 2002, Levi’s has axed around a quarter of itsstaff, taking its total number from about 16,600 to around 12,400. Last year’s redundancies included 650 in Scotland, where two factories wereclosed as part of a manufacturing shift to Hungary and other low-wagelocations. The closures were announced in January, and it was shortlyafterwards that a new UK HR director, Bruce Robertson, was recruited from PretA Manger. “The closures in Scotland were dealt with in Brussels [at Levi’sheadquarters for Europe, the Middle East and Africa],” Robertson says. “Following the resignation of my predecessor,” he addseuphemistically, “the company took the opportunity to bring in more HRexperience to raise the profile and involvement of HR in the UK business.”Robertson is a retail specialist who worked at Pret A Manger from early1999, when the sandwich seller had more than 2,000 staff and 20 new shops wereopening every year. Prior to that he was head of personnel at high-streetclothing chain Jigsaw for 18 months. He also worked at Harrods for eight years,where he climbed his way up to head of human resources after completing themanagement training scheme. Now settled in a bright and orderly London office, overlooking CarnabyStreet and just a stone’s throw from the company’s flagship store on RegentStreet, he is responsible for Levi’s employees in the UK, Ireland andScandinavia – about 450 staff in total. Most perform head-office functions suchas marketing and IT. Only around 184 are actually in retail, as Levi’sfranchises most of its UK stores. Think global, act local “Many US companies would enforce a standard model across theirinternational divisions, but Levi’s has never done that,” Robertson says.”Part of the strategy contained in the ‘LS&Co way’, the values andvision of the company, is to operate globally, but act locally.” He adds that freedom to make meaningful changes was one of the key thingsthat persuaded him to join the company. “We have a central ‘reward and recognition’ team that standardisesthings across the markets, but it’s up to the local HR function to work out,for example, how to tailor compensation packages to their market. “Even in the product portfolio you will see a very different range inEurope than in the US or Japan. Locally, we also decided to use theimplementation of the ‘LS&Co way’ as a tool to trigger a change in the UK’sinternal working culture,” he says. The need to respond to local trends is particularly vital in the UK, whichis seen by Levi’s and many other fashion retailers as the most competitive andcontinually evolving market in the world. So making Levi’s UK sales team”more proactive and less reactive” was highest on Robertson’s list ofpriorities. He quickly increased the number of key account managers from four to six,relieving the administrative burden. He also created a new UK role of salesdirector, a move that has since been copied in other Levi’s territories. “We had two UK sales managers and needed to amalgamate them into a UKsales director’s role, someone who could deal with House of Fraser, forexample, at a more senior level,” he explains. “Bringing in a sales director gave the new managing director for the UK& Ireland – Mat Mycock, recruited from Diageo – a chance to step back anddelegate some of his ambassadorial role.” Talking the talk It was during this restructuring that Robertson became aware of acommunications problem – not just between the offices in London, Northamptonand Dublin, but even between workmates in the same offices. “There were cases of people e-mailing each other across the office oreven the room,” he says. “There was often a lack of human interactionand a certain lack of trust.” Robertson learned a lot by simply talking to the IT department about the waypeople used their computers. “I was surprised by the number of people who asked for receipts fortheir e-mails,” he says, referring to a feature of e-mail software such asMicrosoft Outlook that enables users to be notified when their messages areactually read, rather than merely received. Clearly a ‘pow-wow’ was required and, in partnership with local managers,Robertson decided to increase the number of divisional get-togethers from oneto four every year. At the first of these new-style meetings, the entire team was shuffled intoseven groups and asked to come up with high-impact, low-cost initiatives toimprove the Levi’s working environment. The feedback was consistent: staffwanted better interaction, fewer e-mails and more phone calls, and ‘photoboards’ on which to display the new recruits, first on office walls and thenonline. “Now we have an informal rule,” Robertson says. “If youhaven’t spoken to someone in the UK, then you must pick up the phone and talkto them before you e-mail them.” Uniting behind the brand Small measures like this have proved very successful, Robertson says. But ontheir own, they would not be enough to get people thinking as a team. Too manypeople in the company could only describe their role in isolation, and not aspart of the business of actually getting jeans into the hands of the customer,he says. They needed to be united behind the brand. His solution was an ongoing programme of ‘reinduction’ for everyone in thecompany. This involves groups of up to eight people learning about thefinancial aspects of Levi’s worldwide and in the UK, as well as its values andvisions. And every employee now spends a day at the flagship store, at headoffice, with an account manager, or at a distribution centre, observing whathappens at the coalface. The aim, Robertson says, is to “reinvigoratepeople about Levi’s”. “There’s a lot of pride at this company, and people still get nostalgicabout the Nick Kamen ad,” he says. “But previously they didn’t haveenough information given to them to reconnect to the brand.” Of course, while Robertson wants to get his staff into a sociable mindset,he does not want them to get too casual, as Levi’s is currently in the middleof what it calls ‘The Great Turnaround’ pack. Shedding staff was part of thepainful march back to growth. So from 7 April 2003, employment contracts werereissued under new terms and conditions that, in Robertson’s words, are”less employee-centric”. “When you’re in a turnaround situation, you need to be flexible,”he says. “One change, for example, concerned our Northampton office, whichused to close down on a Friday at 1pm – a legacy from past years. This sentvery mixed messages to the rest of the company, and more importantly, to ourcustomers.” Overall, it is a series of small, but fundamental measures that have helpedto transform the division’s culture. They were made possible by a seniormanagement that trusts its regional executives to act locally, but also,Robertson explains with relish, because there was no UK managing director atLevi’s when the new contracts were being negotiated. “I had to lead and, in many cases, go beyond neutrality, so it was agreat challenge. It’s one of the best examples to my mind of a company where HRhas been allowed to be truly influential.” Trackbacks/Pingbackscenter_img Flashback: Great Strides at Levi’s – 1 Jul 2020 […] A flashback to the culture change work at Levi Strauss: […] Great strides at Levi’sOn 7 Oct 2003 in Personnel Todaylast_img read more