SuperGroup's first HR director shares retail wisdom

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As Supergroup's first-ever HR director, Andrea Cartwright has had to achieve a delicate balance between free-spirited innovation and process.

Walking around the Cheltenham Spa HQ of retailer SuperGroup, I appear to be the only person in the entire estate not wearing a piece of Superdry clothing. The logo appears on every employee, emblazoned proudly across the front of hoodies or secreted more subtly on the hem of a dress. Even my photographer tells me she is wearing Superdry underwear. 

Group HR director Andrea Cartwright is no exception, modelling a fetching blue lace number from the brand’s most recent womenswear range. Is this some kind of overzealous uniform policy? Not in the least. “We don’t have to force people to wear the product,” says Cartwright. “Everyone wears it and gets so excited when the new
ranges come in. It’s a brand you can be really proud of.”

And there’s no reason why not. Superdry is a true British retail success story. Founded in 1985 by CEO Julian Dunkerton and his former business partner as Cult Clothing, the first Superdry-branded store opened in 2004. It floated on the London Stock Exchange in 2010 and is now a member of the FTSE 250. The company has about 100 stores in the UK, 30 owned stores in Europe and 177 franchised shops globally, and plans are under way to open more. The Superdry brand is sold in 54 countries and sales continue to grow and grow: in its last quarterly figures the group announced sales had increased by 22% to £141.1 million over the three-month period. 

With about 3,500 employees, you might expect SuperGroup to have hired an HR director some time ago, but Cartwright only joined the business in November 2012. Cartwright says she knew she was “joining an organisation very different from anything I had worked with before”. She adds: “The culture is quite different from [my] previous organisations: hugely entrepreneurial, very creative and more emotionally – less rationally – driven.”  

There's a first time for everything

SuperGroup had never had an HR director before, and its HR team was “very transactionally focused” before she joined, Cartwright recalls. “They got people on the payroll, dealt with them when they were naughty – and there’s a reasonable amount of naughtiness in retail – and took them off at the end. There was no HR infrastructure and no HR systems. It was almost a blank piece of paper for me,” she says.

However, despite having held senior HR roles at Tesco (“I always thought I was a retailer at heart,” she says), Barclays, financial services provider AXA and, most recently, Nationwide, where she was head of HR, organisational effectiveness and resourcing, Cartwright was all too aware that imposing big-business process on this
entrepreneurial company could spell disaster. “There was a perception in this business that HR was all about rules, most of which resulted in a ‘no’, rather than understanding the business and helping it to deliver results,” she says. 

“It’s a very delicate balance between keeping the business entrepreneurial and innovative, with people still taking risks, and getting a sensible level of infrastructure, policy and process. It’s about helping people not to have to deal with quite so much ambiguity on a day-to-day basis, but not putting in so much process that you make the
organisation grind to a halt. You could destroy the culture – and that ‘can-do’ spirit is the essence of Superdry.” 

Start from the bottom

If the business had a negative perception of HR, then Cartwright’s first step would have been a pleasant surprise: she went and worked in a store. “It wasn’t a royal visit; I really mucked in for a few days,” she says. “The first steps were less about what we needed to do from an HR perspective and more about really getting under the skin of the business and understanding what the
company was all about.” 

What did she find? “A lot of passionate people, people who were really keen to progress, but didn’t know how, or who we weren’t really helping.” She also found work wasn’t being organised as well as it could be, and that future leadership capability might not fully support the company’s growth ambitions. “Do our leaders have the right skills and capabilities [for the company to] grow at the pace we want it to?” she asks. 

One of her first projects, aside from putting in basic process, has been building leadership capability and encouraging cross-function collaboration in the head office team. “We’re not hugely siloed, but [during the leadership programme], there was this sudden moment where the 12 of them realised the collective power they could have in the organisation if they worked together,” Cartwright recalls. “That moment was phenomenal.” 

The next step is to cascade leadership development down the organisation. On the morning of our interview, Cartwright was launching a year-long programme for store managers – a first in the company. “We have never really done any development around their leadership capability or technical skills; for example, can they read the reports we send them?” she says. And she adds that the launch almost moved her to tears: “They are so excited. There are people who have worked for us for years and have wanted something like this. They are our next generation.”

But is this “next generation” likely to stay long-term? As a young fashion business, SuperGroup is always going to have levels of attrition, employing a large number of students and part-time staff, and Cartwright is sanguine about this: “We have to accept it. It’s about making the most of the time they are here – for them and for us.” However, she is also keen to demonstrate the career paths available, and has introduced a ‘bronze, silver, gold’ capability framework for sales assistants. “It’s about helping people see that this [job role] can be more than a short-term or interim step,” she explains.

In terms of how this learning is delivered, the Superdry brand is kept front of mind at all times. “We are not a retailer, we are a brand,” says Cartwright. “Making that a reality throughout everything we do is so important.” Beyond staying on brand, pitching everything at the right level is also critical. “Some of our store managers will have left school early and might not have the literacy and numeracy skills,” she explains. “The idea of going back to the classroom would fill them with horror. It needs to be visual and informal.”

A fresh approach

That approach now runs through everything, from the induction guide to the uniform policy, which used to leave a lot to be desired. “We’re a cool place – young with an urban feel – and the old uniform policy included things like ‘clean your teeth and put deodorant on’,” Cartwright laughs. “Now it starts with: ‘We want you to look amazing every day.’ The staff might be young, but they’re not babies and I’m not their mother.”

That said, she does feel a certain amount of “social responsibility” towards her young workforce, which is why the news that only four people have enquired about opting out of auto-enrolment feels like such a victory: “We employ a lot of young people who believe they don’t need to think about pensions, and we worked hard to educate them. [The lack of enquiries about opting out] is an early sign that the people we put into the scheme are going to stay in.” 

Outside Cartwright’s department, her HR philosophy is printed on the wall in huge bright-orange letters. It reads: “Human resources: transforming organisational performance and our people’s working lives for the better.” With such a bold statement, it’s no surprise that Cartwright says the business “sees HR very differently now. A number of senior leaders have said to me they didn’t know what HR did or what the point of it was, but now they see where we can add value”.

The main reason behind that is not only putting in the necessary people infrastructure to make sure everything runs smoothly, but also because Cartwright is passionately opposed to what she calls “HR for HR’s sake”. “HR is about business first. If I interview someone and they can’t talk about how the business they’re in operates and makes money, before we start talking about HR and the people stuff, I’m not impressed,” she says. “I remember someone saying to me once: ‘We need performance management.’ I asked why, and the answer was ‘people this and people that’. In fact, you put performance management in because you want to raise the bar in the business. It’s about getting back to why we do stuff. We don’t do stuff because we’re HR people and HR people put performance management processes in; we do stuff because we have got a business to operate and we want it to be a success.” 

Looking to the future

Helping the business operate means supporting Superdry’s big ambitions to become a truly global brand. It is buying back businesses in Western Europe (Belgium and Spain recently returned to the fold) and has plans to expand into the Far East. “The pace is incredible,” says Cartwright. “We get things done you never imagine being able to pull off in a short timeframe. It’s very agile and that’s made this business a success. Rules and process will take some of that agility away if we’re not careful.” 

Given the frenetic pace of change in the retail sector, the group is planning only three years ahead. “In today’s world, I don’t know if you can go much further than that,” Cartwright says. “The world is changing so fast, and different countries pay for things in different ways. What is e-commerce going to look like in three years? What do the stores of the future look like? What’s that shopping experience going to be? We used to think it was all about home delivery, but now people are ordering online and picking up in store. Retail is constantly changing.” 

But there is one thing she is sure of: that people and, by extension, great HR will always be needed. “People are everything – they design the product, get it here, serve our customers, make sure the website works at 4pm on Christmas day,” she says. “They are integral to everything.” 

And in store? Will we soon be served by robot shop assistants? Cartwright thinks not. “People want to deal with people. It’s about technology and people working together,” she says, before momentarily pausing. “And I think we’re always going to want to go shopping. What are we going to do if we don’t go shopping?”

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