Home is where the HR is: People strategy at Cath Kidston

Keeping a homely feel to operations in a growing, global brand has been a major focus for HR at the retailer

Legend has it that iconic brand Cath Kidston started in a sort of accidental way, when the eponymous Kidston received 1,500 metres of fabric she’d ordered already made up as single duvet cover and pillowcase sets rather than on roll. This meant she had to cut them up to make into smaller items such as cushions, aprons, wash bags and coathangers.

The rest, as they say, is history. Cut to 2018 and the retailer has grown from one shop in Notting Hill to an international brand with a presence in 16 countries and 90-plus stores UK-wide. Today the retailer sells a range of items with that instantly recognisable, slightly nostalgic signature style.

“I can tell you within moments if something is a Cath Kidston print or a knock-off – you can just tell,” says former people director Alex Snelling (since being interviewed for this piece he’s taken the role of senior director, talent for international high growth and lead markets at McDonald’s), as he shows me around the brand’s 200-employee-strong headquarters in West London, floral fabrics spilling beautifully from the design department.

So it’s crucial, explains Snelling, that the business never loses this – nor its fun, approachable and homely culture – a not inconsiderable challenge considering the brand’s meteoric growth, and its ambitions to expand even further geographically.

Snelling arrived at Cath Kidston in October 2014, finding “HR in basically a good way”. He came from a background of much bigger brands: working as recruitment and talent director then HR director at The Body Shop, and before that in graduate recruitment at L’Oréal. Snelling laughs that he must have been one of the few people requesting (at the time) to move into HR from another function when he asked to make the switch in the early 2000s at L’Oréal.

“After two years in marketing, the level of quantitative analysis versus creative communication was getting too much,” says Snelling. “So I went to the HR team and said: ‘I want to transfer to HR’. They said: ‘nobody ever says that. Go away and think about what you’re saying’. But then the graduate recruitment manager resigned and that was my break.”

Snelling’s time at L’Oréal and The Body Shop gave him a strong grounding in many of the tenants he’s rolled out at Cath Kidston.

“One of the things The Body Shop and L’Oréal did very well was an individualised approach to HR,” says Snelling. “It’s finding the right balance between policy and adapting that to the individual. The Body Shop was also great on the importance of demonstrating your values and doing rather than saying… and of humility and respect for store colleagues; the person working on your shop floor is paying your salary and you’d be well-advised to remember that.”

So in taking HR at Cath Kidston to the next level, Snelling was careful to never lose sight of this sense of humility – nor of the brand’s friendly, local feel. “The challenge is that in the past you’d go round the back of town, turn left at the lights and that’s where you’d find Cath Kidston. It was a destination shop,” says Snelling. “Today we’re in shopping centres, on train platforms and on airport concourses. So it’s getting people’s heads around being a bigger brand.

“When we launched our values, induction and customer service materials there was a bit of a fear we were becoming too commercial and wouldn’t be friendly and welcoming anymore,” he adds.

Such fears were quickly allayed. Snelling points to work around values rolled out around two years ago. Rather than simply republish the business’ pre-existing values in the form of shiny new booklets and posters, the HR team wanted to bring them to life.

“Now everyone’s induction pathway involves being challenged to find people who can tell them stories about the values, which they’ll tell to other starters. That makes it very real; I’m not interested in abstract discussions and PowerPoint slides.”

The trick is striking a balance between formalising HR activities while leaving flex for individual sites. This is particularly important for overseas locations. Of Cath Kidston’s 16 territories, all but Japan operate on a franchise basis. (Japan was purchased back from this arrangement in 2015.)

“I think everything should be cultured and the local general manager has the final say on their business,” says Snelling. “But you can save a lot of time and get people 70% to 80% there by developing materials. It’s more a question of influence and alignment. It’s just making sure the topics in Japan are aligned with what the UK’s doing.”

A key customer training challenge in retaining a homely vibe, while operating as a large global retailer, lies around obtaining customer data. “Certainly here in the UK we haven’t crossed the bridge to the point where you expect to give your email address or phone number when you make a purchase in store,” says Snelling. “Getting staff to understand and work well with that is a very specific challenge.”

So too is getting employees to appreciate the growing importance of online in the commerce mix. “Store colleagues used to view the website as a competitor store down the road stealing trade,” reveals Snelling. “So we’ve put in a lot of effort, particularly at conferences, explaining more about the customer journey and underlining the store’s role; explaining that a multi-channel customer spends much more.”

Another activity Snelling launched early on to ensure HR at Cath Kidston befits a now £129.2 million turnover – and growing – brand was reviewing its benefits offering.

“One of the first insights and actions [when I arrived] related to offering more to the employee,” says Snelling, explaining that he partnered with Aon to extend healthcare from just board members to the whole organisation for the same cost. “Aon has partnered with us on a range of benefits,” adds Snelling. “It’s a very on-brand, on-values thing to do. It’s about brightening up your day and taking care of people.”

The HR profession in general could be making much better use of data, however, feels Snelling. “I’m struck by the gap still around what companies manage to do from a CRM perspective, and what they do with employee data and benefits,” he says, stating that while personalised marketing to customers is “pretty much bang-on these days… in HR we’re still putting up an intranet site with: here’s a range of benefits, which would you like?

“That’s particularly relevant to my HR colleagues dealing with thousands of people [at their organisations],” he adds.

He admits that analytics still has a way to go in general at Cath Kidston. Good progress has been made though, he says, explaining that when he arrived finance had control of the payroll and HR information systems. “So the HR team didn’t have access to those HR information databases; we had two databases, which meant the data was never correct on either.” One database has now been shut down and HR given direct access. “It might not sound like the biggest thing to shout about but it’s a big step forward,” comments Snelling. “But we still don’t really have that analytics capability.”

While this side of things is still a work in progress, one area the HR team has taken significant strides in is employee voice, feels Snelling. The brand “leap frogged” the traditional annual engagement survey, rolling out a pulse survey a year ago.

Learning how to best manage this continuous feedback channel has been a steep learning curve. “We basically suddenly turned on the ability to listen to 300 of the team [head office staff plus store managers],” muses Snelling. “It gave us some really crunchy insights but also some really crunchy challenges.”

He adds: “The morning after, you start to see things coming through. I don’t think everybody was ready for that; I don’t think I was necessarily ready for that. The diversity of comments you get back is one of the most surprising things. It’s everything from ‘the melon was too hard at lunch’, to some people disagreeing with the entire founding principles of our award scheme.”

The HR team quickly had to learn what to prioritise and what to categorise as ‘that’s just an idea we’ll leave it’. They also learned the importance of educating colleagues around constructive feedback. “It got a bit of a reputation as a place where people go to moan,” says Snelling. “So we showed staff that their peers and colleagues were making positive comments; not so it was a whitewash but just to rebalance things a bit.

“I think it’s advising people how to frame it. I remember saying at the company update: ‘imagine you had the chance to be in the lift with the CEO for three minutes, what would you say and how would you phrase it for maximum impact?’”

He adds: “It’s an enormous challenge. Many companies think they’ve got employee voice right but few have.”

The next challenges Cath Kidston’s HR team will be focusing on are in line with most other HR functions. For example: the apprenticeship levy and how to make the most of it. “I think Cath Kidston falls into the same category as the majority of companies that haven’t got a clear strategy,” says Snelling. “The system is hugely complex and there are a lot of [providers] in the market who want to help you – some of whose motivations are pure – but it’s difficult to know who to trust.”

He adds: “The company will get there though. We’ve identified assistant managers as being the most relevant target. We’ve identified one of the better suppliers in the market and are working towards it. But it’s not an easy exercise.”

Brexit and the GDPR are also areas of focus. Snelling says HR functions must be wary of slipping back into a more reactive, transactional mindset in response to such challenges.

“GDPR in particular is going to force us to be more conservative,” he says. “That extra layer of complexity could drive some risk aversion. But just getting it right and following the rules isn’t enough and there were enough years where people expected HR to just keep them out of trouble. I think that’s gone but the threat is a nasty hangover that could come back.”

But Snelling is confident that no such slippage will occur at Cath Kidston. There are so many examples of HR supporting commercial success at the organisation (a highly rigorous approach to recruiting, and growing, designers with the right “Cath Kidston handwriting” for example). And just as numerous are examples of where the brand’s founding ethos has been retained.

Snelling cites HQ staff’s reaction to last June’s fire at Grenfell Tower – situated just a few minutes’ walk from the office.

“We took the very difficult decision to stay open on the actual day because we weren’t in any danger,” reports Snelling. “But people just felt so affected; a lot of us got involved on the day to help out. We’ve since made donations and supported the local community. We had a summer fete to fundraise.

“We got tremendous feedback that this instance was us showing our values in action,” adds Snelling. “When you see the company pulling together like that you realise Cath Kidston really is slightly different.”