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River Island HRD's innovative approach

Innovative River Island director Karen Beaven proves that HR doesn't need to have a one-size-fits-all approach

Considering her business was started by the chairman selling knitting wool on an East End bombsite, it’s no surprise to hear River Island HR director Karen Beaven describe the organisation as having an “entrepreneurial spirit”. The fashion retailer is still owned and managed by the Lewis family, something Beaven feels gives a certain level of “energy and commitment”. “It’s a little bit quirky,” she adds. “We haven’t got policies and processes for everything; it enables us to do things quicker.”

This quirkiness and entrepreneurialism suits Beaven down to a – well-fitting and fashion-forward – tee. Her career has encompassed spells as a horse riding instructor, a bassist in a band and an NLP coach for martial arts fighters, as well as various HR roles within the music industry and retail. She joined River Island in April 2012 – “I knew it was ‘my’ job when I heard about it,” she recalls. “I love the brand and would have been in a store once a week anyway”. In the three-and-a-half years she’s been there she has transformed HR to such an extent that a few months ago she walked away with the coveted HR director of the year title at this year’s HR Excellence Awards. River Island also won Best HR team: Private sector, Most effective recruitment strategy, and the overall HR Excellence Gold award.

When Beaven joined River Island HR was transactionally focused, and although its internal reputation was “OK” “there wasn’t that credibility or buy-in to really push things forward”. By changing the HR structure to a business partner model and putting in what Beaven refers to as “core HR”, such as a reward function and a hybrid outsource model for recruitment (which has saved more than £300,000 to date), River Island’s HR is now fit to support the future business agenda. And having the basics in place has enabled Beaven to step outside of HR and take on a very different, and very commercial, challenge.

HR magazine meets Beaven in River Island’s flagship Marble Arch branch, in one of the two Style Studios she masterminded and set up earlier this year. “I wanted to try and take the best elements of visiting a stylist, and merge them with the best bits of the traditional shopping experience,” she says of the concept. “I love fashion and could see a gap in the market.” River Island’s Style Studio is staffed by stylists, giving it the edge on other high street retailers’ personal shopping services.

“I wanted to bring a luxury service to the high street and make it accessible to all our customers,” Beaven adds. “When customers come into this space they feel special and it’s an experience for them; they generally want to come back.” The concept has beaten all its initial sales targets (and only partly because every time a certain HR magazine editor visits she ends up doubling her wardrobe…).

While Beaven’s idea is now adding exceptional value to the business (as well as increasing sales figures it’s garnered praise from the industry; recently being nominated for a Retail Week Customer Experience award), the process of building a business case and getting the idea off the ground was anything but easy. “It started with me talking to my CEO about the idea, and him allowing me to go and look at it some more,” Beaven recalls. “That’s when the hard work started – researching what competitors and the independent market were doing and working with colleagues in areas of the business I hadn’t got into before. I was having conversations on a different level, working with someone in finance to put together a P&L from my original scribbled calculations so I could go to my CEO with a more convincing business case.”

A few months later Lewis gave Beaven the go-ahead, and in August 2014 she spearheaded a soft launch in the Marble Arch store.“That moment when you realise you have put your neck and your professional reputation on the line, and don’t want to let your CEO down, is tough,” she admits. But she needn’t have worried. The test proved a hit with customers and the decision was made to commit to the concept, and create bespoke Style Studio spaces in the flagship store and a Birmingham branch.

As many of River Island’s senior leadership team have worked in the business for a long time, Beaven is not sure they’d seen “the future of HR” before she joined and started pushing things forward. Were people surprised that such a commercial and innovate concept had come out of what may have been considered a transactional and reactive function? In short: “Yes, a lot.” “But we have that entrepreneurial spirit, so once people had got over it being a bit weird they saw it could work,” she continues. “When you’re passionate about things people see it, and that makes all the difference.”

And in her opinion, the question shouldn’t be ‘why HR?’, but rather: ‘Why not HR?’ “When you get to HRD level you have certain professional and commercial skills you can and should use, but we don’t always do that,” she says. “You’ve got to be able to apply it. I’m not an expert in a lot of things I had to learn about, but I knuckled down and learnt it.

“In HR we know more than any other business function about the challenges of future ways of working,” she continues. “We talk about it all the time. This is about getting on and doing it. We can only change [negative] perceptions of HR through actions, not by talking about them. In HR we’ve got great skills, we know how to get the best out of people, how to work with people, so why not expand a little bit? It’s not to say forget core HR, because you can’t. You’ve still got to be brilliant at doing the HR job because if you’re not you won’t get the opportunity to do the other bits.”

And delivering excellent “core HR” means being ingrained in the business, which allows you to spot commercial opportunities. “HR is in a really fortunate position because we get to see every area of the business, unlike other functional leads,” Beaven points out. “We see absolutely everything – and not only do we see it, we understand the challenges in each area as we see the people issues that arise. Through doing that you spot trends or opportunities, and when you see the opportunity, why shouldn’t it be you?”

More widely, the Style Studio fits with River Island’s aim to give customers a different, more exciting shopping experience. “Shopping is a lot more than picking something off a rail now,” says Beaven. “People want an experience to go along with that and they want to be able to access it 24-hours a day, seven days a week.” In the case of the Style Studio the focus is very much on that in-store experience, but Beaven explains the vision is to “give our customers a consistency of experience across all shopping channels”.

However, like most organisations, this means River Island finds itself competing for the best and brightest digital talent to help it deliver that vision. “Retail is changing so the shape of the business is changing,” Beaven says. “We need to step up and adapt to that within HR and be more proactive than we’ve ever been before. Have we got the skills to recruit and retain great people in roles that didn’t exist six months ago? Those areas involve whole new ways of working that can be quite alien to traditional working practices. You can’t apply a one-size-fits-all approach to recruiting or rewarding those people.”

The focus on customer experience goes hand-in-hand with employee experience. “We don’t take ourselves too seriously as a brand. It’s about making shopping and fashion fun for the customer,” Beaven explains. “My challenge as an HR director is to take that and translate it into our HR practices so it feels the same for our employees. Customers walk into a new store and get that ‘wow’ feeling; it’s exciting. I would like our employee experience to be the same, whether it’s picking up the employee handbook or walking into the staff canteen. It’s all got to be about feeling like you’re part of something bigger, because then you maintain that connection with what you’re trying to do for the customers.”

For Beaven the pace of retail has always been a major attraction, and she is passionately committed to helping HR evolve, both within River Island and in business more generally. “You can’t stop trying to push the HR profession forward,” she says. “You can’t relax and think you can stop. That’s not the way business works. You’ve got to keep thinking what’s ahead and start building your business for the future.”

Overall, Beaven believes HR is in the unique position of being able to role model the future of work – if HR professionals seize the opportunity to think a little differently. “Change is going to come from within the profession,” she points out. “And that’s about having people with the drive, ambition and guts to step outside the norm and embrace things like agile working and moving away from traditional working practices. I would like to see HR being a bit braver, with people broadening their remit. It doesn’t matter what your job description is. We’ve got some brilliant core skills we can apply and we can stretch ourselves further.”