Having a natter with Suk, the girl on the MAC counter, is a world away from negotiating the closure of a bottling plant with Jimmy, the Glaswegian union rep at Scottish & Newcastle Breweries, a situation from Waddells dim and distant past. Or accompanying the firms sales manager to working mens clubs in east Belfast during the height of the Troubles. But with her soft Scottish accent and theres no point whingeing attitude, you get the feeling Waddell would be equally relaxed in either environment. It just so happens that today the location is Selfridges Duke Street HQ with its canary yellow vinyl floors and trendy office furniture.
Waddell, who grew up in the picturesque village of Gatehouse of Fleet in south-west Scotland, owes a lot of her success to a years scholarship at Hillary Clintons college, Wellesley, in Massachusetts, which she won while at Edinburgh University. I wouldnt be here if I hadnt gone to Wellesley, says Waddell. University in Scotland in the mid-1970s was very male-dominated and traditional. You were expected to be a teacher, doctor or lawyer. My time at a womens liberal arts college gave me my first brush with feminism and made me think about stretching myself and trying other careers. I needed also to get away from the cosy world of Scotland.
But Waddell did return to her native country, to a job that
would seriously stretch her: as a graduate trainee in the male-dominated brewery scene, where there was just one other woman, her boss, who was also very young. It was at the heavily unionised Scottish & Newcastle Breweries that she negotiated with Jimmy and got posted to the sales and distribution depot in east Belfast at the peak of the Troubles. I learned how to identify Catholics and Protestants from the schools they had attended and by the way they pronounced the letter h, she recalls. You
couldnt ask them straight out for fear of being seen as prejudiced, but also you could not send a Catholic sales rep into the Shankhill Road or a Protestant into the Falls Road. It was an interesting experience; a day out with a sales manager in an east Belfast working mens club is about as far from the glitzy world of London fashion as you can get.
But the Selfridge Retail group wasnt always so cool. When Waddell arrived in Duke Street in 1995 the setting was more Are You Being Served? than the diverse, contemporary and challenging retailer it claims to be today. I was recruited by the then chief executive Tim Daniels, remembers Waddell. He knew the name of everyone on the floor, plus their aunties and cousins names, too. But he didnt want to take the business multi-site, believing it was a job for a younger man, and resigned a month after I started.
Enter Vittorio Radice, who took a traditional department store and crafted a philosophy that centred on shopping as entertainment and fused art with commerce. He pioneered the in-store promotion: part art exhibition, part goods display, be it saris for the Bollywood campaign or chocolate jewellery for the Body Craze promotion. Every part of our business was transformed, recalls Waddell. Vittorio had a clear idea that Selfridges should be about lifestyle and brands, not just about having a trouser department. HR policy changed overnight. Out went the Captain Peacocks and Mrs Slocombes and in came a younger, hipper breed of sales associates.
Radice also began expanding, assisted by a 90 million
investment from the groups then owner, Sears. He launched two stores in Manchester and one in Birmingham, which opened last autumn. A Glasgow shop is also in development. Recruiting a sales army Birmingham has 500 of its own and 500 concession staff (like MACs Suk) against a launch deadline has been one of Waddells biggest challenges. She has 30 staff and is currently creating a new HR structure. It comprises HR Strategic Development and Operations, which converts business goals into HR policies; Resourcing and Development, which handles issues such as succession planning or talent spotting; Employee Relations and Wellbeing, which offers work-life balance counselling and employs an occupational health nurse to monitor sickness patterns. Finally, admin, from payroll to season tickets, is handled by a team based in Leicester.
To illustrate how she finds 1,000 people who reflect the Selfridges image, Waddell cites the launch of Birmingham a futuristic store encased in 15,000 aluminium disks as an example. The first step was to advertise the jobs on the internet. This is where Waddell is the envy of HR directors who are forced to spend thousands of pounds on ads the majority of candidates approach Selfridges first. Oxford Street receives 20,000 job applications a year, while the Birmingham store had become such a local talking point that Waddell already had 2,000 names on file. The next step was to conduct interviews by telephone. This method is used not only to save time but also to catch candidates with their guard down and get an instant snapshot of their personality.
Personality is what its all about. Waddell isnt looking for retail experience in a sales associate but The Five Ps, a set of criteria created with the help of occupational psychologists. The Ps are passion, presentation, promotion, patch and people. For passion, for example, interviewees arent asked about their enthusiasm for retail but about a particular hobby. For the people criteria, Selfridges wants to know if candidates help people in everyday life, while patch which refers to how much pride they might take in keeping their section of the store neat is gauged by asking questions about tidiness in other areas of their lives. The remaining two criteria presentation and promotion assess whether the candidate would present goods properly and promote them well to customers. Interviewees must pass all five before they are
invited to the next stage of group assessments.
Telephone interviews are not done because they are cheap, insists Waddell. Our recruitment process used to be haphazard; it was done locally in stores and, to be honest, a lot depended on the time and energy HR people had to go through applications. What weve done is added a proper process, which is not only efficient but consistent. The strike rate of successful candidates from telephone interviews who go on to do well in the group assessments is an impressive 70% to 80%, she adds.
For the group assessment stage Selfridges took over a further education college in Birmingham and tested 20 people at a time by giving them tasks, such as how to sell a bottle of mineral water in an innovative way. Were looking for people who love life and are open to new ideas, explains Waddell. Retail skills can be developed.
Selfridges has its own full-time, 16-week training programme for sales associates that leads to a certificate in retailing. It was developed with the backing of the British Retail Consortium offshoot, Skillsmark. Its the retailing equivalent of an NVQ, explains Waddell, but our scheme is much more geared to training in-store.
The firm also holds training sessions before any promotion begins to ensure that staff can communicate the concept to any puzzled shoppers. The Body Craze, for example, was not a simple one to pick up. Its aimed at the arts and media so we ran through the artists involved in it, says Waddell. One such artist was Spencer Tunick, an American who documents the live nude figure. Tunick staged a performance by inviting 600 people to shed their clothes and be photographed in the Oxford Street store. Selfridges put a small ad in Time Out and 800 people turned up, a third of whom were staff. The kind of staff we employ tend to be people happy to take their clothes off at the drop of a hat, she says, unfazed.
But it is not always hire, hire, hire at the retail group. Waddell has also had to instigate redundancies when the store outsourced warehouse and distribution operations to Excel in Birmingham, it cut 140 staff. The role of general merchandising manager in charge of buying and selling was made obsolete when Radice introduced a central buying function. We also have to deal not infrequently with dismissals, she adds. Our merchandise can be tempting for staff.
At the time of writing, Selfridges had just been bought by Canadian billionaire Galen Weston and, despite the stores new chief executive, Peter Williams, stating in a September Sunday Times interview that the staff were on trial, the board remains intact. In November there was a further development when Williams was quoted in the Financial Times as saying that the group would be calling a halt to plans to expand its string of regional stores, started first under Radice and continued by Williams. The focus would be on developing the London store, particularly the food hall, he said. Galen Weston is passionate about Selfridges, stresses Waddell. Its a lot edgier and more urban than hes used to [he owns the upmarket Brown Thomas store in Dublin and a chain called Holt Renfrew in Canada], but he is happy with that.
Waddell also had to get accustomed to having former finance director Williams at the helm. She says he has adopted the same management style as Vittorio very open, friendly and casual and, as if to push the point, buying director David Riddiford barges into the office to joke with Waddell about her impending photo session. You know what the problem is here? she whispers to me conspiratorially. My male colleagues are not used to me getting my photo taken and are jealous; theyre very fond of the camera.
Unofficially the relationship between Waddell and Williams sounds more familial. Williams is the fun extrovert who splurges 15,000 a year on clothes and plays Black Rebel Motorcycle Club too loudly in his office. I feel like his mum because I have to shout: Peter, turn that music down, says Waddell. Hes a bit like Kevin The Teenager.
Waddells route from brewing to fashion retailing wasnt direct: she took a detour via Whitworths, the sugar and dried fruit importers. After 13 years at Scottish & Newcastle, culminating in a job as personnel director of the Blackburn subsidiary Matthew Brown that her employer had bought in a hostile takeover, she itched to run her own show and in 1991 became personnel director at Whitworths. Again she got a taste of parochialism
when trying to modernise work practices at the Whitworths
factory, based in rural Northamptonshire. The employees were different from the brewery workers I was used to, says Waddell. They were not in the least bit interested in overtime so there was an issue of productivity. We even had ladies in hairnets shovelling sugar into bags before we found a machine that could do it instead.
Waddell heard about the Selfridges job at a time when there were rumours about Whitworths being sold. She applied, talked up the retail experience gained during her brewery years and got it. She hasnt lost touch with Northamptonshire though she still has a weekend house there where she and husband Vernon, who works for Quorn, convene for recreational bicycle rides.
When pushed to name a mentor, Waddell chooses Radice, now working his magic at Marks & Spencer. Vittorio stretched you to the limit in terms of creativity, she states. He used to say: Why shouldnt HR be creative? Make sure everything you do is creative.
Radice charged Waddell with recruiting every single member of his senior team, aside from Williams who was already there as finance director. Ive worked hard to get a mixture of process-driven and creative people, she says. David Riddiford is very process-driven while James [Bidwell, marketing director] is very creative; if you dont get the balance right it can be chaotic.
It was, at times, tricky to decipher Radices recruitment desires. Id ask him for a job spec and hed say: Find me someone who knows a good cup of coffee from a bad one. Radice chuckles at the memory. Most people wont say anything if they are brought a bad cup of coffee, but I wanted someone who would not only notice but have the confidence to air the opinion that it was bad, he explains.
Asked about Waddells strengths, Radice doesnt hesitate. To be able to take 500,000 people with one company profile and within six years give them another company profile. That was her greatest strength because those people contribute to the success of Selfridges every last one of them.
Waddell, meanwhile, is off to pick up Vernons tailor-made suit from menswear and a nice bottle of red from the wonderful wine department. She can always start saving next month, if the new Helmut Lang stock hasnt come in, of course.