NEW YORK, United States — H&M has grown from a single store in Sweden into one of the world’s largest fashion retailers with a store network of over 3,600 locations. The retailer was a pioneer in establishing the “democratic fashion” business model, as well as the concept of teaming up with high fashion companies to produce special capsule collections at affordable price points. To date, H&M has partnered with Karl Lagerfeld, Comme des Garçons, Balmain, Maison Margiela, Marni and Versace — among others. Last year the retailer helped parent company H&M Group drive more than $25 billion in revenue.
The brand is also one of the fashion industry’s biggest employers with a team of 120,000 people in 61 markets. H&M sees people power as critical to its success, and is increasingly focused on attracting and nurturing talent through a company culture that stresses empowerment and opportunity. H&M sees itself as a “Place of Possible” where achievement is limited only by ambition and employees can move all the way from the sales floor to the executive boardroom — a trajectory already achieved by H&M’s North American President, Daniel Kulle. BoF sat down with Kulle to learn more.
BoF: How would you describe the DNA of H&M?
Our belief in people is the foundation of everything we do at H&M. We don’t have a set of manuals. Instead, we have a set of values that lay out the way we do business and empower our employees to set their own path to achieve success.
We care about our staff and our people. Even though we’re a cost conscious company, we make sure that the benefit and salary packages we provide are competitive. When you look at the number of promotions our company makes every year — around 1,300 in 2015 alone — you can see this strong feeling of ownership, entrepreneurship and teamwork. You can see that everything is possible.
BoF: How is that expressed to your employees?
When you work for H&M, you’re working for a democracy. It’s all about working together, as a team or a store, rather than simply what someone’s job title is.
The other day, when we were approving new store locations, someone came up with a great idea for the layout of one of the spaces. They weren’t the top manager in the meeting, but because they’d been to that particular location, they had an idea about how customer flow could work better there. That idea ended up being chosen. It’s about building things together and everyone bringing their thoughts to the table. Our decision processes are very straightforward and we always want people to be engaged. Teamwork is implicit in everything we do. It’s part of our DNA.
Teamwork is implicit in everything we do. It’s part of our DNA.
BoF: How are those ideas heard?
We’re a very quick-paced company, so we try to avoid huge numbers of meetings throughout the day because that’s going to slow us down. One way to make ideas heard is to voice them in the moment. We believe in collaborating with our teammates and moving forward with the best idea.
There are short 15 to 20 minute meetings in every store each morning, where teams can talk about opportunities for improvement from the day before and what they can do better today. We also channel a lot of ideas through our ‘Insider’ internal social media app, which allows us to share information, comment and post pictures. Then, of course, there is a more formalised review system. We have annual reviews in the U.S. and across the rest of world where we speak to individuals and ask them, “How are you doing? How can we develop you? What’s your next step?” We initiate that dialogue with people twice a year to talk about their development both individually and within the company.
BoF: What attributes do you look for in candidates?
You have to be open-minded and you have to embrace opportunities. In the 20 years I’ve been working for H&M, I’ve moved seven times and worked in four different countries. There are a lot of possibilities here in the U.S., and many all over the world if you are open to them.
We’re also a company that is constantly working to improve the value for our customers, so being cost conscious is important to us. If you’re going to give customers the best price, it is imperative that you keep internal costs low. That means you need a strong team surrounding you, which, again, makes collaboration very important. Candidates that are capable of finding efficiencies and managing costs as well as people are very attractive to us.
You also have to be very honest. This is an environment where we’re talking to each other, not about each other. Teams have to be straightforward, otherwise we’re never going to make any progress.
Finally, we look for entrepreneurship and the ability to come up with the best ideas. Being enterprising is crucial. We want to talk to people who are entrepreneurial, who like fast-paced environments and who want to take on a lot of ownership, because at H&M you have to own your business and your potential.
BoF: How do you nurture talent?
Even though we’re a big company, everyone has the chance to be seen at H&M, and we’re spotting talent all the time. If there’s someone great down in Orlando, Florida, we’re going to know about them and start planning their next step— seeing if we can get them to somewhere like New York or Los Angeles or wherever the business needs lie. The way I see it, in that way, we’re actually much more like a small company, because everybody is visible.
Who you are as a team member and the way you respond to the company environment is much more important than prior experience.
Last year, just in the U.S., we promoted nearly 1,300 people and, in the last five years, we’ve promoted nearly 6,000 to 7,000 people. The numbers really speak for themselves. We want to move people who can take ownership and are go-getters up to the next level. That’s part of the way H&M works. Who you are as a team member and the way you respond to the company environment is much more important than prior experience. We can train you for the new position, but we can’t train the way you behave in the company.
The HR Manager who works with me in the U.S. is a great example of this. He originally started off as a controller in the UK, but he wanted a new challenge so he moved into Logistics. After he’d spent three years as a logistics manager in the UK, he came to work for me for three years as logistics manager for North America. While he was here, I noticed how skilled he was in the way he worked with people — promoting and training and challenging them — so I promoted him to HR manager. I think it’s a phenomenal journey how he has progressed, coming from controlling to logistics, to logistics in another country and most recently heading up our HR department. It’s part of H&M’s values — the chance to move positions and develop as an individual by being exposed to different cultures and competition around the world.
BoF: What training is available?
Training varies according to your position. If you’re coming in from the outside to be a store manager, you have 12 weeks of training. If you’re going to be a sales advisor, you get two weeks training. Then we also have regular training for different levels of management. And, of course, there’s also a lot of on-the-job training because we allow people so much ownership and encourage employees to try something new. If you make a mistake, it’s an opportunity to learn and move forward. We want people to explore and challenge themselves — both personally and professionally. If you enjoy your role and what you do, then we can implement training sessions to develop you even further. If you have a passion for a new area, we have trainings to cultivate that potential as well.
BoF: What opportunities exist at H&M at present?
The company is growing tremendously, 10 to 15 percent every year, so every six or seven years, we’re doubling in size. When I started 20 years ago, there were 12 markets. Now, we’re up to 61 markets. No matter how long you’ve been with H&M, it’s exciting to see our progress and growth.
We’ve been expanding a lot here in the U.S., so we’re speaking to a lot of applicants. This year, we’re going to open up more than 60 stores in the U.S. and we’re growing online, so there’s a huge amount of opportunity. We need department, store and district managers, as well as creative visual merchandisers and district visual managers. We’re also growing on hm.com so we need talented online merchandisers, among many other digital roles, to join our online team. And then we need people for the support office, which supports both the stores and our regional teams.
We want to recruit people who live our values every day, have a strong business sense and are ready to take lots of ownership. We truly think of H&M as a 'Place of Possible' and we work hard to ensure that the sky really is the limit.