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Creating an HR function that ensures entrepreneurialism is maintained

When fashion business Supergroup decided to set up a more organised HR function it structured it in such a way as to ensure that the start-up culture within the company could continue. By Glynn Davis

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Creating an HR function that ensures entrepreneurialism is maintained

When fashion business Supergroup decided to set up a more organised HR function it structured it in such a way as to ensure that the start-up culture within the company could continue. By Glynn Davis

Ahead of presenting at the 6th Retail Bulletin HR Summit in London on 8 October, Andrea Cartwright, director of HR at Supergroup, outlined some of the challenges and differences in setting up an HR function within a fast growing start-up organisation.

This largely centred on adding in some principles and practices while also being extremely careful to ensure the elements that made the business successful in the first place were retained. “As you get bigger you need these practices but you’ve got to be careful in how you overlay them. In an entrepreneurial, agile business, you can do huge damage to the culture by putting in things like standard performance management, which just create lots of paperwork,” says Cartwright.

When she joined the business two years ago it was still run very much like a start-up even though it had 2,500 employees, which presented challenges when looking to boost the HR capability. It was akin to “re-wiring the business with the lights on”, according to Cartwright.

The task was made tougher by the fact that another 1,000 people have been added since she started and it has acquired its former franchised stores in Germany, Spain and Scandinavia.

“The complexity this brings – in terms of things like employee regulations – is great. It’s fun but very challenging. Start-ups also often do not have a hierarchy, with everybody rolling their sleeves up and mucking in, but you need to have clarity on this when you’ve grown large,” she explains.

The other important – and painful – HR challenge has been to spot that some people in the business will be in jobs that have outgrown them: “Either the business then needs to develop them or [it’s recognised that] they do not have the capacity to do that job anymore. They might have given their heart and soul to the business but there comes a point when you need to bring in real expertise. We now look far ahead to avoid this happening again in the future.”

She has also had to introduce some subtle changes – especially given the young nature of the majority of Supergroup employees – such as changing the “tone of voice” in company communications. This has manifested itself in the employment contracts no longer been written in legalese but instead in plain English. The dress code is also not relayed in a tone reminiscent of school uniform rules but instead highlights flexibility and suggests “looking amazing in our own product”.

One surprising aspect for a young business with a youthful employee base is Supergroup’s limited use of technology in the HR function, although Cartwright says this is simply down to the fact the business is still growing at a cracking rate: “The focus is on making sure the tills and logistics are working. ‘People’ things often have to take a back-seat as [start-up and fast-growing] companies do not think about spending money here. You’ve got to look desperate before there’s a focus on it.”

A starting point for Supergroup HR has been to introduce a database that gives Cartwright significantly greater visibility across the group – in each of the countries in which it now operates.

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