Selfridges’ human resources director Maria Stanford reforms the retailer’s HR brand

Maria Stanford joined Selfridges in May 2005 as head of HR, and brought some solid retail experience to the role. She previously held positions with several large high-street names, including Pret A Manger, House of Fraser, and Lillywhites, and was latterly divisional head of HR for Marks and Spencer .

It didn’t take Stanford long to discover that she had inherited a talented, committed HR function. However, the department lacked commercial focus, and Stanford knew HR needed to play a bigger role in driving business performance, becoming more strategically aligned to the needs of the company and adding real value.

Eye-catching

Since taking on the challenge, she has transformed the HR department into an eye-catching commercial business proposition, and won acclaim from chief executive Paul Kelly. In January this year, Stanford was rewarded with the promotion to HR director, and now directly reports to Kelly rather than retail operations director Sue West.

Selfridges has around 3,000 employees, who share the shop floor with about the same number of staff employed by branded retail concessions. There are four Selfridges outlets: one in Birmingham, two in Manchester, plus the iconic flagship store on London’s Oxford Street, which gets an average 15 million visitors through its famous revolving doors every year. There is also a shared service centre in Leicester.

With a healthy annual turnover of £538m, and trading profit up 14% year-on-year to £49m to the year ending 31 January 2006, Selfridges remains confident as a business. But Stanford is not complacent.

“In retail there are winners and losers, as it’s a fiercely competitive field to work in,” she says. Not only does the department store have to compete against other famous retailers such as Harrods, Harvey Nichols, and John Lewis, it is also pitted against every shop on Oxford Street.

“It’s a fast-moving industry, and it’s all about the customer,” explains Stanford. “Even if you think you’ve got good business initiatives behind the scenes, if the customer experience is wrong, then you’ve failed.”

The majority of the company’s workforce is its 2,700 sales staff. The retail industry has always suffered high staff turnover, so HR’s constant challenge is to recruit and retain sales talent.

Stanford argues that Selfridges does retail theatre and windows better than anyone else, and believes the shop is looked upon as a “world stage”, attracting a diverse customer base from many cultural backgrounds. “However, you can never rely on yesterday’s performance,” stresses Stanford.

Impressed

“The sales team deal with customers face to face every day and have to keep them consistently impressed, otherwise they’ll go elsewhere. Without the right sales force, we wouldn’t be able to deliver.”

Stanford spent the first five weeks of her current role analysing the key elements of the working environment, and examining all HR policies and procedures, including resources, the learning on offer, and reward packages. She asked: how do we communicate with the customer how do we measure success how do customers find out about Selfridges how efficient is the recruitment process what is the induction experience like what are we doing well and what are we not doing well?

Her first steps were to find out what was happening across the business by talking to colleagues and department heads walking the shop floor collating feedback from candidates and leavers networking with other retailers and seeking out the opinions and future expectations of the board.

She discovered that line managers did not have the appropriate measures in place to be able to monitor such key statistics as staff turnover. Nor did they have the information to hand to allow them to react immediately to unforeseen problems, or plan for cyclical events such as peaks and troughs in retail labour trends.

“I’d never worked so hard in my life, and although at times I was driven to despair, it was incredibly exciting,” enthuses Stanford. Her hard efforts paid off. Based on her findings, she then introduced a ‘back to basics’ two-phase, 18-month action plan, which she presented to the board to prove that HR can be a powerful business enabler.

Clear objectives

“I wanted to avoid woolly HR initiatives, and instead laid out clear objectives so we could build up a lasting foundation on which to build,” she says.

While she acknowledged her plan was ambitious, she reassured the board that phase one was about laying down solid principles and practices, while also getting some quick wins. Overall, Stanford’s objectives were to ensure Selfridges could deliver the best talent, and build the right mechanisms so that line managers could develop the skills of existing people, and help them feel valued.

Having won the backing of the board, she set about redesigning the approach to learning and development. Before, training had been a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach, so Stanford set about identifying the skills and behaviours needed for great performance. It was then a case of building an accessible curriculum to meet these needs.

One new feature is a weekly training session for sales staff. Stanford says that HR has since made great strides in learning and development, and results show there is higher productivity, commitment and engagement.

Stanford also created tools to ensure the business had access to essential information that would impact the bottom line – for example, by monitoring staff productivity, labour turnover, and recruitment trends in different departments. HR is now proactive in providing statistics and working with managers to understand trends and help them plan more effectively. There is a much more integrated performance and development process, where employees’ objectives and performance are aligned to wider business objectives.

“There has been a significant reduction in reactive recruitment and there are fewer labour or skills shortage gaps,” says Stanford. “Similarly, if there is a high rate of sickness absence in an area, managers now have the facts to hand and the tools to be able to identify any problems and address them.”

Adding value

Just over 12 months into the action plan, Stanford felt her team was ready to move on to phase two, through which HR could add more business value in terms of defining the employer brand, the company’s approach to diversity, and how to set Selfridges apart from its competitors.

“This part of the plan was not about quick fixes, but about investing in the long-term future of the company,” she says.

Most of the sales force do not use a computer or have access to e-mail, so Stanford conducted internal and external market research around salary, benefits and rewards, and where Selfridges was in relation its competitors on these issues.

Employees now get the chance to voice their opinions directly, and feedback revealed that they wanted more learning, career and reward opportunities. In January of this year, the HR team developed voluntary benefits and career discussions, and communicated the changes to employees.

Regular briefings also take place to communicate new initiatives to the business partners. Consultative bodies have been set up, with six local forums that meet bi-monthly, and there is also a national forum chaired by the CEO. Staff receive information through various print materials such as posters and a new company magazine.

Employer brand

“We are now much clearer on when we need to recruit, and who we need to recruit we understand the roles each person plays, and know what every team looks like so we can build up a strong candidate profile,” says Stanford. She adds that HR has worked hard to define Selfridges’ core values and behaviours, and built up the employer brand so staff can feel proud of where they work. “Our employee culture is diverse and friendly there is something for everyone, whether you’re a customer or an employee,” she says.

HR is on top of the recruitment process, and has the stats to prove it. Last year, labour turnover decreased by 12% and the London store boasts the lowest staff turnover, not only within the company, but also against a number of competitors on Oxford Street.

While Stanford is proud of her team’s achievements, she believes there is a lot more work to be done. “You can never lose sight of what’s happening, every single hour of every day, and even if you have ticked off a box and are on a high, you have to continually strive to make it better. Anyone can have a good year – the test is being good for two years and more.”

Stanford’s CV

  • January 2007-present HR director, Selfridges
  • May 2005-January 2007 Head of HR, Selfridges
  • April 2004-May 2005 Divisional head of HR, Marks and Spencer
  • January 2002-August 2003 HR director, Pret A Manger
  • 1998-2002 Self-employed HR consultant
  • 1987-1988 & 1994-1998 Learning and development manager, Lillywhites
  • 1988-1994 Career break
  • 1985-1987 Training manager, House of Fraser
  • 1984-1985 Graduate trainee, BHS

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