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Global careers: International workforce

As UK retailers increasingly target more buoyant markets overseas, teams with international experience are in demand. But how do you set one up?

In the past few years, overseas expansion has shot up the UK retail agenda, as home-grown businesses look to follow the path already trodden by global heavy-weights such as H&M and Inditex expanding into markets outside their home territories.

As with any business venture, however, success rests on having the right team in place - and this means the race is well and truly on to recruit people with that all-important global perspective.

But how should you go about setting up an international team? Should roles be split out from domestic-facing roles to be internationally focused, but remain based in the UK? Or should people be based in the markets they serve?

Debenhams is a seasoned global player, having begun its foray overseas in 1997 with a small international team of five.

International director Francis McAuley joined in 1999 and says it was “obvious we needed a specialist team in place to manage our franchise partnerships”. He adds: “That was quite pioneering then because there weren’t many other businesses doing it, apart from Mothercare and Marks & Spencer.”

Today, Debenhams has a team of 77, with roles split into product, operations and business development. Last year, as part of a restructure, its international merchandisers were moved off the dedicated international floor and into the core buying teams.

Mothercare was another early adopter of overseas expansion, having signed its first franchise agreement in 1983 and opening its first store in Kuwait in 1984. This year it expects international sales to total just under £800m, compared with its £500m turnover in the UK.

While the retailer is associated with baby equipment domestically, outside the UK three quarters of its business is clothing. For this truly global business, its UK-based international product team creates designs for the whole world, with ranges targeting specific countries.

Jerry Cull is managing director of international at Mothercare, where he works with 30 people in the dedicated country-facing international team. Roles include development managers, merchandise planners and retail operations managers who work alongside franchise partners across the globe.

Sohail Shaikh, director of international development at Mothercare, says: “What seems to work best is we have a team based in the UK, who then go out to visit the franchises, sharing knowledge and bringing feedback. International experience on a CV is becoming invaluable. The career path people used to follow will probably change as this kind of experience becomes more important.”

River Island has around 272 UK stores, 60 franchise shops across the world and seven directly operated stores in Europe. It has
had an international team for around five years, which is based in the UK and comprises around 15 people.

“European and international expansion is a key thing for us now because the UK market is fairly saturated,” says the retailer’s recruitment controller Janine Jenkinson.

Just over a year ago, John Browett took the reins as chief executive of Monsoon Accessorize, leading to a board shake-
up and the appointment of international director Kevin Rusling.

The company’s talent acquisition manager Aimie Dagger says: “We’ve moved from being a UK business that happened to have some international markets to being a global business. We’re not there in terms of all of our processes and ways of working, and it’s a real shift for our UK business to start thinking that what we do affects our entire business. We’re in a period of big change.”

While Monsoon Accessorize has 380 stores in the UK, it has 1,100 stores operating under its Accessorize fascia across 72 overseas territories. These are predominantly via franchise agreements, although markets like Russia - where it has around 140 stores - are operated via a subsidiary company.

Historically its human resources team had little contact with franchise partners, but Dagger says this is changing: “With the size of our business now, questions are being asked around whether we have the right franchise partners.

“We are actively going out to visit their stores because how well they do affects our profit margin, and we are thinking from a people perspective too. We want to know who the high flyers are and whether or not they have succession plans in place.”

The retailer is looking to establish three distribution centres in Russia, Dubai and Hong Kong.

Not all businesses have split the international division from the domestic. Young fashion chain Superdry has about 300 stores in around 40 countries, largely on a franchise basis, as well as websites in 18 languages. It has just started to consider splitting foreign market-focused roles from UK positions.

The process began with the appointment of Gail Abbott, former head of European store operations at Forever 21, as head of international retail last year. She is now recruiting a team to work with her.

Simon Amesbury, resourcing manager at Superdry, says: “Until we brought Gail on board, we had never had any specifically international-facing roles based out of the UK.

“Things like visual merchandising we haven’t even touched yet - it is done by the store managers, which is why you go into a Superdry store overseas and it doesn’t feel the same.

We’ve hired a store project manager in Germany who will be our boots on the ground. We are also hiring a franchise manager to look after our southeast Asian franchises, and an international retail expansion strategy manager.”

He adds: “Our buyers, merchandisers and garment technologists all cover both the UK and international from our Cheltenham offices. It’s still to be decided whether we split that out.

“In Germany, we’ve bought a big three-store department store in Munich to be our European flagship, and are debating whether to merchandise out of the UK or base a small team there.”

Given that international retailing is a relatively new discipline, the career path is not clear cut. In the main, candidates do not need to have started out in international-facing roles - although this is helpful - and can instead move over from more traditional routes.

“We can train the international aspect of it,” Dagger says, although she adds: “For every position in our organisation now we would love it if someone had global experience, you would be edged up the ladder.”

However, an overseas track record is preferred for more senior roles, says Jenkinson: “If we were searching for a country manager for Benelux, Germany or France, then absolutely we would want someone that had experience of working in those markets. When we recruit visual merchandising managers, it helps if they have country-specific experience.”

McAuley agrees that people can move across from more traditional functions, but because of Debenhams’ complicated business model with some 36,000 SKUs, trying to align buying calendars for franchise partners can be difficult. As a result, he believes it is best to home-grow talent, particularly for retail operations.

“Some people think franchising is about selling stock into a market, but it’s not. It’s about selling your whole concept and way of working,” he says.

Hasmita Patel, senior recruitment officer at River Island, says one of the challenges in international recruitment is a lack of interest in the roles: “No one wants to apply.

“Internally they see the business growing internationally, but there is a disconnect. International ecommerce is such a big part of our business, but then your core teams don’t want to move into that area.”

At Monsoon Accessorize, one of the challenges is changing the culture, Dagger says: “We look at our top 20 stores globally, and think about what can we do with those store managers to bring them together.

“They can learn from each other, but we also want to create competition between them to be the number one store. It sounds quite simple but it is hard to get people thinking internationally.”

This global perspective is paramount across all disciplines. As a result, there is a desire among UK businesses for overseas candidates from international leaders H&M, Uniqlo, GAP and Inditex.

“If we were to see anyone that was based in Stockholm who worked for a fashion retailer as a buyer and wanted to come to the UK, absolutely we would want to see that person because we’re trying to give that team country experts,” says Jenkinson.

“Seeing people from Inditex that have more of an international perspective is one of our key drivers. It is becoming a bigger demand on my team to find those people, because we want to replicate the same kind of international presence.”

McAuley says owing to Debenhams’ business model, people from the likes of Middle Eastern franchise operator Al Shaya are attractive: “If you have that element on the team, you understand both sides of the relationship. So I have purposely recruited people who have franchise experience.”

Recruiting for roles based overseas presents its own challenges, says Dagger: “A little while ago we were looking for a senior player for our China business, and that market is just insane. There is a really big issue with what expats are paid versus the local market, and when someone is doing a similar role there can be hundreds of thousands of pounds difference in salary. The locals are now realising this and expecting salary increases.

“There also isn’t much loyalty over there, so it’s quite normal for someone to leave every 12 months. You need to think about how you are going to tie someone into your business, perhaps with shares or more concrete bonus agreements.”

Looking ahead, McAuley says he can see the need for parts of Debenhams’ international team to be based abroad: “We are looking at using our offices in Hong Kong and our distribution centre in Singapore as a base for our Far East team.

“The challenge you have is being eight hours ahead of the UK. Communicating with those partners can be difficult. But managing teams remotely can also be problematic.”

He is, however, adamant that international experience is a must: “I think that any of the bright rising stars of the future really have to have experience in the UK business, the franchise international business and ecommerce.”

There is little doubt about it. As UK fashion retailers increase their footprint overseas, they will boost their international teams in tandem - and with it, the opportunities open to candidates looking to get involved in this dynamic sector.

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