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Global careers: The roots of success

Pentland Brands’ chief executive on how internationalising his workforce has been essential for business growth.

Barely a week has passed when Drapers sits down to interview Pentland Brands chief executive Andy Rubin following the business’ acquisition of Kiwi rugby brand Canterbury in a deal thought to be worth £22.7m. The move means the firm will further increase its international scope and workforce by taking on the brand’s 250 employees across Australia and New Zealand.

“Canterbury is the world’s leading rugby brand, and we like brands that are strong in their category. In Speedo we’ve got the world’s best swim brand, and in Berghaus we have the best outdoor brand. Those things are essential to win in the tough marketplace in which we’re operating,” says Rubin of the acquisition.

Pentland Brand’s parent company, Pentland Group, has a uniquely international perspective. In fact, with US$3bn (£1.9bn) in global sales in 2011, offices in Hong Kong and New York, products sold in 195 countries, 15,000 people employed worldwide, and more than 1,000 standalone shops and 10,000 dedicated retail areas globally, the privately owned, third-generation family firm is one of the UK’s leading international fashion businesses.

This year, Pentland was the only fashion employer to make the UK’s Best Workplaces 2012 list, compiled by consultancy Great Place To Work. Taking in its light, open-plan north London offices, it’s not hard to see why. However, Rubin assures Drapers that the firm is “only as good as its people”.

And Pentland Brands – the arm of parent company Pentland Group, which houses the Group’s 13 directly owned and licensed brands such as Boxfresh, KangaROOS, and Lacoste global footwear – is arguably a model business when it comes to sourcing and recruiting the best in international talent. It employs 2,000 people across 15 different countries, with a highly diverse mix within its UK office alone. Representing 60% of its workforce, the business’ UK-based employees have been drawn from the length and breadth of the globe, representing 32 different nationalities, and with 42 different languages being spoken within its corridors. 

This international mix has been integral to the business’ success, says Rubin. “We’ve had to develop a very international team in the UK, where we drive our creativity and innovation, because the teams here are developing product ranges and marketing communications for the world.”

The recruitment consultants that Drapers spoke to agreed that diversity in terms of nationality is essential when targeting international markets. One global headhunter told Drapers: “It reduces your risk quite honestly, because I think it’s always a question of do you try and roll out what you have done in one market and then try to make it fit wherever you go, but then many businesses have fallen foul of that.”

Cressida Pye, director of design-focused recruitment agent Smith & Pye Fashion Consultancy, echoes this, and says Pentland’s strategy mirrors demand across the industry. “From our experience within the field of fashion design the companies we work with overseas employ a diverse mix of nationalities in their design teams,” she says. When it comes to building its teams overseas, Pentland takes a two-pronged approach, recruiting both in the UK and within overseas markets. “That’s part of building a global company, in terms of trying to cross fertilise the skills and experience across the brands and across the world. So we do a combination of hiring people in every country where we operate and also rotating people from HQ through different countries and regions, so that everybody builds their understanding of what it means to operate globally. Increasingly for all of us, if you’re going to operate in a global business you need to really have lived and worked somewhere outside of your home country,” says Rubin.

He says sourcing the best talent involves considering the numerous direct applications that pour in, utilising professional social media platform LinkedIn, advertising on websites such as Drapersjobs.com, and working with headhunters.

Given the number of brands and the diverse array of markets across which it operates, the skillset required varies considerably. However, Rubin explains that the business’ designers need to be team players and have “creativity, understanding and empathy with the consumer”. Previous fashion experience isn’t a must and Pentland does recruit from other design disciplines. “We’ve had some very successful designers that have come from the car industry or from furniture design, that then come in and design shoes. It doesn’t necessarily have to be that they’ve designed our product before. They have to have the right level of creativity within them.”

Turning to the international sales arena he says candidates need to be able to demonstrate the ability to operate in different cultures, adding that languages are not essential, but preferred. “If you have people that can speak the local language you can get the nuances and integrate with people a lot quicker and a lot better,” he says, adding: “If we’re assessing two candidates and they have a similar CV and one spoke three languages and the other one didn’t, then you’re going to pick the person with the languages.”

Internationalising Pentland’s teams in the UK hasn’t been without its challenges though, not least in the form of tighter visa controls imposed by the Government, making it difficult to employ candidates from outside of the EU. “There may be brands for which we want to have all the design team together at HQ, but that isn’t necessarily possible,” Rubin explains. “As we build our business in Asia it’s very difficult for us to employ people from Asia in the UK. So we’re having to employ them in our office in Hong Kong.”

He says this has been an impediment to the internationalisation of his business, and argues that the Government needs to do more to back the competitive efforts of home-grown businesses. “If they want businesses to be run globally out of the UK then they’ve got to allow us to employ global people within the UK. By not allowing us to employ non-EU people with the right skills, we’re going to have to employ them outside the UK.

So the UK loses out.”

He adds: “We are one of very few British companies in our industry that is developing brands globally but with the creativity and innovation based here in the UK.”

Helen Taylor, associate director (UK & International) at recruitment agency Fashion and Retail Personnel, agrees that it can be hard to employ certain candidates from outside the EU. “You can get some good candidates who are on Tier 1 visa that are from non EU countries but if they’re not, it’s almost impossible and not worth the hassle,” she says, adding: “However, there are some great candidates in Europe from sports and lifestyle brands that would fit the Pentland culture well.”

Having come from being very UK-centric, as of last year Pentland now draws half of its sales from Europe, 24% from the US, and 16% from Asia, and looking ahead Rubin says the Group’s goal is to achieve a greater balance of sales across all the regions of the world.

Recruitment will be integral to that strategy, he says. “How we do it through growing our people is absolutely essential to everything we do. We put a huge amount of time and money into, not only recruitment, but then development of people so that we can move them around within the group and promote from within. However, you’ve got to bring the right people in in the first place to have success later on.”

Pentland in numbers

15,000 - the number of people employed worldwide

10,000 - dedicated retail areas globally

1K - standalone shops

£1.9bn - global sales in 2011

195 - the number of countries pentland sells products

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