HR plays an important role in Aesop at both the operational and strategic levels, according to its CEO, Michael O’Keeffe, who explains that he together with Aesop’s head of HR and CFO are the “triumvirate partnership” within the organisation.

O’Keefe said he tells the company’s country and regional managers that the head of HR should be their closest partner and support in driving business and customer success.

“This starts with having HR at the leadership table to discuss important questions and issues within the business,” he said.

Part of Aesop’s growth plans includes international expansion, and a key example of HR’s partnership with the business is in finding and selecting country managers to support and reinforce organisational culture.

While it plans to open stores in a couple of new countries every year (it recently opened stores in Italy and Denmark, bringing the total number of countries with an Aesop presence to about 20), O’Keeffe said the majority of Aesop’s growth will come from deeper penetration in its existing market.

Aesop is very particular about its approach to growth and consistency of experience for customers around the world, and O’Keeffe said its whole store experience is fundamentally driven by its consultants.

“This starts with having HR at the leadership table to discuss important questions and issues within the business”

“If you don’t get the right people then it just doesn’t work,” said O’Keeffe, who explained that this was essentially the reason the company recently took back control of its stores from some international distributors (particularly in Asia and some parts of Europe) who were operating more like franchisees or licensees.

“Control over the customer experience and interaction is important to the brand, and with our offshore expansion we found we could never quite have the level of control over distributors as we might have with our own stores,” he said.

“So over the past five or so years we have taken out all of our distributors, so every single Aesop store is now a wholly owned subsidiary and most store counters in the world are operated by our own staff,” said O’Keeffe.

This process presented a significant number of challenges, particularly from a people and culture perspective, as new arrangements had to be established with staff and new systems established in each of the eight countries impacted.

“Culture isn’t something that can just be left to chance. In the early days of setting up subsidiaries, we realised we have to be a lot more directive and co-ordinated about it,” said O’Keeffe.

“That country manager is really the key person that the culture is aligned to, so if we get that person right in terms of their values and behaviours as a starting point, then as the manager builds their team then the right things will just happen,” he said.

“You’ve got to keep up in terms of providing a career path, and we want our people to treat retail as a serious career”

Aesop places as much emphasis on hiring and developing the right people as it does other areas of its product and business operations. All new staff undertake an initial one-week induction and training session, and this is further supported by product and sales training programs to improve customer succces.

New managers also undertake dedicated training in the form or two modules on leadership and store operations, which is supported by dedicated time in-store with experienced managers – who all operate their own P&L and report their results in balanced scorecard format, with a focus on how they have achieved their results in collaboration with staff.

Aesop has a preference towards developing its own talent to help grow and expand the business and also sustain its unique organisational culture (which it describes as an uncommon blend of courtesy, cordiality and intellectual energy).

O’Keeffe is a believer in GE’s and P&G’s approach to recruitment, in that they almost exclusively recruit graduates and develop them up through the business in order to minimise the amount of people coming in from the outside and keep organisational culture intact.

The company builds pathways for consultants who want to move up the ladder, from assistant manager, to manager, area manager, regional manager and national manager, and O’Keeffe said management talent rotates between countries as well.

“You do have to be creative, particularly in high-cost-of-living cities like New York, London and Zurich, where retail struggles to compete with hospitality.

“You’ve got to keep up in terms of providing a career path, and we want our people to treat retail as a serious career,” he said.

Image: Nicole Corbett