The X factor
ImagineX is taking a fresh approach to staff retention
As the mainland’s appetite for luxury brands continues to expand beyond first-tier cities, huge opportunities are being created for high-end product retailers. The phenomenon is also, however, creating recruitment challenges as companies grapple with their expansion strategies.
Thomson Cheng, managing director of ImagineX Group – the brand management and distribution arm of The Lane Crawford Joyce Group – says recruitment and employee retention is an ongoing priority. “We are a people business, so hiring the right people, training them and helping them to grow with the company is a major focus for us,” he says.
He adds that over the last two years, ImagineX has committed resources to strengthening its employee career-development programmes and staff engagement, both in Hong Kong and on the mainland.
The recently established Retail Excellence Department, for example, provides support and training on a project-by-project basis. “This is a top-down management commitment spearheaded by our chairman and CEO, Jennifer Woo,” Cheng says.
While offering competitive salaries is important, the company feels it can offer more attractive propositions, such as inspirational career opportunities.
“Just like when someone discovers a good skincare product, they tend to stick with it,” Cheng says. “In the same way, we try to inspire our employees to see that there are career rewards to be gained by taking a long-term view.”
To provide staff with cross-company engagement options, ImagineX sends out newsletters and has set up a Vision 20/20 initiative which allows employees to learn and comment on core company activities.
Utilising the popularity of social media, an internal I-Jam platform has also been established which allows ImagineX, together with several other companies in the Lane Crawford Joyce Group, to communicate and stay up to date with group-wide activities.
“It is really about engagement, letting our people know what’s going on and encouraging them to be part of it,” Cheng says, adding that positive feedback suggests the initiative is popular with employees.
With about 2,500 ImagineX staff spread across the mainland, and with more outlets due to open, Cheng says it is vital that employees do not feel isolated. Over the last 18 months the company has opened a mainland regional headquarters in Chongqing, as well as outlets in cities including Chengdu, Guiyang, Kunming and Shenyang.
“Hiring, training and then losing employees because they feel isolated is expensive, so we look for ways to engage with our staff so that they feel they are an important part of the organisation,” Cheng says.
Just as one mainland province is different from the next, Cheng says that the company’s talent-recruitment and management strategies vary between first- and second-tier cities.
In first-tier cities for example, where large talent pools exist, there is stiff competition for quality staff among the swelling ranks of international companies and the rising number of major domestic players. “Job hopping is a big issue in first-tier cities,” Cheng says.
In contrast, in emerging cities there is a ready supply of candidates, but they often lack experience. “Finding and retaining talent to fill managerial and skilled professional positions remains difficult in the fast-growing second- and third-tier cities,” Cheng says. “You can find a pair of hands, but often they are not skilled hands.”
Cheng says experienced managers from Hong Kong and their mainland colleagues from first-tier cities play a vital role in setting up and maintaining the rigorous standards expected by partner companies. These include fashion brands such as Salvatore Ferragamo, Donna Karan, Marc Jacobs and DKNY, lifestyle brands such as Tumi, and beauty brands including Aveda, Jo Malone, Natura Bisse and Apivita.
While the fundamental goal is to localise the management in emerging mainland cities, Cheng says the experience Hong Kong managers and their mainland counterparts gain by helping to establish new stores is invaluable.
“Our managers tell us they value the opportunity to spend time in places like Chongqing and Guiyang, where they can really get a feel for consumer preferences and what’s going on,” Cheng says. He adds that it is easier these days to encourage Hong Kong managers to help set up new stores in emerging mainland cities.
As ImagineX strives to build a sustainable workforce, Cheng says he welcomes a slight slowdown in the mainland economy, which he says has slowed from extremely fast to very fast. “This gives us a little extra time to connect with staff and help them to feel they are part of the company,” he says.
Meanwhile, in Hong Kong, the Lane Crawford Joyce Group made a tactical move last year when it consolidated its four company arms under one roof. The new headquarters, overlooking Ocean Park and Deep Water Bay, features a themed games room, gymnasium and wellness zone for group yoga sessions and meditation.
“We want to provide staff with areas that allow them to relax and connect,” Cheng says. The headquarters also accommodates facilities for training sessions and workshops.
‘Top Gun’ programme gets China managers flying
For Paul Lau, general manager – China branch offices at ImagineX Group, acquiring and retaining quality staff is just as important as the economic side of the business.
“With many big international brand names expanding in the mainland market, everyone is fighting for talent,” he says.
Since setting up a regional office in Chongqing 18 months ago, ImagineX has more than doubled its store numbers in the region to 19. To encourage experienced management staff to relocate to cities where new stores are being opened, the company has developed a “Top Gun” management incentive programme.
“The Top Gun programme provides various incentives, such as the opportunity to progress up the career ladder,” Lau says. “Moving around different cities does help a lot, particularly in China operations. Relocations allow managers to gain a deep understanding of the different parts of China so they are better placed to make the right decisions.”
Higher salaries and prestigious titles can sometimes lure staff away, Lau says, so companies need to look for other ways to retain employees. “We offer comprehensive learning and development programmes for different levels of staff, in both frontline and back-office positions,” he says.
The company also engages with staff to formulate long-term career plans and find ways to help them feel they are a valued part of the company. “We discuss how they can help meet the company goals as well as their own personal development plans,” Lau says.
While economic growth in China’s emerging cities provides companies like ImagineX with good expansion opportunities, it also presents recruitment challenges. Chongqing, for example, is split into five districts each with different policies.
“When you bring a new brand to these Chinese cities, you have to realise that fire regulations, business registration and quality-control investigations vary from district to district, even within the same city. So you really need to find the right local people who are familiar with local government policies,” he says.