As companies in the fashion and retail business globalize, they are realizing the importance of international experience. We talked with Brian Meany, a Managing Director of Herbert Mines Associates who leads global searches for the firm, and learned that U.S. companies are looking beyond their borders to widen the pool of talent they consider for high-level positions.
Why are so many companies in the fashion and retail industry going global?
A decade ago, it was still a rare thing for a U.S. wholesaler or retailer to make international expansion a core strategy. The U.S. market offered plenty of growth, and it was more difficult to do business abroad. Today, things are very different. The U.S. is a mature market. With e-commerce and mobile commerce so critical, retail has become a borderless business that no longer uses just bricks and mortar to sell product. Many brands are finding they already have an international following because of their Internet sites, so physical expansion is the natural next step.
How has the increasingly global nature of the business changed how U.S. companies search for talent?
To be successful internationally, their senior leaders absolutely need to understand the global marketplace and acquire broad geographic experience. It is shortsighted of executives not to think about an international assignment as part of their development if they are given the opportunity, and it is equally shortsighted of companies to only recruit talent within U.S. borders. Interestingly, the knock has been that when an American takes an international assignment, by the time he or she acclimates and begins to make inroads, the tour of duty is up. We helped Levi [Strauss & Co.] find European leadership who was living in Europe but had worked for an American retailer there, who could master the art of interpreting such an iconic American brand. That was a successful solution for them.
What is the most effective executive staffing strategy for American companies actively moving into the international arena? Should they move Americans abroad or hire someone in the local market?
Whether a company hires local executives with experience and knowledge of their market, or sends a US-based expatriate who may already work for or know the company, business or the particular brand depends on several factors, and there are pluses and minuses to both strategies. Cost is one consideration. When you consider the housing allowance, tax equalization, travel back and forth, education for children, and other expenses, it can be at least twice as expensive to send an executive abroad as to hire a local one. But the American knows the company culture, products and brands, which can help immensely, particularly with getting things done internally. On the other hand, the local professional knows the language, the culture and customs of the region and its customers, and what will work in terms of marketing and operations. Also, local employees help the company establish roots in the local markets, and help develop a sustainable talent strategy that trains and promotes local executives, which is very important to longterm viability. Most companies are finding it best to have a healthy blend of both U.S.-based executives and local talent as well. With Tesco’s plans to enter the U.S. market, they retained us to recruit several U.S. executives that they sent on European assignments for three to four years. Then the American executives returned to the U.S. to successfully build the brand here. Separately, the challenge with Hugo Boss, based in Germany, was to find a CEO for their American operation who could interpret their European sensibility for the U.S. market. In that case, the best solution was to repatriate to the U.S. an executive who had worked in Europe.
How would you advise U.S. Companies conducting a search for a high-level position?
Companies need to insist that candidate pools be diverse, or they put themselves and their business at a severe disadvantage. European companies have understood this for years. Our European clients expect at least half the candidate pool to be international when we do a search for them. Now the U.S. companies are starting to catch on, too. Last year we completed more than 100 executive searches in the U.S., and in at least a third of those, we were requested to supply an international slate of candidates that we sourced through our global search group—leveraging robust talent pools in the Eurozone, U.K. and Asia. We have a comprehensive international database we use to identify sources of talent, and then work through our partners to get more local knowledge on international candidates.
What would be your advice be to senior level executives who are considering a global assignment?
Historically, executives were worried that they would be at a disadvantage if they took a job overseas and concerned that they would not be considered when new opportunities came up in the U.S. because they would be “out of sight, out of mind.” Now, technology keeps us in touch with each other on a daily basis and reachable 24/7 no matter where in the world we are located. If you have experience living and working in another part of the world, you are going to be much more attractive to a company and promotable than someone who doesn’t have that experience. Companies are finding that, all other things equal, senior executives who have that hands-on international experience are going to do a better job leading that company into the future. We’re in a global age, and there’s no turning back. U.S.-based executives without foreign assignment experience will find it increasingly difficult to compete for executive roles in the future. Europeans easily make the move to the States…they just pick up and go. They are used to moving from culture to culture, because they start doing it at a very young age. Americans aren’t quite that adaptable, but that’s changing rapidly, because it has to. As borders are coming down, leaders need to be prepared to think globally.
Brian Meany, a managing director of Herbert Mines Associates (www.herbertmines.com), oversees the firm’s strategic partnership with The Globe Search Group (www.globesearchgroup.com), an international network of search businesses, all of which hold a leading position in their local markets. As the point person for international projects, he has conducted senior level searches for clients including Esprit, Levi’s, Tesco, PPR, Ahold, Hugo Boss and Wal-Mart. A member of the management team at HMA since 1996 and an executive search consultant since 1984, Brian’s practice includes clients in retail, consumer products, food service, and hospitality. Brian is also actively involved with the venture capital and private equity communities, and regularly conducts executive searches for their portfolio companies.