Giny Boer took up her new role at the helm of apparel giant C&A Europe in January. She is the first female CEO in a company where 90 percent of employees are women and 80 percent of stores are already managed by women. At the top management level, the percentage of women is comparatively lower at 50 percent, but Boer is already looking at options such as part-time roles for managers and more flexible working to further support her female employees.
FashionUnited spoke with her about the company’s online strategy, the challenges she faced taking on a new role during the corona crisis and why diverse teams lead to better results.
Ms. Boer, how would you describe your career in your own words?
After studying psychology and business, I started working as a product developer and purchaser for a domestic appliances and garden furniture company in Holland. Then I started an internship at Ikea and quickly rose up there. I was a good cultural fit with Ikea and I worked in many different leadership positions throughout my career of 23 years there. It might not be such an exciting CV as if you’ve worked for many different companies, but I grew organically with Ikea, while the company itself grew internationally, and I had a very international career within the company, seeing many different aspects of the business. This has been very helpful, in particular with regards to my new role at C&A.
What attracted you to working for C&A?
First, fashion is my other passion, next to home furniture. As a student I used to work in fashion retail as a salesperson and in high-school I designed and made my own clothes. So, I always liked clothes and textiles.
The second thing that attracted me about C&A is that, like Ikea, it is family-owned, and both companies target the broad public, that means they both democratized buying beautiful things at a budget. Everybody deserves the chance to look nice, I think.
And third, C&A has a really strong sustainability agenda. We don’t talk about it enough, but we really do a lot in that regard.
As CEO of C&A Europe, what are your priorities?
First of all, I want to talk to people as much as I can and understand the company, the culture. I did a lot of “meet & greets” in order to get to know as many people and learn as much about the company as possible. I think you need a certain openness to learn instead of arriving and saying “I know”.
Unfortunately, I had to start my work at C&A against the backdrop of the corona crisis. This crisis and the renewed lockdowns basically forced us to think about how we could become a more digital company. We asked ourselves: How can we transform the company from being an offline retailer in the first place to unleash much more online presence, while at the same time trying to increase the attractiveness of our store portfolio. We also want to talk much more about our sustainability achievements and efforts.
Part of this digitization has been a partnership with Zalando on its Connected Retail Program. Can you share any first results and impressions about this partnership?
The experience period for this project is too short to say anything definite about it. I think it is too soon to evaluate. What we can say is that we want to build on it and expand, since it is now only limited to a few stores in Germany. We want to expand the range and launch it in other countries as well. We had a good start and I think it can become a great partnership.
With brick-and-mortar stores closed, how else has C&A invested in strengthening its e-commerce business?
I want to look at all aspects of how we can increase our online presence. We want to find new collaborations, Zalando being one example, and generally gathering market insights and information. A lot is involved in becoming a good, human, online organization. Since there is currently so much uncertainty and no one can tell us where this is all going, we are taking baby steps.
Do you think that women can deal with this uncertainty better than men? How do leadership styles differ?
I would like to say yes, women are better at that. But I don’t know if that is true. I can only speak for myself. I like leading in the unknown. And I like to lead C&A into becoming a truly digital company and modernizing it.
Three things are important to me as a leader: First, leading with kindness. I really think a leader needs to empower people. That does not mean not to be clear in all communication. It is kind to be clear.
Second, cooperation. I don’t want egos, it’s not about you and me, we need to work together. The issues are so difficult and complex, you need to have different people coming from different backgrounds to solve today’s problems.
And third, vulnerability. I believe as a company you need to embrace vulnerability and transparency. To say: we are not doing so well yet, but we are working on it, is a strength. As a person, I am far from perfect. I believe that people want to be led by a human being and it makes you relatable to show your weaknesses and sometimes say “I don’t know” - this is true strength. So, it’s not about men and women, but about embracing diversity: introverts, extroverts, different nationalities, different backgrounds, different ages. It’s not always easy to lead a diverse group but if you embrace that dynamic, I’m convinced you get better solutions.
Do you see yourself as a mentor for other women? How do you encourage them?
I try to do my best to encourage women. A lot of women unfortunately think they are not good enough, they are not ready. I try to tell them: Believe in yourself, you are good enough. I don’t know where it comes from - if it is society or education - but men have more self-esteem when it comes to new roles. The man thinks: “I was ready 10 years ago” and the woman still feels insecure although she is much more qualified. So, I encourage women today to take that step and sit at the table where the decisions are made. Women should support women - and men should also support women, and vice versa.
What is your stance on quotas for women in leadership?
If you had asked me this question many years ago I would have said: I am against it. But now I am in favor of it. In business, if you set a clear goal, you can measure it, you follow up and you can reach it. If you don’t then you don’t. And it seems to be needed to set this goal everywhere, not just in the companies but also in for example politics.
And a company that operates globally, like C&A, can help women in developing countries, where the gap is still a lot bigger, reach equality as well?
Yes, absolutely. But we cannot do it alone - there is a lot of collaboration needed. For that reason, C&A engages with many stakeholders and partners with other brands and retailers, manufacturers, and trade unions to drive systemic change.
What recommendation would you give your younger self in your 20s - or current graduates - regarding their careers?
I would say believe in yourself and have dreams. Be disciplined and keep learning. My career was not so much planned - I was always looking for new ways to learn. Be self-confident and ask yourself why not me?
Image: Giny Boer / C&A