Simple vision

by 08 Jul 2009

Cool and simple is the people strategy for one of the world’s largest eyewear companies, Luxottica. Sarah O’Carroll speaks to CEO, Chris Beer and general manager, human resources, Rhonda Brighton about how they are keeping their eyes on the future

Making things simple is the premise upon which Lux ottica has built its people strategies.

Imagine, for example, a PDP (professional development plan) that is only one page long … Or sitting down to com plete a talent management program that is only the length of one A4 sheet … Picture a system where company strate gies are outlined on playing cards instead of detailed in thick manuals stored on shelves or hidden in complex websites.

Such a system sounds too simple for many managers and HR departments, but it is working for Luxottica’s workforce of 6500.

The complex – and often ineffective – bureaucratic sys tems that pervade modern corporate cultures have been wiped from Luxottica’s plan.

Global head of HR Nicola Pela says the philosophy of one of the world’s largest designers, manufacturers and distributors of prescription frames and sunglasses is straight forward: think big, start small, act quickly.

The global company, with its headquarters in Milan, Italy, has managed to whittle down its people processes to the simplest form.

General manager, human resources, Rhonda Brighton explains: “We’ve put in a very, very simple set of processes all based on our five characteristics which are: speed, passion, imagination, entrepreneurship, and simplicity,” she says.

Speed is one of the most important characteristics in Luxottica’s working culture. The company’s aim is to do everything quickly and simply, and, according to Brighton, this is possible only when you have a simple framework to work in.

“Structure doesn’t matter to us,” she says. “It’s about talking to the people you need to talk to, to get your job done.”

Brighton explains that there are only five levels in the whole company: “the executive team, senior leadership, managers of managers, managers of people and every body”. The language used throughout the entire company also favours the simple approach, with jargon and corpo rate speak avoided.

“We got rid of acronyms so everything is called what it actually is. The language within the company is simple,” says Brighton.

One of company’s simplifying tactics was redesigning some core processes. For example, performance manage ment processes have been whittled down to one page and are based simply on managers and employees having a good conversation about performance. Talent management guidelines also fill the space of just one page.

“This [procedure] looks at what a person’s potential is – and what they want to do,” says Brighton. “Linked to that is a one-page personal development plan and that’s owned by employees. It’s based on two parts. Firstly what you’re good at that you can teach people and the second part is what you’re not very good at but that you need to go for ward and which other people can teach you.”

Fashion eyewear in a slumped economy

In Australasia, Luxottica’s retail brands include Sunglass Hut, Laubman and Pank, Budget Eyewear and the largest optical retailer in the southern hemisphere, OPSM. Col lectively, it has more than 800 stores in Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Hong Kong and South Africa.

Some of their 26 brands include RayBan, Bvlgari, Burberry, Chanel, Dolce & Gabbana, Donna Karan, Prada, Oakley, Versace and Polo Ralph Lauren.

Although some might assume that when the economy slows, so, too, does the purchasing of luxury goods, accord ing to CEO Chris Beer, that hasn’t been the case.

“Everybody assumes that sunglasses would be the first area to slip in sales,” says Beer. “In the last quarter of 2007 we started to plan for a downturn and what that might look like. Intuitively at that time we thought that Sunglass Hut would potentially be impacted more than the optical businesses in a slowdown. However, what we found from our con sumer focus groups and trends throughout the world is that a couple of things are occurring; firstly people are dressing more casually and secondly people have less dis cretionary spend.”

Therefore says Beer, looking to Sunglass Hut and the brands which are on offer such as Oakley, and luxury brands Chanel, Gucci and Prada, the entry price points for luxury goods is pretty much the lowest in goods such as sunglasses.

“So, if you’re feeling a bit tough about the world and you don’t want to buy the latest Prada suit and spend a couple of thousand, you can buy something smaller, still have that brand experience – but not have spent a huge amount of money.”

As consumers tighten their belts there’s a flight to luxury, he says, and where con sumers might have been a bit flippant about a purchase before the downturn, they are now more selective and will go for a reliable brand they can relate to.

“These trends have worked well for Sun glass Hut,” he says.

The cool culture journey

Beer, who took over the business four years ago, says he had a clear vision of what he wanted for the company.

“My philosophy comes from ‘culture drives performance’ and I had a very clear view of what we wanted to achieve, but we didn’t have the skills and business to bring it to life,” he says.

The company then undertook a global search, and found Brighton – who had been working overseas for a number of years and was looking to transition back to Aus tralia. Beer explained his vision and Brighton devised a plan of how to get there.

Beer emphasises the importance of the HR role in driving this culture change.

“When people ask ‘Who you would pick first on your executive team?’ I say HR, whereas most CEOs would say the CFO… Every now and then I give my CFO a hug so he doesn’t feel lonely or not important,” says Beer.

According to Brighton, most of the sen ior leaders in the business have good peo ple skills and that makes her job a lot easier.

One of the changes the company has observed since the economic slowdown is that people want more exposure to senior leaders, so the last couple of years it has been doing a number of roadshows where employees get to meet the executive team.

Another important factor, says Brighton, is ensuring that people feel they are doing things that matter and things that will help them do their job instead of having to focus on unnecessary tasks.

“We’ve stopped doing the [compliance and chain of reporting] things that didn’t matter to people,” says Brighton. “It sounds so simple, but that’s because it is.”

As part of her plans, Brighton also decided to imple ment strategies that were entertaining.

“People like to be part of something fun,” she says.

Creating a fun and cool place to work has worked well for the eyewear company. For example, Sunglass Hut employees had to write their own uniform brochure. They then got stylists, make-up people and photographers in and had a competition for their next uniform.

“Employees came to Sydney and it is real employees who are in our uniform brochure -- which basically says how to look cool,” says Brighton.

“Our recruitment cost in the last 12 months went down by 30 per cent, and what we found is that people started to approach us wanting to work for us,” says Brighton. “There also has been a significant drop in attrition.”

“We are always short of optometrists so we’ve worked really hard over the past couple of years to build a really cool community for them to belong to.”