HR: Rising Stars in a Talent-Starved Industry

An industry bereft of talent? Not quite, though that is certainly the popular perception.

Rob Smith

Rob Smith

Photo By Kyle Ericksen

NEW YORK — An industry bereft of talent? Not quite, though that is certainly the popular perception.

Despite an influx of executives from outside the industry being recruited to head fashion and retail companies, there is a tier of executives within who are relatively underexposed in the media and are rarely in the rumor mill when the next big search begins. These executives are middle managers, general merchandise managers, executive vice presidents and divisional presidents in their 40s and 50s who may be deliberately kept out of the spotlight by their employers so they don't get pirated. They're highly educated with years of experience with five-star retail and apparel brands.

In today's environment, however, that may no longer be enough.

"We have to find those talents who understand what the word ‘innovation' means and how to bring it into an organization," said Karen Harvey, president of Karen Harvey Consulting Group, an executive search and professional development firm. "Stores need innovation, and that's why we look to companies like Nike, Apple, Yahoo and Google to find talent.

"Increasingly, boards are looking for candidates who have a strong track record in building and empowering a team. What's also very important is multichannel experience, candidates that have had a portfolio of brands under their watch, and global experience. The world is getting smaller and smaller and because of the consolidation domestically, international experience is becoming more and more important for brands."

"I believe there are good, bright, capable people out there. The primary difference is that the pipeline from which they were primarily developed — department store training programs — is a fraction of what it once was," said Kirk Palmer of the Kirk Palmer Associates search firm. "Some larger non-department store companies now have their own programs, but on an industry-wide basis, you can't just eliminate over 100 training programs in a decade and not have an adverse effect. So there is still great talent in our industry, there's simply less of it."

Palmer added that companies fight to hang onto talent through non-compete provisions and rich, long-term incentive programs, making it harder than ever for executives to jump ship. "For better or worse, we will continue to see nontraditional backgrounds assume important positions in our industry, and we will see more talent from non-merchandising career paths assuming top roles than in prior years."

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