When Lex Keijser says the best way to learn the fashion business is from the ground up, he speaks with the voice of experience. The country manager of H&M Greater China started out in a Saturday job with a retail chain in Holland while still at college and has reached his present high-profile position with one of the world’s fastest expanding fashion companies through dedication, flair and an instinct for what makes different markets tick.
Unlike many senior executives, Keijser sees no reason why work can’t also be fun, and he firmly believes that the world of fashion is not about what you have done, but the vision you want to achieve. He talks to John Cremer.
What led directly to your current role? In 2005, I had been in Spain for six or seven years and the business was running well with a good management team in place. The company then asked me whether I would be interested in moving to China, if they set up a retail operation there. We were already doing business in Hong Kong and China for sourcing and production, and it seemed to me like a fantastic opportunity to explore a new country. I had briefings on what we could expect as a retailer in Asia, started in 2006 and opened the first store in Queen’s Road, Central in March 2007, an event many people still remember.
What is the key to sustaining rapid growth? We have no secrets in that respect, but we do aim to be a very “human” company with a flat hierarchy, giving everybody the chance to find their best work environment. Obviously, there are guidelines to set up and run a store, but there also has to be a lot of improvisation to deal with changes and things you just don’t expect. Therefore, H&M tends to be flexible, not too strict or structured, because otherwise staff can’t think for themselves or do things differently. With us, if you see you can do something better, it should be possible to decide today and make the change tomorrow.
How do you gauge your success as a manager? When I see the people around me growing, then I think I’m succeeding. It comes down to a really simple system: I try to be myself, remember that I’m working for the team, find staff who love fashion and working with people, and don’t make them feel too pushed or stressed. That makes for a good mix and we all keep an eye out for each other.
What do you feel is the most exciting part of the job? It is definitely still the store openings. We now have seven operating in Hong Kong and 35 in mainland China, but every opening is something new and exciting. There is a real vibration because employees in the store have worked so long towards this moment. Both they and the customers appreciate what’s happening so, for me, it is always a fantastic feeling.
Is there anything you find particularly difficult about being in business? The only thing is if people are not honest. Then, I feel unhappy and uncomfortable. Otherwise, I just remind myself there are always new experiences and challenges, and that, as a human being, I’m allowed to make mistakes. The company accepts that, except if you make the same mistake two or three times. Then, it is a sign you are going in the wrong direction.
What are your general plans for expansion? Overall, we are more than satisfied with speed and progression in Greater China. There should be four more mainland stores this year and we will continue to spread geographically from our current bases in Shanghai, Beijing and the Pearl River Delta. Doing that, we will start to build up other area offices, which will give people inside the company a chance to grow. The reaction from customers is positive and since fashion is now global, we can sell in the north of China what we sell in southern Spain or the west coast of America.
To what extent did you try to plan your career? Nothing was really planned; everything just fell piece by piece into the right place. Some people say I am lucky in life, others ask why didn’t I start my own business. But I am happy with this company, that’s why I stayed. There is trust and freedom, important tools which I want the people who work for me to understand and experience as well.
What tips do you have for young people keen to make it in fashion retailing? If you want to be a manager, the number one thing is to understand what goes on in the stores on a daily basis. That means knowing how to unpack and price garments, help in the fitting room, and deal with customers for cash and card payments. As an 18-year-old, one of my jobs was to clean the store frontage, but practical tasks like this are what teach you the details of the business. Some companies take on people with the right background, but the wrong attitude. We believe future managers need academic and practical education. They must be ready to “get their hands dirty” and prove what they can do, not just talk about their qualifications.
For longer breaks, likes to get away to his home on Spain’s Costa Brava
As a young man, went to sea for a year as a way of seeing the world
Aims to attend every store opening in his region – unless there are two on the same day