Cutting through uncertainty with Wella Company

Exclusive interview with Wella’s Global Chief People Officer Gretchen Koback-Pursel as she reveals how the firm is preparing for the future through collaboration, courage and diversity...

Words by Liam Soutar

With the world fast approaching the two-year mark of the global pandemic, many firms believe they are reaching a turning point in fortunes. More than three-quarters (76%) of CEOs say they believe the global economy will improve during the next 12 months. However, despite the growing levels of confidence, when it comes to mapping out the coming weeks, months and years for businesses, there is still lingering anxiety among Boardrooms and HR departments around the world about what disruption the future will bring. The nerves caused by this uncertainty were reflected in PwC’s 24th Annual Global CEO Survey. Despite painting a somewhat more positive picture than 2020’s report, just 36% of CEOs said they were “very confident” about their revenue growth prospects for the next year, while less than half (47%) were very confident looking ahead three years.

Those at the top are acutely aware of threats in the external environment, starting with the obvious: pandemics and other health crises are the number one threat on this year’s list, with 52% of CEOs stating they are ‘extremely concerned.’ By contrast, six years ago, this threat was selected as an extreme concern by just nine per cent of respondents. Last year, 24% of CEOs selected climate change as an extreme concern; this year, it was selected by 30%. And 60% said they had yet to factor climate change into their strategic risk management activities. This uncertainty – when it comes to mapping out the future of work and delivering for staff and the business – pervades every industry sector, some more than others. In the hair and beauty sector, for example, the pandemic has had a marked impact. In fact, a recent report by the National Hair & Beauty Federation (NHBF) revealed that hair and beauty saw turnover fall by a whopping 45% in 2020 when compared to figures from 2019.


Purpose is embedded into our DNA and guides our business decisions...

Purpose & workforce

Yet, Wella Company – a leader in the industry which has the Wella Professionals, Clairol, Wella, and ghd brands in its portfolio and has its headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland – battled big problems with big solutions. After all, the company’s de facto motto centres around being “Collaborative, Creative, Courageous, Connected and Committed” – a mantra which could help the company succeed going forwards. By strengthening its “best in class” workforce and doubling down on purpose, Wella’s people function has pushed through the most uncertain period the business world has ever faced. In an exclusive interview with myGrapevine magazine, Gretchen Koback-Pursel, Global Chief People Officer at Wella Company, outlines her vision for the firm, which employs 6,000 staff across 100 countries, and how this roadmap is putting Wella Company in the best position possible to avoid future pitfalls, from the risk of mass employee turnover to the potential for faltering staff morale and wellbeing. As Gretchen explains: “Purpose is embedded into our DNA and guides our business decisions and how we engage with all our stakeholders and employees.

“In my role, a key focus will be building on our global people agenda to create a high-performance culture where everyone can bring their best self to work. As part of this, I am focused on developing and unlocking the potential of all employees across markets and leading the organisation’s ambition to be a true industry leader in diversity, equity and inclusion.”

About Wella Company

  • CEO: Annie Young-Scrivner
  • Headquarters: Geneva
  • Employee headcount: Over 6,000 employees globally
  • Brands include: Wella Professionals, Clairol, Wella, ghd
  • Global presence: More than 100 countries
  • Values: “At the Wella Company, WE are Collaborative, Creative, Courageous, Connected and Committed”
  • Launched over 140 years ago by hairdresser and beauty professional Franz Stroher

Diversity & equality

It’s apparent that Wella understands the importance of working towards gender equality and diversity of many kinds in the workplace. In the UK & Ireland specifically, women make up 88% of the industry, and women own or run 82% of salons. Therefore, Wella knows it is vital to champion all women globally – from its headquarters to its salons and beyond.

This championing starts from the very top of the company. Currently, 57% of Wella Company employees globally are female, and 45% of female Wella Company employees are at Director-level and above. Since December 1, 2020, 68% of the firm’s new hires have been women, and 60% of the total promotions were earned by women. Newly appointed Global Chief Financial Officer, Virginie Costa, is one of only seven women leading global finance functions among the top 25 beauty companies, Gretchen reveals. This commitment to diversity is far from just a PR exercise though, as data has shown how it can help employers negate the biggest uncertainty of the past few months – the company’s bottom line. According to management consultancy firm McKinsey, companies that have more gender diversity are 21% more likely to experience “above-average profitability”, and firms with more culturally and ethnically diverse executives are reportedly 33% more likely to see “better-than-average" profits. Given these big business benefits, prioritising the DEI agenda will help provide employers with more certainty, particularly when it comes to financial success.


How the pandemic impacted the hair & beauty sector

The coronavirus crisis had a significant impact on many industry sectors. One of those that appeared to be hit hard by the global crisis was the hair and beauty industry.

A report by the National Hair & Beauty Federation (NHBF) revealed that hair and beauty saw turnover fall by a whopping 45% in 2020 when compared to figures from 2019.

In addition, the report found that Government-enforced social distancing measures resulted in salon capacities slumping down to 70% of what it was before the pandemic took hold.

The findings, reported on by Professional Beauty, also suggested that hair and beauty businesses lost, on average, two hours of appointment time per therapist/ stylist per day.

While COVID-19 measures have been relaxed, and some semblance of normality has returned, other reports have cited fears that could impact the sector.

For example, in June, the BBC reported that hairdressers were worried about future staffing issues as the pandemic had caused already dwindling number of apprentices to go down even further.

For example, the volume of people starting hairdressing apprenticeships in England had halved between 2016 and 2020.

And, according to The National Hair and Beauty Federation (NHBF), it expects another drop of 30-50% in the coming year.

This has therefore created a perfect storm of talent challenges for the hair and beauty sectors to contend with going forwards.

The importance of supporting talent

Yet, despite this D&I-centric focus, the pandemic has had a significant impact on the professional salon industry. And since women are the majority of small business owners in this industry, the impact on women has been disproportionately large. But how did Wella Company specifically negate the impacts of the pandemic on the industry?

Earlier this year, the firm surveyed beauty industry professionals (salon owners, stylists, nail technicians etc.), located predominantly in the US and UK. When asked about how the pandemic impacted them, nearly half of the respondents said they had to close their salons and three out of ten borrowed money. Wella supported these important customers in many ways, from giving salon owners breathing space on payments, to helping them adapt their operating model while closed by setting up an e-shop, to providing approximately £20million in free online professional education that was streamed by more than 100,000 beauty professionals across the globe.


I am focused on developing and unlocking the potential of all employees across markets...

Increase in hiring

Another impact the pandemic has had on all businesses, including the salon industry, is disruptions across the supply chain, from shortages of raw materials and machine parts, to transportation delays. In fact, Wella’s latest ghd product, the Unplugged Styler, has been such a hot commodity and has been selling so well that with the festive season coming, it is a “don’t-wait buy.” Gretchen explains: “From the Wella Company perspective, while we began operating as a standalone business in the midst of the pandemic, we are proud that in our first year, we have already stood up a variety of new functions, including Legal, Procurement, Treasury and Compliance, and are continuing to bring in new talent.”

“So far this year, we have hired more than 650 employees, and, across many parts of the business, our people have developed new capabilities and skills. Key to this has been building a company with diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) at its core.”

How can HR mitigate uncertainty going forwards?

With uncertainty on the cards for many industry sectors, it is important for employers and HR to think about how they can mitigate this going forwards.

One expert believes that flexibility could be a good way to navigate uncertainty in future.

Dr Scarlett Brown, CIPD’s Corporate Governance Lead, told myGrapevine magazine: “Flexibility will allow HR teams to navigate future uncertainty."

Dr Brown explained: “They should consider moving towards principles-based guidelines, rather than trying to create certainty with rigid policies, and be comfortable piloting and innovating new workplace approaches.

“Our research also shows that being a responsible business has really helped companies to navigate the uncertainty of the last 18 months.”

She said, that among other things, “these organisations have prioritised employee engagement and listening, empowered workers and managers by moving to a decentralised decision-making process, and not shied away from sharing information on tough decisions.

“We’d therefore encourage HR teams to help their organisations develop their purpose, values and culture as well,” Dr Brown added.

Bearing the standard for employee engagement

While Wella Company is focused on growth globally, the UK remains very important, as one of its largest EMEA markets and also the home of ghd, its fast-growing, high-end styling brand. “London is the epicentre of fashion and beauty trends and is a critical creative hub for our company. And our London-based professional stylists and educators create many of the looks that set the trends,” says Gretchen.

She adds: “The UK is also one of the most diverse global talent markets, in which employment practises are generally progressive and centred on a more equal balance of power between employer and employee. As a result, being able to engage and retain employees in the UK is highly competitive, as companies are competing with not just the UK, but the rest of the world too. Our UK team has developed some best practises that can be shared and applied in other markets. This includes initiatives in DE&I; employee wellbeing; and flexible working; as well as developing leading competencies in digital and e-commerce. The UK market is also a great source for recruiting talent into other global locations, and therefore is key to our international growth.”

Evidence indicates that this investment in employee engagement removes a huge chunk of uncertainty for businesses, by effectively killing two birds with one stone. By engaging strongly with employees, a similar bond naturally forms with customers, allowing the firm to remain a strong competitor in the market and be in the best position possible to weather the storm of the pandemic. According to the International Risk Management Institute, research shows that businesses with high employee engagement are more likely to excel in customer satisfaction, and achieve high productivity and operational efficiency. And an additional side effect is “safer, healthier employees with lower absenteeism and reduced turnover”, said the IRMI – something which could hugely help employers when it comes to navigating periods of uncertainty.

In my role, a key focus will be building on our global people agenda to create a high-performance culture...

Key areas of focus

In her role as Global Chief People Officer, Gretchen is responsible for a broad group of employees who come from a variety of different backgrounds and work in more than 100 countries. Wella Company is working to make the company a place where every employee can bring their own true self to work, set up for success. She continues: “Some of the ways we have been supporting our female employees are by listening carefully and ensuring they have ample space to talk, and elevating women at all levels to be their very best. We are always looking for ways to provide flexibility where possible to best meet the needs of all employees. I am also working to broaden our recruitment and retention initiatives to expand the diversity of our workforce.”

One of the first ways Gretchen intends to implement these strategies at a global level is by conducting a baseline assessment to understand the current composition of Wella employees around the world. A diverse slate of candidates is also being required for promotions and new hires. In the UK, the HR team has been driving forward DE&I initiatives, with a local task force focused on Race, Age & Gender, ER Training actioned for people managers with a focus on workplace dignity, and DE&I Awareness through workshops for all team members. “We are consulting with our local teams around the world as we plan our next steps on the DE&I journey,” she says.

Setting the standard

Gretchen paints a clear picture of Wella Company’s strategy – strength in variety and strength in people are key to navigating this uncertain future. It is a strategy that appears to be working well. And so, as firms continue to ponder the question of how-to future-proof themselves against major events such as the pandemic, many would do well to look at how Wella Company has so far answered the question. From recognising employees, championing diversity of race, gender, geography and skill, to fostering a shared sense of purpose – Wella Company shows its workforce that they are truly valued.

It is this recognition that is key to ensuring everyone feels part of a community, one that rises to the challenges of uncertainty, together. By being constantly aware of what employees want and need to deliver their A-Game – such supporting learning schemes – as well as keeping an eye on the changing dynamics within the industry (adapting to online sales rather than in-salon), Wella Company has set the standard for other HR teams looking to adapt quickly and change in areas that drive the best possible outcomes.


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