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PARIS — Paris-based Kering has a stronger Italian accent than one might think.
At the end of last year, the French group’s head offices here on the Avenue Hoche housed about 160 employees of 17 nationalities — a dramatically more diverse lot than back in 2008, when there was only one non-French executive.
And Italian, not French, is “by far” the dominant nationality across the group, according to François-Henri Pinault, the company’s chairman and chief executive officer.
During Milan Fashion Week, which kicks off on Wednesday, Kering will further extend its ties with Italy by unveiling a new internship program with Vogue Italia. The partnership will offer 23 posts in areas such as design, merchandising, visual display, digital and communications, with the magazine and its Web site spearheading the selection process.
In an exclusive interview, Pinault underscored the importance of cultivating talents — from designers to skilled craftspeople — in the countries of origin of its brands, especially in Italy, where Kering’s luxury holdings include Gucci, Bottega Veneta, Brioni, Pomellato and Sergio Rossi.
“One way of keeping Made in Italy is to have very strong talent scouting and recruiting in that country, for people who understand what Italy is all about,” he said. “We are selling a piece of the culture of the country of origin so it’s very important that we keep this, but also reach new customers around the world.”
The Vogue Italia initiative, which will offer placements at eight brands in Italy, France and Switzerland, is emblematic of Pinault’s efforts to ensure that Kering is in pole position to attract and retain the top talents it needs to maintain growth in a competitive industry.
“It’s not only about creation, not only about new designers. It’s about all those jobs in the industry of fashion where we need very strong talents,” Pinault said.
While creative director searches are highly visible, practically a spectator sport for a certain slice of the public, Pinault noted the bigger challenge is to assemble the behind-the-scenes actors.
“It’s not a one-man show or a one-woman show in the design field of a brand. There is a studio, there is a design team, with very technical positions and where you need very specific talents,” he said. “It could be more of a tough world because those key talents are difficult to find.”
While stopping short of calling the battle for talent a “war,” he noted that the luxury sector consists of only a few dozen main players, meaning the competitive environment is intense.
“It’s about a scarcity of talents needed for the brands,” he said, emphasizing the need to find designers who are compatible with each brand, and not vice versa.
Such is the paucity of the talent pool, and intense the competition with other luxury players, that for certain key positions, “we have a permanent scouting of the market.” He mentioned knitwear designers as but one example of a highly coveted, yet specialized talent.
Kering relies on an internal pool of scouts, from ceo’s and merchandisers to certain communications directors, as well an external network of search firms, to scour the market.
In a wide-ranging discussion, Pinault explained how the complexion of his family-controlled group’s human resources changed in tandem with its transformation from a mixed conglomerate to one focused solely on fashion and accessories in the luxury and sport/lifestyle segments. Not only did his company shed retail holdings such as Conforama, Printemps, Fnac and CFAO, it welcomed scores of new, young employees. As of Dec. 31, the average age of permanent employees at Kering fell to 34.2 years and the average length of service to 5.4 years.
“We need to make sure doors are open to young people,” he said, noting that at Gucci’s Milan headquarters, one-third of recruitments since the beginning of this year came from internships.
Earlier this year, Kering became the new name of the corporation, previously PPR, along with a tag line, “empowering imagination,” that is also the motto of its overhauled approach to talent development.
“The transformation of Kering is not only about having sold our retail activities. It’s a complete transformation of our internal processes, organization, and a deep transformation of the group’s profile in terms of people,” Pinault said.
“People here are very young in their positions because we transformed the whole organization,” he said. “This is why we are now completely rethinking our programs with universities, scouting talents, because the group is completely different.”
Pinault noted it was more difficult for PPR to resonate with students when it was a mixed conglomerate. “Now it’s much easier for them to understand.”
While Kering has a largely decentralized approach with its brands, Pinault noted that group-level initiatives sometimes better help it meet its h.r. goals.
For example, e-commerce, previously handled by each brand, is now assembled in a centralized division because of its venture with Italian online retailer Yoox.com.
“When you have e-commerce operations within a brand, it’s hardly ever the priority, especially for smaller brands, which makes it difficult to attract the best digital specialists,” he said. “After centralizing e-commerce operations for several of our brands with a single technical platform, we were able to gather a much larger number of talented people. It’s a very recent and specific approach.”
Retaining high-caliber employees is another key priority, which Kering does through its “leadership group,” around 200 positions that are followed individually. “It’s specific training programs, specific career paths and specific remuneration schemes to make sure we are consistent with this,” Pinault said.
In addition, brand ceo’s identify high-potential talents across various regions for a special 18-month program. “We train them to make sure we retain them,” he said.
Asked to describe the corporate culture it can promise to future employees, Pinault said it is based on “sincerity of the people, being accessible.”
What’s more, “we give a lot of responsibility very early in the process of integrating people, supporting them by training programs that are very pragmatic. I’m always very cautious about too much of a centralized, corporate approach. We try to be very specific and close to the brand culture.”
Pinault said Kering’s new motto, “empowering imagination,” telegraphs its modus operandi with staffing.
“We want to be a group where you can really express your imagination and not only because you are on the design team: It can be in finance, communications,” he said.
Diversity is also a key measuring stick for Pinault, given his strong personal commitment to corporate and social responsibility.
While 58.2 percent of Kering’s 33,439 employees are women, only 48.7 percent of managers are women.
Delving into the reasons behind that statistic, Pinault discovered that search firms rely on databases that are “completely unbalanced between men and women.”
“So what we did four years ago, for key positions, we wanted balance in the first step of the process, which is that candidate proposals from the database are 50/50 between men and women,” he explained.
When it comes to nationalities, he’s after a big variety, given that most brands today address a global audience.
“We want to make sure that we are not only French, Italian or English so that the diversity of the world is reflected in the diversity of our teams, in particular the design teams,” he said.
Kering also trains its staff in cultural sensitivity, cognizant that Italians, French, Chinese, Japanese, Germans and Americans all have different perspectives, particularly when it comes to business hierarchies, he noted.
Besides the new Vogue Italia tie-up, Kering has an internship competition with Parsons The New School for Design, an awards program with London’s Royal College of Art via Brioni and an internship program and education fund at Tsinghua University in Beijing with Gucci. Pinault said he would travel to China in November to “renew and intensify” that partnership.
He stressed that the transmission of craft skills is particularly precious, and that companies must ensure this. Kering was “very lucky through Brioni to have acquired one of the best, if not the best, school of tailoring, the Scuola Sartoria Nazareno Fonticoli,” he noted, also mentioning leather artisan schools attached to Bottega Veneta and Gucci.
Still, work needs to be done to make the luxury industry a top government priority in France and Italy to ensure that education in the field gets appropriate levels of investment, he stressed
“In design, France and Italy need to be much more proactive,” he said.
The executive attended London Fashion Week for the first time last February following Kering’s majority investment in Christopher Kane, and he was struck by the fact that Britain’s first lady, Samantha Cameron, hosted a cocktail at 10 Downing Street to kick off the shows.
“It’s very symbolic, but it doesn’t exist in France. France and Italy take [the fashion industry] for granted,” he said. “We need to be much more consistent in supporting a long-term vision of that industry and what it means in terms of education, training, artisans in key areas, and this has to be brought in by the private and public sectors. This is what Vogue Italia has been doing quite efficiently and we should be more proactive in France doing this, too.”