NEW YORK — “A huge sense of ownership is key to retaining staff.”

That message came from Debi Fine, president, Avon Future/Teen Business, who spoke at the Luxury Marketing Council’s seminar on “human capital” Tuesday morning at The 21 Club.

Keeping the team together is a challenge for turnover-plagued retail and fashion industries. But providing autonomy, “repotting” corporate talent and acknowledging accomplishments were among key recommendations on how to retain staff made by Fine and the other panelists — Jim Wiggett, founder and president of Jackson Hole Group management consulting, and Mitchell Kosh, senior vice president of human resources for Polo Ralph Lauren Corp.

The event was hosted by Tierney Remick and Marnie McBryde, partners at Korn/Ferry International, and Forbes.

Fine said when she arrived at Avon three years ago, she was given a blank sheet of paper, but not a blank check. Her early days were spent operating on a “wing, prayer and dream.”

She said one of her biggest challenges was determining what should be the blueprint for the business. The beauty industry lacked examples that were rooted in a firm direction, and “back then you couldn’t Google your way into the future,” she noted. “There really is and was no blueprint for this business. It really came down to people,” and in particular, those with expertise that Fine didn’t possess. The business has been in incubation mode, and will reach its one-year anniversary on Sunday, as an operational unit, she said.

Fine stressed taking a team approach to build a business, and having “confident number twos across the business,” namely, individuals who can be decisive. That gives her staff a sense of “ownership,” which Fine explained can foster loyalty. Having the freedom to balance family obligations and work is important, too, Fine added. She admitted she doesn’t worry about executives taking half days for family matters or medical appointments.

She also said she believes in handwritten notes and phone calls to acknowledge accomplishments, providing access to senior management, creating clear career paths for her team, sharing industry contacts and getting staff involved in events. “Share your Rolodex,” she said. “Provide access to press relationships.”

This story first appeared in the July 28, 2004 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

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At firms melding operations, and refining mission strategies, Wiggett suggested strong executives could be transferred to other divisions, where they could ultimately prove even more valuable. It’s a concept he called “repotting.”

He said companies face a dearth of talent because many no longer provide training and support mechanisms, relying on “scouts” to find qualified candidates from the labor pool. However, the skills needed may already exist within a company’s staff, he said.

“Repositioning employees in another job may provide [a firm with] more skilled talent than replacement talent,” he noted.

Kosh spoke about how Polo has been in transformational mode — from private company to public company, from wholesaler to vertical operator and from a domestic business to a global operation — and the challenges inherent in preserving the vision of Ralph Lauren and the culture of the company, amid all the changes. “We are in the midst of major growth on every level,” he noted.