The secret ingredient of many a glittering Bollywood film is Debenhams. If the hero's striped shirt looks familiar, it could well come from exotic Milton Keynes, where one department store sells railfuls of clothing to an Indian film agent.
When Christine Kennedy, menswear sales manager, struck up a deal with this keen customer, she showed how the company's absolute trust in its staff can pull in £20,000 of repeat business. Kennedy like every member of sales staff, was briefed to do what was best for the customer and for the company and needed no other authority to negotiate a 10% discount with the film agent last year - and now Bollywood is supplied with bright Maine brand clothing its actors apparently adore.
Staff empowerment runs from the bottom up at the newly successful department store. Founded in 1778 its image had slowly become staid. But in the past two years, a new chief executive and relaunch have turned the tide, the 97 stores and internet sales now bring in £1.4billion a year.
Belinda Earl, who started at Debenhams as a Saturday girl, slipped into the top job in 2000. A decision to get back to basics had been taken and 200 employees of all levels were consulted on how the firm should develop. The key phrases to emerge from staff meetings were 'one team', 'passionate about customers', 'innovation' and 'trust and accountability'.
Although people are clearly graded and benefits such as the level of store discounts (25% upwards), holidays and private health insurance depend upon position, staff seem genuinely to feel that they work as one team. Almost three in four of those who took part in our survey agreed that there is a family or team feeling at Debenhams.
Important director and management meetings are videoed and then shown to every employee and Jane Exon, learning and development controller said 'The Belinda factor has been incredible and having a female chief executive in a female dominated firm has had a huge impact. She is a figurehead for loyalty, replacing our old hard nosed, hours driven culture.
The firm is good at recognising talent too. Jane Coulthard 28 and 16 months into her career at Debenhams was promoted from the most basic sales adviser through three grades and is now a junior manager. 'This really wasn't what I expected' she said, 'but if you have talent, they are quick to promote you'.
Ideas are welcome from all and there is a Eureka suggestions scheme, which garnered ideas from 12643 staff last year, 96 of which were put into practice. The firm makes awards from £25 to £1000 for ideas and gave out more than £13000 in 2001.
Flexitime is in demand: Debenhams introduced a scheme offering staff in London and Taunton the choice of spreading their eight hour days between 8am and 6pm to suit them, whilst staff can work four day weeks for a slight cut in pay. There is also the option of buying or selling an extra five days' holiday.
Flexible working does not hinder climbing the career ladder as Exon proved: she has taken maternity leave twice and has just been promoted to her top management training and development role which she will carry out on a four day week. 'Loyalty is an unwritten value here' she said. 'The firm will go to great lengths to find people a role if their current job becomes redundant is is keen to work around staff in order to keep them in whatever hours and positions are best'.
A low head office turnover of 15.7% proves the loyalty this attitude engenders - the stores have a turnover of 40% about average for the retail business However, staff in our survey agreed that the firm was friendly (88%) and welcoming (89%).
The store is leaving behind its musty image and as Bollywood films gain growing cachet in Britain, cinema views might like to keep their eyes peeled for an unexpected Debenhams label or two.
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