Helena Helmersson, CEO at H&M, finds purpose in retail

H&M Group Chief Operating Officer Helena Helmersson has worked her way up in the H&M Group since 1997 (Update: in January 2020, she was announced as CEO of the group). Throughout the years, she has developed great loyalty for the company, and also gained valuable insights into how a modern, agile supply chain is set up, as well as what the future of retail will entail.

H&M Group Chief Operating Officer Helena Helmersson has worked her way up in the H&M Group since 1997 (Update: in January 2020, she was announced as CEO of the group). Throughout the years, she has developed great loyalty for the company, and also gained valuable insights into how a modern, agile supply chain is set up, as well as what the future of retail will entail.

As a starting point, can you describe your journey within H&M Group?

I started my career at H&M Group and have never really had any other employer. It was quite early on that it became clear to me the impact a company like the H&M Group can have, and that I wanted to be part of it. So, when I got offered the position to work as Head of Sustainability, I couldn’t turn it down. The company has such clear ambitions within that area, and it’s also an area that requires a lot of change across the whole industry. I held that position for five years before I moved to Hong Kong to work as Head of Production. There, my vision of changing the industry became even clearer, and I saw that as a chance to drive sustainability in production, both environmentally and socially. Then last year, I got the chance to move back to Stockholm to take on the position as COO.

In this role, I feel that I can contribute even more to positive change. With different roles, your vision often changes, but by now I have formed my own “why?”, or my own purpose, which is about being a door-opener to collaboration or change.

At the factory Hangzhou Suntex, China.

As you know, we want to talk about Purposeful Retail. What does that term mean to you? What went through your head when you saw the term?

First of all, when I initially saw this project, I immediately knew it was something I wanted to contribute to, as it is one thing that I truly believe in. There’s a lot of research and articles about purpose-driven leadership, i.e. how one can truly engage an organization to follow a direction and do everything within each different role to contribute. For me, it’s about using the reason for being as a guide in whatever you do. For H&M Group, that would be to use the purpose as a guide in how we offer customers our products, how we show who we are, and how we design the right product. I find a lot of guidance in our reason for being.

Are there any particular instances or examples of where you feel like you truly were on the right track and guiding with purpose?

The production journey stands out in my mind. I especially remember two days when we gathered 60 people to co-create a meaningful direction. There was a lot of power that came out of that workshop because when they returned to their organizations, they had a certain kind of engagement that really meant something. This made the organization very powerful. And I’m sure we didn’t fully get down to all 3,400 people, but for me, that was a moment when I realized that wow, this really works. I could see both the long-term and short-term results, and how there was a red thread that guided us to much more challenging goals. I saw a lot of power within the organization and realized how everyone has their own identity and drive to guide them.

A worker in one of H&M’s factories in Bangladesh.

What are the challenges when bridging the gap between customers and production?

You need an understanding of what the customers want. We also need to understand what is going on in production and what we can highlight to make customers aware that they can come here for guilt-free shopping. We definitely have a journey ahead of us in this regard.

How does the relationship differ between the production world and the retail world in the countries where you also produce clothes?

There is definitely an advantage when the retail business is growing in these countries. It becomes so much easier. You get a sense of pride walking through the store and seeing the products you’ve been creating. And at the same time, if something doesn’t look good, you also feel a sense of ownership and responsibility for those items.

With something like the Conscious Collection, is it obvious which projects H&M has led the customers on sustainability or when sustainability has been pushed by the customers?

I can clearly see that a few of our initiatives have changed our customers’ behaviors in a positive way. The Conscious Collection is a perfect example of this. I would also like to highlight the recycling initiative where our customers can bring back old clothes for recycling to any of our stores. This is really changing our customers’ behaviors. And this has been really successful. We have also launched repair services in some of our stores to extend the life of our garments. There are many stakeholders that help push us in becoming more sustainable — customers being a very important one. But changing our customers’ behaviors and their perception of H&M won’t happen overnight.

From the Conscious Exclusive collection 2019.

The customer experience is clearly something of great value to H&M Group, will this be one of the key values that the retail environment will offer in the future?

In order to focus on the customer experience, it’s important to first clarify each brand’s DNA to our customers — who they are, their purpose, their mission. How can we communicate that red thread across social media and in-store? As a company, you can’t be generic anymore. You must be able to deal with the global, local and personal level of the customer. How do we become more personal in our communication? How do we adapt this into a local context? And what part can remain global to still create synergies?

A new focus on customer experience

The supply chain is a hot topic for anyone working in retail at the moment. How do you see the supply chain developing in the near future and what role will H&M Group play in that development?

There is a lot happening in the supply chain right now and a lot of it is due to technology. I think it’s really about finding out what should be the competitive advantages in a supply chain context when it comes to speed, agility, cost efficiency, and price.

Also, by listening to our customers’ demands, we can optimize what to produce, how much to produce and where to sell the products. This is not only good for our customers, but also for the environment and our business. It’s a lot about moving away from a generic way of working to adapting it to a more customized offer. We also have to look at partnerships differently and decide who our strategic partners are and what kind of partnership to build with them. It’s almost like building a new type of relationship, which I think is really exciting.

Wastewater management at the factory Kahatex, Indonesia.

There is a big trend towards the shared economy. How is H&M tackling this trend?

We are closely monitoring this trend and where it’s heading. We come from being one big brand to now being a group of brands. We’re moving more in the direction of an ecosystem, which is also triggering more innovative business models and ideas on finding new revenue streams. For example, we recently announced that one of our brands, &Other Stories, will collaborate with Sellpy, a company that helps people sell their second-hand garments.

We believe that the used garment sector has great potential for growth and see these types of initiatives as complements to our business.

We saw in a previous interview you called yourself a “DOer”. First off, we’re very happy to hear that! But more importantly, what advice do you have for young DOers to lead with purpose?

My advice is that you should choose your own context. If I were to rewind time, I would have worked on my own “why?” much earlier because I get so much energy and guidance from it. It’s all about choosing the right context and the right employer with whom you share similar values. This has been very important to me and is also why I have this loyalty to the company. There is such power in that. I also think that as a young DOer, everything doesn’t have to be so complex. Being one of the leaders in H&M Group, I often deal with complex issues. However, I try to keep those complex issues to myself, and not let the rest of the organization deal with all of it. I want to make it easier for others to understand why they should do something.

And finally, have you any tips for those interested in Purposeful Retail?

Make sure that you use your reason for being as a guide. This is really important, both on a personal level, but also within Purposeful Retail. It’s all about finding your reason for being and using that as a guiding star and source of energy as you develop your company.

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