When Giny Boer joined C&A Europe two years ago, after 23 years selling furniture and homewares with Ikea, she found a retailer in urgent need of the sort of refresh that her Swedish former employer promises its home-making customers.

C&A, founded in 1841 by young Dutch brothers Clemens and August Brenninkmeijer, was operating 1,400 shops in 18 European countries — but they were wildly different sizes and layouts, including some four-storey stores that had long outlived consumer taste. Boer found 12 different versions of the company’s famous oval logo strewn across the group.

She arrived at the group’s Düsseldorf headquarters as European retailers were moving through their most disruptive period since the second world war, shifting in and out of Covid-19 pandemic lockdowns. At first only the management team were in the office — and most of them were only there to meet their new boss. She was able to visit some of the group’s shops in Germany, but for weeks she was mainly a virtual presence to her new colleagues.

During an interview over lunch in Luxembourg, where she is due to speak at an FT event, the 59-year-old Dutchwoman repeatedly stresses her pragmatism. While studying developmental psychology in the 1980s, for instance, Boer spotted that economists were walking straight into jobs while psychologists were missing out. She started studying economics in the evening, while working as a sales assistant in a clothing store, and went straight into business.

Faced with the constraints of the pandemic, Boer took a similarly practical approach. Online interviews allowed her to talk to many people and absorb a lot of information about the challenge she faced. “I could talk to people and I had facts . . . without any noise,” she says. By the time she stepped into the chief executive role in December 2020, she had filled four A4 notebooks with her observations.

One fact was that C&A was missing online sales, because its digital approach was under-developed: its single logistics hub could not cope with demand. Another was that it lacked a unifying concept. As chief executive, Boer quickly pressed to open two more fulfilment centres and implemented a “One C&A” programme of store rationalisation and refurbishment. “We said, ‘We need to do something fast’ — after a year, people should feel when [they] walk into C&A that something’s happening,” she says.

Four hundred shops have already been revamped. For instance, on Berlin’s Kurfürstendamm, the German capital’s historic shopping street, C&A’s three-floor store of nearly 5,000 sq m has been transformed into an airier, trendier retail hub. The rest of the store portfolio will be “right-sized” into large, medium and small formats (some as small as shops-within-shops), with the first part of the transformation complete by 2024.

As a company still owned by the Brenninkmeijers’ private Cofra Holding, C&A does not issue detailed sales figures, but, measured against 400 reference stores, sales from the refreshed format are up and footfall has increased by 8 per cent. Workers are also happier, as outdated back rooms and rest areas have been redecorated and refurnished.

These are easy victories. Yet even as the pandemic ebbs, Boer faces a combination of structural and cyclical pressure. A few kilometres from where our interview is taking place, in Bertrange, is a 2,100 sq m C&A. The ground-floor store is typical of the “medium” format, but still awaiting refurbishment. In the same shopping centre, it is up against brighter, more modern H&M and Zara stores, with merchandise priced to compete with, respectively, C&A’s budget and premium ranges. All three are heading into a cost of living crisis such as retail has not experienced in most countries since the 1970s. How can Boer differentiate C&A’s offering, in store and online, where price comparison is even easier?

In the interviews with colleagues that filled her notebooks, Boer came under pressure to do more online, but few staff singled out competitors by name. Instead, she was asked repeatedly: “Who do you want us to be?” Her gnomic response — “I want us to be us” — seemed to satisfy staff. Boer says they were tired of having to swing from budget to premium strategies and back again under successive chief executives. Range and price are among the most important strategic decisions C&A has to take, she says, but adds “you cannot just shoot from the hip and do what I think is important. That doesn’t work. So everybody was so relieved that I wasn’t going from left to right.”

“In many ways, C&A suffered from imposter syndrome,” adds Allan Leighton, the veteran retailer who chairs C&A. “It tried for the last 20 years to be something else, when it has an identity of its own, which is hugely successful.”

A second common criticism Boer distilled from her notes was that senior managers needed to communicate better. “When I started, [C&A] was . . . very masculine, very bureaucratic, a lot of layers. So I thought how do we do this? How do we become more approachable . . . not like a CEO who sits there in an ivory tower?”

Boer has put in place a variety of initiatives to answer that need. They include a monthly “Let’s Connect” session, where people from over the company sign up to pose questions to the chief executive and her chief people officer, whom she hired from Ikea, regular updates and town halls, and a twice-monthly “Failure Friday”. At this last event, three staff members share experiences of failure with staff online, as part of an effort to encourage a culture where people dare to speak up.

Boer says it would be an exaggeration to say that she is drawing on her early knowledge of psychology by flattening the hierarchy and encouraging more transparency. She has, however, always had “a huge interest in people: how can you get the best out of [them]? How can everybody become their best self? So how do we create at C&A a culture such that everybody feels their best self, so they can give their best self?”

Given the competition, the poor economic outlook and the size of the turnround she is trying to achieve, it is easy to wonder if a culture shift alone will be sufficient to revive C&A. Boer at least has the advantage that she can carry out her changes under cover of private ownership. While she is reluctant to compare working for Ikea, also family-controlled, with the experience of working with the Brenninkmeijers (“really supportive but not interfering”), she says she likes the “long-term thinking” that families apply to their businesses.

It is one reason, Boer says, that the family owners of Ikea and C&A have put environmental goals high on the agenda. This is one pillar of her emerging strategy, the details of which she prefers to keep under wraps.

Three questions for Giny Boer

Who is your leadership hero?

I have many different ones, but I do not like to copy someone. You learn different things from different leaders/people. Today my hero is my boss Allan Leighton.

What was the first leadership lesson you learnt?

Always explain the why, and lead through people.

What would you be if you were not running C&A?

I would still be Giny — a mum, a partner, a sister, a friend, a daughter.

Even when customers are increasingly looking for better prices, she says C&A will not compromise on sustainability; though, ever the pragmatist, she may have to adapt. The group is bringing some sourcing closer to the customer, for instance. It owns a highly automated denim factory in Mönchengladbach in Germany, where machines distress the cloth with lasers rather than stone-washing with water.

“What we want to do now is democratise sustainable fashion,” Boer says. “So it shouldn’t be a choice and a difficult thing for our customers.” Building on its legacy of affordability, C&A should be able to continue to offer “everyday low prices”, she says, inadvertently echoing the slogan used by Walmart and its former UK subsidiary Asda, where Leighton was once chief executive.

She pays credit to the “good chemistry” she has with her chair, who in turn describes Boer as a “breath of fresh air”. Leighton says she has brought humility, kindness and vulnerability to the job as well as the “brilliant eye” of a very good retailer. At the FT event later, she tells the audience of mainly female executives to “be yourself, believe in yourself, enjoy what you do, and deliver”.

At C&A, she may be making up for lost time. Asked what she might confess at Failure Friday, she eventually admits she stayed too long at Ikea. “If you are in a culture you almost don’t dare to think outside . . . When you step out and you see you can learn again and how much you also can give, it gives [you] so much energy.”

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