Insider story: The war on talent – Dr. Marten’s impressive cultural transformation

Dr. Marten’s impressive cultural transformation
Dr. Marten’s impressive cultural transformation

For this instalment of ‘Insiders Story’ Helen Verwoert – Global HR Director of Dr. Martens kindly spared a couple of hours of her time to talk to me about the Dr. Martens journey.

Dr. Martens is an iconic British brand founded in 1960 in Northamptonshire. Originally produced for workers looking for tough, durable boots, the brand was quickly adopted by diverse youth subcultures and associated with musical movements. Dr. Martens have since transcended their working-class roots, while still celebrating their proud heritage and, nearly six decades later, “Docs” or “DMs” are worn by people around the world who use them as a symbol of empowerment and their own individual attitude. Dr. Martens currently trades in 58 countries worldwide.

Now based in Camden, arguably the hippest area of London, Dr. Martens is a globally dominant household name – with a brand and identity to make the edgiest of retailers jealous. However, it hasn’t always been plain sailing. After threats of bankruptcy in the early noughties Dr. Martens were acquired by a business in 2013.

Dr. Martens firm set out ambitious plans to generate £400million revenue in four years, doubling headcount and increasing stores globally from 15 to over 100 – no mean feat by any stretch of the imagination. With the company being so fiercely independent in their approach, their brand and identity were at risk of being diluted.

Helen joined the brand in 2013, shortly before the sale, so she had the opportunity to work with the family first hand.  Speaking of why she joined Dr. Martens, Helen said, ‘I loved the brand. There’s something different about us, we do it our way.’

And she isn’t wrong. Whilst the fundamentals of employee engagement and cultural development are similar from company to company, what Dr. Martens have done is create something that is very unique to themselves and it really sets them apart from the rest.


Rebellious self expression

Helen and the team knew what made Dr. Martens special, but it was crucial for them to define this more formally.

‘It became key for us to define who we are and what our expectations are. What do we love, what do we preserve and equally what do we evolve? There is a lot of superficial shit around culture. What is different about us is, whether you are a consumer or an employee, you get the same experience from us.’

Focus groups were held over a period of 6 months that involved employees from different areas and levels of seniority across the business and from this, the essence of the business was extracted. ‘Rebellious Self Expression’ – a simple, powerful and memorable phrase which was at the heart of everything they do.

After the focus groups and much thought and discussion, Dr. Martens went ‘On The Record’, quite literally, by printing their ambitions, purpose and fundamental beliefs on 7 inch vinyl, complete with artwork and sleeve.


Culture vultures and a revelation in social networking

As we all know, developing and maintaining a great culture isn’t just about sticking some values on a fancy disc and sending it to your employees. Culture isn’t a gimmick.

Helen went out to the business to ask for volunteers to be culture ambassadors – and was amazed to get over 40 responses – the ‘Culture Vultures’ was born.

The responsibility of ‘Culture Vultures’ was to live and breathe ‘doing things the DM way’ looking at mental health & wellbeing, how they could make meaningful connections, as well as collaborating internally and connecting with key charities and local communities to create opportunities to be able to give something back.

The Vultures learnt that nurturing a culture wasn’t about quick wins – sure the free food and office parties were nice, but that’s wasn’t what made Dr. Martens the business it is.

‘The Culture Vultures have really been getting traction from the business, they have got buy in from senior leadership and it has empowered them to see how we work as a business’.

They have developed and embedded some amazing initiatives including ‘CultureAmp’, an intuitive online employee engagement platform, which provides real-time results and feedback.

A real game changer is – LifeWorks. LifeWorks is an internal social networking platform for all Dr. Martens employees, implemented to help keep people connected, rewarded, recognised and supported. It combines a live newsfeed, employee benefits, an EAP service and a colleague directory, with people being able to post live updates from their sites and give each other recognition.

Helen admits ‘In the past our comms wasn’t great – but with Lifeworks everyone around the world can see what we are up to – from HQ, to the stores and the factory teams, everyone has really embraced it’.

The war on talent

Of course, the key to any great culture is getting the right people. Helen admits they haven’t always got it right. ‘We have to hire people who understand the journey we have been on and where we are going.’

‘We tend to find that when we do interview people, they have an affinity in the brand. We have had people tell us that they were never allowed a pair of Docs as a child, or that they remember their first pair of boots – where, when and why they bought them.’

With DM still on such a huge trajectory, they need agility and adaptability in their employees, as well as having the right leaders to embody the vision of the business. And sometimes this means not hiring the obvious choice.

As a business, they have a flat structure, there is a lack of hierarchy, they don’t take themselves too seriously, but boy do they know how to get shit done!

Now at 103 stores globally, a new CEO and seeing exceptional sales globally, Dr. Martens haven’t lost who they are. Their leaders know what’s going on in their business.

Everyone you meet, from the receptionist to the senior management team are warm, friendly and take the time to understand you as an individual. It is rare in a business you can be unashamedly true to yourself and have that welcomed with open arms.

So…what next?

‘More of the same!’ is Helen’s answer. And who can blame her?

What she and the rest of the business have achieved in the last 5 years is nothing short of remarkable.


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