CCO Talk: Consumers in the boardroom of… Schoenen Torfs
Meet our CCO (Chief Consumer Officer) Talk series, offering people from the C suite a chance to share their views on driving consumer centricity and activation in their organizations. This time, I had the opportunity to talk with Wouter Torfs, CEO of Schoenen Torfs. Schoenen Torfs is a Belgian family-owned shoe retailer, originated right after the Second World War by Louis Torfs. Wouter Torfs took over as CEO in 1986, being a descendant of the third generation. Today, Schoenen Torfs realizes a turnover of more than 100 million euro, employs 570 employees and has been awarded 4 times as ‘Best Belgian Employer‘ by the Vlerick Business School. During my talk with Wouter, I wanted to find out about the recipe of success which brought Schoenen Torfs to where it is today.
Schoenen Torfs is known for its warm organizational culture, showing respect to people and putting them in the middle of its attention. Where does that philosophy come from and how did it unfold over time?
Being one of the most people-centric organizations has not really been a deliberate choice for us; it is and always has been part of our DNA. In our first shoe store in Lier in the ‘20s, my grandparents were already well-known in the area for their extreme level of friendliness, not only to customers but also to their ‘store daughters’. I think that is typically the strength of a lot of family-owned businesses: going back to the core roots of the business and keeping this relevant over time, adjusting to evolving needs and contexts, thereby adding to the credibility and authenticity of their brand. We very much realize that the product we are selling is not unique. We sell high-quality shoes and offer a broad range of well-known brands, but these shoes and brands can be found elsewhere as well. The service we offer is competitive, but not unique either.
Our prime differentiator and USP is customer friendliness, being driven to a very large extent by employee happiness and enthusiasm. Employees who are passionate about something naturally pass on their passion onto customers. But we want to go beyond mere client friendliness. A company should be more than a place which makes money and employs people. We believe companies should take up a societal responsibility, showing to different stakeholders ‘which side of the fence’ you are on. This reasoning is at the basis of our newly defined mission, moving from ‘People, planet, profits’ to what we call ‘360° care-taking’. The 360° refers to taking care of and being devoted not only to shareholders, but also to customers, employees and society at large.
In the meantime, you have grown your business to an impressive size. How challenging is it to keep your DNA vibrant and alive among 570 employees across more than 70 stores?
That is indeed a challenging task, especially if you realize that about 80% of our employees were not on our payroll 4 years ago, as we doubled the size of our business during that period. I am a fan of Peter Drucker’s quote “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” While making the right strategic choice is important, you make the ultimate difference through culture and mentality, especially in a context where you are growing fast. Getting the right people on the bus is our first priority, where we train our recruiters to “hire the smile”. People we hire are spontaneously friendly and do not need to force themselves to smile and act kindly. We are very demanding and strict about this. To us, the smile is far more important than the intelligence or capabilities people show. Our grandparents consistently invited new store personnel to have dinner at their place. If they did not turn out to be enjoyable and fun company, they would probably not generate enough value for clients.
Furthermore, we bring together all of our people at regular intervals, living and breathing our culture together, co-creating our future as one big family. By doing so, we create a kind of ‘IKEA effect’ in the sense that doing things together and having people involved in defining our strategy results in a deeper connection with and understanding of our culture. Finally, the fact that we communicate quite a lot about our values and that we participated in the ‘Best Belgian Employer’ competition for 8 years in a row also results in a natural attraction to the right people too. It also means we put our lives on the line by doing this, accepting that we cannot always win and that we need to work hard every single day to be and stay the best. If you can’t stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen. Last year, we ended second after McDonald’s Belgium taking the award of ‘Best Belgian Employer’. Being consistent, open and truthful to our purpose is of key importance; next year we will again try and be number one.
Is that also the reason why you decided to write your first book “De ziel zit in een schoenendoos” (“The soul lives in a shoebox”) and why you are now in the process of writing a second one? Is that part of a deliberate strategy to build a stronger employer brand for the outside world to see?
Not really, it’s more of a personal passion. Personally I am totally convinced that a company should play a significant positive role in society, turning organizations into communities of people who think alike and work towards a common shared purpose. People are more than just economic agents who let a part of their available time; we need to look at them more holistically. That’s really my passion: to turn Schoenen Torfs into an exemplary company when it relates to this, to create an environment where work and fun are very much intertwined. I started thinking about structuring my ideas around this, pulling them apart into different building blocks, reading more about it; that is how the first book came about. It is also a great way of somehow taking some distance from one’s own day-to-day environment, looking at one’s own business in a more objective way and driving new insights from that to fuel the future.
Can you already tell us a bit more about the second book you are working on?
Sure! The overall topic will be about ‘great places to work’: why society is demanding this much more now than let’s say 10 years ago, what the different building blocks are of great places to work at, what type of (shared) leadership is required and expected, how this should be translated into vision, mission and corporate strategy, what role is taken up by values and personal development. The book will be based on what we have tried successfully (and less successfully) in the past and will comprise the different learning lessons we derived from that.
Schoenen Torfs recently decided to set up a structural collaboration with customers through its own ‘Consumer Consulting Board’. How does that initiative fit into the overall strategic goals of your company?
We would not take ourselves seriously if we kept saying we strive to become the most customer-centric retailer in Belgium without ‘hard listening’ to our customers. The Consumer Consulting Board is the perfect answer to our need to reinvent ourselves through collaborating with customers. The customer is a priority for everyone in our company. As the board enables us to connect people from different departments with the consumer in an ongoing way, we are able to better support our mission and goals. The following may give you an idea of how we measure our level of customer orientation: every store is confronted with a mystery shopper (phrased as ‘customer learning visit’) 6 times a year, who collects feedback on essential parameters which are underlying to customer centricity. Stores which get an average score of 8 out of 10 on their 6 visits are rewarded with a bonus.
The board allows us to go a step further as, next to validating how we are doing, we can tap into the co-creative power and inspiration customers can provide us with. In that respect, this is a very logical next move for us to take. It helps us move from just listening and being close to consumers to actually working together as a family, in the same way we do with our employees. As from now, we will literally leave a seat open in our board meetings to represent the consumer, taking this consumer seriously and making sure we deliberately take into account consumers when discussing strategic projects and challenges. For the first time, it is actually possible to start doing this through innovative solutions such as a Consumer Consulting Board. We are very excited about all of this and I am convinced our grandparents would have been as well.
Thanks, Wouter, for sharing your thoughts on how to build a consumer- and employee-centric community. I’m looking forward to reading your next book and seeing you take the next steps in this!