What a Fashion retail CEO has learned about working from home during COVID-19

04 May 2020

What a Fashion retail CEO has learned about working from home during COVID-19

In our fourth interview with a CEO at home, we talk to Erik-Jan Mares, CEO of fashion retailer Zeeman textielSupers, about his leadership challenges during the pandemic

What does your work situation look like during this pandemic?

Zeeman is located in Alphen aan den Rijn where we do not only have the service office, but also the distribution center. Out of the 8000 people that work for us, a number of people, especially in the distribution center, have to be on location due to the specific nature of their work, and that also applies to a number of other disciplines within Zeeman. 20 to 25 people at the service office are there every day because they cannot work from home because of their role.

The CFO and I decided that we will be at the office every other day to show our appreciation for and commitment to them. So I work at home one day and the other day at the office.

What type of insights has this COVID-19 situation given you?

During a crisis, a company, a brand or a person shows his real face, his true character. And these faces are not always beautiful, I have come to learn. But luckily, I came across a lot of nice ones as well!

What do you like and what do you find difficult about the disruption caused by this pandemic?

This crisis came out of nowhere. One month we were still busy implementing our growth strategy, working hard on it and making huge investments; and then within a few weeks we had to think completely differently, and focus on one thing; ‘how do I ensure that I survive as a company during this difficult time’.

"It is, as we all know, unclear when the normal situation might return. If it returns at all"

On a professional level, I find it very interesting because this is something we will probably experience only once in our life. And to see how the company, how we as a team and as an individual deal with it, as one great learning curve.

But there is also concern. We have the care and responsibility for the 8,000 people that work for us. We will never be 100% sure if everyone stays healthy or keeps their job. That is a real concern. It worries me.

"There have been days in the beginning when I really couldn't do anything for myself, and I was only working all day long. Now that the first phase of the crisis seems to be over, I can more easily find my balance again"

What advice would you give other CEOs facing the COVID-19 leadership challenge?

We have not panicked from the start and stayed calm. We have very quickly formulated, as a team, as a company, three guiding principles based on which we would make our decisions.

That immediately reduces stress levels and has brought us a lot of calm and benefits afterwards. The first principle had to do with putting the health and safety of our associates first. The second one, maybe even hand-in-hand with the first one, was to secure business continuity in the short term. The third, which will probably turn out to be the most important one for the future is agreement on the way we were going to deal with the crisis.

It is very easy to unilaterally announce all kinds of measures and for example tell our landlords and suppliers that we will no longer pay them, but it does not work that way. We have a completely different view. We wanted to ensure that we followed our values ​​and our culture, and certainly for us as a family-owned business, that is very important.

Firstly, we want to be ‘zuinig’ (economical in a caring way) with regards to people, resources and society.

Erik-Jan Mares

To follow, we wanted to stay ‘involved’. Show that we do something extra in the whole value chain, because we understand that all partners in the value chain are having a hard time as well. And we do this our own way (‘eigenzinnig’). We do what fits with our principles, based on applying the human dimension, the human scale (‘de menselijke maat’).

“How you get through the crisis is actually even more important than what you do to solve the situation”

Because that's what people remember. Customers will remember, our associates will remember, our partners will remember, NGOs will remember, politicians will remember. Our true face. What we stand for.

And we have been very understanding to all our partners in the chain. For example, we have come up with custom made solutions towards suppliers and towards landlords. That has not been easy, but it fits with the human dimension that we want to express, no matter what.

“In summary, it is the human dimension (‘menselijke maat’) that counts.”

Keep the human dimension and when you get out of this, people will remember how you acted in the crisis. And based on that, they may or may not want to do business with you in the future.

Thank you, Erik-Jan Mares, for your insights today.