Interview with Narinder Kaur, director of HR at Lee Cooper

Managing reward for 3,000 employees across 33 countries presents a number of challenges and requires flexibility at fashion firm Lee Cooper, says Katrina McKeever

Managing reward across a global workforce can be a complex challenge, requiring knowledge of differing tax and legislative regimes, an understanding of diverse cultures, and strong communications. A degree of flexibility is also needed because strategies that sit well with a UK-based sales team, for example, may not be suitable for manufacturing workers overseas.

This is something that Narinder Kaur, director of HR at fashion wholesale retailer Lee Cooper, has had to come to grips with in her international role which includes responsibility for reward for 3,000 staff across 33 countries. The firm’s workforce is split mainly between its manufacturing base in Tunisia, and the UK and France where sales and marketing personnel are mostly employed. There are also smaller sales and marketing operations in India, Indonesia, Hong Kong and China.

“The challenge is to get it right, do the research and make sure that what you have is appreciated in each country,” she says. “Have a core package of benefits, but alter it for each country and see how you can change it to match the expectations of workers in the country you are operating in. Once there, ensure benefits are communicated to each workforce. You know you have got it right when you have harmony.”

Kaur aims to deliver a benefits and reward strategy that motivates Lee Cooper’s workforce, ensuring the company retains a competitive edge in recruitment and retention in each country.

She says the best way to manage parity and ensure workers in all the countries in which the company operates are rewarded fairly and equitably is to use one benefits package as a base and then look at each country in turn to identify normal local practice. Lee Cooper provides a core benefits package based on its UK offering for staff in general, apart from those employed by its Tunisian manufacturing business. “We look at the benefits country by country and need by need, find the nearest product to the one on offer in the UK, and use that,” says Kaur.

The company’s UK core benefits package includes life assurance, private medical insurance (PMI), 25 days’ holiday a year, free car parking and discounts on Lee Cooper products. A pension is also available to all staff, which for the 120 UK-based employees is a stakeholder scheme with matched employer contributions of up to 5%, and up 10% for senior management. “It is [part of] our base benefits package, but we have to change it to accommodate global needs,” says Kaur.

Adapting employee perks

Helping Kaur’s six-strong UK-based international HR team decide how benefits should be adapted for staff in each country are local managers. She also draws on a team of international tax advisers and consultants to monitor tax, legislation and shifting reward expectations in each country to ensure Lee Cooper’s benefits policy is up to scratch.

“Rules and regulations on benefits such as pensions are different in each country, but when any new statutory regulation comes into force, it has not made much difference to us because we tend to be ahead of the game,” she says. “With the Employment Equality (Age) [Regulations] in the UK, for example, it didn’t really make much of a difference to us because we were already one step ahead of the requirements. Both globally and in the UK, we aim to provide more than is required of us by law.”

In Hong Kong, for example, the company has responded to suggestions from the local managing director to provide global health cover for employees and their families, even though there is no legal requirement in the country for employers to provide healthcare benefits for staff. “We thought it was important for staff morale and retention,” says Kaur. “We spend a lot of time ahead of the game doing the research to make sure we accommodate local needs.”

Local staff needs

The benefits on offer vary according to the country, its culture and the type of work being carried out there, says Kaur. At Lee Cooper’s Tunisian operations, for example, the predominantly blue-collar manufacturing workforce do not receive core benefits.

“They are working on a hourly rate [or are paid per item] and are motivated by things such as overtime and additional shift allowance,” she says. “These are basic-paid employees, motivated and incentivised by turning up for work, attendance allowances and bonuses. It is a slightly different set-up and a slightly different work base.”

Elsewhere, Lee Cooper’s workforce largely comprises sales and marketing professionals, who typically expect to receive core benefits. But the value placed on each type of perk differs in each country. For example, in India and the Far East, non-financial rewards are more important to staff, says Kaur. Workers in these regions tend to prefer personal recognition, such as family days, birthday cakes and thank-yous from management for a job well done.

“I was knocked off my chair that something so simple could be valued so highly without costing us a penny,” she says. “In the Far East and India, you look at employees and they are so motivated. They have the same base pay as everybody else and the same benefits packages as everybody else, but they seem so much more appreciative of what they are doing. It makes you wonder why we can’t achieve this in the West.”

One of Kaur’s current priorities is to look at introducing non-financial rewards, which have proven so popular in India and the Far East, to other Lee Cooper workforces. She wants to reintroduce the “simple things that have been lost somewhere along the way” in the West. “Before it was always America and the UK leading the way and everybody else following, and perhaps that is still the case, I am not challenging that, but I think we have a lot of lessons to learn and bring back with us,” she says.

Popular employee benefits

Kaur says Lee Cooper’s core benefits package, offered to all apart from blue-collar workers involved in manufacturing, contains perks that are popular in every country and are key to the company’s global strategy to retain and motivate staff. Universally popular benefits include discounts on company products, PMI and travel insurance. Employee status is largely reflected in salary, with benefits such as company cars offered according to business need.

One of the biggest challenges Kaur currently faces is communicating the benefits packages to each country’s workforce, which she says can be a significant undertaking. Lee Cooper uses standard branding on corporate literature. Details of benefits are translated for each country and explained in a way local workforces will appreciate and understand.

The rewards of getting it right are very fulfilling, says Kaur.

“Our main aim is to have a happy and motivated workforce who are able to achieve their desired objectives and to fulfil the business strategy. The benefits of getting it right are harmony, happy employees, and setting the standard,” she says

At a glance

Lee Cooper Lee Cooper is a designer, distributor and marketer of branded jeans, clothing accessories and footwear. It claims to be the third leading brand of jeans in France and the UK, and the second leading brand in Belgium, based on sales. It employs 3,000 staff in 33 countries, and a licensee network extends its presence to more than 70 countries.

The company was founded by Morris Cooper in 1908 and started out producing workwear and overalls. During the Second World War, the company began manufacturing uniforms for the British army. In 1946, Harold Cooper took his father’s business into the casualwear market, capitalising on the post-war interest in denim and renaming the company Lee Cooper.

Career profile

Narinder Kaur has worked for Lee Cooper for two years as director of human resources, with a global remit for HR and reward.

She is responsible for HR and reward policy for 3,000 employees in 33 countries worldwide, including 120 staff in the UK.

Kaur began her career in retail in 1991 at Arcadia Group, where she held various roles at store level and as a store manager, before moving into operations and then HR. From Arcadia Group, Kaur moved to US water company Ionics, where she took on her first HR director role, which was also her first international position.

“I held a global remit at Ionics for the US, Europe, Ireland, Libya and the Far East, so I got a lot of global exposure,” she says.

After four years there, Kaur moved on to her current role at Lee Cooper.

During her career, Kaur has lived and worked in the US, India, the Netherlands and the UK. She currently works between the UK and France, although she is primarily based in the UK.

Kaur is a fellow of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, a member of Institute of Directors, and has a masters degree in strategic human resources management from Oxford Brookes University.

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