Corporate Insights: Stephanie ten Berge weighs in on brand positioning and being a leader at H&M Group

Many CEMS alumni have chosen to build their careers with CEMS Corporate Partners. In this interview series, we explore the diverse career paths CEMS alumni have embarked on at these companies. Today we meet Stephanie ten Berge, Commercial Advisor Portfolio Brands with H&M Group, who tells us about understanding the local customer and cultures, brand positioning, and being a leader who understands the nuances of other people.
Stephanie ten Berge - CEMS Alumni

Have you ever wandered past a COS store, or a branch of & Other Stories, and stopped to ask yourself: why is this particular store right here and not located elsewhere? Why is this store next door to another brand that I like? Why is it arranged in a way that feels familiar to me and creates certain expectations around the shopping experience that I can identify?

The location, context and staging of bricks and mortar retail stores might strike you as random. Perhaps you’ve never really given it much thought. But in reality, there is a huge amount of strategy, management, collaboration, creativity and of course financial resources that goes into the decision to open, maintain or refurbish any branch of COS and & Other Stories or H&M.

So says Stephanie ten Berge, Commercial Advisor Portfolio Brands with H&M Group. And she should know. It falls to ten Berge to analyse the business case behind each new or refurbished store for H&M Group’s portfolio brands around the world, and to pitch that case to H&M’s global management board—usually within 60 seconds or less.

“It’s my role to work with the local Lease Managers and the Portfolio Brand’s Expansion Managers and determine whether or not a store in a new location in Shanghai, New York, Beijing or London will work for the brand,” she says.

And that means understanding the local customer and cultures, predict the potential turnover and cost structure, assess if the deal is in line with market norm and evaluate the return on investment
Stephanie ten Berge

The role also entails analysing target customer shopping habits and expectations to determine how big or “visible” a store needs to be, and how the brand needs to be positioned in terms of its competition. Location is profoundly interlinked with brand positioning, says ten Berge. A COS store, for instance, should be positioned in proximity to higher-end competition than another H&M group brand. Mistakes can be costly, she adds, so a good deal of thought and collaboration with experts is necessary before making the pitch to senior management. Negotiation is a key capability here: ensuring that the teams are well poised to negotiate the best rental agreement with landlords, in terms of the leverage they have.

“I routinely work with real estate experts, property landlords, engineers, architects, brand expansion managers—a real spectrum of profiles—to get a realistic picture of how a store will work and what the return on investment will look like. And there’s a lot of fun and creativity involved in the work.  It’s something I love, and I love the fact it’s also something I’d never envisioned for myself.”

A CEMS graduate of Rotterdam School of Management and the National University of Singapore, ten Berge met with H&M on campus nine years ago and instantly clicked with the team. In particular, she was drawn by the company culture and the chance to work internationally right of the bat. She joined the international trainee programme in 2015; an opportunity that took her to New York as a recent graduate.

“It was like something out of ‘The Devil Wears Prada’,” she laughs. “A completely amazing experience that exposed me to different roles. The hiring team had looked at my profile and selected different departments and countries for my training. So within a year, I switched to Switzerland and later my career led me to Sweden and Belgium and then back to Sweden.”

Hitting the jackpot

In the nine years that she has spent with the company, she has enjoyed a huge degree of flexibility and diversity. In her previous role she was appointed to Head of Expansion within the real estate division, managing a team of 16 in Brussels.

“I’ve been with H&M for almost a decade which is longer than any previous romantic relationship,” she laughs. “It’s like hitting the jackpot and such a good match for me.”

The company has empowered her, she says, from the get-go. She was appointed Store Development Manager with team responsibility just one year after graduating. And as a young Lease Manager, she was sent out to negotiate lease agreements with Swiss bankers, in some cases twice her age. The faith put in her paid off, as ten Berge went on to land deals for the inaugural stores for both Weekday and H&M Home in Switzerland.

H&M Group has “fantastic standards” in terms of work-life balance, she says. The company facilitates career progression while accommodating critical needs such as parental leave for both parents. As an organisation, H&M is intrinsically value-driven; this is a culture that celebrates the personal and family lives of its people as much as their professional acumen and that believes firmly in the equality of all of its employees. These are among the many reasons that ten Berge has “stayed put” over the years.

We think about our values all the time. And it plays a big role in things like recruitment too, because we are looking for people who share our values: open-minded team players; entrepreneurial thinkers
Stephanie ten Berge

“I’ve seen this working with different country organisations within my company all over the world. We’re all very different but we always click because we have the same values: we are one team, we believe in people, we are entrepreneurs, we make constant improvement, we are cost-conscious, we are straightforward and open minded. And we keep it simple.”

Teamwork and Autonomy

Working with H&M Group has been something of a dotted line with the CEMS experience in this sense, says ten Berge. CEMS prepared her to function in different geographies and cultural contexts and to collaborate with international colleagues. The experience of never being alone—of continuously working with diverse people on shared projects—is not dissimilar to her current job.

“CEMS is really a perfect preparation for my kind of work because you are working in groups preparing a holistic, well-thought-through business case to present,” she says. “And there’s a real overlap for me in the sense that I wanted to work for a company where I had true ownership of problems.”

Having—as well as giving—autonomy has been a mainstay throughout her career at H&M.

“H&M believed in me at a young age and gave me the chance to formally manage a team just a year after graduating from uni. As a young leader, I was initially quite naïve, and I had to learn to understand the nuances of other people’s needs.”

Leadership in her experience was a great deal more than simply providing structure, and more like learning how to become a “gardener:” understanding that people, like plants, grow and thrive in different ways.
Stephanie ten Berge

Some need to be nurtured, cultivated and coached. Others need to be left alone more. Above all, managing others is about providing a clear direction, a foundation of psychological safety and allowing people to find their way. 

“I’ve learned that as a manager, it’s up to you to spot what people need and create the trust and safety for them to build on. It’s about working with strengths, rather than focusing on weaknesses.”

Focusing on strengths and identifying passion is advice that ten Berge would share with any aspiring leader looking to make their way in today’s world. Finding the thing you enjoy is critical to navigating any kind of career in any industry. That, and feeling you have real ownership of the problems and challenges you will face.

“You will spend a big chunk of your life at work, so my advice is to find something you enjoy. You may not love your job every day and there will be challenges ahead for sure, but if you are able to connect with some passion that you have, you will find the rewards. Mine is a challenging industry—it’s competitive and it’s really fast-paced. But I’ve always been up for a challenge!”