Robert Berza, CEO Fashion Days: The corporation has many knowledge values transferred to us in the country, but the templates tend to even out and flatten organizational cultures
Robert Berza, a CEO at ease at J’ai Bistrot
He started journalism in Cluj and finished it in Bucharest, he worked with passion in the press, that he ingeniously directed online by coordinating the Internet division of ProTV, after which he launched himself in e-commerce, always following new trends and businesses.
Today, Robert Berza is the CEO of Fashion Days, a leader unfettered by the MBA’s patterns, determined to extinguish the “cynicism of Excel” with excess creativity. He responded promptly to my invitation to inaugurate an event of interviews with HR and business leaders from different fields, to discuss the new normality of the labor market in this fluid process of re-configuration of employer-employee relationships, and to dissect how to maintain a strong employer brand in any circumstances.
I can only thank him for coming out of the standard corporate PR discourse, bypassing ready-to-serve answers, taking firm opinions about all the challenges of a leader of figures and people.
I invite you to discover how the pandemic can turn a clothing and accessories website into a brand with personality, why the resume and knowledge are more important in the long run than the salary, and how the Dante company (which owns eMAG and Fashion Days, among others) came to open the way to the hybrid way of working in the domestic market.
In the middle of the pandemic, Fashion Days decided to transform itself from a supplier of clothes and accessories into a brave brand, with a strong, distinct voice, and with some values very clearly assumed. How did the marketing “miracle” happen?
A stable business, with organic growth, allows itself to venture into brand campaigns with attitude, to become creative. When you’re at a loss, the focus is somewhere else.
I arrived in Fashion Days in 2017, before the takeover of the company by the Dante group. A year of unification, in which the confidence and happiness of employees were endangered by all the uncertainties of the takeover.
In the beginning, the goal was to become profitable precisely in order to allow us to get creative and courageous someday. This happened in Romania in the second half of 2019. Later, the pandemic came and creativity has adapted on the fly, always taking into account an essential criterion: in a time of crisis, the first to lose or go down are the leaders.
With fast deliveries, Fashion Days was growing in April-May 2020 and so, in the fall, I was able to come out with a bold brand campaign, but also with an anti-Black Friday in which we encouraged the donation of old clothes, which subsequently brought us 4 Effie awards.
By then, we had communicated clear and cold on the main strengths, staring into Excel because we had to rise above ground zero. Profit allows you to turn to warm marketing – we exported our warm team culture into our brand, along with our concerns in the area of social responsibility, whether it’s called education or voting. We wanted to assume an act of courage to get out of the advertising box with a simple but powerful message – so, with the help of the Papaya Advertising agency, we came to All about good taste, and common sense.
Once you start on this road, there is no going back. We have sought to continue becoming relevant on some topical issues: sustainability, responsible good taste, vaccination. Papaya Advertising brought that out-of-the-box we sought because they are in advertising what Fashion Days is in the online market: a local business, small and fresh. We are always asked: What is happening to you? You have been different for a year! The answer is simple: We are a brand that has moved on to another level.
Unlike the template of large corporations, Fashion Days tends towards a more localized, more normal, more humane organizational culture, warmer than the market in general. People inside the company understand and appreciate that this approach is an exception. Having this organizational culture, it was easy to address some more edgy themes, such as Undress for progress. A more open-minded template, in a business where employee happiness is a real concern, stimulates you to become an innovative, bold, surprising brand and to address topics of social responsibility.
From a business point of view, the pandemic has brought challenges and opportunities. But how did you internalize the responsibility at company level, in relationship with the employees? How did you invent management of the predictability crisis on the fly?
On March 11, 2020, the Dante company decided that everyone works from home, with love and vigor. Work from home was efficient and went well until October 2020 when for me, personally, it crossed to the area of burden or partial solution. At group level, we started talking about the hybrid model as a route for the future.
Within eMAG, Fashion Days is a smaller business, which is an advantage when it comes to managing human resources. For us, it is clear that the classic work model, propagated before the pandemic, was not good, just as the model of working exclusively from home is not good either.
But a welded team manages to move forward, changing working methods, reaching another scale. All of our Black Friday campaigns have prepared us for the pandemic and for the mobilization to sell 5 times more overnight, with the whole system ready.
The demand came upon us, and in the pandemic we had several rounds of Black Friday, at group level (both Fashion Days and eMAG). Having all the set-up, flow, teams, and communication ready, I understood that the most demanding periods in terms of workload were continuous crisis management training.
When this huge volume becomes the usual business, you look at growth, not just the “money pipe”. Growth comes from new projects and, above all, from new people – that means development and innovation.
It is impossible to permanently make innovation and integration of new people with work from home. You’re not launching, for example, in a new country using Teams because you’re going to suffer a lot in terms of efficiency. Integrating people into the team is much harder because they lack the interaction from socializing breaks in the office.
Starting from the decision to expand the business, since October I have understood the importance of face-to-face meetings. From idea to implementation, the process requires live interactions: meeting theatricality has a strong efficiency.
That’s how the discussion about the hybrid came about and Dante was the first big company to take on this model. Hybrid also means liquid, meaning this model will keep changing: we start with a set-up, but it is possible that in a year the model will look different.
What does hybrid mean in Dante’s vision?
Since September, people have to come to the office at least once a week, for the cohesion I was talking about, with the freedom to come on several days if they want to.
In the meantime, the floors where people work have been rebuilt, so that there is more space, so that there are more co-working areas, therefore the theory of “getting rid of rent costs” is false. People, on the days when they return to the office after such a long absence, have to feel at ease and, above all, safe.
Fashion Days is a pilot program for the company, being a smaller team. Therefore, on July 1st, our employees come as often as they want to the office. We started this program within Dante company to understand whether what we thought of as a hybrid program on paper, from home, is perfectly compatible with reality once implemented.
There are only a few individual offices, for a few jobs. We have an office booking app and the storage spaces, the leisure spaces, including the kitchens, have been expanded to get closer to the feeling of home.
In this pilot program, we are testing a new work infrastructure in order to see how it can be improved in the future, depending as well on the pandemic’s evolution. But we tried to give the floors a little of the warmth at home so that the transition is not very sudden.
We are preparing because the reverse pressure will surely come in the labor market: hybrid job offers, flexibility, the possibility to choose office days may matter more in the future to the employer than the classic packages with which we have become accustomed.
To have a good people retention rate, you need to be above the market standard. Not necessarily as salaries, the leader never pays as well as possible because he is aware that he also offers you a resume and knowledge, strengths that will more easily open doors for you throughout your career.
Have you addressed the discussion about employees’ mental health during this period? How do Fashion Days perceive the subject of mental health – taboo or open talk?
In the Dante group, we do not have a specific mental health program.
But there are very clear initiatives that help this piece, beyond launching standard “mental health for everyone” programs.
We believe that the responsibility towards employees manifests itself a lot in the education area: the more informed people have the ability to notice when some models or patterns in there and the team’s attitudes are negative, and they can react – being aware of the problem, they can look for and find solutions.
That is why we have concluded that career balance can be achieved through special training and education programs for employees, in different fields.
We have now begun the Upgrade program, in which 800 colleagues at the beginning of the road will receive help in the next 2 years in order to find out what the job that suits them is and will be prepared for it: career counseling, functional skills, and the skills of the future. We also provide short MBA programs.
The hybrid way of working certainly offers a much better balance, from all points of view. But without leadership exercised daily, the closeness between managers and teams will be lost.
In order to cement the group, we have thought of other ways we can win together, as a team. Being prepared, having open horizons in the labor market can contribute more to the mental health of employees than psychologists brought to the office every week.
We look at the fundamental things that derail and those that can help mental health so that we do not have to look for solutions later just to solve or treat the effect.
We have opted for prevention for the good of the employees and we hope that, regardless of the evolution of the pandemic, we will remain in an area of balance and safety.
The success of Dante is given by an HR structure that means much more than just recruitment: it means internal education, internal communication. A structure with smart, super young people, that come up with fresh solutions for employees.
I think this is how we came to be the first in the market to communicate the transition to the hybrid model, without it only being a PR move, but a sustained and thought-out approach after important months of feedback and reconsideration of the working model.
Our field being technology, we are in a highly competitive market in which we must always be one step ahead, including at the people management level.
What are Dante’s strengths as an employer? With what do you differentiate yourself within a competitive labor market with a high fluctuation in human resources?
Freedom is the asset of great companies because it is the key to a healthy, living, authentic corporate culture. In the Dante company, the regional direction is given and built locally, and this contributes a lot to our success both as a business and as an employer.
At Fashion Days, for example, my team and I decide on the agenda, taking inspiration from global trends – the satisfaction of building is much higher than that of implementing a “recipe” from the network and represents an important selling point in the recruitment process.
This generates the need for creativity in business because we build the products locally, according to the logic of the local market. In traditional corporations, you get a menu that you have to implement.
In the Dante company, you write the menu. While some choose this responsibility, others prefer already beaten paths.
What leadership style do you prefer, from the perspective of this freedom?
I only like to use the marshal stick very rarely. Sometimes I choose to lose certain victories in order to win them in the second round. There are situations where it is more important to win in your relationship with your team.
I’m aware that brand decisions and values need to be assumed at the right time, with the right people, and I’m always looking for a quorum in the team.
The dynamic of the relationships between a leader and employees gives you courage in the way of doing business. For me, always communicating with employees, being transparent in projects and priorities are ways to maintain motivation and adherence to the team.
What is the big lesson of the pandemic for you?
New projects and new people need to be integrated face-to-face. Not remotely, not from home. When it comes to strategy and internal communication, nothing beats the face-to-face experience.
This discussion took place at the terrace of J’ai Bistrot, on a hot summer day, full of good lemonade and Riders on the Storm. A quiet “desk” at J’ai Bistrot can be booked through the Pluria app.