There’s nowhere in London quite like Camden at the height of summer. People throng out of the tube every day in search of cheap t-shirts, pungent sticks of incense or a pint beside the canal but, whatever your pursuit, there’s one shoe you’re bound to encounter every time. “Wander round Camden, and you will see so many people wearing Dr Martens – it really is the heart of our consumer base,” says Helen Verwoert, global HR director at the footwear company.
Dr Martens is a boot with serious heritage – wedging a foot in the door of British history everywhere from the Second World War to the punk and psychobilly subcultures of the 1970s and 1980s. Now, from a newly established office overlooking Camden Lock, Verwoert is helping drive a sustained and rapid expansion of the brand on a global scale. She joined the business in 2013, when it was still a family owned company. It’s since grown significantly – “There were eight people in the HR team globally when I joined, and now there are about 30. Across the business we have just under 1,300 employees, up from 500” – while, says Verwoert, remaining true to its ethos of ‘rebellious self-expression’.
This growth meant it was time to clearly define the company’s culture with a new brand model, which, Verwoert clarifies, was not about values. “I was passionate about not having values in a business like Dr Martens, because values are highly personal. I think it would be wrong of me to tell an organisation of 1,300 people that prides itself on individuality: ‘Right, these are your eight values; let’s all put them on the toilet door and live by them.’”
Throughout 2016, the company worked alongside a marketing partner to run six ‘identity’ workshops with 78 employees who had a combined 644 years of history with the business. After establishing what staff loved about the brand, and what needed to change, they created a framework defining its beliefs and behaviours: integrity, passion and being a team player, combined with being fearless, resilient and rebellious. The finished statements were pressed onto vinyl records, complete with sleeve notes, and distributed around the office.
“Having employees take an active role in that identity process was key,” says Verwoert. “There are two things a business like ours can’t do without: product and people. If I can’t get the right people and talent into our business we won’t be able to sell the product, and it starts with employees believing in the culture.”
In parallel, the company underwent structural changes, with greater responsibilities devolved to regional directors to ensure staff felt fully supported during the expansion. HR was strengthened too, with people skilled in talent acquisition and culture change brought on board. “We had a small generalist team who did a brilliant job, but as we began the next phase of development I knew we needed to bring experts in to help scale the business,” Verwoert says. “There might only be five or six employees in some regions, but from an HR point of view you have to do the same treatments whether you’re dealing with six people or 600.”
The biggest change came with the relocation of the Dr Martens central office from Northampton, the site of the original shoe factory, to London, with the opening of a two-storey flagship store complete with a built-in music space at the heart of Camden Market in 2016. “The CEO knew that, if he needed to get marketing and design talent, that would have to happen in London, and gradually we realised we needed to move other functions there as well,” says Verwoert, who also made the choice to relocate with the brand.
“One of the biggest challenges was that we were forced to roll out this move over a period of time because we didn’t have the space to relocate everyone at once,” she says. “Our EMEA and retail teams relocated in September 2016, whereas my team only moved in June 2017, so keeping communication strong throughout the process was an issue.”
A bespoke app helped staff to stay connected and share stories from around the world, while an internal newspaper, On the Record, covering everything from product launches to new stores, helped promote Dr Martens’ shared identity and improve brand visibility to employees in Asia and the US.
The company has ambitious plans to open 128 stores globally in the next four years, but Verwoert is confident that it will rise to the challenge. “What I love about Dr Martens is that we don’t have to do things the way anyone else does. Of course, we want to follow best practice, but we want to do that in a way that’s right for us,” she says. “The fact that the brand has great momentum shows we’re on the right path.”