Simplifiers Interview: Lawrence Brenninkmeyer, Director of Strategy and Innovation at Cofra Holding Ltd, former CEO of C&A China

Behind every brand delivering simpler experiences for customers is a leader who recognizes the inherent value in keeping things simple. Here I interview leaders, often CMOs or CEOs, that we deem simplifiers. In this Simplifiers interview I speak with Lawrence Brenninkmeyer, Director of Strategy and Innovation at Cofra Holding Ltd. Until recently he was the CEO of C&A China.

C&A is a member of Cofra Holding Ltd. With more than 170 years of experience spanning six generations of the Brenninkmeyer family, C&A is one of the leading fashion retailers, with an expansive network of stores and online-shops in Europe, Brazil, Mexico and China.

MM: What does C&A stand for and how does it deliver on that promise every day?

LB: Founded in 1841, C&A now has over 1,500 stores across four continents that provide affordable, easy, immediate and sustainable fashion.

Easy means the shopping experience doesn’t require the customer to think very much. Attention is limited and brands shouldn’t expect to be able to take much of their customers’ attention. In the spirit of easy, we have lots of stores in convenient locations and have a great online and mobile experience.

MM: How does your organization strive to create simple experiences?

LB: We aim to simplify both our in-store and online customer experiences. For example, in our China stores we put a QR-code on each product so that if a customer can’t find her size in the store, she can scan the code, view stock online and purchase it there. Additionally, we work to make our messages as simple as possible. For example, we use 100% organic cotton, which makes it easy to understand that you’re buying a fully organic shirt rather than a mélange.

To make our organization simpler, we’ve started asking whether there’s anything we do internally that could be pushed to a vendor, enabling us to spend more time on our customers and products. The point of simplifying is to free up time so you can spend more effort thinking about your customer. Activities on the periphery can be thoughtfully delegated to the right suppliers who are experts in their field.

MM: Can you speak to any benefits C&A has experienced from simplifying?

LB: Because the world is moving so quickly, one factor that makes businesses successful is speed to market. In China we shortened C&A’s critical path—the time it takes to build the collection from designing the products to putting them on the racks—from nine months to four by simplifying. Some repeats can be produced and sold within two weeks. The fashion industry is all about speed. By simplifying our processes, cutting out procedural inefficiencies and shortening our critical path, we improved our business.

MM: How do you keep your organization focused on simplicity?

LB: It comes down to choice. You can’t be everything to everyone. Instead you must focus on the areas in which you excel. By having clarity around your brand, you make better choices for your customers.

MM: How do you personally lead as a simplifier?

LB: Attention is limited. I simplify by directing my attention to what will add the most value to the customer and then delegating to the team.

For example, when I arrived in China, we had two websites, our home website and a store on Tmall. It was clear that Tmall had significantly more customer traffic, but everyone was putting their energy towards improving the home site. So I decided we should ensure our presence on Tmall looked great and our stock was optimized for that. Our home site became a second priority because we focused on where our customer was. This strategy worked well.

MM: What’s the most recent simple customer experience you’ve had?

LB: The payment options in China are very impressive. In China you can pay for everything by scanning a QR code on your phone using Alipay or WeChat. You really don’t need to have your wallet with you, and it takes seconds. After getting used to this simple payment experience in China, I returned to Europe and went to a café where I had a complex payment experience. Of course it was impossible to pay by phone, but they also didn’t take credit card and even paying by cash was difficult because of their lack of change. The difference couldn’t have been starker.

MM: What do executives need to do to operationalize simplicity?

LB: Ask yourself, is a particular project in the production or development stage of its lifecycle? Projects in production should be standardized and always deliver the same output. A team in production should know that their failures will be immediately analyzed because there shouldn’t be failures in a production cycle. Whereas in development it’s okay to fail because we don’t yet know how the process works. Leadership must create a culture that differentiates.

Another useful dichotomy is, are you optimizing or satisficing? By this I mean, are you trying to make this perfect or are you just trying to make it good enough so you can move on to the next thing? Perfection takes time and a lot of focus.

Simplicity can be measured by what the senior leadership at a company is discussing.

MM: What indication do you have that simplicity is driving your business?

LB: Simplicity can be measured by what the senior leadership at a company is discussing. Leadership should be discussing your product and the teams improving that product. Is your customer enjoying the product? Do you have the right people to execute your company’s vision? How can they be better empowered?

I can tell an organization is complex when I walk into a room and senior people are talking about something far removed from the company’s promise to its customers.

MM: What do you think is the biggest mistake executives make when trying to simplify?

LB: The more a company tries to do everything, the less value it contributes. Similarly on an individual level, if you don’t delegate enough, your efforts will be spread too thin. This becomes a feedback loop in which, because you don’t delegate, your people will ask you to be involved in stages you don’t need to be, and because they ask you to be involved, you feel you have to be there. Executives need to cut through the noise and spend their time thinking about the company’s vision and whether the people at the company are the right ones to implement it. With this approach you can do quite a lot in parallel and give your teams the chance to step up.

For me, simplicity is having simple rules that lead to complex but elegant solutions.

MM: What does simplicity mean to you?

LB: For me, simplicity is having simple rules that lead to complex but elegant solutions. For example, in a flock of birds, each bird is not keeping track of the whole flock and its relative position within it. Each bird has a simple rule: I need to keep one bird on my left. Following this approach, complex and beautiful patterns emerge.

MM: What piece of advice would you give to leaders who are trying to simplify?

LB: Have a clear vision. What is your brand here to do and is that vision clear to your customer? If you have clarity around that, then it’s easy to separate the wheat from the chaff.

MM: Thank you. 

This is this an ongoing Simplifiers series. See interviews with CMO at The Recording Academy, Evan Greene; CMO at Mary Kay, Sheryl Adkins-GreenHead of Marketing at Home Centre, Rohit Singh BhatiaSVP, CMO of Aflac, Gail GaluppoSVP and CMO at Cambia Health Solutions, Carol KruseManaging Director of The Nature Conservancy, Geof Rochester, Chief Strategy and Innovation Officer of Motorola Solutions, Eduardo Conrado, EVP; SVP, Chief Marketing & External Affairs Officer at Abbott, Elaine Leavenworth, GE CMO, Linda Boff; McLaren Automotive Head of Brand Marketing, Stephen Lambert; Ascension Chief Marketing and Communications Officer, Nick Ragone; Hertz CMO, Matt Jauchius; Direct Line Group Marketing Director, Mark Evans; McDonald’s CMO, Deborah Wahl; President, Liza Landsman and VP Marketing, Sumaiya Balbale; Target CMO, Jeff Jones; Spotify CMO, Seth Farbman; Ally Financial CMO, Andrea Riley; Gannett CMO, Andy Yost; CVS Health CMO, Norman De Greve; Dunkin’ Brands CMO, John Costello; Zappos CEO, Tony Hsieh; Southwest Airlines CMO, Kevin Krone; and Google CMO, Lorraine Twohill.

Know a simplifier or would like to be included in the series? Please recommend an executive for my next interview:

Margaret Molloy is global CMO and head of business development at Siegel+Gale. Follow her on Twitter: @MargaretMolloy and Instagram:@MargaretMMolloy

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