The Intelligent Investor Growth Fund is listing on the ASX. Initial Offer now open

A little less persuasion, a bit more compulsion

Six weeks ago, when Tjeerd Jegen moved into one of Australia's biggest retail jobs - running the giant Woolworths supermarket chain - he called an urgent meeting with the group's head of human resources, Kim Schmidt. His message was simple: we have a problem.

Six weeks ago, when Tjeerd Jegen moved into one of Australia's biggest retail jobs - running the giant Woolworths supermarket chain - he called an urgent meeting with the group's head of human resources, Kim Schmidt. His message was simple: we have a problem.

The majority of his supermarket customers were women but the entire senior buying team were men.

His directive was to fix the problem - not over time, but straight away.

It seems bizarre that the historical paths to advancement in Woolworths were so entrenched that female talent within the organisation had somehow been overlooked.

And this is one of the few large corporations that has set targets for diversity. Under the former chief executive of the larger Woolworths group Michael Luscombe there had been plenty of goodwill and effort shown towards lessening gender discrimination. Woolworths aims to have 33 per cent females in the upper three levels of management by 2015.

But still there are gaping holes in the outcomes.

This was just one anecdote in yet another earnest talkfest yesterday on the issue of the under-representation of women in the ranks of management in Australia.

These talks are becoming a regular feature among a small community of executives working towards management meritocracy.

Typically, these get-togethers draw from the ranks of those women who have broken the glass ceiling and a bunch of more politically aware (or correct) businessmen, like David Gonski and Gordon Cairns.

It's the sort of event where the Telstra chairwoman, Catherine Livingstone, the Westpac boss, Gail Kelly, and a QBE and AGL director, Belinda Hutchinson, can be found lending their gravitas and support.

The same types of arguments are eloquently delivered and the same problems are mulled over.

It's a cultural issue, it's about entrenched attitudes and behaviours - we are now all pretty aware of that.

This particular session came with a report from consultants Bain & Company, which armed the discussion with facts from a comprehensive study compiled from questioning a large sample of men and women.

The report hit on two big issues. The first was the problem of balancing family and career and the second was that women bring a different style to management - one that is not necessarily valued.

At these events, there is a clear tendency for participants to agree that changing cultures and attitudes is a long process.

It must be, because the level of female participation among the management ranks has barely changed in 20 years.

A more honest assessment might be that we have become experts at identifying and charting the problem but impotent to solve it.

The greatest strides towards improving the imbalance have been made over the past year thanks to the ASX corporate governance guidelines on gender balance at board level.

As a result, boards without female members need to explain their absence.

In the wake of the ASX requirements, there has been a string of board announcements on new female directors.

But this is where the progress starts and ends. And for those women working so hard and for so long, there is a real danger of reform fatigue.

Solomon Lew knows what it is like to lose a lot of money, but not a fight. Shares in his Premier Investments have plunged along with most other retailers on the market - particularly those with a discretionary consumer business.

But he makes the distinction between good retailers and "the rest". Armed with his new chief executive, Mark McInnes, he believes Premier's Just business does not belong with the rest.

Over the past couple of weeks the market has witnessed a string of annual meeting trading updates and quarterly sales figures from various discretionary retailers. All are bad and some are scary.

We all know the story - a sustained period of low consumer confidence, rising input costs and the structural challenges of the internet.

In this difficult environment it is difficult to make definitive judgments about which are the relative winners.

In all cases, August was one of the worst months in retail history. Consumers simply stopped shopping. Those green shoots that started to emerge in October appeared to be visible in November but they are not even close to blooming.

Lew's reason for some confidence in his retail model is based on the fact he has an array of brands within the portfolio.

Some like Just Jeans, Jay Jays, Portmans and Dotti are in the same basket as a large bunch of these near-commoditised apparel brands. They are almost impervious to discounting and fall into the "do I really need" category of brands.

McInnes distinguishes between these and the "I want" brands. The Just Group has two of these company-saving businesses. The first is the sleepwear icon Peter Alexander and the other is the kids stationery business Smiggle.

It is the sales growth from these two businesses that gives Lew the confidence that his profit projections for the half-year are intact.

While overall sales in November were better than August and September, they were still down on the same month last year.

On this basis, Christmas won't be a disaster - just a disappointment.

Ironically, one retailer that is really suffering is David Jones - the business McInnes left last year.

Join the Conversation...

There are comments posted so far.

If you'd like to join this conversation, please login or sign up here

Related Articles