Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Finding right fit Canadian Footwear wants staff to balance work, life

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With its familiar slogan We Fit You, Canadian Footwear is not only making a promise to customers, but also offering a pledge to the 100 people the company employs, says president Brian Scharfstein.

"When people come to work with us, I try to meet with them at some point to discuss that if they cannot fulfil what they want to do through what we're doing, then they really shouldn't be here," he says. "Because we're very focused on lifestyle and life balance, it is just as essential that our people believe we are the right fit for them as they are for us. When they go home at the end of the day, they need to feel good about where they've been."

Scharfstein and his wife, Pam Cipryk, are partners in the second-generation family business, which has become renowned not only for carrying Canada's largest footwear inventory, but for its expertise as a foot health specialist (Scharfstein is a certified pedorthist). Canadian Footwear has three locations in Winnipeg, two in Calgary and an e-commerce store that sells online to customers across North America.

"Our focus is on our customers' needs, which means educating them has become more important than selling to them. We're helping them buy. We're selling an experience," he says.

"Training our frontline staff to provide a positive We Fit You experience is much different than training them to sell shoes. Because when it comes down to it, it doesn't matter if a customer buys something -- what matters is that when they walk out the door or hang up the phone after dealing with our people, they've had a positive, 'wow' experience."

Q: What is the people philosophy you try to convey throughout your organization?

A: Our main philosophy is really about finding life balance. Early in my career, I worked in real estate and one of my key mentors was Gary Bachman. When I sat down for my interview with Gary, he asked me, "Where's your daytimer?" I didn't have one, so he waited while I ran to the store and bought one. I came back to the office and he instructed me to open it up and mark down when I planned to take holidays. I hadn't even started working for him yet! Gary said, "I want you to block off time when you're going to put away your pager and take a break, because if you don't have something to work towards, you can't work for me." To this day, even though I now have a BlackBerry, I still carry a daytimer to remind me of that lesson. Although I don't sit down with my people and make sure they book their holidays in advance, I do believe in helping them find a balance between their work and lifestyle.

Q: How do you measure whether your people are able to find that balance?

A: This year, I'm spending one hour away from work with each person on staff. We don't talk about their performance or their business day -- it's a personal conversation about life balance. How are things at home? When you get up in the morning, do you look forward to coming to work? Where do you want to be in five or 10 years? Although we have always had an open-door policy, it doesn't leave enough time to gauge how much our people genuinely like what they're doing. That's why I'm hoping to have at least one 60-minute meeting with everyone this year and if possible, do it twice next year. As owners, I think it's important to meet with our people on an individual basis to understand if the quality of their life is matching the quality of their work.

Q: As a retailer, how did the downturn in the economy affect the way you manage people?

A: We headed into the recession last year knowing that we had some strategic planning to do. So Pam and I rounded everyone up and told them that although Manitoba's going to remain in fairly good shape, they need to remember that each customer who walks through our doors, phones our stores or contacts us online has been affected in some way by the recession. Although we assured our staff they had a solid job and steady income, we also reminded them to be sensitive to others. Empathy and understanding is a large part of what we do. When we train new employees, one of the key things we try to impart is the importance of taking the time to understand customers' lifestyles and daily activities and make sure there is sufficient follow-through so that if they return to the store, they are the ones to take care of them.

Q: What makes Canadian Footwear unique from other retail environments?

A: The customers who shop with us tend to stay with us and much of that is because of our diversity. When my father came to Canada from Poland at the age of 14, he only knew how to speak Polish and a bit of Yiddish. By the time he died, after owning this business close to 50 years, he spoke eight languages fluently. Diversity is a reflection of our customer base and of the people who work here. My father, who believed that shopkeepers are the personality of the store, used to say that when an employee makes a sign, they may not have the correct spelling, their grammar may not be perfect and the size of the letters might be off, but what's important is to allow them to be who they are. Even today, when you visit any Canadian Footwear location, you'll find slightly different flavours, ages and characters. Each of our employees brings a lot to the table and it creates a distinct blend of people that customers feel comfortable developing lasting relationships with.

Q: What is one of the biggest challenges you are facing?

A: Our big challenge right now is positioning Canadian Footwear as a company that makes people say, "I really want to work there." To attract the right people, we're willing to accommodate a wide range of lifestyles if it means they bring us 100 per cent of their energy and skills only for shorter period of time. It could be someone who has been in the corporate world for 25 years and now wants to continue working without putting in a 40-hour week. It could be someone who wants the flexibility of working only on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays or someone who wants to work mornings in the summer so they can golf in the afternoons. We want people who are not working because they have to, but because they want to. We want them to be as passionate as we are because we know we have a real enthusiasm, a pulse, that you feel as soon as you walk through the door. They also need to buy into our philosophy and the importance of meeting people's expectations so that when customers come in to our stores, we can deliver the experience they are expecting.

Q: Once you hire people with the right fit, how are you able to keep them fulfilled?

A: Certainly, to have people of any age, experience or background appreciate the opportunity to work here and to keep them happy is always top of mind. We ultimately want them to be engaged and say, "I understand this business and I can see myself staying here for a long time." So, as part of my one-on-one conversation with each employee, I ask if there is something else they would like to try doing. If they're in shipping, do they think about being in sales, or vice versa? I also ask if there's anything they want to do, whether it's business-related or not, that we can help them acquire the skills to achieve. Whatever it is, we want to help because working here should be a two-way street. I don't expect you to stay here forever, but on the day you leave, we should have both benefited from the experience. If you've grown, then we've grown, too.

-- With reporting by Barbara Chabai

John McFerran, PhD, F.CHRP, is managing director of Boyden Global Executive Search. He can be contacted at jmcferran@boyden.com.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 13, 2010 I1

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