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The Right Fit

In Focus
NAME:Giny Boer
LOCATION:Düsseldorf, Germany
CEO Giny Boer explains why, after more than 180 years in the business of selling affordable quality clothing, fashion giant C&A is continuing to expand its empire, while also prioritizing sustainability and innovation.

When Clemens and August Brenninkmeijer founded their own linen and fabric business in the Dutch town of Sneek in 1841, they had little more than a loan from their father and a dream. However, before long, the young brothers had earned a reputation as purveyors of high-quality garments, and in 1860 they opened their first retail store in the town. Thus, C&A was born.

Soon, with the invention of the sewing machine, the brothers were able to change tack to include ready-to-wear clothing, which C&A offered customers in a range of sizes. By 1881, another store had opened in Leeuwarden, followed by another in Amsterdam in 1893.

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When the business was passed onto the next generation, C&A’s original mission expanded: to create quality clothes that the average person could actually manage to purchase.

“Brenninkmeijer had taken a trip on a tram, and later discovered that most of the people on that tram would have to work almost a whole year before they could afford a new coat,” the CEO of C&A Europe Giny Boer tells The CEO Magazine. “And he thought, ‘That’s wrong. Let’s offer a coat that they can afford after working for one month, not a year.’”

From those humble beginnings, C&A has grown to have stores across 17 European countries.

The Right Balance

When you’re working for a company whose history spans 183 years, determining the precise balance between modernizing and upholding its legacy can be a complex task. Indeed, for Boer, it is something that is always front of mind.

“That idea of creating affordable clothing is still in our DNA,” she says.

“C&A has also been very entrepreneurial. We brought the bikini and the mini skirt to Europe, and have worked with many famous designers over the years.”

“That idea of creating affordable clothing is still in our DNA.”

Innovation has always been a key focus for the brand, with C&A at the forefront of implementing emerging technologies such as self-service and mechanical cash registers. Now, Boer has AI front of mind.

“We’re looking at how that impacts design and how we can be much more specific in the planning and inventory process, particularly when we’re looking at how much to buy or make,” she says. “That is one of the best changes we can implement to be more sustainable.”

Another key initiative is the creation of C&A FIT (Factory for Innovation in Textiles), a 4,300-square-meter space which produces up to 1,000 pairs of jeans daily using increased automation and digitization. “I would love to open five more in Europe, because, if you combine robotization and automation together, it is possible to bring production back to Europe,” she says.

Less is More

The journey to produce fewer garments and therefore less waste in the name of the environment is one that is constantly being examined and developed.

“For me, sustainability starts with changing the business model,” she explains. “We already cut 30 percent of the range out, but we still have too many options. We need to be more precise, buy less from every option. That’s good for the planet, but it’s also good for our wallet, because it’s better for the profit if you need to mark down less.”

The first strategy Boer set out when she joined the company was the One C&A Plan which included, among other aspects, the roll-out of a membership program called C&A For you – an investment that has already paid dividends, with over four million members in 12 countries signing up in a matter of months. She also prioritized store modernization, as well as enlarging the company’s online presence.

“Sustainability starts with changing the business model.”

Boer continues to push the envelope and is always looking for further ways to improve processes. By utilizing the expertise of partners, such as logistics supplier Arvato, whom C&A has been working alongside for 15 years, the company is also safeguarding its success on the global stage.

“Our long-standing cooperation with Arvato on logistics, fulfillment and customer service, with two distribution centers across Europe, has paved the way for the expansion of our online business and to further advancing it internationally,” Boer explains.

With C&A’s online presence now firmly established, Boer is turning her focus to the second phase of her strategy, called the One C&A Growth Plan. Core to this is the expansion of its brick-and-mortar network.

“We want to open 100 stores in the coming three years,” she says.

A Passion for Fashion

When Boer stepped into the role of CEO at the beginning of 2021, she brought with her a wealth of knowledge from 23 years working across multiple senior management roles at IKEA. The decision to join C&A – “a Dutch icon” – was easy, she says, because like the furniture giant, C&A is also family owned.

“I have always had a passion for home furnishings and for fashion,” she explains. “When I was a student, I designed and made my own clothes, and worked as a salesperson in the fashion stores in the university city of Groningen. The interest has always been there.”

In addition, Boer believes her second degree studying psychology prepared her for a people-facing, customer-centric career.

“I have an interest in the behavior of people and with retail, it’s all about behavior: your colleagues, your team, but also the consumer. So, that is what drives me every day.”

“You can be tough as a leader, but you can also say things in a kind way.”

This attitude has also helped her set in motion a number of strategies at C&A that herald teamwork and transparency.

“For me, people and culture are extremely important,” she explains. “We had way too many layers when I started, and I wanted us to be more approachable. So we started with town halls, with Ask Us Anything once a month. There are three teams of the Young Professional Board, each with 5–10 members, whom I talk to on a regular basis.”

Employing a leadership style that prioritizes kindness, vulnerability and trust, Boer believes in a cooperative approach that sees her always striving to learn more.

“I always say that clarity is kindness,” she says with a smile. “It’s unkind to be unclear. You can be tough as a leader, but you can also say things in a kind way. It’s the same for our company: be kind, but be clear.”

As well as advising leaders to be humble, Boer says that, at the end of the day, it’s all about ensuring you are leaving the business better than what it is today.

“It has to stand for something – that’s really my dream.”

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