our 1,800 strong IT workforce is larger than the workforce of many of the tech giants.

Colruyt Group is one of the most attractive employers for Belgian people. More than 40% of the respondents of the Randstad Employer Brand Research would like to work there. But when the REBR started, around 20 years ago, barely 20% of Belgians would consider a job with Colruyt Group. David Cornelis, who is responsible for Colruyt Group’s Center of Expertise for Talent Acquisition and Labor Market Research, and Kathelijn Vanhaute, Employer Branding Marketeer, explain how the company has successfully changed perceptions, while staying true to its ‘family values’.

Tell us about Colruyt, and what makes the Group distinctive?

Kathelijn Vanhaute: Colruyt Group brings together a number of retail chains, and own brand product manufactures, along with other activities ranging from sustainable energy generation to customized business documentation. We started out as a small family-run local grocery business around 80 years ago. Since then, we’ve grown into one of Belgium’s biggest companies, with nearly 30,000 staff and annual turnover of more than €9 billion. But our founding family is still actively involved in the running of the company. Being a family firm is the key to our values. For example, one of our nine core values is simplicity, which is one of the main ways we drive cost-efficiency. We want to do things quickly, as simply as possible, and avoid doing jobs twice. This is rooted in our beginnings as a small grocery business, where people were constantly striving to reduce costs and waste. And this is still true today, not only in our stores, but also in the way that teams like IT and engineering work. We believe in the ‘80/20 solution’ - you don't always look for the best solution, instead work with the one that works, and then continue to improve it.


What do you look for in the ideal employee?

David Cornelis: Customer demands are changing so fast that the most important skills are the learnability, adaptability and flexibility needed to keep pace. Even where specialist skills are needed in areas such as IT or HR, we still look for candidates who can learn and adapt. The ability to work well together is also essential. The size of our organization, with processes spanning different departments, and areas of management, means you can’t do anything by yourself. We want our people to understand how their role and activities impact on colleagues and customers. Hence ‘#dotogether’ is one of the three main propositions within our employee value proposition.

One of the practical ways we promote learnability, adaptability and flexibility is encouraging our people to carry out a range of different tasks. People aren’t just cashiers or shelf-stackers. Instead, everyone gets involved in all jobs around the store. This helps our people to strengthen their capabilities and customer understanding, while improving motivation and engagement. We adopt a similar approach within our wider workforce. From a talent perspective, one of the common misconceptions is that almost all of our staff work in our stores or warehouses. In fact, we are one of Belgium’s biggest private employers of software engineers, solutions analysts, and other IT specialists. Our 1,800 strong IT workforce is much larger than the employee numbers within many of the tech giants operating in Belgium. Similarly, our 1,500 strong technical & engineering department makes us one of the biggest technics & engineering companies in the country.

Our IT and engineering teams focus on much more than just day-to-day operational support. For example, we have a large engineering team dedicated to developing sustainability solutions in areas such as low energy building design and greener hydrogen-powered transport. We’re also helping to pioneer low environmental impact ‘circular systems’ in areas such as turning waste products into new raw materials, and producing food with much less water and energy. In-house systems developments include the introduction of new digital price labels. The switch from paper to digital has enabled us to adjust prices several times a day as part of our price match scheme. This wouldn’t have been possible before. This highly sustainable and cost-effective system will also enable us to save around 90 tons of paper a year.

 

Your rise up the rankings of attractive employers is a testament to the success of your employer branding strategy. Tell us about how your strategy and the thinking behind it.

Kathelijn Vanhaute: In 2007, we created Colruyt Group as an overarching brand that brings together all the different commercial brands within our organization. We wanted to show that we are a family of companies, with a common mission and set of values. From then on, we also started to position Colruyt Group as an employer brand, initially alongside the retail brands, and then more and more as one unified employer brand. This phased approach was a conscious choice, designed to be as efficient and effective as possible, in keeping with the DNA of our organization. We knew that we were starting from a low perception of attraction, and therefore needed to develop a strategy for the long haul. We also recognized the challenges we faced in positioning Colruyt Group as more than just a retailer. People didn’t know about our large IT, engineering, marketing, and HR divisions. This is one of the main reasons why we’ve chosen to develop an employer brand proposition that covers all of the companies and divisions in Colruyt Group, instead of one for each sub-brand. With the right positioning, we believe that a diverse group with multiple commercial brands can have a single employer brand. The employee value proposition is built around the concept of ‘working differently’, by which we mean human-centered, and value-driven. This then leads to the three propositions: #dotogether, #growtogether and #dreamtogether, which together demonstrate the growth potential of workers and the organization. For example, #growtogether and #dreamtogether show how employees come with their own talents and competencies, and the organization then supports their development with good training, regular feedback, and a range of job opportunities. Each of these propositions is brought to life through personal  testimonials. For #dreamtogether, for example, Dieter, a bio engineer in our project and reliability team, talks about his work in developing sustainable hydrogen filling stations. The short film doesn’t just look at what he does, but the vibe between Dieter and his colleagues. The focus is outside-in, by looking at what candidates want, and what they find important. To help shift perceptions beyond retail work alone, the testimonials and other communications embrace the diversity of our workforce, and the vastly different kind of work they do. In this way, we’re able to adapt the ‘working differently’ brand messages to particular activities, and target audiences.


David Cornelis:
For us, values should be lived rather than just displayed on our corporate walls. For example, we hold regular workshops for managers, new employees, and existing teams to instill our values, and demonstrate how to bring them into their own day-to-day work. Patience is key. Strengthening our employer brand has taken a great deal of perseverance and ongoing investment over the past decade and more, but we’re now seeing the results. Having gradually climbed up the rankings, Colruyt Group is now consistently ranked among Belgium’s most attractive companies in the Randstad Employer Brand Research. What’s really satisfying is the broad range of interest from across the labor market, men and women, young people and older people, and people with all levels of educational attainment.

 

Looking specifically at shop work, this is often low down the list of desirable careers. But working with you is seen as highly appealing. How have you achieved this?

David Cornelis: Shop work is often seen as an occupation for people with few skills or qualifications, rather than a career for high-flyers. But we appreciate the true value of what our people do, and seek to do everything we can to support and nurture them. This includes sitting down with them individually to see how hours can adapted to fit in with family responsibilities, and promote a good work-life balance. As part of our values, we also encourage our people to be entrepreneurial and take the initiative – we believe that our company grows as our people grow. A clear reflection of this is how many of our commercial ideas and new ways of working start life as suggestions from employees, which we collect and nurture through our ‘ID-net’ company intranet. Examples include the original ideas for our Cru home delivery service, and our Solucious brand, which supplies food products to professional customers. It’s also important to recognize that working on the shop floor can be a steppingstone to management. A lot of our middle managers started here. For many of our graduate intake, their first taste of Colruyt Group was working as a student in a store or distribution center during their holidays. Looking at the retail sector as a whole, some of the negative perceptions may be difficult to shift. But the tireless efforts of retail staff in keeping customers supplied during the Coronavirus emergency shows just how critical they are. I hope that the profile, and attractiveness of the sector improve as a result. For us here at Colruyt Group, we remain shopkeepers at heart. But the breadth of our operations and the opportunities we offer mean that we cover a much broader spectrum of the labor market than shop-work alone. This makes us increasingly attractive as an employer across the board.

 

Yours is a highly diverse multi-generational workforce. Do you have a specific recruitment strategy for different generations, such as millennials or older talent?

David Cornelis: No. We don’t see the value in this. Indeed, our experience here at Colruyt Group is that there are more differences within a generation than between them. And we have a lot of research to back this up. Instead, we primarily focus our messaging and content on different target groups such as engineers or store workers. Similarly, we have the same HR framework for different age groups, though this is adapted to the employee’s different life stages, and job context.

 

Does your employee experience influence your commercial and employer brands?

Kathelijn Vanhaute: Absolutely. When customers see smiling, friendly staff, they will want to come back. Similarly, we’ve seen how happy staff can encourage candidates to apply. A good working atmosphere is a visible expression of your culture and values.

 

what we can learn about employer branding from Colruyt Group

  • More than specialist skills, Colruyt Group believes that the ability to learn and adapt is the key to meeting fast-changing customer demands.
  • As customer demands evolve, and technology transforms businesses, employer brands need to appeal to a broad range of talent. Many of the people you are targeting may not have considered a career in your sector.
  • A diverse group with multiple commercial brands can have a single employer brand as long as it reflects the values that bind the organization together. It’s also important to think ‘outside-in’ by considering the needs of different groups within the labor market.
  • Generational differences may be overplayed. Rather, Colruyt Group targets its content and messaging at different target groups, depending on the nature of the job. 

 

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