By Fiona Wakelin
With extensive experience in leadership positions at various industry giants, Clicks Group CEO Bertina Engelbrecht brings management expertise together with a love for people. The focus on people is what has driven her work at Clicks Group and will inform how she goes about leading the company. We find out about the journey to her promotion, her work on employee wellbeing and the company’s efforts to create an inclusive workplace.
Congratulations on your appointment as CEO of Clicks Group as from January 2022. Describe the journey which led to you becoming CEO.
My journey to becoming CEO of Clicks Group has not been typical. I qualified as an attorney and have a master’s degree in commercial law. During the early course of my career I worked for Spoornet and South African Airways. I quickly rose to senior and then executive management level, first as the Corporate Manager of the Transnet Group and then as Executive Manager for Onboard Services at SAA.
I moved to Sea Harvest Group as Group Organisational Effectiveness Director, with strategic control over HR operations.
I joined Shell as General Manager and Regional Manager for Shell Southern Africa and was appointed to the board of Shell SA as an Executive Director.
I joined the Clicks Group in 2006 and was appointed Group HR director and executive director in 2008. In 2020 my portfolio was expanded when I became Group Corporate Affairs Director before being appointed Group CEO from January 2022.
From the outset my job at Clicks has always been broader than just HR. I attribute that to both of my previous CEO’s as they actively championed for the ‘people agenda’ to be integrated into the business and for HR to have a seat at the decision-making table. This philosophy facilitated my progression to the most senior leadership position.
What excites you about this promotion?
This has been an incredibly motivating appointment for women, particularly women of colour. I am intent on being my authentic self in this role, rather than trying to emulate a man in this position.
There is a shift in the leadership space in terms of who assumes the role of a leader in organisations. Increasingly, it’s people who have worked their way up the ranks of a business and who have done so without having to trample on others to get to the top. I am excited about contributing to this ethos and enabling the development of others.
What have been your particular focus areas in recent years at Clicks?
When I first joined the Clicks Group, we recognised that we needed to improve our employer brand. As a leadership team, we embraced this challenge and set about methodically shifting the employer brand by addressing our existing employer value proposition gap, which was informed by deep internal and external analysis of what talented employees valued, in terms of both intrinsic and extrinsic rewards. Today, the Clicks Group is consistently rated as a top employer in the retail space.
Clicks has always embraced its heritage as a proudly South African company. It has also long been committed to shaping an inclusive organisational culture. From being a laggard in the empowerment space, we were the most empowered retailer by 2015, integrating transformation into our overall business.
I’m particularly proud of our employee ownership scheme. In 2018 our employee share scheme vested fully, resulting in the first 50% pay-out of R1,3-billion to employees and a final pay-out of R1,5-billion in February 2019. The Clicks Group boasts one of the most successful employee share schemes to date.
What will be your particular areas of focus in 2022?
We aim to maintain our positioning as the leader in the health and wellness sector. We are the customers’ preferred choice in health and beauty retailing and an iconic brand. We will be strengthening our engagement with all stakeholders to share much more of the work we do particularly insofar as our localisation strategy, empowerment and sustainability commitments are concerned.
Transformation is an ongoing journey rather than an end destination for the Clicks Group. We are heavily focused on preferential procurement – by supporting local suppliers, black and female-owned enterprises and investigating how we can advocate for equity equivalence programmes that benefit local suppliers.
I’m a firm believer that corporations have a responsibility to deliver sound financial performance and to do so in a way that positively impacts all of our stakeholders. Research indicates that today’s generation of employees want to work for organisations that are ethical, with values that resonate with their own. Customers are likewise attracted to companies that conduct business ethically and sustainably.
How important is ESG in the retail sector – and how do you see the Clicks Group’s role in ESG?
The Clicks Group started focusing on environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues more than a decade ago when we articulated our positioning as stewards of a better future. The work we’ve done around water scarcity, for example, was years ahead of the current ESG trend. We also quickly saw the benefits of being more energy efficient and implementing route optimisation to lighten our carbon footprint. Sustainability is therefore already integrated into our way of working, and our 18 000 employees have become advocates of sustainable practices.
For Clicks Group, doing good makes good business sense, and we are recognised as a leader in the ESG space. However, we’re not a business that rests on its laurels, and we’re constantly trying to improve our practices.
How would you describe your leadership style?
I regard myself as an inclusive leader who listens and engages with people and I place my trust in people’s competence – which helps to foster a collaborative, accountable culture. I’m not afraid of being challenged and appreciate debate that enables new perspectives and innovation.
In my opinion, a good leader is adaptable and is careful not to alienate people who may have opinions. This may require a leader to sometimes hold off on expressing his or her views.
The Clicks Group has a very flat organisational structure with an open-plan environment designed to foster communication and collaboration. We believe that it is only by engaging with people in the business that we are able to identify and remove constraints that people may encounter in their jobs – ultimately, that’s our role as leaders.
How has COVID impacted Clicks’ business model?
I’m very proud of how the Group has continued to demonstrate resilience throughout the pandemic, a situation which was compounded by the outbreak of civil unrest across KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng last year.
The pandemic has changed consumer shopping patterns and reduced customer footfall in malls. Convenience and safety have been driving significant growth in our online sales. We have increased our online distribution capacity to ensure an efficient and convenient service to customers. We plan to continue improving convenience by expanding our footprint by opening between 25 and 30 new stores each year.
As Group CEO how are you ensuring the wellness of staff?
The pandemic has added unprecedented pressure on our physical, mental, financial and spiritual wellbeing. Employee engagement drives productivity, and wellbeing is one of the crucial enablers to stay engaged and be the best versions of ourselves. From an organisational development perspective, we recognised that we had to do more to support our employees. The Clicks Group has an award-winning employee wellness programme in place. Built on a holistic wellbeing model, it incorporates practices in multiple wellness dimensions to support our employees.
In response to the impacts of the pandemic, we have focused on communicating the likely impact on mental health and changes in the way we operate, including hybrid work for some employees. In addition, we have offered support and tips to address stress, anxiety and uncertainty, as well as what is expected from each employee in order to build healthy coping mechanisms in a systematic manner.
At the same time, we have significantly increased our wellness programme’s engagement, emphasising mental wellness in particular, launching various campaigns aimed at overall wellbeing and explicitly responding to trends that we became aware of. Interventions have included wellbeing coaching, online learning modules, and online and telephonic support to employees and their households, amongst other interventions.
Early in 2020, we responded to the increase in gender-based violence by launching an internal campaign that encouraged our employees to speak up and speak about gender-based violence. We also provided our employees with access to professional counselling as well as medical and legal advice, and we expanded this programme to our local communities as well.
We recognise that people live in a time of great stress and therefore do our part to make all our employees, their families and communities feel supported and empowered.
What are some of Clicks’ programmes which focus particularly on gender empowerment?
The Clicks Group is a strong advocate for Sustainable Development Goal 5 (gender equality) and embraces its accountability to advance equal rights and drive empowerment – these actions, we believe, are integral to all dimensions of inclusive and sustainable development.
In line with this goal, we recently conducted our first Women’s Empowerment Gender Gap Analysis evaluation, a business-driven tool designed to help organisations assess gender equality performance across leadership and strategy, in the work and marketplace and in the community.
Encouragingly, Clicks Group achieved a result well ahead of the norm beginner-improver category, presenting in the achiever category (63%). The assessment has provided an opportunity to understand the areas where we lead, as well as areas for development.
The business has continued to make good progress in ensuring equity within the organisation through good governance, policies and practices and building a culture that enables a diverse and inclusive culture. The majority of our workforce are women with representation across all levels of the business. We plan to continue advancing our diversity and inclusivity programme, and this year will be launching a female leadership forum.
Do you foresee a hybrid workplace for Clicks in the future?
We already have a hybrid workplace in place for the roles that can work remotely. One of the key pillars of our employee value proposition is flexibility, and we consider the hybrid model as an extension of this pillar.
We’ve taken an experimental approach as we continue to learn how best to formalise our position through optimal policies, processes and support mechanisms such as technology. The vast majority of our valued employees serve our customers, and our focus is on continuing to improve the employee experience for all our employees.