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Michael Kaib

Michael Kaib

Chief Information Officer (CIO) of Esprit

You worked for Strategy& for 12 years. What drew you to a career in consulting?

Consulting offered me a great opportunity to start my professional career: The job gives you the chance to gain a wide range of experiences in many different industry sectors, it offers insight into the business operations and inner workings of companies, and it makes it possible to work with management-level clients on highly relevant projects. When I started in consulting I was fortunate to work with a team of highly talented colleagues who took me under their wings and taught me a lot, which prepared me for my later career.

What was your motivation to join Esprit?

There were two reasons for my decision. Firstly, at the time, I joined as head of enterprise architecture, as it was the ideal next step after my time at Strategy&. The position entailed working in a small team, the job tasks were quite broadly defined, and I was able to incorporate many of the functional IT activities I had done before into the new job. The position was also an ideal starting point for an IT management career at a later stage. Secondly, I was drawn to the brand. Esprit is a well-known fashion company and an attractive employer with an open business culture. As a casual fashion brand, it has operated successfully in this business for quite some time. I was drawn to the products the company offered, as this was something I missed occasionally in the consulting world — something tangible that you can stand for and that you can help to develop over time.

What’s the best part of your current job as CIO at Esprit?

Starting from the position I described earlier, I moved up the ranks within the company in a few years and am now in charge of the IT department of the total enterprise. I lead a team of more than 100 and am responsible for operational IT business, providing IT support and services, devising new IT projects, and developing new IT solutions. The best part of my job — and this is the very reason I am still there after more than nine years — is that it never gets boring! Coming from the consulting industry, where people tend to work on a few projects at a time, I had to juggle a wide range of tasks and topics simultaneously when I started my job at Esprit. In the position I work in now, I delve into legal issues such as GDPR [the General Data Protection Regulation], I work on IT technologies such as hybrid cloud infrastructures, or I’m busy with business projects such 3D product design or AI-supported merchandise management. Retail and fashion are very fast-moving industries with short planning horizons, which creates the challenge of making the right decisions as to which IT systems are suited best for delivering quality services and processes in an agile manner.

What were the key factors for the successful digital transformation of your business, and what role did you play as a CIO in that process?

The first thing I want to emphasize here is that I don’t think the transformation has ended yet. It is an ongoing process. In term of my role in this, I would say that part of my job has been to raise consciousness at the company for the importance of digital technology — as corporate IT we had to lay the groundwork. One of my first major tasks at Esprit was to introduce an SAP-based system infrastructure and connect a new central warehouse to the company’s IT systems, which was designed to make the supply chain leaner and more efficient and enable new digital business models. At the same time we also started developing true omnichannel capabilities across the different sales channels based on real-time inventory visibility.

I still see a lot of potential for further improvements, especially in terms of product development and the way we present and sell our product to marketplaces, wholesale partners, and our Esprit customers, [both] in how to determine the right assortment and with respect to our store processes.

What are the main challenges of the digitization the retail industry is currently facing?

Well, in the beginning digitization was all about increasing efficiency and optimizing processes, but this is not enough for today’s digital world. Today, digitization is also about adopting a customer-centric view and creating relevant value for customers by focusing on things such as storytelling and creating a personalized, cross-channel shopping experience for them. I believe this is one of the main challenges for the industry and also one of the key areas where it is still possible for digital pioneers to set themselves apart from their competitors. In terms of personalizing the shopping experience, big data also plays an increasingly important role. Esprit has an extensive loyalty program called “Esprit Friends” that helps us get to know our customers and make customized offers to them.

Where will people buy their clothes in 2030?

This is a difficult question, and a lot of experts puzzle their heads over it. As far as I am concerned, shopping online and especially shopping with mobile devices will certainly continue to be one of the major trends in the industry. In the future, customers want to buy their products wherever they are, and companies will further improve their options to buy products on the Internet. More and more companies will also make it possible for customers to create their personalized outfits and “try them on” online. Co-creation, which means that customers will be more and more incorporated into the designing process of different styles, will play an increasingly important role. Shopping will become more personalized and customized, and I think this will definitely enrich the shopping experience for customers. I don’t believe traditional shopping in the form of brick-and-mortar stores in towns and cities will disappear, but I think there will be more innovative store concepts in the future that focus on incorporating events and storytelling elements. People will want to pay not only for a certain product, but also for “experiencing” that product.

The digitization of work environments is becoming more important as well. Will you be working with robot colleagues in five years’ time?

My hope is that in five years’ time my great human team will still be around! However, automation and AI will certainly have an impact on the kinds of IT services that will be offered and the way in which these services will be carried out. Examples of this are chat or mail robots that help employees with processing customer queries or user tickets. These technologies are being tested by retailers [now] and they will be used in the future. In five years’ time, customers will be provided with more digital information in retail clothing stores, but the interpersonal exchange will continue to have absolute priority.

To what extent does consulting still play a role in your work?

I would say that consulting still plays a very important role in my work. I was a consultant for quite a long time and the experiences I gained had a deep influence on my career. It is especially the way consultants tackle problems and how they communicate with business partners, manage teams, or organize themselves that I still rely on in my work today — you can’t hide your roots. As a consultant, I never adopted the behavior of a super salesman. This would not have corresponded to my personality. Important aspects of my work, however, included forming teams, negotiating between stakeholders, and making difficult decisions. Also, consulting is all about performing on a high level in a very results-driven environment, and I highly appreciate these experiences today, as they provided me with the appropriate skill set for the management position I now have.

We read in your sustainability report that Esprit adopted a values-based leadership approach. Do the values of Esprit match those of Strategy&?

Esprit attaches a lot of importance to humbleness and authenticity, and the corporate culture is very welcoming to people with diverse backgrounds. Esprit itself may have turned into a big global brand, but at its core it still is a real people company. I think that if a company values a business-oriented culture and at the same time encourages its employees to have fun and enjoy their work, then it is on the right path. These are, from my perspective, also the kinds of values that I experienced during my time at Strategy&. And I continue to support these values today.

Would you say there are any further personality traits that influence your leadership style?

Personality greatly affects one’s leadership style, which is why it is very important to remain true to oneself and find a style that is best suited to one’s character. Otherwise, an artificial leadership style may come across as insincere or superimposed. As a leader I don’t always assume I know better than anyone else. I always highly appreciate the opinions of others. I see myself more as someone who stimulates people and gives impetus to the team.

In what way did you benefit from the Strategy& alumni network?

I’m always happy to keep in touch with former colleagues and to hear from them from time to time. It’s always a great opportunity to catch up and learn where they ended up and in which positions. The network is all about exchanging ideas and experiences with one another, and every so often I take part in the events and gatherings.

What things do you enjoy most in your free time?

I like to travel and get to know new places in the world. And I highly enjoy going hiking with my wife. So, nothing too exotic (laughs).

Do you prefer to live in Frankfurt or in Erkrath?

It’s difficult to state a preference. On the one hand, I always enjoyed living in Frankfurt and I had a great time there. I’m a native of Hessen myself, which is why going to Frankfurt always feels like “coming home” in a way. The Rhineland, on the other hand, is a very welcoming place and it’s very easy to settle in. As football and carnival can’t be avoided when you live in this area, I am still adapting.

Who or what inspires you?

There is no particular person that comes to my mind. Firstly, however, I find people with a conviction highly inspiring. When people are absolutely clear about who they are and what they want to achieve and when they radiate a high level of confidence, I’m impressed. Secondly, I’m always impressed when people manage to bring order to chaos and structure complexity. I find it very satisfying myself when I manage to organize and structure my own private or professional environment. It is about knowing the goal you want to achieve and finding a way to get there. This type of thinking is probably also well suited for a job in the IT business.

What career advice can you give to others?

I think it’s important to always remain authentic and do what really interests and motivates you. I also think that, every once in a while, it’s very important to find time to pause and engage in some soul-searching: Is what I’m doing now really what I want to do? Especially in the daily job routine in the consulting business, it can be a challenge to find time for questions like these. I always tell my colleagues here at Esprit they should pause from time to time to think about their careers, their dreams, and the next steps in their lives.

This interview was conducted and edited by Jen Swetzoff, founder of Closeup, a content strategy and creative studio. She was formerly the deputy managing editor at strategy+business magazine.

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