The HR challenges for a global player in full expansion

Machteld Leybaert, CHRO at stow, spoke with employment rights’ specialist Filip Tilleman about matters such as the impact of labour shortages, globalisation, absenteeism and teleworking.

About stow and Machteld Leybaert

In late 2020, stow was named Enterprise of the Year and employs around 1,800 people worldwide. The company will celebrate its 45th anniversary on 1 April and is active in the fast-growing logistics market. As a global market leader, stow successfully responds to new trends in the supply chain sector. Machteld Leybaert has been Chief Human Resources Office (CHRO) since 2019. After studying law, Leybaert launched her career as a lawyer, however, her employer at the time asked her to take care of HR matters as well. This is how she ended up becoming involved in human resources. 

Leybaert now heads up the HR department at stow and is a member of the management committee. “stow is a fast-expanding company and has a turnover of €780 million: I have recruited 240 people in the past year,” says Leybaert. The fact that the company keeps growing and innovating can be demonstrated, for example, by the new Robotics department. These days, supply chain is about automation and the former racking specialist is now busy reinventing the sector with innovations such as automated storage capacities (pallets and bins) in 2 and 3 dimensions. The plans are ambitious, since CEO Jos De Vuyst aims to take the turnover to €1.5 billion. 

This growth means that the HR department is going full speed ahead. Strongly rooted in Europe, stow is now also active in America, the Nordics and Canada. Leybaert testifies that strong growth involves hard work in integrating employees, companies and cultures under one flag through takeovers, mergers and integrations. Doubling the number of employees, that’s a challenging task for HR. Such massive recruitment of technical profiles in particular, plus lots of engineers and robotics specialists, creates a new dynamic: “You get both the old and the new generation, well-trained and less-trained profiles, diverse cultures, and so on, and all at a fast pace.” 

In addition, stow has a number of production sites, the largest of which is on the language border in Dottignies. “Our front door is in Flanders, but the factory is actually in Wallonia,” explains Leybaert. Because of this location a large group of workers comes from France, which makes things more complex. In France, there are also factories in Duisans, just over the border, in the Champagne district and in Firminy, near Lyon. There is another site at Acial, however, there they make lockers, rather than racking. We also have factories in Portugal, the Czech Republic and Turkey. There are also historical reasons for the strong link with France, as the company was originally a French group. When Leybaert joined stow, she was one of the few Flemish people in the management team. Meanwhile, the French have gone and Belgians are at the helm. 

The search for talent

Leybaert encounters heavy competition in the search for technical profiles and engineers in the border region, on top of the fact there is already a shortage of such profiles on the labour market. Her approach includes a strong remuneration package, building a strong reputation as a top employer, offering a bonus to those who introduce new colleagues, modern offices with fresh meals, take-away meals for home, breakfast sessions with the CEO, cinema evenings, and more. “We need to treat the employees even better than before – although fortunately engineers and those trained in technology don’t only focus on the remuneration, but also on the job content and what they can learn,” says the CHRO.

Employer branding is also very important these days, according to Leybaert: advertising on company cars, campaigns such as “rack stars”, our very own “rack star” beer, social media activity, a presence on campuses through chairmanship and job fairs. In 2021, stow was even named ‘Enterprise of the Year’.

Filip Tilleman laments the unrealistic expectations of young employees who have just started: “They skip a couple of steps on the career ladder and immediately expect loads of holiday and flexibility.” Leybaert agrees and continues with another challenge for employers: the high salary cost in Belgium. “This is a serious problem that is not found in other countries,” says Leybaert. She believes that a solution could be to reform the social security system. “The money that employers save on salaries could be much better spent.” 

“There is now a call for taxation on group insurance, such as severance pay, although it was specifically decided to boost low legal pensions in exchange for a lower salary,” adds Tilleman. “What on earth are we doing?” he wonders out loud.

Leybaert also finds it remarkable that some people immediately say ‘manager’ when asked where they see themselves in 10 years. “Some people believe that being a manager is important or that earning more money must be the goal, while specialists are often so much more valuable within a company and are also well (perhaps even better) paid.”

The internationalisation of an HR policy

New countries are forever joining stow, which means that language is sometimes a challenge. Leybaert learned Spanish when her former employer took over a company in Spain, “yet you can’t learn every language everywhere.” stow also has a works council in a Turkish company. “We use a translator, but it can still be difficult,” confirms Leybaert. “Each country is different,” continues the CHRO, however, the motivation found in Belgian companies is rarely matched in other countries.”

“For example, on Monday I am flying to Portugal to make someone redundant. I will arrive at noon and need to leave again at 4 pm. So I requested sandwiches upon my arrival. Yet, the Portuguese prefer to eat at 2pm, because that’s what they’re used to. In fact, Leybaert is often confronted with such differences in culture. “You also have Anglo-Saxon countries such as the UK, US and Canada, where it costs much less to make someone redundant, but where employees are much quicker to claim discrimination.” 

“The mentality is quite different when we start up in new countries,” says Leybaert. “If we were to employ only Americans in the US market, the match with the Belgian way of working would be difficult. If you create a mix, then you immediately face the question of which regulations will apply to the Belgians going to work there.”

Leybaert quotes the example of a bonus of €500. “This is not the same for everyone: in Belgium there is indexation and then also holiday pay. The transatlantic radio picks up on that and then it is hard to explain the differences and how the different social security systems work. It is very complex to compare salaries in different countries. For example, in Spain there is a 13th, 14th and even 15th month, in France there is a 35-hour week, compared to the 38-hour week in Belgium. In France, there is also an annual salary negotiation, in which you have no choice as an employer but to participate,” explains Leybaert. Leybaert understands that people compare salaries, but they also forget the standard of living. “If you go shopping in Belgium or in Portugal, there’s a big difference.” 

Leybaert faces many obstacles that were not there in the past. In Germany, for instance, where a German sales candidate will also work in Austria. “The question is then for what percentage of their work is this salesperson in Germany. That makes them prick up their ears in Germany because they have never thought about it. With all this complexity, a Human Capital Manager has also joined my department to manage the ‘soft HR’, training and recruitment. There is also an international HR Manager (hard HR: contracts, policies and remuneration) and there is still everything relating to reporting and calculations.” 

Another of Leybaert’s examples is the country’s car policy. “People don’t think about the benefits in kind and how that works. You can’t simply choose a car. It all needs to adhere to strict rules. Commuting in Belgium is considered a personal matter, but not in the Netherlands. So if you ask a Dutch person to drive to Belgium for work it becomes completely absurd.”

Filip Tilleman warns of another danger in the case of mergers and takeovers: the silent accumulation of social liability. If all goes well it remains unnoticed, but if things go wrong the incorrect grading of employees in the new structure can be a disaster. “I recently had a case in which the trade unions suddenly claimed that a very large group of employees had been incorrectly graded for over 20 years and they demanded the back settlement of all the salary and holiday pay, which adds up to an improbable amount.” 

Leybaert concludes that Europe would ideally be better aligned, for example, social security and pension savings, after all people obviously also communicate across the borders. If we wish to remain competitive with our Belgian companies, we should do something about purchasing power. Using Germany as an example, the salaries are higher, the social security lower and the prices in the shops are also lower.

The impact of coronavirus

“Unfortunately, we have been forced to make people work from home several times,” says Leybaert. During the first wave, she found that employees were very motivated to work from home. However, during the second wave, she saw their enthusiasm ebb, as she thinks that many were fed up with being stuck at home. Meanwhile, Leybaert is often asked by employees for permission to return to the office. “I am very strict on this matter: if the law says that 20% of all employees may come to work, then 20% it is.” Leybaert sees that some employees are struggling, and particularly new starters, as it is harder to supervise and coach them. 

Leybaert believes that once the pandemic is over, a kind of hybrid approach to work will take over, involving one or two days of working from home. That’s a good system, in her opinion, provided that the connection with the company is not lost. “You can’t shake hands on the screen, and those are small details which ultimately determine the culture and drive in a company.”

Tilleman agrees that meetings on screen are more efficient and that travel seems far less necessary than before, but that things are more fleeting and cold and that discussions lack the ambiance and intensity of live meetings.

Leybaert sees the same situation in work council meetings. “When you sit around the table you also pick up on the body language that is invisible on the screen. There is less connection with the people. The same applies to conversations in the corridor or those quick chats at the coffee machine. For her, these are important moments.

Another aspect of the coronavirus pandemic is the vaccination policy. “If I meet up at a restaurant, I am obliged to show my certificate, but at work I am not permitted to request a certificate. That’s absurd, in Leybaert’s opinion.” She is very strict, for example, in her inspection of employees who travel abroad for an assignment. Those who are not vaccinated must do a test. “As an employer, we can pay for that once, but we cannot just keep on paying such costs.”

For Tilleman the workplace is not the living room. “Your living room should be a bunker, where no-one may break in, but the workplace is still the workplace.” Some people regard their office or workplace as their own living room, he says, which means you are not entitled to ask questions about COVID-19, yet an employer’s duty is to provide a healthy working environment.

Leybaert: “We have sent out a mailing to everyone, to request their certificate, but you may only do so on a voluntary basis. The trade union did not agree, yet what is the difference with showing your certificate in a restaurant or when visiting an event or a museum?”

Tilleman replicates: “The fact that the legislator fails to take its responsibility means we are the dupe of GDPR and privacy. Who needs privacy most of all as protection? People who want to avoid being caught doing things that are not as they should be.”

“At stow, for example, there was a case in Germany, where an outbreak began with someone who was unvaccinated. So the entire organisation was paralysed by one person’s choice,” adds Leybaert.

The production departments at stow are still operating and people are able to maintain sufficient distance from each other. “At the start of the pandemic, there were regular inspections, but the trade unions are cooperating and understand that work cannot stop. The productivity bonus naturally plays a role as well,” explains Leybaert.

The CHRO at stow also notices that, due to the coronavirus period, some people have been taking a new look at life or are keen to work closer to home. Employees have changed their priorities since working from home. “If someone works only to earn money and has no motivation, then there is no point,” believes Leybaert, “because extra salary or benefits do not buy happiness at work.” 

The problem of absenteeism

Tilleman broaches the hot topic of false absenteeism. With coronavirus and working from home this problem has only worsened. For the moment Leybaert is not witnessing much of a problem of (false) absenteeism at stow, however, since the coronavirus pandemic, trade unions have been demanding an extra bonus to come to work. The CHRO thinks this is absurd. “In the past, we had a bonus for those who were less absent, but then you run the risk that those who are genuinely ill show up to work because of the bonus. So money as the only motivation is not the answer.”

There is also the phenomenon of those who fall ill during their notice period,” adds Leybaert. “You can send doctors to carry out an inspection, because I am strict about that. After all, you must set an example for others.” Tilleman agrees that it is important to set an example. “It is not so much about the money, but about drawing a clear line with the message ‘to here and no further’.”

For Leybaert the best remedy for this kind of abuse is a strongly connected team: “Engineers go karting together and organise friendly competitions.” The CHRO says that it can’t be HR who organises such activities, but you can fund certain costs or facilitate such activities – “even though the initiative must always be theirs.”

The importance of training

According to Leybaert, employees increasingly expect employers to organise more training. For example, a French course. “We can contribute as an employer, but some people want to do this during their working hours, hmm…” In France, on the other hand, there is a law that determines that certain training must be done during working hours. “Of course, that’s a completely different matter,” says Leybaert.

“At stow, we give training in the employee’s home country (where possible), because if we bring them to Belgium, then they see the conditions offered in Belgium and they want the same. Of course, that’s not how it works,” explains Leybaert. As an example, she tells the story of a Portuguese employee who worked for six months on a project in Germany. “He looked around and saw what people earned elsewhere. It wasn’t long before he left to work for a competitor in Germany,” says Leybaert. “That’s why we keep people in their own country and pay them better than average there.”

Good management of social dialogue

Social dialogue is Machteld Leybaert’s favourite topic. At stow, she prefers to work with local trade unions, and not with one central trade union for the entire group. “As such, I can discuss problems locally, because they are different in every factory,” explains Leybaert. “If people’s welfare is to come first, you must organise it on an entity basis.” Leybaert quotes the example of a labourer who has completely different needs compared to a salesperson. It is very time consuming for the CHRO and her team to participate in all those works council meetings and to hear people’s concerns. However, for Leybaert, communication and human respect are tremendously important and then you must be physically present. “Although you cannot allow people to be involved in every decision,” she continues. As an experienced CHRO, Leybaert is not naïve: “Some candidates are only there for their own protection, and not for their colleagues’ well-being.” 

“People on the works council in Northern France are very tough negotiators,” according to Leybaert. “Whereas in Portugal the trade unions are very rebellious. There the salaries are low, recruitment is easy, but that is not necessarily an advantage.” So, it seems that for a CHRO of a fast-growing international company, there is a constant balancing act to keep rules, culture and all the rest in equilibrium.

Machteld Leybaert has been Chief HR Officer (CHRO) at stow group since 2019. Before that, she was active as HR Director Europe at Furmanite, Group HR Manager at Noordzee Helikopters Vlaanderen and Group HR Director at Sarens. She obtained a law degree (1995) and International Social Law (2003) from Ghent University. Leybaert also studied Labor Law and Contract Law at Cambridge University (2003) and obtained a master’s degree in Export Management at Antwerp Management School (2001).


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