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Women in leadership: Angelika Schindler-Obenhaus, CEO Gerry Weber

By Barbara Russ


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At the time of this interview, Angelika Schindler-Obenhaus was still COO of Gerry Weber International AG, in the meantime, she has been promoted to CEO. FashionUnited spoke with her about her plans for Gerry Weber, her leadership style and the quota of women on boards in Germany.

Ms. Schindler-Obenhaus, please describe your career so far.

I began my career in 1982 at the German department store chain Horten AG with an apprenticeship as a commercial assistant, after which I became a department manager. I quickly realized that I was drawn towards buying and after six years I started working in the buying department atSinnLeffers AG, a German retailer.

There, I worked as a purchasing department manager for the Young Fashion division, at Bamboo. After eight years, I became a central buyer at Boecker GmbH and got to know private-label production in the Far East, which was an exciting new aspect - production in China and Hong Kong and being able to design the clothes myself. After that, I joined fashion brand Cecil as Head of Key Account.

At the time, I was the first woman in the sales department. The tone was rough, and I had to get used to that. But after me, more women joined the sales team, which positively influenced the atmosphere. That's where I got to know the systems business from scratch. In 2004, Cecil was sold and the culture changed completely.

That's when a headhunter approached me: Katag AG - a big wholesale fashion company in Bielefeld was looking for someone in the systems business. As their Buying Manager, I was involved in the verticalization of private labels from 2005 on. In 2010, I was appointed to the Management Board with responsibility for purchasing, and later joined Procurement, IT, Sales and Marketing. After ten years, I decided that I wanted to do something else again. And then Gerry Weber approached me.

What attracted you to Gerry Weber?

The Gerry Weber brand has 91 percent brand awareness [in Germany], which is incredible. I was thinking about how to make the brand more appealing again to the baby boomer generation - women aged fifty and up. My interest was piqued.

What changes are you aiming for at Gerry Weber?

We are putting a clear focus on the four core brands and have a clear objective for each of them. With Gerry Weber, we want to be the leader in Modern Classic Mainstream again. We always have been and we want to take this position again. Our USP is fit. Customers trust that products from Gerry Weber simply fit well.

That's why, at Gerry Weber Edition, we focus mainly on the competence areas of knitwear, shirts, outerwear and pants. At Gerry Weber Collection, we also want to venture into more fashionable styles again and, among other things, include more statement pieces. Overall, we want to become more individual, move away from the previous coordinates idea. Generation Wow, as I also call our target audience, approaches fashion today with a different set of expectations. And we want to convey that in our visual language and communication.

With Taifun, we want to become a relevant brand in the modern casual mainstream again, which will not be an easy undertaking, because we have strong competitors there like Opus, S.Oliver Tom Tailor, Street One in the German marekt. But I think we can do it.

With Samoon, in the Curvy segment, we want to become the leader again, we are not far away from that. The curvy woman encompasses all age groups and is very self-confident. She is very much online - we want to take advantage of that and offer her a strong range there.

In addition, we want to return to independent sales for each brand and also move away from the umbrella brand-construct in terms of communication.

What qualities have particularly qualified you for your current position?

I think I'm good at empathizing with a target group. You have to understand what the customer wants, not just what you personally think looks good. And then of course: I have experience. I spent many years working in the product and procurement as well as brand and production departments. It's also important to me to have a good employee culture. Not a culture of closed doors, not sitting in the ivory tower, but being close to the employees.

"I always spoke up and was never comfortable" you were once quoted. Has that always helped you? Are uncomfortable women perceived differently than uncomfortable men?

I was very often the first woman in my career and I never asked myself the question of whether I had to behave differently because I was a woman. I always spoke up and communicated my suggestions for improvement and ideas.

As a manager, I think it’s the very worst thing when employees hold their breath. A company gets ahead when the people, who are involved in the operational processes every day, open their mouths and deliver suggestions for improvement. Companies thrive on these so-called "inconvenient" employees, not the followers. That is my conviction. And I think it has helped me personally.

Do women have a different leadership style than men?

I don't know if I would say that. Maybe. There are more patriarchs among men, I know few female patriarchs. But even there I wouldn't say: this is typically male or typically female. It varies from person to person. My management style is to encourage and challenge employees.

That doesn't mean "cuddling" all the time but treating everyone with respect. It can't always be sunshine - as a boss, you sometimes have to make uncomfortable decisions and have hard conversations. I'd much rather hire someone than fire someone. But even a termination can be handled with dignity, decency, and respect for the other person.

Do you share talk and exchange ideas with other women in similar positions?

Yes, I have a very large network by now. We support each other. I think a lot has happened there. I didn't like the first of these networking events for women, I left them quickly. Now they are mostly worthwhile and well-organized events. For example, McKinsey had an event called "Women Matter in Luxury and Fashion". That was a great network with many exciting topics such as sustainability or digitalization, where women from different leadership positions discussed among themselves. My new circle has emerged from this. We talk about a wide variety of topics: Digitalization, sustainability, employee management, leadership. Sometimes, of course, we also talk about the men.

How do you empower and support employees?

To date, I have not paid attention to gender there, but to performance. The quota that has now been introduced will probably change that. It challenges us to then do even more in the second and third levels.

Germany passed a quota law last year. What is your stance on that?

In regards to the quota, much like German public opinion and discourse, I have undergone a transformation. In the past, I was strictly against the quota. I thought that it wouldn't do women justice if they got a job because they are the “token woman” and then they would have to fight that prejudice on top of the already existing sexism.

But now, I think it won't work without a quota. Because nothing has changed on a voluntary basis. If a woman made it to a DAX board at all, it was often in the so-called "women's departments."

I also find it problematic that the quota only takes effect from the fourth board member onwards. That wouldn't apply to my current position, for example, as the Gerry Weber Management Board only consists of three people. But I assume that the first step has been taken and that supporting more women will help companies, because they bring a different perspective. We all hope that at some point it will be quite normal to have women in the boardrooms.

What needs to change structurally for this to happen?

The social and operational framework must change. At Gerry Weber, for example, we have a daycare center. That is an example of these framework conditions that need to be created to enable parents to return to work after maternity or parental leave.

The attitude toward women in Germany has to change in general. For example, I often have to justify not having children; people label me “career woman”. On the other hand, mothers who want to return to work quickly after having kids have are labeled “bad mother”.

[At this point, Kristina Schütze, Press Officer & Head of Corporate Communications Gerry Weber, who is also on the video call, joins the conversation]

Kristina Schütze: Incidentally, as a mother, I see it that way too. When I started the job at Gerry Weber in September 2019, I was asked on Linkedin by almost complete strangers, how I was going to manage this job with two young children. My husband had also recently started a new job - no one asked him that question.

Angelika Schindler-Obenhaus: Yes, that's exactly what I mean. There's a lot that needs to happen socially.

What recommendations would you give to current graduates (or your younger self)?

I would advise them to learn languages, gain experience abroad, experience new perspectives, and be authentic. They should take time to find out what they are passionate about and then try to set the course for their professional life accordingly. And seize opportunities! I certainly didn't plan to become a board member when I was in school or even early in my career. It turned out that way because I always took chances, found mentors who believed in me, and wasn't afraid of failure.

This article was originally published in January 2021 on fashionunited.de. Translation and editing: Barbara Russ

Images: 1. Angelika Schindler-Obenhaus; 2 and 3: campaign images Gerry Weber.

Angelika Schindler-Obenhaus
Gerry Weber