Climbing the ladder in the retail industry

Melissa Sincock, HR & Training Manager for fashion house Hobbs talks to Workingmums.co.uk about her rise up the ranks within the retail industry and how the arrival of her daughter in 2008 left her feeling unusually sensitive and concerned but nonetheless determined to take on a promotion whilst cutting back her hours.
Melissa worked at Marks & Spencer for four years whilst she completed her textiles degree. During her time at M&S  – she worked mainly at the weekends to earn some money for her studies –  she started to do some work running the various departments.  “It was on a very informal basis,’’she explained. “Someone would be away for example and I would step in and run the department. I found that I really enjoyed it – both in terms of the interaction with the customers and the pace of the work that retail demands.’’
This essential experience convinced  her that she should pursue a career in the industry. After   graduation,  she applied for two jobs – one in the buying department at fashion chain Top Shop and one that she spotted in  the Guardian newspaper for a trainee manager at High-Street store Hobbs.
“It was 1999 and I thought I’ll just work here (Hobbs) for a couple of years and then move on,’’ says Melissa. “The concept of having a ‘job for life’ had disappeared by that point. So it is quite pleasantly surprising to me that I’m here ten years later!”
The trainee programme was advertised as a year’s post but within six months Melissa had been promoted as the third manager in the team and was fortunate to be working in the highest turnover store of the entire business. In another six months Melissa found she was the deputy manager and just a month later the manager’s job became available at the South Molton Street branch in London.
“I was really nervous about taking it on – all this had happened in just over a year so I asked if I could do a trial for three or four months first because I felt that I didn’t have the necessary experience. This is typical of the pace of the retail industry.” Melissa was once again successful and stayed in that position for two years in which time she doubled the turnover of the store.
After this time the manager’s position at the trendy Kings Road branch in south-west London came up. “I was there for another four years and started to train new incoming managers,’’ says Melissa. ‘’It was a really busy time because the chain expanded from 30 shops to 100. I started to do the managers’ induction training and I loved it.
“From here I moved over to the training department and I looked after the training across all the stores. I was helped by having such a strong knowledge of what the business needed.  I had a lot of support from the head office and continue to do so,” explains Melissa. A new HR manager came on board and combined training with HR – this appointment was to prove a further step up for Melissa as new incentives were launched. Then in 2008 Melissa had the biggest test of her life as she happily fell pregnant and took maternity leave.
“I went on maternity leave two weeks before Georgina was born,’’ she says. “I took five months off work and whilst I was on leave the HR Manager re-located to Ireland. The Head of HR came to see me at home and asked me at that point to take on the role of HR and Learning and Development Manager. I jumped at the chance and said ‘yes’. I was always going to go back to work.”
In May 2009 Melissa returned to Hobbs, but this time in her new capacity as HR and LD Manager. She cut her hours from a full five days a week, in which she admits she used to work 60 hours, to a more reasonable four days a week in which she made it quite clear she would have to leave at six on the dot every night.
“I expected it to be horribly challenging. I’ve been career-minded all my life but I was concerned at the thought of leaving Georgina with my childminder. It came out of the blue to be so emotional about it – I was very surprised because I’m a highly organised and in control type of person,” admits Melissa.
Fortunately her first day back in the job couldn’t have been better. “I was given the tools to work at home when needed and I was reassured that I could work just the contracted hours,’’ she says.’’ The first day was great and the first week was great. Georgie was really happy,  she was quite young, but I saw her with the other babies and I was happy that she was fine.’’
The transition back to work and a new position was helped by a smooth progression into the new role. “It was not the extreme challenge I thought it was going to be,’’ says Melissa.’’ I had to research different workshops and the business provided me with the finance I needed to upskill to meet the job requirements.’’
Life is very flexible now, admits Melissa, who is afforded the ability to work at home on projects when required. Fortunately Georgina hasn’t been too ill but during bouts of illness or teething Hobbs have been very supportive and allowed her to work from home: “They’ve  been really understanding. I spent time whilst I was on maternity leave finding a suitable childminder. She only has two children to look after and if Georgina is only a little bit ill she is happy to take her and keeps me updated during the day as to how she is,” says Melissa.
Family life can be tough as Melissa’s husband is a policeman and works shifts. Melissa also admits that she cannot rely on her husband to pick up or drop off Georgina so is largely, solely responsible for their daughter.  “My husband works shifts but he can’t just drop things when his shift comes to an end so yesterday for example he should have finished at 4pm,  but he worked until midnight so that means I must be able to go and pick up Georgina at the agreed time.” Melissa and her husband agreed to ‘see how it went’ and  so far they are really happy with everything.
Melissa has worked hard to ensure that all the female employees at Hobbs are afforded the same flexibility as she is where possible.  “Working in a shop can be extreme,’’ she says.“If someone wants to come back after having a child and asks for flexible working we try to accommodate their request. So far we’ve managed to meet all our requests.’’
Ninety per cent of staff at Hobbs are women and getting home to families is a big issue. Melissa says it can be a problem in stores  open until 10pm. “Our Bluewater store, for example, is open until 10pm. We have job-shares etc to work around this. So far we haven’t had any resentment amongst staff who haven’t got children to suggest that we are failing to fulfil all our employees’ needs across the board. However, we’re aware that we need to be consistent and fair to everyone. It’s not fair for example that a manager who hasn’t got children has to do the night shift all the time because the other one has got children.’’
Melissa has just changed her working week from four days to five with shorter hours to make sure she is at home every night to see her daughter, and for the first time she admits that she is truly happy and content. She says:  “I’m happy with everything. I have a brilliant team and I’m very comfortable where I am and I love being a mum too.”




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