Grace Eapen couldn’t say no when she had the chance to develop HUGO BOSS Fashions Inc.’s human resources function. In 2008, when she first landed at the German fashion house, the organization in New York did not yet have a very comprehensive HR department. With the growth of the retail business, there was an increased need for HR support and strategies.
“We were not where we needed to be from an HR standpoint,” recalls Eapen, who is now the senior vice president of HR for the Americas.
Eapen’s journey to HR began when she majored in psychology with a minor in biology in college. Her dream was to go to medical school—the traditional path for South Asians at that time—but ultimately decided it wasn’t the direction for her. She graduated right before 9/11 and was concerned about her career prospects when she landed an opportunity at Sara Lee Coffee & Tea, a consumer packaged goods company straight out of college. There, she learned the foundations of human resources and loved it so much that she opted to pursue a master’s degree in industrial-organizational psychology.
She found her stepping-stone into the fashion world when she assumed an HR role at Liz Claiborne before being recruited to HUGO BOSS as HR manager for the US market in 2008. It was not an easy beginning. Eapen’s early work revolved around educating employees and building a foundation that made human resources a place of understanding.
“In the fashion industry, it’s not very black and white,” Eapen says. “You have to find a way to balance between the left brain and right brain. You work in a gray zone where you are expected to follow HR processes, procedures and employment laws, but you still need to be able to get people to do what they need to do in the way they understand it. It’s changing the mindset of individuals.
“You have to get people to go on the journey with you,” she adds. “If you don’t, then you’re not going to be able to do your job, and that was the biggest challenge in the beginning.”
“I had to learn a lot of things on my own, but I’ve always been that type of individual who is not afraid of challenges and I wanted to prove it to myself.”
Eapen was never swayed, though. She was grateful for the opportunity and eager to show what she could do. “I’ve always been that type of individual who is not afraid of challenges, and I wanted to prove it to myself,” she says. “I wanted to change the perception of human resources.”
Twelve years later, Eapen is now responsible for more than 270 retail stores, 4 corporate offices, 2 distribution centers, and approximately 2,000 employees, overseeing all aspects of human resources for the Americas region (US, Canada, Mexico, and Brazil). Some of her notable accomplishments include executive organizational management, systems optimization, regionalization, and realignments.
In her role, Eapen serves as a strategic business advisor to the president and CEO for the Americas and to the Americas executive leadership team. As a key member of the global HR leadership team, Eapen engages in global workforce strategies and translates this into holistic plans to meet regional objectives. Leading HR for a global brand, she notes, is a balance between the organization’s vision and the local adaptation in each country.
“At the end of the day, we have to speak with one voice,” she says. “We want to make sure there is uniformity within our brand. This uniformity stems from our brand DNA to HR. We believe that our employees are key to our success. Quality, passion, respect, cooperation, and innovation are the five corporate values that underline our daily working relationships.”
Eapen’s expectation for HR is to translate this into how her team manages the organization and its people. “The experience we provide to customers sets us apart from our competitors and the experience we provide employees throughout their life cycle sets us apart as employers,” she explains. “HR professionals need to have a passion for building an organization and creating an environment that inspires employees to do their best work.”
To inspire the millennial workforce, Eapen notes that you need to not only understand how to motivate them but also relate to the cohort while being an open-minded thinker. “You have to set a vision, lead transformation, and focus on continuous improvement.”
“You have to get people to go on the journey with you. If you don’t, then you’re not going to be able to do your job, and I think that was the biggest challenge in the beginning.”
When it comes to her leadership style, Eapen believes in the motto “work hard, play hard.”
“I have very high expectations as a leader,” she says. “I don’t expect my team to do anything that I would not. I have no problems rolling up my sleeves, but my expectation is that we work smart, collaborate, and serve as true business partners. This can only be accomplished by integrity, transparency, and trust. All of this is serious business but at the end of the day, we are in fashion, so how can you not have fun?”
Like other fashion companies, HUGO BOSS Fashions has been affected by COVID-19. Eapen notes that the early days of COVID-19 were especially difficult and involved making quick decisions for multiple countries on a 24/7 basis. “It was speed to action,” she says. “It took all of the years of my experience in human resources and compressed into this short period of time.”
HUGO BOSS’ first and foremost priority was the health and safety of its employees and customers in the region—a commitment that continues. Eapen and her team had to create protocols and policies based on federal and state health mandates across four countries. There were numerous factors to consider, and each location was managed individually and not as a “one-size-fits-all” approach.
“We still have a way to go,” Eapen notes during her October 2020 interview.
Gallant Employment Law: “I have had the pleasure of working with Grace Eapen and her team for more than a decade, providing legal advice on Canadian HR issues. Grace is a knowledgeable and innovative leader who shares her vision, and provides clear instructions, ensuring the right solution for HUGO BOSS. It is an honour to celebrate Grace’s appearance in Profile magazine.” Donna Gallant, Canadian Employment Lawyer, firstname.lastname@example.org
Littler is proud to support Grace Eapen. We are privileged to work with Grace and extend our congratulations to being recognized by Profile magazine.