The Cotton On Group is a true Australian success story that started out the back of a car boot.
In need of some extra cash to get him through uni, Cotton On Founder, Nigel Austin, started selling denim acid wash sample jackets at a local Geelong market. Fast forward almost 24 years, and the Cotton On Group now has nine brands, over 1,300 stores in 16 countries around the globe and turnover that is predicted to hit $1.51 billion this year.
I’m fascinated by Cotton On’s rising star (especially when so many brands are struggling in today’s tough retail market) so the other week I jumped in the car and headed down to Geelong to spend a morning at their HQ. From visiting canines (owners can bring their dogs to work) and a light-filled whole foods cafe to their very own university and a team of personal trainers to put employees through their paces – this is a workplace that pushes the boundaries. It walks the talk. It has a culture and energy that is very different to any other business I have been in.
Come with me, and let’s see what makes Cotton On tick…
Cotton On HQ
As soon as I stepped inside Cotton On HQ I immediately got the sense that it’s a beautiful space to work in. But when I looked a little closer I realised that everything has actually been designed to make it easy to talk and connect.”This is a bee hive where we all work together,” explains Pippa Grange, Cotton On’s General Manager of People and Culture.
Spaces are open and corridors are wide to encourage serendipitous interaction, collaboration and ideas. The design creates a sense of community that’s the opposite of the old factory model, where people are just cogs in the machine.
If ever you needed proof that Cotton On does the whole ‘culture’ thing well, just look at all the cars driving down to Geelong each morning! Of the 870 passionate folk that work out of their head office, more than half make the daily commute from Melbourne.
“At Cotton On, culture is the strategy, not part of the strategy,” explains Pippa. “People are our asset and we protect and nurture them.”
Whether monthly BBQs were everyone gets together, spending $40K each year on fruit for the team to enjoy or the flat organisation structure that has the brand’s family-owned roots at its heart, you can see Cotton On puts its people front and centre. This isn’t just lip service. In fact, when I visited them I could actually feel the way it is lived, breathed and created.
Cotton On Group Uni
Cotton On takes learning very seriously. So much so that in partnership with Deakin University, they’ve created COG Uni, a $30M to create an education platform that provides a wide range of programs for all part time and full time employees to take part in.
“We like to say that you start here and go anywhere,” explained Pippa. And that doesn’t just apply to someone starting out in their career. “Every leader should be a learner,” said Pippa. “COG Uni creates and nurtures a sense of possibility by growing the whole person, not just a new skill.”
Health and Wellbeing
I think that one of the big drivers of Cotton On’s success is their focus on activity and having a great energy in all parts of life, not just at work. They spend a lot of time creating an environment that encourages vitality, resilience, mindfulness and work/life balance, which is particularly important when 75 per cent of their head office employees are women and the average age is 30.
Cotton On has a dedicated health and wellbeing team that runs a range of activities globally – things like team sports activities in their Distribution Centres, boot camps and 12-week yoga challenges in their Regional Hubs along with nutritional education and awareness packs for all of their Retail team members.
At Head Office, things step up again with where there’s an in-house cafe, The Common, that serves up reduced-price whole foods and cooking classes. There’s also a a Health Hub consisting of an Osteopath, Naturopath, Masseur, Podiatrist, Beautician and Financial Planner and gym that is run by a team of personal trainers who provide PT sessions and group classes plus meditation and yoga workshops.
There’s no doubt, Cotton On is out the front and leading the way. The story is far from over…and it’s one I’ll continue to eagerly watch.