Recently, Tim Boerkoel at The Brownestone Group spent time with Jonathan to learn about his wide-ranging opportunities and the calculated risks which led to his current role at w'air. He detailed how his personal passion for competitive sports, especially running, have been inspiring and played an integral role in his own professional development and his leadership style in managing teams and creating change.
Timothy Boerkoel (TBB): You are both athletic and adventurous with accomplishments in running, triathlons, rugby, skiing, cycling, and much more. That innate spirit of drive and competition came from somewhere … tell us about it and how you harness that for value in the workplace?
Jonathan Hewlett (JH): I love this question because you are asking about my passions. To start, I’ve always known I have high natural energy levels. This is the sort of thing your mom and dad point out to you when you’re growing up. Ironically, I find that I now am pointing this out to my son who seems to have inherited the same genes. I’ve realized also that my strengths lie in endurance versus speed. I completed my first marathon at the age of 25, and that is when everything suddenly clicked. I learned about tenacity and self-discovery, and the balance that results when adding these activities to the other aspects of life. Also, I’ve found inspiration by looking at what human beings are capable of and always testing myself in that way – when you complete a marathon, you then wonder what more you may be capable of. Then you complete an Ironman and wonder, “What else is possible?” And before long, you are running across the desert in the Marathon des Sables. That’s the beauty of it … there is always something else. You learn a great deal about who you are and what you are made of in the process.
How does this translate to the workplace? It has certainly given me a “never give up” approach and has influenced the ways I challenge myself and others. It has also impelled me to share the benefits of balance with my team. With every company I have been with, I’ve formed lunchtime running clubs. This was more natural for me to establish at Procter & Gamble because there were a lot of sporty people - but at Diesel, the environment was different. The people loved music and partying, but keeping fit was not necessarily high on the agenda of the average employee. Luckily, I was able to share all the benefits this might bring them, and we regularly had 15-20 people turn out for the Friday lunchtime running club at Diesel. It even engaged people that had never put a pair of running shoes on for their intended purpose, and they found themselves soon running 10Ks and half marathons. I take a lot from that. That’s how I’ve always tried to patch it into the workplace wherever I’ve been.
At P&G, I was part of the group that formalized this type of thing: incorporating balance into the workday. At that time, the company introduced something called the Corporate Athlete, which provided classes and education around the value of high performance in challenging situations. This was at a time when big companies like P&G began to understand that with healthy lifestyles, employees experienced increased energy, lower absenteeism, and peak performance. Senior management found a sort of “religion” in it, embracing the concept for their team. I was instrumental in starting that wave – when you run a team and have people reporting to you, then you really have a responsibility to go beyond standard professional development and incorporate personal development - it’s all woven together. Without imposing or forcing, model and encourage that balance in life, and the other side of people development evolves – health and happiness. It can be delicate, as everyone has unique passions. I simply shared mine and invited others to join, always respecting the fact that it is not for all, and inspiring others to find balance in their own way.
TBB: In reviewing the span of your career, some of the characteristics that rise to the surface are loyalty, commitment, and a work ethic with endless capacity. All of these are valuable in any industry … how have they served you and the companies you have worked with?
JH: These characteristics were undoubtedly forged early in my career at P&G, where that sort of culture has always prevailed. I was lucky to be selected to join the company at a time when there was only a single position available for every thousand applicants. I still see this as one of my greatest early achievements: being “snapped” up by P&G straight out of college.
People development and leadership at P&G is world class - there is no debate there. The level of commitment and loyalty expected of a young graduate starting out is quickly repaid, and then some. It also serves as a perfect model for the expectations of you when you advance to a leadership position. It’s a symbiotic relationship from the get-go.
At Diesel, those same qualities immediately take on a personal feel - your loyalty and commitment are to one brand, and beyond that … to Renzo Rosso, the founder of Diesel and president of OTB Group, which has a portfolio of brands. He is an Italian fashion entrepreneur and businessman and continues to be the living embodiment and inspiration of Diesel.
The company is a close-knit family. The expectations are that your allegiance manifests itself by “becoming Diesel.” Where P&G was always very clear on separating work from personal life, at Diesel it quickly blends into one – it is very intoxicating and quite daunting, but once adapted, it can be very powerful. For me, it was certainly positive and contagious and served me well in building organizational teams and a collaborative spirit. You genuinely feel a part of this single entity.
TBB: With over 16 years of advancement at Procter & Gamble (P&G), a giant in the consumer beauty industry – you worked from the ground up to General Manager of an entire division. Illuminate how that time of learning and personal growth played out as your career advanced in this manner, especially in a generation/culture that seeks immediate success and satisfaction in everything?
JH: P&G is often described as the “perfect school.” Your career is carefully managed in the early stages to ensure you get the right grounding. There is an added element of competition within your peer group which stimulates you to always go the extra mile and give all you can in everything you do. Your manager is evaluated just as much on their performance as on their ability to develop you. That is how my first few years at P&G played out.
Five years later, my first critical moment or pivot was choosing to join the fine fragrance division, which was only a tiny part of P&G at the time. Back to loyalty and commitment … the reason I shifted from health and beauty care to fine fragrance was my dedication and great affinity to my boss, Ken Rushton, who was such a guiding force early in my career. At the time, he was promoted to the fine fragrance division and offered me a job on his team. That was a critical decision for me, because I was leaving the mainstream and entering this tiny, unique P&G microcosm. It was the only part of P&G that worked with brands that weren’t owned by the company. Most know that P&G owns Tide, Bold, and Pampers … but they don’t own Dolce & Gabbana and Hugo Boss. Those are licensed businesses - it’s a unique part of P&G. The whole experience opened me up and familiarized me with those fashion giants. It also broadened my geographical spotlight – I had been very UK-centric up until that point - and now I was on a European stage with an introduction to the luxury category. Now, I was working with department and speciality stores as well as other retail channels, which was different from the other areas of P&G, all broadening my experiences and making this such an essential moment on my career journey.
A second vital moment was early in the 2000s when I was fortunate to be given a pivotal, milestone role as part of the acquisition team for a well-known French brand. P&G was buying the Jean Patou fragrance business, which included the Lacoste license as well. My new role was to work within the company that was being bought and lead the people through the process of becoming a part of P&G. I also supported the brands and products that were just acquired to seamlessly integrate them into this larger machine. I was an Englishman who had just parachuted into a small French company as the face of Procter & Gamble, to guide them into disconnecting from their past and to welcome them fully into the P&G family. It was very complex and required high-emotional intelligence.
That time escalated my growth enormously as a manager and leader - as someone who could demonstrate and direct change, especially culturally, within an organization. Sometimes the choices we make in our careers that are indirect or seem “off the beaten path” and risky, may prove to be the most significant. That assignment, and my promotion to Trade Marketing Director, Prestige Beauté Division, solidified my P&G footing. As a result, I received my first General Manager role at the age of 33, overseeing the French fragrance division. The wisdom to take a leap, and the loyalty to a boss that provided great assists, allowed me to shine in ways that were not foreseen.
TBB: When you made the career pivot to the premium fashion denim brand, Diesel Ltd., that must have been a challenging decision and taken a lot of courage. What was your thought process in making a change, and what skills transferred with you that proved vital to your success in a new industry?
JH: As you may imagine, I was asked, “When you’re with a big, American, publicly-listed, FMCG company, why would you leave to join a private, Italian fashion brand?” When you break it down, it’s not as crazy as it sounds. First of all, when you work on a fragrance brand, you get a ring-side seat to the fashion circus, but you’re not actually in the ring. You feel like you work on the brand, and grow an affinity toward it, but you’re still a bystander. Working with brands like Dolce & Gabbana, Hugo Boss, and Lacoste gave me a real appetite and interest in fashion at the luxury level – so that change was always circulating in my mind. The first “click” was to be directly in the fashion ring.
When I was approached by Diesel to join their team, I happened to be at a personal crossroads in my life. I’d been gone from the UK for nearly ten years and my children were approaching critical school age. If I was going to return to the UK, it was either now or not for a very long time. My parents were not getting any younger either. There were a lot of personal pushes happening simultaneously – and all of them led me to ask myself where I wanted to be for the next 10 years. This was the second “click.”
The third “click” was a chance to extend my development into the field of retail, where I had very little experience. It’s amusing … at P&G, you work with retailers all the time and think you understand the industry; but of course, you don’t fully. You may understand generally how it works, but the whole machine is kind of hidden from you. Suddenly, I had the opportunity to apply my General Management skills, and simultaneously learn and apply myself to a new industry, which was retail and stores. That combination of being in the brand, geographically moving back to the UK, and having the opportunity to learn and grow is what sealed the deal for me, and this proved to be a positive decision.
This move presented a smooth transfer of my skills – a chance to learn and teach at the same time. What I quickly realized at Diesel was that fashion attracts hugely talented and passionate people. Often, all they needed was channelling and structure; learning how to apply data, as opposed to just following their gut to make decisions; consumer pull versus thought push; linking marketing activities more directly to the first moment of truth or driving traffic in-store to convert. In fashion, there was a lot of “doing by feeling”, which is definitely a part of the magic, and often how creative, visionary minds make the best decisions. Certainly though, when running a fashion business, if you can combine untapped talent with a channel, structure, or framework for that to be capitalized on, then you’ve got a winning combination. That was what I tried to bring to the Diesel table through my P&G experiences.
TBB: Your experiences have been immersed in a variety of cultures, working with and alongside some very strong industry founders and leaders. How would you describe the cumulative impact of working with successful mentors in diverse industries and countries?
JH: Let me start by saying how fortunate I have been to have such a broad range of experiences and role models. I find myself in a privileged position, trying to take all the best morsels from each mentor. From Renzo Rosso, it’s the passion he brings to the brand, as a visionary and founder. I got a glimpse into how he works, how he creates dimension from each opportunity, and how he forms a vision that people buy into. Another role model, and most important next to Renzo, was Alessandro Bogliolo, the former CEO of Diesel, who went on to become CEO at Tiffany & Co. and is now Board Director of Audemars Piguet and Bath & Body Works. I reported to him at Diesel between 2013 - 2017. Alessandro was someone who could articulate the brand essence, brand story, and brand assets, and develop that into a clear vision and strategy for the organization to achieve. He did that better than anyone else I know, communicating fluently, creating something tangible, clear, measurable, and inspiring. His message became challenging and motivational.
This blueprint has been helpful for me today with w’air. There’s been more than one occasion when I have taken a few chapters from Alessandro’s playbook and applied that channel directly to what I’m doing. Also, he did all of that under the gaze of the founder of Diesel, which is no easy feat. Renzo could tell you what Diesel was and was not, but Alessandro created a structured document that could be disseminated across thousands of people in hundreds of countries. He defined who our consumer was, what we stood for, and how we would match those two together in the best possible way. Alessandro created a breadth of understanding to Diesel that Renzo envisioned, and together the whole company became the brand.
Mentors can be such unique building blocks in the different stages of our career if we are open to their attributes. I’m immensely grateful for mine.
TBB: Sustainability is becoming more clearly understood and valued by the consumer, at the same time technology and digital media are evolving rapidly; how do you envision new product ideas such as w’air will be impacted, and what new business channels will begin to open?
JH: If you think about where fashion is heading very quickly in terms of sustainability, w’air is perfectly placed to develop a solution that everyone is searching for - whether with the consumer or businesses. The main challenge is the need to change habits; that’s what sustainability is in a nutshell. Sustainability is driven by three different sources. The first is from consumers themselves; the second is from brands and companies that can enable that habit change; and the third is “big brother”, a.k.a. legislative and government interventions that make habit changes not voluntary but mandatory. It comes down to which one of the three forces is going to take the ascendance, and how quickly they can do it when it comes to solving sustainability in fashion. I believe the consumer is going to spearhead the change. Consumers have more influence on brands, companies, the government, and themselves.
I’ve obviously been more than a casual observer for about ten years, and especially during the last three. Brands are starting to get their act together with some real dedicated effort, but I think the consumer demands will pull them over more quickly. It won’t be the brands that will drive ahead - they will have to run to keep up with consumer demands. That is my take.
What we have observed through our early research is this: as long as you’re not compromising what the consumer ultimately desires, you can be as “green” as you want. But the moment the sustainability element begins to force the consumer to make a sacrificial choice (to pay more, accept less, or have to wait), their interest in being sustainable will drop off quickly. Overall, we are seeing a change for the better and it will only accelerate … further fueling my belief that consumers are going to be dragging the brands through the need to change as opposed to just accepting a brand’s claims that they’re “doing better”.
As w’air has pivoted away from the consumer and toward B2B, we show tremendous growth. The first two channels to erupt are fashion apparel retail and sneaker cleaning. Fashion retail stems from shop-soiling, whether in the stores or through returns. Most consumers are unaware of the amount of product handled and wasted through the logistics chain; many thinking that merchandise goes back into stores after purchasing and returning and right back on the shelves. Actually, in far too many cases, merchandise is discarded because the cost to salvage is far lower than to return it to saleable condition. Buy and return or snap and return is a thing – it has exploded. People purchase multiple sizes, pick the one they want, and return the rest. It is crippling our environment and the supply chain. Costs and tangible waste are going through the roof. The w’air device can dramatically decrease the number of returns that become waste. Our momentum is building having just signed Calvin Klein, Hugo Boss, Paul Smith, and Tommy Hilfiger (with a pilot trial just launched with Burberry) … interest is mushrooming.
Next door to fashion is the sneaker category that is continuing to build, particularly on the premium end of the market. All of this forward motion is energized by consumer trends to make things last longer, upselling, and repairing. There is an intersection between more expensive trainers/sneakers and the need to care for our things. The industry is blossoming in the UK, the US, and beyond – sneaker laundries exist and are becoming more popular. Up until now, the market has not been disrupted, whether by a single player or a broad solution for the way in which trainers are cleaned and refreshed today (which is with a brush and some detergent). Luckily, we now have this innovation allowing those getting into sneaker cleaning the ability to use less abrasion, less fluid and soaking, and micro cleaning as well.
w’air has brought real innovation to the art of cleaning, both clothing and sneakers, at a time when the service is suddenly emerging. It’s very exciting to be mindfully involved in the change of habits and the global sustainability shift.