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As FootSmart Grows, it Searches for Recruiters, Employees, and a Long-term Mindset

by Jul 10, 2012, 7:00 am ET

A footwear company, known by consumers as FootSmart and officially as Benchmark Brands, is growing quickly, hoping to double in about four years, hiring recruiters, and adding an HR-recruiting-learning department which essentially has not existed prior. It even believes it’d be growing significantly faster if it had the right people in place, a refrain heard before in companies around the world.

FootSmart, based in Atlanta and with a distribution center in Memphis, has 300 employees. It caters to people who are getting up there in age (ha – like 45), or who have various feet and leg problems like blisters, bunions, plantar fasciities, back or knee pain, and so on. The combination of both comfort and health are what it sees as its advantage as a footwear company.

Thana Sakas is in charge of what the company calls its “Talent Asset Management” initiative. Before this, she was at Lee Hecht Harrison, a big outplacement outfit, and Accenture. Elizabeth Peterson, who has recruited for corporations and agencies, has joined Benchmark Brands as the director of talent acquisition. Lynette Harris, who has an HR background, is the new director of talent development.

Sakas started about seven months ago. Then, with about 280 employees, there was pretty much no HR department to speak of. The CEO realized he needed to hire strong recruiting and learning people, with benefits for the most part being outsourced.

Peterson has hired a full-time contract recruiter and a recruiting coordinator, a sourcer, and an additional part-time sourcer. “It’s just a moving target for us,” says Sakas, referring to her company’s growth. Prior to a recent workforce planning project, for example, the company thought it needed 18 people in the corporate office; it added 22 open spots after that planning was done.

Many of these open jobs are e-commerce jobs like Internet marketing and web development slots, for example. Some haven’t been posted yet. It uses Berglass + Associates for some top executive roles.

The value proposition — employer brand — Benchmark wants to achieve is a lot about growth, profitability, and cash flow. In other words, many retailers aren’t doing well, Sakas says, but this company is.

“The other (proposition) is the incredible culture,” she says, “very results-driven, and ego-free. We’re all about getting the job done and making it happen. We have a lot of really smart people and an executive team that’s probably better than the company’s ever had in the past.”

Also, because it’s growing fast, Sakas says, you can wear multiple hats. And, have fun: dance competitions, company picnic, and so on.

Peterson, the talent acquisition leader, has a really strong interest in branding. She wants a “brand we can really put our stamp on,” she says. “I know it’s really easy to talk about these things, but it’s a different thing to put it in practice.” She says, for example, that you can claim what you want on a career site or in this or that policy, but ultimately what matters is “how each candidate is experiencing Benchmark Brands as they walk through the interview process.”

She sees recruiting as, she says, “an exercise in PR.”

Benchmark is mainly finding people through its own LinkedIn networks, though even in Atlanta, it’s not so easy. “We’re in the Mojave desert of retail,” Sakas says. She says a lot of the type of people it wants are elsewhere; many e-commerce pros, she says, are in the Northeast U.S., and in California.

Meanwhile, finding “recruiting talent for me has been as hard as finding e-commerce talent,” Sakas says. Not a lot of Atlanta recruiters, she says, have gone after passive candidates in an aggressive way like they need to do for e-commerce type jobs. In other words, really talked to people, sold them, convinced them, gotten to know them — not just sourced them. Her goal, like many others reading this, is to move recruiting away from the find-someone-to-fill-the-job mentality to more of a longer-term, pipeline, customer relationship management approach. Peterson – the talent acquisition head — says the “biggest risk is not open roles, but not making strategic hires.” She thinks recruiting departments should be quite a bit like sales departments.

Interestingly, Peterson herself was one of those passive candidates Sakas talks about. Peterson was consulting, working about four days a week, and pretty adamant that she didn’t want a permanent gig. But Benchmark was a lure because she got the sense that the CEO is, she says, committed to building “the best talent department in town.”

She hopes that department is “not just a cost center,” she says, “but the epicenter of the organization.”

This article is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended to offer specific legal advice. You should consult your legal counsel regarding any threatened or pending litigation.