Former divisional executive Darryl Feldman shares his experience from Edcon’s collapse

After a rough few months, Darryl chooses not to wallow, but rather to find purpose in assisting others.

Darryl Feldman former divisional executive, human resources & transformation at Edcon, started his HR career in the financial services sector. He cut his teeth at Nedbank, where he learned the nuts and bolts of HR, under the tutelage of leaders and mentors who set a high standard for him. His time at Nedbank was followed by positions at Absa, a stint at Edcon, a move to Cell C and then rejoining Edcon in March 2018.

“All these environments were massive learning curves, defined by a huge merger at Absa and trying to thrive at Cell C, which was the underdog in a competitive environment.”

Darryl first joined Edcon in 2012 as divisional human resource manager: Boardmans and Red Square and took up other positions including divisional executive HR & transformation: corporate IT & strategy. Moving into retail ignited him. Darryl, who thrives off relationships says, “At Edcon, HR was encouraged to get involved in the store operations and develop business partnerships. This meant that one got to see the impact of your work on the customer in-store.”

Darryl’s seven years at Edcon have been defined by continuous change. The company has gone through numerous restructures, suffered through investments which didn’t pay off and had to contend with rapidly changing consumer tastes and behaviours. At the beginning of 2020, Edcon was suffering the impact of numerous drawbacks and a stagnant economy. Lockdown was the nail in the coffin and, as doors to the stores closed, the CEO issued a sobering notice alerting staff that Edcon had run out of cash.

Navigating multiple crises

Darryl says that as the company burned as the pandemic raged on, and the focus turned to salvaging the business. “The HR task team met twice a week to examine the emerging legislation, struggling to interpret what government required in relation to the Covid-19 pandemic. IT went into hyperactive mode moving operations to home base. We had to rapidly ramp up capacity to work from home for those who could, but also build up the capacity to track employees.”

As a retail organisation in a dire state, Edcon desperately needed to trade to pay salaries. While the pressure was on to generate income, re-opening and re-entering a retail space during a pandemic presented its own challenges. With employees nervous to come back, communication took priority both within the corporate arm, but also with employees who were store based. “We had to quickly put together a plan to understand the co-morbidities or the health issues of all staff. We developed policy and guidelines and how to deal with sick staff, managing operations with limited staff capacity as per government regulations, posed its own challenge.”

Store-based challenges were not the only ones to contend with. Those working from home were stretching to supplement for not being able to be in the room together strategising and the most common complaint was longer working hours. “We collaborated with our Communications team to stay in touch, to proactively push Covid-19 policies to the rest of the team, to provide weekly updates with healthy behaviour, tips and ideas,” says Darryl.
Meanwhile, despite the gallant effort, Darryl admits that he was faced with the inescapable fact that the business was sinking. “Went into a challenging business rescue process and in May the executive and management teams took a pay cut for 3 months to help the business.

HR’s pivotal role

Covid-19 had a huge impact on Edcon’s people and operational HR had a double role to play; to lead as operations resumed, but to also plan the heart-wrenching process of consultation for retrenchments starting in August “As HR, we set the foundation from the people perspective. We worked closely with the corporate doctor in terms of understanding the Covid-19 prevalence in our environment and took all the steps we could to maintain health and safety.”

Darryl says playing a central role in giving direction and strategy, formulating policies and guidelines in a new environment has been rewarding.
It has been a rollercoaster ride but being able to help people has been the silver lining. In the last few months, what stood me in good stead and helped me to cope is that throughout my career I have constantly faced difficult situations; when working at Nedbank and Absa, I worked through mergers, Edcon has had annual restructures and other ongoing challenges. I agree that our best often emerges under pressure. I take every challenge as an opportunity to develop and be sharpened, I don’t walk in fear or believe that challenges will hold me back. Also, not in my nature to back away from challenges. That mindset has developed a level of resilience that gives me the wherewithal to thrive despite tough times.”

Darryl has not escaped the knife and has found himself a casualty of the cuts at Edcon, yet he remains pragmatic and positive. He looks forward to contributing to another organisation and says that the conversation about being at the executive table or not has been overturned. “Strategically, HR has more than demonstrated its value. We have shown that having strong leadership in the people management side of a business is crucial.”
Darryl says his takeaways and lessons from the recent past and also his career as a whole are that, “if you don’t have the right structure to support your organisation, then whatever strategy you create will not be sufficient, but also, you can’t utilise your people and their talents optimally. The right structure coupled with the right roles and functions is how you set yourself up for success.”

arHis opinion about the post-Covid-19 future is that going forward HR will have to play a big role in helping companies adjust and imbed a new way of working, some of it is unlearning a lot of things, such as the clear distinction between work and home, how do you live in less demarcated spaces in your life.

“We talk about a digital world, but we still need connection. We still need that human touch; we still need an HR person to play the role of striking a balance between issues such as work/life balance as tech infringes more on life.”
When it comes to leadership, he says all of us, but especially leaders who grew up in a time when clocking in was a sign of productivity, need to appreciate the transition from being output based, not time-based. We need to give people the freedom and leeway to deliver in their own way, change our mindsets towards output-driven performance management systems.

“Going forward, we must all be committed to developing people in the new paradigm. Now is the time to reskill and retool, a process HR must lead. Organizations will have to be reconfigured and we must look for creative, novel ways to teach people in more interesting ways,” says Darryl.

Even though it's been a rough few months, Darryl has chosen not to wallow, but rather find purpose in assisting others, and being of service has been a great outlet for him.