Estée Lauder South Africa HR Director Devni Naidoo on perfecting people practices in the beauty industry

Devni took a step into the new world of prestige beauty after 20 years in the banking industry.

With a 20-year career in the banking industry behind her, Devni Naidoo took a step into the new world of prestige beauty, where she relishes the opportunity for growth and also enjoys addressing the needs of women.

In 2016, Devni Naidoo, who was then the Regional HR Director at Standard Chartered Bank, felt it was time for a change of industry. She’d spent 20 years building a successful career in banking, and was looking for something new. She went for many interviews at multinational corporations, but nothing won her mind and heart until she met with Estée Lauder.

“They are leaders in transformation, and have exceptional products in their portfolio of 25 brands sold in 150 countries. The company is a leader in prestige beauty, with a knack for creativity and innovation.”

The company is comprised of a younger workforce, with an average employee age of 32. As such, one of the first things that Devni turned her attention to was re-engineering the HR policy to allow for flexibility with the full support of the leadership team. The company now has flexible working hours and extended maternity leave.

“Because we are a women-led company, we are aware of the many responsibilities women have: being partners, mothers, and employees. It’s tough going even for the most together person. We are a highly mobile company, so our employees can work from anywhere as long as the work gets done.”

She says that this flexibility and sensitivity has resulted in employees feeling empowered and autonomous.

There is also a “no dress code” policy, with staff asked to “Dress for the Day”. Devni loves putting on jeans and takkies, with her only effort spent on applying some makeup.

“When millennials are interviewed, they always ask about flexi-time and dress code. Ultimately a happier workforce is a productive one,” she says.

Considering the needs of women isn’t limited to human resources and marketing activities at Estée Lauder, and Devni says that the most rewarding experience in her career so far is her involvement in leading on the CSR initiatives and breast cancer campaigns at the company. “Volunteer activities and cause initiatives, such as the Breast Cancer Campaign, the M·A·C VIVA GLAM Fund, Aveda Earth Month, and La Mer Blue Heart Ocean Fund, are close to my heart.”

Foundations in finance

Devni has a strong foundation in developing strategy and helping workforces to respond to varying economic cycles, having spent the first 20 years of her career in the banking industry.

As a Durban native, Naidoo did her internship at Absa in Johannesburg. She was only meant to complete the bank’s year-long graduate programme and return to her beloved hometown, but she was hired on the spot and stayed at the bank for another nine years. Absa Bank was where she cut her teeth, moving between retail and corporate investment banking from 1997 to 2006. “I built the bedrock of my skills and passion there. I will always be grateful for this foundation,” she reflects.

The winds of change blew again, and she was headhunted by Standard Bank’s Africa Division. Here, she was involved in building the business from the ground up. Devni travelled across 17 different African countries, assessing the unique and diverse landscapes to develop tailor-made strategies for each business.

“It was tough leading the HR function in other countries, especially as labour law, infrastructure and culture are varied, but I built up so much resilience in that period. Working in emerging markets shaped so much of who I am today,” says Naidoo.

She says that part of her work in Africa was understanding the particularities of each region.  HR implementation in the East African region proved very rewarding, she notes, as the culture has an intrinsic collaborative mind-set.

“I loved my East African colleagues’ willingness to co-create the HR agenda with me. It also helps that the digital revolution has taken hold there, which means the desire to innovate is expected and applauded,” says Naidoo. “For instance, the East African team was wholly on board with building an online retail environment in a space where online shopping is growing.”

Critically, she notes, her work in Africa was underpinned by forging relationships with people. “It’s less technical, and more relational.”

Naidoo left Standard Bank in 2011 for the Regional HR Director at Standard Chartered Bank. “I enjoyed working for a multinational investment bank, but I wanted a change of industry.” And then, in 2016, she started her new chapter at Estée Lauder Companies South Africa.

Advances in Africa

Devni is passionate about Africa, from her experience in the banking world, and for the opportunities it presents for her current industry. She believes that the opportunity for personal and professional growth is immense on the continent. She says that Western markets function well, but they are saturated to a degree. In Africa, there is an immense need for locally relevant prestige beauty products in particular.

Also, the growing youth market (Africa’s youth population is expected to supersede the world’s youth population by 2050) is image conscious and fanatical about local “influencers,” which presents a number of opportunities for growth and innovation. In many African countries, spending power has also improved. 

Of course, in South Africa, business is operating in a challenging climate. The local economy has certainly taken a beating in recent years, and the retail market, and indeed prestige beauty, has been affected. Devni acknowledges that there has been a decline in foot traffic in shopping centres, but says it’s an opportunity to diversify revenue channels, such as social and digital media.

Downtime is a critical discipline

Devni loves walking her dogs, spending time with family, cooking, and travelling. While she spends a lot of time on the road and in the air for work, she still travels for relaxation and downtime. Her partner is French, and so holidays are spent in France. “I love French wine and food. I love the French style of cooking in particular, and the experimentation with flavours.”

Naidoo’s role models are her mum and late dad whom she believes have been instrumental in instilling in her the core values of respect, uncompromising ethics and integrity, generosity of spirit and fearless persistence.

Devni believes that relaxing is a critical discipline: “Firstly, I have learnt to trust my team that when I am away, things won’t crumble. Secondly, I relax so that I can energise and do my work better. One has to practice this. Our constantly connected world and our workaholic mindsets create the conditions for burnout and illness.”

This article was originally published in CHRO Magazine, available in airport lounges around South Africa now.