Pierfrancesco Vacca talks of the young, the old, the era of globalisation and his passion for his job at NIKE
Investing in today’s youth has become increasingly significant to the growth of many multinationals, yet knowing how to develop true drive is a whole different sport; NIKE’s HR Director Pierfrancesco Vacca is a real supporter of young talent – cultivating passions from around the world and opening one of the most successful European training programs in the footwear business.
With a degree in Jurisprudence and the aim of pursuing a diplomatic career at the end of his studies, Vacca’s interest in HR took off when he accepted his first job offer in Italy in 1985.
He said: “I was hired by a big Italian construction company as Assistant to the Head of Personnel, and the plan was to train me to become a successor when he would retire after eight years. I learned everything about administration and I did a lot of recruitment as well, interviewing thousands of people; everything I learned was from doing or shadowing others as there was never a proper training session or anything, and on top of that I was also involved in Union relations.”
It was not until his move to NIKE as HR Manager eight years down the line that his career really took off as both a coach and a partner to others in his business.
He explained: “When I joined NIKE I was the only HR person at the company at the time and I did a lot of administration and recruitment, as well as organising several training and learning sessions - later on I had a team and managed up to six people, including the HR department and facilities. In retrospect, most of my work has to do with using diplomatic skills, so I did not land too far off from what I had in mind.”
Vacca further stated that although his degree in Jurisprudence only helps him from a technical point of view when it comes to employee relations and legal issues, it gave him the basic legal mindset necessary in managing any organisation.
“It is not a huge part of my job, but it is very impactful in terms of cost management,” he added.
“Studying law, although mainly Italian law, gave me a certain mindset whereby I can immediately look at an organisational situation in terms of its legal implications as well.”
In 1999 Vacca moved to Holland to work at the Dutch Headquarters in Hilversum as HR Director for EMEA for Footwear, Equipment, ACG (Outdoor) and Golf; his main focus here was to extend and evolve the different organisations and become a true business partner to the VPs managing those units.
Living and working abroad provided him with a deep, cultural experience that shaped his career and the way he interacted with the people around him.
He pointed out: “Before working in Holland I was like a medieval painter with no sense of perspective, while afterwards I was able to see things in a very different light; although it is true that the world is becoming more globalised, cultural differences, even if you are only 1000 km away from home, are still very big."
“Moreover, I was working at the regional Headquarters alongside people from over 40 different nationalities, and you learn that there is no real right or wrong but just many ways of dealing with the same situation; being able to acknoweldge this is very important when it comes to developing as a person and developing your career, because if you do not have the ability to understand and connect with others then your career will always be at risk.”
A firm believer in the power of relationships as a pathway to successful business, Vacca highlighted the importance of having an open-mind and a willingness to accept change when it comes to building a successful career.
“I interview people who work in Marketing and don’t want to move from Milan to Bologna to work for NIKE in Marketing, when NIKE is one of the best career opportunities in the world for someone interested in this particular field. How can they think of building a sustainable career?”
With a track-record in recruiting countless successful business figures into the world of NIKE over the years, Vacca sure knows something about determination and hard work.
His biggest achievement to this day, however, is opening NIKE’s famous ‘Shoe School’: a four day intensive European training program developed to provide employees with a deep overview of the company’s overall product process - from ideation straight through to delivery.
The classes, which were held in Italy and in Belgium, were attended by people working either at the Headquarters in Oregon, near Portland, or in one of NIKE’s operating countries.
Vacca revealed that although a similar program was being run at the world Headquarters at that time, the interesting aspect to his Shoe School was that they leveraged all of NIKE’s resources in Europe.
“It started with me talking to the GM of Footwear EMEA because we wanted to develop a program which would show the ‘hands on’ product process to all participants working in the footwear business; they could have been Product, Sales or Marketing focused employees in that business unit,” he explained.
“We involved the Footwear Product Director who explained the whole production process, we took the class to Montebelluna near Venice to show them the lab within our Research and Development plant that is responsible for developing and testing the football boots so they could see how a shoe is actually made, we went to a factory near Mantova that was actually producing top of the line football boots for NIKE so they could see how the shoes are assembled in a production line and finally we flew to Laakdal near Antwerp in Belgium where we have a huge distribution centre.”
In simple terms, Vacca described the distribution centre as a warehouse where participants could see how the shoes arrive from factories in Asia, how they are stocked and assigned against the order, how the delivery is scheduled and how they are ultimately placed in sets of big boxes to be shipped off.
He added, proudly: “It took a lot of work because we only used internal resources to deliver the training, the presentations and all the rest, however throughout those four days you could really see the whole product process live. It was a very nice program which we ran three times, and people were always thrilled to be selected.”
Despite his many accomplishments as HR Director of this global marketer, now operating in more than 160 countries across the world, Vacca admitted he did not always have a clear idea of the type of career he wanted to pursue.
In fact, he said his HR profession started by chance and then developed nicely along the way, especially after joining NIKE.
“I knew I wanted to avoid math and I was very interested in Literature, but I realised it would not bring me very far in terms of career and so I ended up studying Law; I have always been interested in building something, developing myself and other people, but my HR career really started off by chance."
“After a while I became interested in Psychology and all matters relating to how people learn and develop and thought that maybe it would have been a nice career as well, so I tried to incorporate the developmental approach to my job and my style of work as much as possible.”
When Vacca moved back to Italy as HR Director in 2003 he found a country that had grown a lot in terms of people and organisation, with a significant expansion of direct retail activities yet to be seen when he left, four years earlier.
Carrying with him his experience from his time as an expat in Holland, Vacca also took on the role as the so-called ‘voice of two territories’; working with his colleagues in other countries to represent and define the role and significance of HR from a common point of view to the regional Headquarters.
Nevertheless, Vacca confessed there is still a lot of work to be done if society is to truly recognise and support young talent across the world, an objective central to NIKE’s mission statement: “NIKE is a company that gives opportunities to young talent, differently from, for instance, many Italian companies and the Italian society and political environment as a whole,” he stated.
“I believe the secret is to help today’s youth have their own experiences, make mistakes and develop a sustainable career that leverages their energy and willingness to achieve as well as the knowledge and culture that the older generation has.”
As HR Director of a global marketer that employs – either indirectly or directly – nearly one million people across the world, Vacca has interviewed the best and the worst of the business world throughout the years.
Determined to continue NIKE’s legacy as an unrivalled investor in young talent through the power of sports, he knows exactly what to look for in prospective candidates eager to make a name for themselves in the footwear business.
The right attitude is top of the list. He added: “Above all, we are looking for people who want to develop themselves, who are creative and who have a good, basic education; if I see people, especially young people with little experience who act as though they were entitled to something great just because they studied at such and such university, then for me they are not a good fit – their technical knowledge will not help them develop in a sustainable way."
“At the end of the day, I still believe people need to get their hands dirty before they can manage other people; after all, only experience teaches you something about yourself and others.”
Yet in the fast-paced era of globalisation, Vacca fears very little is being done to teach students the importance of relationships in business and the ability to communicate with one another in the workplace.
“In the private sector companies are in business to make money, and so everything that has to do with the mechanisms of a company becomes very important; how to read and interpret numbers, how to predict the future and so on – in the globalisation era, however, there are also huge simplifications going on whereby companies apply a certain model suggested by consultants and believe it will work no matter what."
“We are heading towards a world of extreme thought simplification, of basic assumptions, of Pareto Rule applications and if universities teach only that, then we will lose our potential of imagining a better world, of crafting something useful, of improving society and, ultimately, being able to establish a real connection with our fellows. My point is, we should focus on developing the intuitive/connectivity side of our relationships more, and therefore of the way we do business.”
Nevertheless, relationships in the work place are often complicated and difficult to sustain, especially when a company is in crisis or when certain circumstances lead to strong clashes of opinion.
For Vacca, the biggest challenge to his work is whenever someone simply imposes decisions.
He said: “It happened often in my previous job, it still happens sometimes now with big projects coming in from the global Headquarter; in these situations, you rationally understand what the circumstances are and your work ethic ensures you do what is asked of you at the best of your ability, however you do not feel comfortable with yourself.”
The upside to it all is that there is a clear learning curve at every step of the way - it is all a matter of possessing the determination and willingness to succeed.
As Vacca pointed out, personal drive and passion make a huge difference. “To work at NIKE, for example, you need to have the passion for sports as either a participant or a fan; if you play sports, then you probably already know that you can either win or lose but that if you do lose giving it your best, then it is fine, because if you are humble enough to listen to yourself and learn from your mistakes then tomorrow you will win."
“To be a HR Director you have to practice listening to others and to yourself, otherwise you will just be applying theories or models, reducing HR to simply managing numbers and forgetting that behind the numbers there are people and it is the people who make the difference.”
With the determination to continue influencing the young and the old and to introduce even greater talent into the footwear business, there is no doubt Vacca’s passion and knowledge will extend far beyond NIKE’s well-established walls in the years to come.
For the time being, one thing is certain: to succeed in life, sometimes all you need to do is step up your game a little.
Or, as the NIKE crew would say: Just Do It.