How Helene Messier Brings in the Best Talent

The senior VP of HR at Birks & Mayors showcases her expertise in building a solid team

Helene Messier, who holds a BS in commerce and an MBA, cut her teeth in HR at Bell Canada, where she was asked to lead a strategic initiative redesigning the management compensation strategy. She was managing a lot of people at the time, and she thought HR would help her to better manage people. She moved from there to the Milk Producers Association, where she served as assistant general manager for three years, and joined Birks & Mayors in 2000 as senior vice president of HR.

1. Be cutting-edge

When Birks & Mayor Inc.’s then–president and CEO Thomas A. Andruskevich hired Helene Messier, he wanted to raise HR to a more strategic level. However, he didn’t have any specific goals or tasks in mind, and simply said, “Build everything.” When Messier began, all the HR programs were in place, but they weren’t very competitive, and she set out to restructure the department from the ground up. “[Today], the benefits are now more leading-edge,” Messier says. “We have recognition programs in place, including a service-award program for our own corporate sales division, which Birks sells as part of its corporate gift-and-recognition program, and we also use it ourselves. We built a new performance management and compensation strategy with a variable structure. And we launched Birks & Mayors University, where we believe in hiring the attitude and teaching the rest.”

2. Be hands-on

To keep the company one step ahead of the competition, Messier likes to be hands-on with hiring. Rather than work with recruiters, she personally seeks out new employees, relying on networking through LinkedIn or personal connections. “This has worked well for me,” she says. “It’s easy to search for certain profiles that you would not have had access to before.” When recruiting for the store level, Messier encourages store management to walk the malls, and when they see people who offer an exceptional experience, she invites them to give a potential candidate a business card. “You have to identify the people you want and go after them,” she says.

3. Offer quality, ongoing training

Once the right people are found, they are put through the Birks & Mayors University training program. “It’s rare to find people who have all the product knowledge you need to sell a one-carat diamond ring, so we have an extensive curriculum that our employees go through when they join the company,” Messier says. It starts with a one-week in-class program called the Birks & Mayors Celebration Service & Sales, in which new recruits learn sales techniques, systems and operational procedures, and some product knowledge. That is followed by an online program called PEAK (Product Education and Knowledge), which comprises a series of modules on diamonds, pearls, precious metals, timepieces, and more, with a test at the end of each module. There are additional programs for advanced product knowledge and a curriculum for management competencies and skills.

4. Skim the cream

The way new employees behave during the first week of training is a great indicator of whether they’ll be successful or not, Messier says. “The program helps us quickly spot leaders and weed out those who are not a good fit sooner than if they were trained on the job. We are a high-performance-driven company, and there is not a lot of tolerance for low performers.”

5. Treat employees well

Retaining the best employees, once they are on board, is critical. Birks & Mayors maintains a set of six guiding principles, which includes “treating each employee with respect and trust.” In addition, each new hire receives a wallet-size card printed with the company’s vision and mission. Messier maintains an open-door policy for all employees, while senior management is committed to responding to all client and employee e-mails within 24 hours.

6. Don’t sit still

“My job is not just about waiting for things to happen and then fixing them,” Messier says. “It’s working with colleagues to build high-performance departments and helping them get there. We started in 1879 in Canada, and in 1910 in Florida, and that long-standing success is because of the contribution of our people. Under the leadership of our new president and CEO, Jean-Christophe Bédos, we want to take this company to new heights. We must continue to hire the best people available and train them to be the best they can be. That, to me, is how we are going to become a prestigious jewellery brand recognized internationally. And that is how HR will continue to make a valuable contribution.”