During the Covid pandemic, many people found themselves yearning to meet others and exchange ideas in person again. Christopher Koerber was lucky enough to do so.
At the start of 2021, Koerber accepted a job as managing director of Hugo Boss Ticino, the German fashion label’s Swiss accessories arm, a role reporting directly to chief executive Daniel Grieder.
This would ultimately mean relocating from Amsterdam, where Koerber had been working at the international base of US brand Tommy Hilfiger since 2007. But it also forced him to take almost a year’s gardening leave as part of non-compete clauses with his previous employer. The clauses limited what he could do professionally but, as an EU citizen, he was able to travel between several countries.
“I really wanted to use my time improving my leadership skills and work together with other executives, so I decided to do an AMP [advanced management programme],” he says. “But I didn’t want to do anything online or virtual because the most important thing about learning management skills for me was the interaction with senior executives from all kinds of backgrounds.”
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Fortunately for Koerber, one of the few AMP providers able to allow students on campus at the time — Iese Business School in Barcelona — was somewhere he could visit despite lockdown travel restrictions. He found Iese’s campus, nestled in the hills overlooking the Catalan city, a stimulating environment in which to learn.
“I know we were a very privileged group coming to such a place,” he says. His cohort included participants from European countries as far away as Iceland, as well as executives who were able to fly from Latin America thanks to local travel agreements with the Spanish government.
The group gathered in Barcelona for four blocks of study of just over a fortnight each, then worked remotely in small groups — on Zoom calls and WhatsApp chat groups — to complete assignments. The curriculum covered a broad range of subjects similar to an Executive MBA, such as finance, marketing and economics, and was taught using a similar method based on case studies over seven months.
“To be on a campus, learning together in the middle of a pandemic, was such a magical experience; it enabled me to meet people at my level but in industries that were totally different to the world of fashion,” Koerber says.
“For instance, we had people from Guatemala who ran banana plantations. It was a totally different business [but] they were dealing with similar problems to fashion companies, such as sudden increases in demand for the product and supply chain issues,” he says. “Looking at the banana industry was also a warning for any company not to put all its eggs in one basket when it comes to a product.”
Although the time between jobs might have enabled him to take a full-time MBA, he was keen to study an AMP because the participants have more experience. “The typical AMP student will have been working for 20 years, whereas on an MBA it is more like 10 years,” Koerber notes.
He would fly to Spain from his home in the Netherlands, where he and his wife remained because their son was at school. They kept their home there even after he completed the AMP and started at Hugo Boss in Switzerland because their son has yet to finish the international baccalaureate.
The fastest route from Amsterdam to Iese is a 2hr 15m flight, but Koerber was impressed that other students made greater commitments, travelling from much further afield. “These people were investing personally, not only for the time spent in education but also separated from their families to do this in the midst of the pandemic,” he says.
Studying during a period of massive disruption for the global economy was a fitting backdrop for learning to lead in periods of change. It was also good preparation for joining Hugo Boss at a time when the brand is making a significant strategic shift to focus more on the casual clothing market.
“It is one responsibility of leadership to take people to new ways of working, not just in pandemics,” Koerber says. “It is important to challenge the status quo and develop the strategy for the next level of the business.”
“At Hugo Boss, I have a once in a lifetime opportunity to help a business which was based on Boss tailored clothing to a new way of how we see ourselves, which is our Be Your Own Boss [range].”
He has also had to embrace the use of online technology to communicate with his new team at Hugo Boss. “Eighty per cent of our collection is now designed digitally, using 3D computer design, when before the pandemic that might have been 20 per cent of the collection. It means we can move much faster.”
Given such challenges, Koerber was grateful to have used case studies at Iese of tech industry disrupters such as Netflix and Amazon, as well as once-great companies that disappeared because they failed to adapt, such as Kodak and Blockbuster.
Lectures were also given by those at the sharp end of leading change, including former chief executives of blue-chip companies and local tech entrepreneurs.
“In all of these examples, the lesson was very clear: the role of leaders was to create a culture of growth and with that the willingness to change and develop,” Koerber says.
“Other executives in our group were able to explain examples from their industries, too. Many areas of the world are already advanced in that digital economy and that was inspiring for me.”
Koerber could have tried fitting his studies around a full-time job, but was grateful he could take time out to study.
“Learning to lead requires you to step back,” he says. “The thing for me was about being at a crossroads in my career, on the verge of starting something new. That was the perfect moment to do this course.”
2021 Appointed managing director of Hugo Boss Ticino
2018-21 President of global product and licences at Tommy Hilfiger Global
2013-18 Executive vice-president, then president for apparel, footwear & accessories at Tommy Hilfiger Global and accessories at Calvin Klein Europe
2007-13 Senior director of licensing, then senior vice-president of footwear and licensing at Tommy Hilfiger
2004-07 Head of brand management at Hugo Boss Shoes & Accessories
1998-2004 Team leader for product management to head of brand management at Hugo Boss in Coldrerio, Switzerland
1996-98 LDT Nagold Academy of Fashion Management, studying textile business economics