H&M CEO Helena Helmersson facing Covid-19 and China backlash

Helena Helmersson took over the role of CEO of the Swedish fast-fashion company H&M from founding family heir Karl-Johan Persson who is now chairman. But just 14 months ago into the role as the first female CEO of the company, Helena Helmersson has already met more challenges than some long-time CEOs face during their entire careers.

In her first 6 weeks on the job just as the pandemic hit, H&M saw the shares decrease by 50% and although the stock has now clawed most of that back, H&M is currently facing huge backlash due to the company’s standpoint against human right violations in China.

According to the Sydney Morning Herald, Helena Helmersson said in an interview that “It has been a challenging year, of course,” and she has learned a lot about “how to lead in a more unpredictable world.”

Before becoming CEO, Helena Helmersson had advanced through the ranks of H&M since she joined the company’s purchasing department in 1997. Helena Helmersson worked as H&M’s sustainability chief for five years before being the head of global production from Hong Kong and she was chief operating officer for just over a year before becoming CEO.

But H&M has faced challenges the last year especially because of the pandemic and Helena Helmersson has initiated H&M’s biggest retrenchment of its store network, announcing plans to permanently shut about 300 stores and cut 16,000 full-time jobs equivalents.

“Flexibility and customer focus have been key in how to manage this past year, and will also be key to us going forward,” Helena Helmersson said. “I do believe in a strong recovery as we gradually can see that restrictions hopefully will be lifted going forward.”

China is, together with Bangladesh, H&M’s largest production market for clothing, and Helena Helmersson’s challenge in China will be to ride out the storm and get back to managing through the pandemic.

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