Exclusive Interview with Kimberly Thompson, Director North America Brands & Leadership at Whirlpool

First post for the discussion:


In challenging times for business, today’s leaders must be inclusive and build an environment of trust within their organizations while also being an agent of change to lead the company forward.


Kimberly Thompson, Director North America Brands & Leadership, Whirlpool, is a speaker at the marcus evans Talent Planning & Leadership Development Conference taking place in Chicago on 30-31 August, 2010. Here she addresses some central issues surrounding talent management.


What are the key attributes a leader needs to steer a business in today’s changed economic environment?

They must have a good character and enduring values. You have to represent your integrity, have respect for people, be inclusive and build an environment of trust. Leaders need to be those things in this day and age where there is a lot of speculation and so many examples of bad behavior.

Thought leadership and being a director of change is also important. Someone who consistently challenges the status quo and is always looking for the next best thing is vital. Thinking about it from an evolutionary standpoint, it’s the whole idea of continuous improvement and how do we continually stay on top of it. Be that driver of change to make sure we stay ahead of the competition and win in the market place.


In talent planning, should a company try and distinguish itself from others so it can attract that often-elusive talent and make them want to stay?

Over the last five to seven years I’ve had a change of mindset regarding this. People have changing needs in what they are looking for in their career and in a company. They want a company that is very honest with them in terms of what they are looking for them to do as a talent. For a company, it’s not so much about getting the best for the best – it’s more about getting the best for what you need to have done. I think it’s a much truer and honest approach for both the perspective employee and the company to have that mutual understanding.


How crucial is customer-focused leadership in engendering brand loyalty in a slow economy?

I think it’s very important and it’s not something that we generally think about because we think that people are still going to spend money in a slow economy. But the fact is that consumers will still buy because they need to buy; however they will be much more deliberate about their purchases. From a customer perspective, our customers are so different in as far as what they expect, what they value and what they’re willing to pay for. In a slow economy we have to remember that we still have all of these different customers out there. And yes there will be customers who want to pay the least amount of money possible to get what they need. But there are also customers who will spend anything to get exactly what they need or want. We can’t lose sight of that. So internally you need to keep your group focused on the fact that there are multiple customers, they have different kinds of needs and even in a slow economy you have to continue to meet their needs.     


What is the significance of sustainable brand leadership for Whirlpool and for the future of the company?

A brand is really the perception of the customer. As we are a multi-brand house, we have to identify and understand those brands are targeting different customers who all have different needs. For us to be sustainable we’ve got to make sure we deliver to those consumers because we are a manufacturer and marketer of durable goods. To be competitive we can’t win on price alone. You really do have to deliver to your customers what they value and what they will pay a premium for. Just going with the low cost solution is not a viable business strategy in the US for a durable goods manufacturer.


What are the new opportunities that the strong China market presents for a company like Whirlpool?

Geographic expansion into China - and other areas of the world where the population is underserved – is a great opportunity for us. Here again there are many types of different customers and so our mission is to be in every home everywhere. Our challenges understand the different types of consumer base there. The misnomer about China is that everything is just cheap.

Over the past year we’ve been watching Chinese companies starting to get their heads around brands over price because brand will get you to a premium but price is just a commodity. It’s not an easy win where you go in and sell cheap products. You really need to go in and know your customers and have a great value proposition.


What are the recession lessons learned by Whirlpool?

We’ve come through very well in spite of the fact that we are so linked to new home building and remodeling of homes. For some people appliances are the largest purchase they will have all year. It tends to be a very deliberate purchase and not one they take very lightly.  Our CEO sent us on a mission when the recession gained steam.  He said we are going to control what we have control of meaning that we can’t control the economy; we can’t control the price of materials, or the price of oil. What we can control is how we do things internally that drive unnecessary waste and cost into our products and services. We made a choice not to do a lot of advertising. We invested that money instead into creating the next generation of products.  That whole mantra of ‘taking control of the things you can and it will pay’ - it definitely has worked for us.


The marcus evans Talent Planning & Leadership Development Conference takes place on 30-31 August in Chicago.



Michele Westergaard

455 North CityFront Plaza Drive
9th Floor NBC Tower
Chicago, IL, 60611

312 540 3000 ext 6625
Fax: 312 552 2155



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