In conversation with Alistair Cameron, the former CEO of ASICS in Europe

Hi, it’s Carola Frisch here. Welcome to another Modern Leadership podcast and PurpleBeach Radio show that looks at how leadership is changing in the face of accelerating change and disruption. 

First, I would like to give you some background on what got me started on the Modern Leadership journey. It all started in 2019 as a research project. I had worked for over 20 years with many iconic consumer lifestyle brands in times of high growth and transformation. I saw how companies were building new capabilities, especially in digital, how critical consumer centricity became, or how diverse and inclusive teams can be a real competitive advantage.

I was interested in what impact that level of change has on the leadership skills and mindset that companies need to thrive in the modern world. Then the pandemic hit and accelerated the shifts and changes dramatically. So last year we ran a survey asking over 100 VP- and C-level leaders in the lifestyle, sports, luxury and fashion industry about their views on modern leadership. 

An overwhelming 98% said that Modern Leadership skills and mindsets are critical for the future performance and success of their business. Diversity & Inclusion was number one of all topics, closely followed by Business, Culture and Mindset Change.

But now, without further ado, my guest today is another great leader from the sporting goods industry: 

Alistair Cameron. Alistair led ASICS, the Japanese running brand, as CEO in Europe for more than a decade. ASICS has a deep commitment to sport. It was founded to bring hope and optimism to the young people of Japan after the Second World War. And this philosophy has a new relevance today as it inspires and supports sport and movement. Alistair, a very warm welcome. 

Thank you, Carola. It’s lovely to be part of this podcast.

I’m very excited to delve into the questions around Modern Leadership, and hopefully, some of the experience I can share can be helpful to your listeners. 

Alistair, it’s great to have you, and it will be great if you could talk about your career and your leadership journey, and how ASICS has evolved in the past decade. 

Alistair: Yeah, Carola, it all started just over 10 years ago. I was honoured when the opportunity came up to be the first non-Japanese President of ASICS.  I had been looking at ASICS for a number of years. In fact, I had been trying to beat them as the General Manager at New Balance. I was waiting for them to make a mistake so that we could accelerate our growth. But, the precision of the Japanese teams meant that there weren’t really many opportunities there. And then I had a couple of challenging years with Clark’s as Women’s Product Director. I was determined when I was offered the role that everything that I had experienced in my career to that date – the good, the bad and the ugly – that I could ensure that my leadership style at ASICS would be one where I was open, would empower and really try to live up to values and purpose driven approach.

When I joined, I had an amazing Japanese boss, Katsumi San, who I am still contact in contact with today.  As the Olympics have started, which are mainly sponsored by ASICS in clothing. We are in contact via WhatsApp on the medal count and it has been a great day for GB today. I worked really well with him for at least eight years. He was a Westerner in his in his mindset and also was determined that we should have a lot of fun.

But I guess more than anything, he gave me permission to take charge. He empowered me to change the company that at that stage, when I took over was mainly a Dutch/Japanese company, and it was a company that that hadn’t grown for many years. Actually, they didn’t realise what a gem they had in front of them. They didn’t realise that they were actually working for the most amazing leadership brand, particularly in running. And within a few years we were able to change that company from what was a financial/admin hub into strong product creation driven international headquarters that served more than 25 different countries across Europe, Middle East and Africa.

And we moved from this dreadful, falling down old concrete office block that was like a rabbit warren and led to cultural challenges across departments.  We moved to this state of the art contemporary European headquarters where the light literally streamed in through the windows into a beautiful atrium which was at the heart of the building with coffee stations on each floor to ensure that teams would interact. We offered complementary food in our lunch atrium where we were all encouraged to eat together. And, of course, when we weren’t running in the morning or in the evening or at lunchtime, that the gym was available for all and it had showers for the runners.

In fact, lots of our management meetings were running meetings. There is a lot of research actually about how the mind is functioning at a much higher level when you’re running. So if we ever had difficult decisions to make, or the team dynamics weren’t always what they should be, we would get people to run or walk together. Sometimes we had walking meetings as well, and I guess really that was when the building and the new era started. We were able to attract talent from across the globe, and in fact, we recruited from over 36 different countries, which made it quite a diverse place, a really exciting place with 50% male, 50% female, a management team that was 55% male, 45% female, which back in the day, I think was extremely good, and probably an average age of about 31, which included senior members of the team like myself.

But everyone else, including the management team, were in their thirties or forties. So really quite exciting. The other thing that we were determined to do because it was a regional headquarters was to bring people/talent from the regions into the headquarters in Amsterdam, and be part of that new organisation.  Because, people from the regions were closest to their consumers and their customers and they experienced first-hand what w we needed to do differently because we did need to change.

And we did need to consider the needs of the North, the South, East and the West as they were quite different. And that led us to build quite a large footwear and apparel team where we could ensure that the taste of the different European consumers could be catered for. Along the way we made massive, investments and changes across the whole infrastructure. We also commissioned a fully robotic warehouse in the south of Europe, which meant that you could pick, pack and dispatch in 20 minutes from receipt of order as opposed to over a day.

And, if you if you think about who we had to compete with, that that was an investment that was significant. But boy, was that the right investment, given what happened last year during covid. One of the biggest changes that changed the whole dynamics of the business was that we built a direct-to- consumer business, which represented in people terms over 50% of our employee base and operated out of most countries. And that fundamentally changed the makeup, the mix of the organisation.

We were no longer a wholesale company, and as a result, we really started to truly understand our consumers – their needs.  We developed strong running services as well as you know, the look and feel of the retail footprint.  We were working with a London agency and changed the look and feel of the brand, and that was then rolled out globally. So, there’s quite a heavy responsibility on that side. 

The last, but certainly not the least important, probably the most important part of the puzzle was that we brought in a seasoned marketeer who developed an approach by looking at ASICS as a caring brand.

I mean, if you think of Nike, Nike is a brand for winning, Brooks is actually a brand for happy, and you can see their advertising is very happy and fun. And actually, ASICS is really looked at and being known as the caring brand. That is based on the founding principles of the company. ASICS stands for Anima Sana In Corporo Sano, which means loosely translated from Latin, a sound mind in a sound body. It became our mantra to help our consumers find the benefits movement has on the mind and the body.

Carola: Wow, this is a wonderful example of how aligning behind the greater purpose of the brand really inspired employees and consumers. So what impact did purpose have on your business performance or the value of your business? 

Alistair: The impact was massive Carola. You know, I think it’s so important to set out your stall and to have a purpose, a reason to be something that everyone can get behind. And I guess in sport it’s certainly easier than in a lot of businesses. But we found that, particularly the younger generation which make up the majority of the company, they really wanted to be part of something bigger, something that would have impact, that would change the world. They really wanted to make a difference.

And we started with a whole slogan about getting the world moving and in a sense, that was much easier than having a financial target. You know, being excited about a financial target is for financial people and maybe grown-up CEOs, but actually changing the world and getting people moving, that had a much more important impact because we could consciously help people and get them to think about their health, get more people to experience the running high or connect with them on their journey of fitness. In the UK you have the 0 to 5k NHS app, which has been a wonderful in encouraging more people who have put on five kg last year to run. I lost 10, and now I seem to have put five back on.

Carola: So you’ve done a lot of running in the pandemic. 

Alistair: I learned to run with ASICS because everyone ran, and I had to run as well. I even did a marathon, which was very exciting.

Carola: What impact did that have on the business? 

Alistair: Well, we actually doubled the business. We went from €400m to €850m. Our biggest competitors in the world were throwing much bigger budgets at the running market to try and take our business away. On every competitor list of every major brand in the world, the number one target was ASICS.

We not just maintained our number one spot, but we grew the business. ASICS has 32% market share and it’s clearly by far the leader in running. 

Carola: I love examples – when it all comes together. It starts with a purpose or with a commitment to people or the planet and then suddenly a business gets energised in a way, as you say, financial targets or traditional performance measures will never do.

Alistair: Obviously you need to have your KPIs and you have your reporting and we had to do that just as much as everyone else. But to actually engage people, to stand up on stage in front of the whole organisation, in all-hands meetings or a video conference, it was so important that this technical, innovative leading running brand had a purpose which was rooted in in our founder’s philosophy of a sound mind in a sound body. Especially in today’s world, you have to be so clear in what you’re trying to achieve.

Carola: My definition of modern leadership is that a large part of it is leadership as we know it. So it’s the setting of a vision and strategy and creating an organisation with the right capabilities and structure to execute effectively, and you are measuring performance and value with hard KPIs, but then infusing it with human values. And that’s when it becomes Modern Leadership. That then creates a more relevant and meaningful proposition for consumers, employers, stakeholders. And then on top of that, businesses today are tackling change that is largely driven by technology, but also by a societal and climate change.

Already well before the pandemic, the big topics in the consumer/sports/lifestyle industry have been digital transformation, OMNI-channel distribution, consumer centricity and sustainability. So, in your opinion, Alistair, what does it take for a business to be future-ready? And how can leaders move a business forward so it remains relevant and competitive in terms of values, but also with regard to strategic growth drivers and organisational capabilities? 

Alistair: You know, Carola companies and you know this better than anyone, companies are made up of human resources, and if you can ensure that you can bring them all together behind a purpose which we’ve talked about that is shared and that is based on true values, I really believe that you can achieve great things. You know, high energy teams are critical.  But, first and foremost, the leadership team needs to have total alignment with a shared passion and purpose. If there are signs of uncertainty or a lack of alignment at the top, you see that throughout the whole organisation. You know it waivers, it wobbles, and you’ll never be able to progress at the rate you need to unless you’re aligned. And sometimes that leads to difficult choices in personnel.

You can be on a journey with people for a long time and sometimes you have to make those difficult decisions. I had this amazing Spanish coach as a result of a creative leadership course I attended in Amsterdam called Think, and they really got me to reframe and rethink and to look at passion, purpose and legacy. Olga used to whisper in my ear: “Go to the place, you know you need to go to and do what you know you need to do.”

In other words, generally, we always know where the problem is. You talk about a gut feeling. You know, and often you’ll do everything not to do what you know you need to do. I guess she gave me the courage that we all need as leaders to do what needs to be done. And once you’ve done it, it has been the right thing for everyone. Even though it’s tough, it’s tough at the time. I guess in a way it also helps you to simplify things, because it’s all so very complex.

When we are trying to meet the expectations that we think others have of ourselves, then it becomes really twisted and really difficult. But if we trust ourselves and have our heart in the right place and the intentions are there, then it all falls into place and it becomes a bit a bit easier.  I think that’s so important because in many ways as you age, maybe like a nice Spanish rioja or something like that, as you age, you do start to have more self-confidence, and it’s interesting how you can really change your behaviour and change your mindset.

My wife always says: “You can’t change your boss, but you can change their impact on you.” That’s been one of my life statements. It actually doesn’t really matter what someone might think, or say, or do, or make you feel uncomfortable. You can be resilient to that, if you can say, actually this is what we’re going to do because this is the right thing. I think that’s an important lesson to learn.

In recruitment, we always looked for resilience. A true sign of a high-energy management team is when they are so joined and resilient that they are prepared to sacrifice their own local functions for the greater good of the business. That’s critical today when you have to react to change and transformation. That might mean that you’re over investing in one area, which means you’re divesting in another area, and if you’re the head of a function which is being divested, that doesn’t feel very comfortable. I’ve seen some great leaders that restructured their business without an ego or a thought for their own position. People like that will always do well. 

To lead and drive transformation, it is critical and you have your finger on the pulse. If you’re going through that process, you need to be fast and you need to communicate well, especially if you are split across many different geographies. You need to constantly be close to the consumer, close to the marketplace, close to the competitors, because at all stages one of those things can change. 

At ASICS we built an accelerator hub in Barcelona where we identified start-ups that could be a future income stream.  The leader who actually headed it up was an entrepreneur. We saw the need to have someone in the organisation in Europe who is looking at what’s next. There was some funding from Tokyo, and we set up this accelerator, which is the fourth tech centre in the world. It being in Barcelona, away from our headquarters, was a good thing, because this was a project that was outside what we normally did.

This incredibly talented individual built a team who looked at start-ups in the sports, health and fitness space, and put together an accelerator programme.  ASICS invested in 12 start-ups over a 12-month period. We were looking for new income streams for the business.  The CEO and I used to attend seminars at The Edge, Deloitte’s HQ, which is this amazing futuristic building in Amsterdam, and they would always cite examples of WalMart when they tried to launch eCommerce, or Nestle with Nespresso, which was a new business that was incubated outside the normal business. They told us that everyone on the Nestle board wanted to be involved in the Nespresso brand, especially as they became so successful and they weren’t allowed to be, which made Nespresso even more successful. Maybe George Clooney had something to do with it. But certainly, we understood the importance of really reinventing yourself and to look at innovation in a different way.

Carola: I think this is really important. We see that some of the best companies today really recognise that they need to be creative and flexible when they’re tackling the problems and opportunities that they are facing, and not to be tied by organisational structure too much, or occupied with ancient role definitions. Sometimes true creativity and innovation comes out of the place where you least expect it, so to creating those environments is very, very smart.

Alistair: It’s so interesting to see the human behaviour. Initially, the first times when the leader of the acceleration hub would come to the European management team meetings and report back, and the people who had to do the day to day slog of delivering the turnover were challenging the prophet along the lines of “Well, when are you going to deliver and why? We’re spending so much time in that area…” And it was a classic example why this unit has to be separate from the day-to-day business.

It has to be on the edge of the organisation, and you have to believe in it. And to be fair to ASICS in Japan, they took that project on and the incubator process continues. 

Carola: That’s exciting. You need to create an environment for that sort of thing to happen. Especially now. Creativity and innovation are the superpowers of brands and that along with consumer centricity ultimately keeps brands relevant.

So, leadership seems to be growing more complex. But ultimately there are only a few guiding principles that bring it all together. Do you agree? 

Alistair: Yes, I really agree. And if you’re in the consumer world where you’re continuously updating product, then you’ve got to be close to the consumer. You need to be constantly reinventing yourself and put innovation at the heart of everything you do. And in fact, ASICS have 200 scientists in Japan in a separate building called the Sports Institute, and work with a principle called Kazan, which means that change is good. It means that you can always make or do things better than you did before. And if you know the footwear industry and if you know the ASICS brand, you’ll know that there are six shoes that dominate the running industry. The GEL Kayano27, which gives you stability in running if you pronate. The 27 means it’s been on the market for 27 years and in those 27 years the shoe has been adjusted and perfected each year. And it’s better than the previous model.

And that’s really been the driving force behind the brand. Because it’s meant that perfection, the precision the Japanese have is personified in in these products an industry people may get bored, where the designers and product managers want to work on something new, and they forget what they’ve got. Whereas the Kaizen principle is an approach to innovation and it’s the same on the commercial side. 

It always goes back to one question: How can we improve it? We’ve seen it also in the Japanese car industry where the models get refined over generations. 

Carola: Sorry, Alistair I interrupted you. You were talking about it is the same commercially… 

Alistair: I guess I’m a little bit obsessed with Japan. Lexus is the same. Their engineering is phenomenal and they win the awards for best technical automobile every time. Which is phenomenal. But, if you take the commercial landscape, a lot of that was changing before covid. And actually, yes, you need new products and innovations, but you actually need a whole new approach to the commercial world. At ASICS we introduced a number of different business models, which took the knowledge that we learned from direct-to-consumer and we applied that to the wholesale distribution.

That was really key, not just on the bricks and mortar side, but also digitally. And it fundamentally changed the landscape for the brand and actually ensured that the brand was present in an elevated way across all of retail. Because, in reality, if you are a brand owner or a brand guardian and I was a brand guardian for those 10 years, you have to control your brand. You’ve got to know how and where it’s sold and ultimately, who sells it. And you also need to remember that consumers today are used to amazing service. The consumer expects the same delivery service they get from the digital players.

Carola: So, Alistair, you known and respected for your people centric leadership approach. And you talked earlier about the diversity you had in your organisation in Amsterdam. Diversity is one of the key pillars of Modern Leadership.  Perhaps you could talk about what it takes to build and to get the best out of diverse teams? What are the potential pitfalls leaders need to be mindful of?

Alistair: I think, if you’re a company that services consumers around the world, then your own people need to reflect that consumer base. So as a principal, I think that’s a really good place to start. The best part of my life at ASICS was visiting our offices across the region and getting to know all the players and how they connected with their local consumers. I’ve been so privileged to experience so many different countries and cultures. You would think that a runner is a runner, but they are actually slightly different in different markets and the markets are evolving in different ways.

For example, in Russia, there was an online retailer that provided fitting stations across the whole of the country. So, you know, although they were an online dealer, their success was that you could go into these booths and try things on, and that doesn’t exist anywhere else, which I thought was quite interesting. The Dutch are so practical at inviting the world into their country. They make it so easy to live and work there to fill out employment registrations in your own language, to get your tax. They’re very, very good, very practical. I love them to bits. But what was important for us was to remember that we had regional offices, whether they were in Cape Town, Dubai or Moscow, let alone in Dusseldorf, Paris or Milan. Um, they were the closest to the consumer and my job a lot of the time was when we gave some strong direction from Europe, sometimes some inappropriately strong direction to our regional offices. I would try and get the European team to reflect on if that message had come from their headquarters in Kobe/Japan, how would they feel? And I guess a lot of it is always trying to see things from another person’s perspective or to be in someone else’s shoes. I think that’s critical for success. 

I learnt a lot from my boss, early on in my career at Speedo.  Speedo’s licence holder was based in Monaco and they were always taking us to court because we wouldn’t follow the direction of the international company. We had to have a certain photo on the front of the catalogue to be the same as the catalogues in Australia or in America. And it was just pathetic in many ways. My boss, who came in as the as the President, commissioned probably the best swimming photography that had ever been seen and shared that with the international company, and that year everyone had the same front catalogue page, and it went on for years and years. 

That just made me think that if you produce the best material you don’t need to ram material down people’s throats. If you produce the best material, then people will use it and that’s what moves the brand forward. The strong lesson was that a desk is a dangerous place to view the world from. You need to get out there and see for yourself and hear the frustrations and act upon them and ensure that all your team do the same. And, you know, we’re all guilty of sitting behind the desk and obviously without much choice during Covid.

That’s been an incredibly difficult time, like impossible. But it still doesn’t stop you asking the right questions and being concerned and being curious and work out how you can make a difference from a regional headquarters. 

Carola: I love that. “A desk is a dangerous place to view the world from.” That says it all.

Alistair: Yes, it’s a wonderful quote. I had it on a poster in my office, to remind me, that you have to live by what you believe. And I really believe in that. The fact that I love to travel is besides the point. But, on every trip you discover a nugget. You’d discover something that was going wrong. And, you know, you can be in the same country and be far removed from your sales agents or reps and the key is you’ve got to understand how you can help them be successful. It also proved that there is a better way, a truly better way than the traditional command and control approach to leadership. 

Carola: So what shifts and changes are you seeing across mindsets, behaviours and values that leaders need to have and be aware of, and what they can do practically to change their approach? 

Alistair: I think this is a really exciting time to be a leader, because actually caring for people and seeing people as people rather than treating people as objects, vehicles or obstacles is now a factor that can make a difference. And that’s a complete turnaround from the command control ethos that I certainly grew up with.

On my journey with ASICS we worked with the Arbinger Institute, based in Salt Lake City in the US. Their whole philosophy is to ensure that whatever you do is you make other people successful in their goals and their objectives. And in reality, it’s where you leave the ego at the door, and you really are aware of the needs of stakeholders, of customers, of colleagues and of direct reports.

You start every meeting and every day and work out what the one thing is that I can do today that will make a difference to you being more successful, and through your success the company will succeed overall.  I remember when we were going through this process, we had some challenging times and there was a member of the global team who came over, and I advised a regional functional leader to meet this person and see how she could help that leader be more successful.

And by the end of the week, she was the global head of her function. A really, unbelievably positive outcome, which might have been so different if we had a different mindset. So by going with not necessarily a disarming approach, but in effect, in a way, it is an enabling one. How can I make you more successful? What is it I need to do to make you more successful? Well, if you start a conversation that way, it’s a completely different one to a closed question.

Carola: Amazing. This is great. So, Alistair, I understand now, you’re working as a mentor, advisor and non-executive director. So what type of challenges do you get excited about? And what work do you hope and expect to do over the next few years? 

Alistair: Yes, there is a word in Japanese for when you reach 60, which I was going to look up. Maybe someone will look that up, but it talks about your next 10 years. So it really is a moment when there is a step change, apart from my appalling carbon footprint, because I did commute to Amsterdam and, you know, I wouldn’t do that again. I think the world has changed and there are responsibilities around that.

I am at a different stage of my career and I have turned my head to mentoring and coaching and I am a board advisor for a number of companies, using my experience of the international expansion and brand strategy, elevation etcetera. It is so rewarding because it is different when you’re looking in from the outside. I remember some times when I was lost in the woods, and I wasn’t able to see a way out. But now, I actually can help those people who sometimes do get lost and help them find a way out of the woods and really using and applying the principles of the Arbinger Institute in the mentoring that I’ve been doing.

I was approached last year by the commercial director of a regional newspaper organisations, which is a completely different industry. She’s probably the most dynamic woman I’ve ever worked with, and it’s so exciting to have coached her through a private equity buyout, through her boss leaving and through her recognising at one point in our process that she had been the problem. I remember a text message on Christmas Eve that said: “I see that I am the problem.”, and she was recognising the need to change.

There was this real light bulb moment, a real change in her, and actually convincing her that both her company and the industry needed her to apply for the CEO role. And she got it. Now, they are going through a massive positive transformation as a company, and I’m now working with her executive team rolling out the Arbinger principles. It is really, really rewarding because I can see the transformation unfolding. I get a real thrill of the team recognising the need to change the need to see people as people, not objects. The journey the company is on is really exciting. 

I’m applying that kind of formula and approach to other companies I’m working with, and I get a great buy in. Strangely enough, if you respect your people as people, they feel better about what they do. It’s now my real passion and purpose to make a difference, however small that might be. But I guess that is leaving a legacy which leaders need to consider. 

Carola: Wow. Well, Alistair, it’s been inspiring to listen to you.

You know, you’re a true modern leader. Thank you for sharing the journey that got you here. You’ve used anecdotes that have confirmed for me how essential a human values led leadership approach is for businesses and brands to stay relevant and to thrive today, in our modern world. And how authenticity, passion and human connection have enabled you to drive business growth and success. So, thank you. Thank you for talking to me today and for sharing your history and insights. 

Alistair: It was lovely. I guess maybe 1 last thing, that has also been a guiding principle, which again I can attribute to my wife, who’s been my wise partner and coach along the way. And she always says, and we we’ve said it to our boys as well: “Things turn out best for those that make the best out of how things turn out. Basically, you know, in short, you can always see the best in everything, and it’s up to you to make a difference. And I really believe that we can all make a difference if we make the best out of how things turn out.

Carola: Alistair, thank you so much. And thank you all for listening. If you would like to get in touch with Alistair and please message me at carola@modernleadership.net  

Also, if you would like to share your insights, the stories of how you or other leaders are tackling the changes and the challenges of our modern world, I’d be delighted to hear from you. 

On www.modernleadership.net you can also find other podcasts and subscribe to our newsletter. 

So, thanks again for listening until next time.

This podcast is produced by Nadine Daniel. 

Music is by Katey Brooks.

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If you would like to restrict the use of cookies you can control this in your Internet browser. Links to advice on how to do this for the most popular Internet browsers are provided below for convenience and will be available for the Internet browser of your choice either online or via the software help (normally available via key F1).

If at any point you no longer wish us to hold your personal information or you would like to speak to our Data Controller, please email Carola Frisch (carola@frischsearch.com).