From the Front Lines of Transformation at Fellowes Brands

Fellowes Brands is a venerable company that has thrived and grown thanks to its natural aptitude for workforce transformation. Now, Lisa Bretones, VP of Global Human Resources, is bringing the same approach to its HR policies and practices.

Dan Lett
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If you want to know what true workforce transformation looks like, you might start by looking at a company that has been in business for more than a century.

Fellowes Brands was founded in 1917 as The Bankers Box Company, creator of the ubiquitous folding corrugated storage box that continues to be a part of office life today. Over its 102 years, the company has demonstrated a natural aptitude for transformation, changing its name, scope of business and product lines in a constant bid to keep up with the times.

This focus on innovation and growth has made Fellowes Brands a company that not only knows how to work through transformation, but also knows how to retain the core values that give it the courage to endure constant change.

“You can definitely see how the business model and strategy of the company has changed quite a bit over the years,” said Lisa Bretones, Vice President of Global Human Resources. “But what hasn’t changed is our commitment to lead from a set of values that help us always do what’s best for the business and for our employees.”

For much of its history, Fellowes Brands concentrated on its signature records storage box. The company focused much of its transformational energy on growing the business into a national manufacturer in the 1930s then an international supplier by the early 1970s.

Then, sensing that the business world was becoming more complex, the company began to branch out into new ventures and product lines.

In the 1980s, Fellowes Brands began making and selling commercial shredding machines and computer accessories. The next decade, it was global expansion, taking Fellowes products into Europe, Asia and Australia. By the 1990s, the company expanded its product line again, adding binding and laminating machines. 

The turn of the century brought more products and more new markets. Today, Fellowes Brands has a diverse array of products, most recently entering the wellness arena with the introduction of air purifiers and ergonomically designed office furniture.

Bretones noted, however, that through all that change, one of the constant forces in the company was the presence of the Fellowes family. CEO John Fellowes II, who joined the company formally in 2001, is a fourth generation leader.

The constant presence of a Fellowes family leader has allowed the company to retain core leadership values despite the changing business landscape. 

Fellowes Brands’ transformation has not been limited to business strategies and product lines. Bretones, who joined the company in the fall of 2017, said that she was brought in to transform human resources into a more strategic and valued business partner.

“As a family-owned company with a lot of tradition, we had pretty traditional HR policies and tools,” she said. “John really wanted to modernize HR along with the business plan. He had an intuition that HR could play a larger and more strategic role.”

Like a lot of mature companies, Bretones said Fellowes Brands has many long-tenured employees who had come to accept HR as the place to go when they had a concern about their paychecks or when they needed help with benefits. “Most of our employees simply had no experience with HR because they didn’t really experience any of those technical problems,” she added.

What the company did not have was any kind of HR business partnering model, formal leadership development or talent management programs. 
Wellness programs were offered but with very little communication about the overarching benefits of such a program to employees. Third parties managed talent acquisition and recruitment at a significant cost and with little focus on the candidate experience.

Bretones said with the support of the CEO, she began the process of modernizing all HR programs and processes.

“The biggest thing I wanted to do was get rid of the chronic problems we were seeing over and over again,” she said. “We reallocated resources by finding efficiencies and focusing on priorities that would really drive value. Our first step was to embed an HR Business Partner model to truly start partnering with our business leaders every day. We started anticipating their needs and identifying solutions that actually eliminated the problems.”

Beyond taking on the big, systemic HR changes, Bretones said she found great value in identifying small, less burdensome alterations that boosted engagement and generated tons of goodwill with HR.

Within the first few months of taking over the department, Bretones and her team had simplified and streamlined the employee performance review form, which was well-received globally. She also brought in a Talent Acquisition Specialist to overhaul the candidate experience, a move that is expected to save the company hundreds of thousands of dollars annually.

Additionally, the newly formed HR Business Partner team spent an intensive week together to overhaul the orientation and onboarding process for new employees. Their mission was to create an engaging new hire experience that promoted company pride and engagement, fostered meaningful connections and empowered employees to make an immediate impact on the business.

“It’s the secret of effective HR,” Bretones said. “You’ve got to show people that you’re committed to excellence in your HR practices. Old habits die hard, but if you help people see that there are different ways of doing things with better results, they will respond.”

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