Profiles in HR: Dan Henkle, Gap Inc.

By Adrienne Fox Mar 1, 2015

When Doris and Don Fisher founded Gap Inc. in San Francisco in 1969, they wanted to “do more than sell clothes.” The global retailer’s senior vice president of HR, Dan Henkle, embodies that objective. 

He leads a team of more than 90 HR professionals who oversee 130,000 employees globally under five brands—Gap, Old Navy, Banana Republic, Athleta and Intermix. 

Henkle himself stumbled into HR. He had taken an international finance role at Oracle in Redwood City, Calif., after graduating with a degree in accounting from Purdue University, but he wanted to try other things. The company was growing rapidly and needed an all-hands-on-deck recruiting effort. He agreed to go on college recruiting trips, and, when all the people he recommended were hired and thrived, he became a full-time recruiter, thus launching his 25-year career in HR.

In 1992, Henkle left Oracle to take a position managing employee benefits at Gap Inc. He was hired by Sheila Peters, now vice president of HR at Banana Republic. “Dan impressed us with his expertise on benefits, but he was also an earnest, Midwest boy,” she says. “I noticed that he, more than anyone, had questions about how to be successful, not from a personal standpoint but [from the standpoint of] how to make an impact and do good work.”

Henkle learned from Peters about the importance of treating people with respect and dignity. “I learned from her the concept of wanting employees to be customers for life because they think of Gap brands with affinity and they remember being treated well here,” Henkle says. “I learned those lessons at a formative point in my career, and they are still guiding my decisions today.”

Henkle soon became the company’s first HR generalist business partner. “When I started at Gap, HR was completely centralized,” he recalls. “Business leaders didn’t know who I was or what I was doing in their units. Now, we have a global brand model with HR teams embedded in each brand and multiple centers of excellence that support all the brands.”

Henkle quickly became known as an innovator who was not afraid to challenge the status quo. “He constantly challenges himself, asks the hard questions and looks externally for inspiration,” Peters says. 

Doing More for Millennials

Henkle has been passionate about addressing the skills gap that is preventing companies from hiring young talent. Although nearly 6 million recent U.S. high school and college graduates are unemployed, companies are struggling to fill more than 4 million vacant positions, according to recent data. And 40 percent of employers cite lack of skills as the reason for the vacancies.

To address this, Henkle oversees This Way Ahead, a program that provides job-readiness training and paid internships for underserved youth at Gap, Old Navy and Banana Republic stores in New York City, Boston, San Francisco and Houston. This Way Ahead is part of the Grads of Life initiative, a national partnership among numerous businesses and nonprofits that helps young people develop the skills they need to succeed and gain real-world work experience. It was launched in September 2014 to help build private-sector hiring demand for more low-income young adults. 

Paid internships at Gap also include classes on career skills, such as presentation, conflict resolution and customer service, facilitated by store managers. Gap employees can also volunteer to serve as mentors.

The program does more than provide career tips. “One of the things I love about this work is that we are enhancing employees’ life skills that help in personal relationships,” Henkle says.

This Way Ahead also enhances Gap’s recruiting efforts. To date, 75 percent of the more than 1,600 program interns have been hired as regular store associates.

“We want Gap to offer employees their best first job,” Henkle says. “We love for them to continue in retail, but we really just want them to build skills for whatever career they pursue. We want our employment brand to be that Gap Inc. is a place to enhance your career.” 

Doing More for Income, Gender Equality

Henkle has worked hard to ensure Gap’s workforce competitiveness. In June 2014, the company raised its minimum wage to $9 an hour and will raise it to $10 at the end of this year, above the current federal minimum wage of $7.25.

“We are asking associates to integrate technology to help customers find sizes in other stores or to reserve products,” he says. “We felt like we should be paying for that tech-savvy requirement of the jobs, and we wanted to attract higher-caliber applicants.”

After raising wages for sales associates, Gap saw a 24 percent increase in applications, according to Henkle. HR is also tracking data on productivity, retention and engagement to see how raising the wage affects those areas.

Gender equality is also important to Henkle, and it has been fundamental to Gap ever since the company was founded with equal investment from a husband and wife. Throughout Gap’s history, each of its brands has been led by women; female presidents currently lead Athleta and Intermix. 

Today, 73 percent of Gap’s workers, including 69 percent of store managers, are women. Nearly half of its executive leadership positions are held by women. 

To address gender equality in garment factories, Henkle worked with the Gap Foundation to create the P.A.C.E. (Personal Advancement & Career Enhancement) program in partnership with vendors and global and local nongovernmental organizations. More than 25,000 women have participated in P.A.C.E. so far.

Doing More than HR

Henkle got a firsthand look at these social issues globally when he left HR in 2001 to become Gap’s vice president of global responsibility in charge of corporate social responsibility (CSR). He was promoted to senior vice president of CSR, government and environmental affairs in 2006—a position he held until 2008, when he returned to HR full time. 

Under his CSR leadership, Gap released its first sustainability report; became a partner in the Global Fund’s Product (Red) campaign, which raises money to fight AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria in Africa; reduced its carbon footprint; and was recognized as one of the most ethical companies in the world.

“In the beginning CSR and HR were siloed,” Henkle says, “but we realized how important it was to move in lockstep together.” 

Henkle shares Gap’s business expertise with nonprofit organizations such as Juma Ventures, which works with kids in high school and provides at-risk students with mentoring, college preparation and financial literacy. “The transformation of these kids from when they start the program as sophomores to when they graduate is amazing,” he says. “Many of these kids are the first to go to college in their families.”

Henkle’s father instilled in him a strong work ethic at an early age. “My dad’s philosophy was that as soon as we could get a job, we did,” says Henkle, who began working as a paperboy at age 12. “I saved $2,700 for college by delivering newspapers, and I thought that was a fortune. People who have savings are more likely to go to college and succeed because they are vested in the outcome. I felt so fortunate that I had a family who pushed me.”

He says the most rewarding aspect of being in HR is having the privilege of helping people on a daily basis. Recently, an employee whom he had counseled 15 years ago pulled him aside and thanked him for his advice, which had made a positive difference in her career and life. “It hit me,” Henkle says: “HR has the opportunity to guide, support and counsel people in their careers and as human beings. … If I can help a person, a community and a brand, I’m really doing what the Fishers envisioned.”  

Adrienne Fox is a freelance business writer in Alexandria, Va.

Dan Henkle, Senior Vice President of HR, Gap Inc.
Age: 49

Hometown: Port Washington, Wis., a small fishing town that had a population of 8,500 when he lived there. His father was the town doctor and treated patients out of his home. “Doing business today, I have built my own community with small-town values,” Henkle says.

Passionate pursuits: Pay equality. Henkle is working with the Clayman Institute for Gender Research to identify barriers to gender equality and explore strategies to equalize pay.

Rock star moment: Going to Africa with U2 frontman Bono in 2006 on the Product (Red) campaign. “It was one of those surreal moments like, ‘What am I doing here?’ It was very fun,” he says.


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