LAUNCHED IN 1968, TIME OUT TYPIFIED THE ENTHUSIAST MAGAZINE VIBE AND OVER THE ENSUING DECADES, THE TITLE WENT FROM ITS LONDON-CENTRIC ORIGINS, TO EXPANDING INTO 333 CITIES IN 59 COUNTRIES. BUT IN 2020, COVID-19 LOCKDOWNS WERE THE ANTITHESIS OF WHAT TIME OUT REPRESENTS. NEVERTHELESS, THIS AMBITIOUS GROUP HAS CONTINUED TO LAUNCH EXCITING NEW PLATFORMS TO MEET THE DEMANDS OF THE POST-PANDEMIC LUST FOR LIFE.
CHIEF PEOPLE OFFICER , TIME OUT GROUP
“When change happens, there is always a time of turmoil and readjustment”
My surname gives away Welsh roots but, after living abroad in various places, there is nothing left of an accent, although there is still a spiritual connection. After school education, I enrolled on a BTEC National Diploma in Business Studies at Swansea College and then onto Bournemouth University, to do a BA in Business Studies, which included a sandwich degree placement at a paper company in Maidenhead. I will always be grateful to them for sponsoring my final year and even welcoming me on to their graduate scheme, once I had my degree. However, I was not too enamoured with the post in paper planning for their manufacturing site in Sittingbourne in Kent and I kind of elbowed my way into the marketing department, which seemed significantly more exciting, albeit for a paper manufacturing company. But it was more a process of eliminating what I didn’t want to do, as opposed to having a career ambition and so eventually, I felt that I just didn’t have much love for this sector and I left and enrolled in a temping agency. Going in and out of firms for a day here and a week there, I gained a kind of third-party’s eye-view about how businesses run and I found people fascinating – the engaged, the disenfranchised, the kind-hearted and disruptive – and so perhaps the seed was sown for my eventual career path in HR.
Meantime, what I really needed was to earn more money and the world of sales promised that for the confident, hard worker and so I duly joined the brewer Bass, in a sales role selling to the hospitality trade. It turned out to be a role that taught me about professionalism and about all of the elements integral to that, such as; delivering on promises, not letting people down, the importance of self-responsibility and customer care. Bass was great and they made sure my initiation really bedded me into the way the business operated and its culture. I spent time in the their depot at Silvertown in the East End of London, went out with the draymen on their rounds and after my colourful initiation, I quickly proved to be a very capable seller of beer to the trade, so much so that I was headhunted by United Distillers. It was a really vibrant market in the late 1990s and I felt like I was on my way and, even more excitingly, I joined just as the company was merging with IDV.
So began a life of constant travel, selling household names like Bell’s Whisky and Gordon’s Gin. But as the merger concluded and United Distillers and IDV became UDV, I was offered an account manager role at Allied and Whitbread and after six months, I was promoted to Regional Sales Manager in London. Momentously, this was my first taste of HR in a roundabout way, as I was building high-performing teams for London regions, recruiting salespeople, training them and bringing them into the sales stream. It was dynamic, fast-moving and in training and development, I found real affinity. There was a lot of change in the drinks sector at this time and UDV became Guinness UDV. I had just turned 30, doing a job that I thought I could never do and meeting people whom I never thought I’d meet. One time, I had the responsibility of hosting a dinner with MPs to debate 24-hour drinking. But I had my head turned by another offer and was wooed by a change of scene – and, more importantly, a Saab convertible – and I nearly joined a bakery manufacturer for supermarket home brands, as their Sales Director. The money was great and pound signs and open-top motoring beckoned, but as I was preparing to resign, the UK HR Director at Guinness UDV said they had me in mind for a resourcing manager role, which sounded really interesting. So, there was an important decision to make, Saab convertible or stay and see where this career change took me. I decided to stay and that’s how I moved into HR. I settled in instantly, found plenty of synergy between sales and recruitment in managing cost to hire, time to hire and negotiating percentages. It was a fastpaced, commercial environment that suited me well. Quite quickly, my territories expanded and I worked across Europe and was seconded to North America for a year. The standout memory of that early experience was, it was the same company – we even spoke the same language – but there was a gulf of difference between cultures. Based in Manhattan, I settled into a demanding role with something like 300-plus vacancies to fill quickly. For a time, I went along with their way of operating, but I gathered up some chutzpah and introduced my own way of working and it turned out they were more than happy for somebody to take the initiative. It was a lot of hard work in a city that really doesn’t ever sleep and I was living the dream. But a new sense of maturity must have been dawning and I began to wonder where my career detour might take me. My mentor at the time said, “if you’re serious about a career in HR, you’ll need to move sideways.” She was right, there’s a point where you stop growing and you just become embroiled in the work. There was a vacancy for an HR Business Partner in Budapest in the financial shared services center. I applied, the wheels raced into motion and before I knew it, I was putting the keys into an apartment door in Budapest and a new chapter began.
You could sense massive change in the air, with many businesses coming in to take advantage of a well-educated population, full of optimism for a new era. So, my initial objective was to work on the employee value proposition to retain and attract, as businesses like Citibank came into the capital with very attractive packages. Again, it was a balance of respecting cultures, but having the confidence to bring in new systems that would simplify but, just as I began to gain traction, I was recalled back to London to be the senior HR BP for the global IT team. We brought in a new CIO from the States and I worked closely with him and I was beginning to develop senior relationship stakeholder skills. I was working to my strengths and realised that when working with super bright people, if you can provide a structure of common sense, it’s a compelling combination and that went on to be my approach and style throughout my career. It’s an interesting landscape now, toppled ivory towers and filled in silos and I really believe in HR and its capacity to build trust in an organisation. Then one day, just as I was wondering where things might go next, I received a call from Geraldine Fraser, who was OD Director and just moving to become Diageo’s HR Director in Asia and she said that there was a senior HR vacancy in India that I should try for, maternity cover for the HR Director of Diageo India. However, this time I had some personal ties as I was in a relationship, but we had a conversation and it was decided that I should take the opportunity.
This time, it wasn’t so much a culture change as jumping in at the deep end and it was epically manic, in a very good way. I fulfilled my secondment and was offered the position full time, but for personal reasons, I decided to return and became Head of HR for Corporate Functions, covering Scotland, London and Budapest again. Once again, there was change activity and a focus on finding efficiencies. But fourteen years had flown by and I began to think I needed to move on, maybe even a gap year. So, I left Diageo and had an offer for another role, but turned it down – I really needed time to think – was it a mid-life crisis? I actually had a personal trainer at the time! Then a headhunter contacted with an HR role in a much smaller private company, TCC Global and again, initially I turned it down. But my interest was piqued, because the new CEO was Michael Ioakimides – whom I knew of from Diageo – he had been the MD of Ireland, before a move to Dyson. So, intrigued, I decided to find out more and it all sounded very personal, more condensed, focused and hands-on and I decided that would provide a real contrast to the past fourteen years. So, I cut short my sabbatical and entered the world of loyalty marketing. I won’t go into too much detail, but the firm was launched in 1993, experienced continuous growth and completely absorbed me for the next nine years. I joined as HR Director EMEA and two years later, my immediate boss and Michael, moved on and I was working directly with the Founder. Nine years raced by and I was arriving at an age when I was looking for that really special job and so I left, with again the intention of taking some time to think. I was in Thailand in Koh Samui this February and a headhunter called and said, “Time Out Group is looking for some support in HR.”
At the start of the pandemic, Time In was successfully launched digitally, which perfectly summed up the strange times – but now it is all about Time Out again. The new CEO, Chris Ohlund, had just been appointed in October 2021 and I started in March 2022 and instantly, there was this intense connection and an understanding of what each of us was responsible for in an important new era for this iconic brand. I have never experienced this before in the same way, that there’s a sense that the decisions we’re making have a weight of responsibility. The past is the past and it’s significant, but the future has huge and diverse potential on a number of different platforms globally. What COVID did to society was inhuman, but now there’s a buzz and a frisson of excitement for experiencing everything that the outside world has to offer, even with a potential looming recession, the wave of enthusiasm is too powerful and that typifies the energy and spirit of Time Out, and the incredible talent we have in our business.
We are a PLC, an AIM-listed company, a global media and hospitality business that curates and creates the best of what the world’s greatest cities have to offer, through its two divisions – Time Out Media and Time Out Market. The original legacy from 1968 is the golden thread insomuch as it’s a trusted guide for people to discover exciting new tastes, sounds and cultures, whether that be in New York or Dubai. But today, across the group’s digital and physical platforms, the mantra is exactly the same, across 333 cities in 59 countries. Time Out is the only global brand dedicated to inspiring and helping people have an amazing time in cities all over the world – professional journalists create and distribute high quality content across where to find the best food, drinks, culture and shows and, wherever you are in the world, it’s your friend across digital platforms. The print published Time Out London magazine that we grew up with, we made a call on during COVID and it ceased publishing, as we focused on a digital-first strategy which we have successfully delivered in the USA. In addition to our media business, a hugely exciting entity for us is that curation has leapt out of the magazine, web pages and social media and into physical reality at Time Out Market. It is a physical place where you can immerse yourself in the best your city has to offer – a food and cultural market that brings the best of the city, together under one roof, based on the editorial curation we have always been known for. The first Time Out Market opened in Lisbon in 2014, then in 2019, we opened in Miami, New York, Boston, Montreal and Chicago and Dubai followed in 2021. We have a growing pipeline of further openings and signings.
Our expert editors know their fields and their city inside-out and are constantly trawling the city in search of the best restaurants and bars, exhibitions, shows, things to do, travel inspiration and more. When we review spots, we show up unannounced and pay our own way to keep things honest. That in-depth knowledge has helped us to curate a dream-team line up of chefs and restaurateurs for Time Out Market so that you always have the best of the city under one roof. The chefs and restaurants we consider for Time Out Market have already been celebrated by the editors – so before the first drink is poured or the first dish is served, we know it’s a world class destination. The result is a unique dining and cultural venue, curated without fear or favour and entirely based on what we believe is exceptional. If it’s really good, it goes on the timeout.com website, our social channels of a video. If it’s great, it goes in the Time Out Market.
My role is primarily to invigorate and re-engage our employees with the opportunity, rapidity and change that’s hurtling towards us post-pandemic. People are going out again – and that’s what our brand and business is all about so it’s an exciting and very busy time for us. My concerns when it comes to recruitment are shared by most of your readers, I’m sure – particularly those in leisure and entertainment – that have to pull off the tough call of working very differently for two years and then ready to meet the pent-up demands from people eager to bring their leisure lives back on track. I’m focusing on employee wellbeing, recognition and values and trying to calculate the impact of timely and appropriate new intervention against the much talked about Great Resignation and talent drought. My big passion is engagement and trust – which is fundamental to navigating the new workplace landscape – and I’ve been championing those values for 20 years, as an essential line manager capability. This is a reboot, there’s no question about that, but much of it is back to having the basics right and I’m fortunate because Time Out has a people-first culture and so HR will continue to be invested in. I’m confident that building trust will build talent and, central to this is a culture of listening and acknowledging what our employees are saying. In terms of our business objectives for the next three-tofive years, I’m going to caveat that we’re a PLC, so I can’t share detailed plans of business initiatives that are on the drawing-boards, ahead of the markets. But generally, we continue to be as dedicated as ever to helping people go out better and experience cities around the world, which is more relevant than ever. We are growing our digital audience as our content remains relevant and engaging and there is a greater focus on digital advertising solutions and innovation, and we are committed to realising the potential of Time Out Market – we have just announced that we are opening one in Osaka – all to drive our growth and profitability.
Across the two business divisions – Media and Market – my ambition is to ensure people work cross-functionally, across the two businesses, to build greater synergies. In terms of people challenges, there are great opportunities for us as a business and for ambitious people to expand and diversify, on a global scale. So for me, that’s where the pull of the employee proposition is so key – remuneration and benefits of course – but also culture, diversity, equality and inclusion are fundamental. Hybrid working, like most things in people management, presents challenges and opportunities. We’ve a hybrid policy in place and we continue to review our approach with feedback from our employees. I don’t feel that any of us can make a definitive call yet and so we have to move forward with pragmatism and agility, course correct, talk and listen, engage, analyse feedback and reinvigorate employee surveys.
It’s a confusing picture and nothing should be taken at face value. For every pro-hybrid plaudit article there’s a luddite perspective that counteracts it. Frustratingly, nobody has the answer and dropping conventions of time and location opens the debate to procrastination and blithe attempts at finding the right balance and all the answers. Realistically, it’s going to become harder and harder to try and convince people to accept a job in which they work five days a week, in an office. Personally, I think if my CEO had said to me, you have to be in the office five days a week in one location, I would have questioned those motives. The reality is, if you try and find parity across the world, it’s going to be even more of a challenge. Take Hong Kong – where multi-generations are living in cramped flats – to that cohort, light and airy workspace is a retreat and a salvation for many. Then across the demographic, there is so much diversity in terms of needs and expectations, with the binary code of the nine-to-five diminished, the hybrid era presents HR’s greatest challenge in generations. It has to be an agile approach, watching, listening and assessing shared experiences in real-time as the whole idea of the employer-employee relationship is recalibrated, along with all of the policies and contracts. But ultimately, people need people and the outstanding issue is wellbeing and there is no substitute for supporting wellbeing than great face-to-face collaboration, enriched by a culture of equality, inclusion and fairness. Also, hospitality thrives on human contact and the concept of our food and cultural markets typifies a reliance upon great staff being there for customers. You can’t do that from your spare bedroom. You’re a journalist Jason and our content teams need to be out in the cities, talking about their cities and the bars, restaurants, clubs and theatres that make them thrive.
It’s difficult to argue against that. But it doesn’t mean that we should go back to the situation which caused so much disengagement, stress and resultant ill health. It’s just a different way of working, with a new set of parameters and balances and our generations are the architects of the new era. Since joining Time Out, I’ve been interviewing a lot more junior people than I have ever before and many were made redundant or put on furlough during the pandemic and a good deal of those had rents to pay and jumped at any job during the worst times of the pandemic. So, this is a cohort that has had a lot of disruption at a time when they needed to become established and start their careers. They are inquisitive and expectant and they don’t want to take any old job now, they want to explore opportunities within an organisation from many different directions. It’s been a time of learning and awareness for all of them, fuelled by their use of social media and they have seen and witnessed things that our generation could never have envisaged. Consequently, they want values, fairness, equality and transparency and how you treat them through the interview stage is their first experience of your brand, both product and employer. I feel a real responsibility to make this right and we should all take onboard what we have learnt and experienced these past few years and make the most on this momentum of awareness.
Progress and technology is unavoidable and unstoppable. In the modern world, when change happens, there is always a time of turmoil and readjustment. So, there is no point in trying to kick against it. It has to be understood and planned for and it’s a world of differences that can thrive and live side by side. For example, you can order a McDonald’s on a touchscreen and no part of the transaction is touched by human intervention. Or you can go to a restaurant and experience being served great food by humans. I remember back in the 1990s, there was the opinion that cities would be dead in ten years’ time. That didn’t happen, places like London are more vibrant, diverse and exciting than they have ever been and even after the impact of COVID, London is a buzz of activity. I’m confident and pragmatic that technology will always serve to make lives easier, more comprehensive, provide more choice and opportunity in work and leisure. After all, it’s a comforting fact that tech is still developed by people for people. In terms of our own business and what we’re achieving with the food halls, it is about lived human experiences and enjoying the best of the city together, with a community, not virtual gaming. That is driven from the original legacy of creating experiences and it’s as vibrant now as it ever has been. You can go into a hi-tech factory and see robots building luxury cars, but it is the artisan skills that attract the attention, the leather, woodwork and stitching. That’s a curious but comforting element and that’s where the value still is, in human interaction.
But unless you want to be the custodian of the Betamax format, Kodak Film or Blockbuster Video, there is nothing to be gained from being fixed on looking back. Life changes and moves on constantly and, as a business, it’s about meeting change with capability. The world’s evolving fast, but they played football 100 years ago and they play it now. There is no right answer here and constantly trying to second guess is pointless, but you have to be curious – it’s an essential value – and you have to keep challenging everything and not accepting anything that doesn’t cut it.
My purpose in life has always been to make a difference, however small. Whether that’s within my professional life or being a good friend or a good partner. It’s a life of change, as we’ve discussed today, it’s the driving theme of life. But for me, HR is about creating better experiences for employees in a good company, building trust and supporting people by listening and embracing their input. There have been thousands of engagement studies over the years that show an indelible line between engaged people and improved business performance and that has to be the driving HR initiative above all others. That’s my legacy as CPO and, as I’m sure your readers will attest, you have to have one foot in the business imperatives and be part of the executive of an ambitious PLC and one foot in bringing the best employee experience. People love Time Out as a brand and I want to equal that love from an employer brand perspective and make this organisation a uniquely desirable place to work and a destination for talent around the world.
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