HR DIRECTOR, EDDIE STOBART LOGISTICS
Thousands of trucks trundle down the roads, but only one brand perks up a journey-wearied nine year old: “Eddie Stobart.. Eddie Stobart”! The darling of the road haulage sector is a business in transition, responding to changing dynamics in goods transportation. With the age demographic in the sector rising, the key to the future is to maintain the interest of that nine year old for the next decade.
Angelina, take me back to your early life and why you decided upon a career in HR.
I studied fora degree at the University of Leeds, in sociology and social politics and, like so many leavers, I was unsure about what I wanted to do after I finished my studies. At that point in time, I had never received much in the way of career advice and over the summer, I took a temporary job working for a holiday company, where I helped manage cruise ship recruitment. I transitioned into the HR department and gained my first experiences of people management. I found my experience within the department and the diverse nature of the role compelling and so was keen to learn as much as I could about the profession. Even at this early stage, I was beginning to make the link between HR staples, such as how effective managers and good engagement directly impacts performance and I was also becoming more connected with the particulars of employment law and the impact on the employment relationship. It was around this time that I began to seriously consider the HR profession as a possible career, rather than just a summer job.
This role was only a temporary placement, so I left and started to apply for full-time HR roles. It was at this stage that I encountered one of the first challenges I had to overcome, as I quickly realised that my limited experience wasn’t catching recruiters’ eyes. So I studied for a qualification in personnel practice, and was lucky enough to be accepted at Aqumen Services Limited, part of the Mowlem Group – later acquired by Carillion. The role was to provide HR support to facilities contracts such as; cleaning, security and office services, operating in a much more corporate HR department. I was eager to take on new responsibilities, as I was exposed to new HR elements and my enthusiasm paid off when I was partnered up with one of the more senior HR managers, working on harmonising terms and conditions and trying to engage a newly-acquired engineering division – with all of the sensitivities to different cultures that this implies – bringing them on board and integrating them. I worked there for three enlightening years during which I was lucky to be exposed to numerous challenging HR projects, before a location change meant a move to Bristol. Consequently, I joined Eurica Services (part of the Interior Services Group), which was primarily a facilities management business and here, I was able to gain new experiences in an HR department that was newly-established, which meant that I was able to help grow its HR operations from the ground up, to support 2,000 members of staff. At the same time, I was studying part-time for my Masters in Human Resources Management, so I look back and realise this really was the point where, although demanding, my HR career began to take flight. The nature of the business was very busy and changeable, and I was dealing with TUPE for the first time, plus a very high volume of turnover. It was a tough experience and really tested my resilience.
Often when faced with a daunting prospect, naivety and inexperience is a plus.
Yes exactly, you don’t know what to expect and, fortunately, I realised this was a steep learning slope, but rather than being fearful, selfmotivation kicked in and I worked hard to help drive the company’s entire HR agenda. I was in that role for three years before deciding it was time for me to take the next step to progress my career. So I set about looking to take the helm of a bigger team, and secured a position at security firm Strata Security. At Strata, I was in the lead HR position – reporting directly to the CEO for the first time – and I was responsible for a larger HR team. The nature of the security industry meant there was a great deal of vetting and an increasing amount of legislation and law change, so there was a real need for me to ensure HR policies and procedures were compliant with legislative requirements. As a result, I developed a much better understanding of line management and team leading, as well as the importance of creating a cohesive and well-communicated culture that aligned with the employees, the business and clients. After two years in this role, I felt it was time to try a different sector in order to broaden my experience. My next move took me into the metal working industry at Houghton Plc, as UK HR Manager. This was an entirely different world to me, highlyunionised, with a diverse workforce from highly-specialised chemists and engineers to blue collar factory operatives. I had no prior experience of dealing with unions, so I was quickly adding experience sets. Another interesting dynamic was that this was a long-established family firm, the owner was based in Philadelphia, and not long after I started, he wanted to retire. He sold the business to private equity, which completely changed how the company was operated, the culture and the whole atmosphere.
I had to adjust, while also managing the profit-led nature of the way a private equity firm runs a business. Compared to a family-run business, it was so different, but it made me think more like a commercial leader than I’d ever done before. But the disruption in the workforce was palpable and it was the first time in my career where an organisation and the people within it were going through major change. Of course, there was some resistance, but I began to see how positive HR and good management planning could really help to settle the seas. This was a major step forward in thinking and operating as a strategic HR practitioner. Once everything was settled, we were set for an ambitious period of acquisitions, which created a real buzz of anticipation; first a manufacturer in Wolverhampton, then a very big catch, Shell’s metal working business, which had plants in France, Spain, Germany and Italy). For me, this was a hectic couple of years as we had to go through the process of carving out the business focus and direction, while maintaining the customer base and ensuring that key people were transferred across. Because of European law, TUPE doesn’t apply in some of those countries, so there was a good deal of law and paper work to keep up with too. We were looking at how to keep key people, convey a feeling of security and normality in turbulent times and maintaining focus. Encouragingly for me, the greater the challenge the more engaged in tackling the issues I became.
What happened next in your career?
I was at Houghton Plc for five years, and experienced significant change throughout that period, and my personal circumstances had changed somewhat too as I now had a three-year-old and was pregnant with my second child. I decided it was time for a career move which showed some progression and role diversity, but with less travel involved. I applied for a role with Fircroft Engineering Services, a major recruitment company in the supply of engineers for the oil and gas industry. I was employed as Global Head of HR and Training and was responsible for the HR teams across the globe – including the US and Asia. Technology played a crucial role in enabling me to manage this process within such an international organisation. New, at the time, remote working tools meant I could effectively communicate with key stakeholders anywhere in the world without having to constantly travel. Dealing with recruitment consultants in a very competitive field required a different skillset and gave me invaluable knowledge of the recruitment industry. The role also taught me about the logistics of moving the right skills to the right places around the globe, with all the HR complexity that entails – I found it a fascinating process. Managing a highlyskilled workforce really enabled me to understand the dynamics of effective remote working, building relationships with people you would never physically meet and taking advantage of new technology, as well as making sure people were as safe and supported as they possibly could be. Being involved in a world of constant change was certainly exciting, but in time, I realised it was time for a career move once more, as I continued to pursue my own ambitions.
Your first foray into haulage logistics and your first directorship.
Yes I joined Bibby Distribution Limited as HR Director and, almost instantly, there was something about logistics that was massively appealing to me. The business had a busy portfolio of subsidiary companies, so quite complex in terms of managing parity – although it ran autonomously – and it too was a familyowned business. Two weeks after I started, the Managing Director who hired me handed in his resignation and, suddenly, this was a real baptism of fire for me, as I was then tasked with organising the other directors to maintain some form of continuity and normality. I was exposed to so much of the business machinations and really enjoyed being hands on with the business issues – it gave me a real understanding of how logistics businesses work and how that crucial and unbreakable line to customers is the most important issue, no matter what happens. In many respects, HR in its true sense took a side-line and with my fellow leaders, I was playing an integral role in running the business. At this stage, I felt that my skill-set, to all intents and purposes, was pretty complete. This was a fantastic experience and it brought us closer together as a leadership team. We recruited a new MD, but he moved on after only four months, so once more it fell to the senior leadership team to move the company in a positive direction. Eventually, the Commercial Director became the Managing Director and the Financial Director became CFO. We worked as a tight knit team as we looked to gain efficiencies – a year of tough cost-cutting and trying to expand the business at the same time – took us from a loss of £4.5 million to break-even by the end of 2016. This was a real testament to the work and measures we had put in place, to make sure we were able to help the company progress. We had really majored on efficiency, but at the same time, the business was attracting key talent and attrition was improving massively. Again, it shows that you can show dynamism – despite a difficult backdrop – providing there is momentum.
And then came the call from what is arguably one of the most iconic and famous businesses, not just in logistics, but across all sectors.
Yes, I was approached about a senior HR role at Eddie Stobart. If you’re in the logistics industry, Eddie Stobart is one of the companies everybody wants to work for. The size and reputation of the business is so attractive and, whether you’re nine or ninety, everybody recognises the brand. I went to meet with the CEO and I found him inspirational but, at the same time, grounded and, most importantly, he described a clear picture of the challenges ahead for both the business and the sector. He had a vision of where the business needed to go to capitalise on its existing strengths and also to explore new lines of business, in line with market and technology trends. For me, after a period of tough times and uncertainty, a positive forward plan, backed up with real confidence and strength, was music to my ears. I wasn’t under any illusion that this was going to be an easy ride. There are – as is the case across our industry – massive challenges ahead. But Eddie Stobart has it all; a great heritage and a cohesive and robust grip on its business, and a great deal of goodwill from partners and clients. Now our objective is to take all of that and continue to galvanise the business as a robust, future-ready leading logistics provider, that is an end-to-end supply chain provider. Not only that, the business has the confidence to expand, and I am currently working through the merging and integration of some new strategic acquisitions.
How are you and the team preparing to meet the ambitious needs of the business?
A historically family-run firm, the business has become an unrivalled force in a massively busy and competitive market, and has successfully held this position for a number of decades. But when you expand, the focus has to become more corporate, as investment and stakeholders increase. I felt that such was the unique family cultural influence on the business that the HR agenda had to maintain and reflect that. My focus and planning started at the top, to make sure we had great leadership in place to go forward. Previously, the Eddie Stobart success story was pretty much achieved by people who had life-long careers in the business. Although this was amazingly commendable, it’s not realistic for the future, as it meant we had an ageing workforce and new cohort recruits have a different carer-plan perspective that’s often not compatible with a life-long career culture. I wanted to build upon the career development strategy, so that we had a more agile approach to succession planning, particularly as we expand into different markets and become more reliant on ever-changing technology. Consumers are, of course, increasingly moving towards online, and the traditional retail landscape has to change too. Such changes are really shaking up the traditional logistics model. This end-to-end service is a complexity we needed to get to grips with in order to build and maintain a seamless customer experience, and we’ve worked hard to evolve.
There is much talk about the ageing demographic of drivers in the sector. Where is professional driving on the Millennial career radar?
Again, the brand helps a great deal, and we have a driving training academy, and we have the opportunity to commercialise that offering, providing top level instruction to drivers across the industry. In fact, we have recently opened a new academy in the Midlands so we can keep the driver pipeline flowing as the business continues to expand. We are also working closely with agencies like the Department of Work and Pensions and we’ve been a successful part of bringing people who have been unemployed back into work, with our L&D providing essential, forward-ready skills. This too has provided a pipeline, both from a driver perspective, as well as more widely in the business in general. That’s been a real success story and win-win outcome that we’re keen to capitalise and build upon. We are also expanding our apprenticeship stream training people to gain the qualifications they need to be successful in our industry – both young people working to secure their first role in the sector and re-skilling experienced workers. Plus, we are working closely with the British Army as well, a brilliant source of great people with a real natural affinity to logistics. We also support our reservists, for example whereby they can take two weeks off – in addition to their annual leave – for training. We’re also looking at a number of ways we can increase support for our local communities, and align that with our increasing resourcing needs.
You describe some really innovative potential solutions to the skills drought, what’s the impact so far?
It is meeting many of our resourcing requirements, but you can’t just stand back and admire your handy work, you have to keep innovating and putting your shoulder in to maintain momentum. For example, we’re currently building close relations with the University of Bolton in the support of their engineer students, and on a completely different tangent, we’re becoming increasingly involved with motorsports, which is great for brand attraction.
As with all businesses in all sectors, technology is calling the shots, how successful are you at attracting tech skills, in consideration of the much-debated skills shortage?
Of course, our technology is rapidly advancing and there are big changes ahead with engine technology, with diesel and petrol moving to electric. On the skills front, we are increasing our presence with tech in universities and we have a strong relationship with some of the top truck manufacturers – we continue to work alongside those people to ensure we have the right resources to move with change, rather than respond retrospectively. We are also looking at our business partnerships to make sure we are constantly aware of new technology, rather than heads down embroiled in the day-to-day. Plus, in our ambitious merger and acquisition plan, we very much have technology capabilities in mind, as we progress with our plan to provide our customers with the very best end-to-end supply chain solution possible.
What are the big future challenges for the business and the sector as a whole?
There is a lack of knowledge about the industry as an entirety and we need to focus on that. I am currently working alongside an organisation called Think Logistics, to promote the industry to students at schools. Equally, diversity – for example, bringing more women into the industry – and particularly we want to employ more women into driver’s roles, – so improving our facilities and looking at how we can change working patterns are all important challenges we’re keen to solve and are working hard to address. The progress so far is really encouraging, we are improving our truck stops, and looking at what we are doing in terms of flexible working, particularly around paternity and maternity leave. Going forward, we want to continue to foster an environment that makes people feel engaged, so that we have the right skills and resources in place to meet our changing customer needs.