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Interview

The automobile has come a long way since Henry Ford’s rickety Model T rattled off the production line.  Technology has taken the basic premise and, through evolution and innovation, electric power is a reality today and autonomous vehicles are on the horizon. Daunting prospect or exciting future vision? Whatever your perspective, it means massive and radical change to how we fuel cars, drive cars and buy cars.

Tell us about your early life and how you decided on a career in HR.  

I left school, joined a YTS scheme, but in terms of a career relating to HR, that really began aged 18, when I joined a VW Audi dealership. I was already leaning towards people management and, within this dealership, it was obvious even to my novice eyes and senses that all was not well with regards to the key staples of HR; customer complaints were at an unacceptable level, which was further compounded by the fact that employees hadn’t received adequate customer-relations training. Staff attrition was poor and, all in all, it was patently clear that staff really needed to be trained and developed, if the customer experience was to improve. The dealership I worked for was selected by VW Group to take part in a pilot which was about creating a retail experience in dealerships at the time the first debate occurred about ‘bricks and clicks’. Part of the pilot involved attending a senior leadership programme, which really opened my eyes to business and HR strategy. Concurrently, I studied for my CIPD – two nights a week at Manchester University for two years – I hadn’t studied at university, and so this was new territory to me. Encouragingly, across the business, the L&D initiative quickly paid off, which gave me my first experience of effective learning when it lands well, and how improved outcomes empowers staff and confidence returns.

During my time there, the car dealership business grew quickly, I successfully gained all of my qualifications, and I moved to an operational HR role. In my final few years there, I ran one of the sites and gained a really useful clutch of HR experiences, especially as we had to adapt. We were embarking on a companywide change programme, as internet sales began to change the dynamics of the business and car buying market. I was head-hunted to work for one of the VW consultancy groups and managed a large scale programme on how you changed culture to drive a more customer centric culture and retail focus. My qualifications and experience so far, were well suited to the task, and I enjoyed the theoretical and insightful data work, which helped develop my skills further, and I found having good and up-to-date knowledge of the business – as a young female in a male dominated environment – really empowering and confidence building. Of course, you have to adapt your style too but keeping up-to-date meant that I never floundered in meetings and that’s played an important part in my professional career to this day.

After a couple of years, I decided I needed to move away from cars and took up an HR post at Stanley’s Casinos. Again, a different experience, working in a business where you didn’t have to do a hard sell on learning and development, the business operated a really fast and smart training and development programme from which I learnt a great deal. Indeed, much of my time at Stanley’s was focused on learning and development and, although this was really filling in the gaps in my experience set, I really wanted to extend my skills and capabilities. So a couple of years in the world of casinos, I started to look at pastures new, something that would represent a big step change and an equally significant challenge. I found that prospect at the Shop Direct Group, again a different sector and, at the time, in the process of a massive change – a traditional catalogue business migrating to online. This was all new territory to me, so I waded in with gusto, moving from a massive paper-based business to digital. As expected, it wasn’t all plain sailing, as this was a really traditional company with families working there, and some had been there 30 years plus. So there was a lot of legacy issues, people that hung on to the old ways of doing things, and I learnt very quickly that the way to win people over and keep them onside is to keep the commercial imperative and objectives in clear sight of all. People need to see their futures with that of the business direction, as opposed to dwelling on nostalgia and feeling threatened, which in business, isn’t going to help anyone. During the process, I was promoted to a group role in commercial HR and change, which I look back on as a significant boost to my skillset and experience. The move to digital coincided with a major streamlining programme, and this was early in terms of internet shopping as we called it, so you really had to bring the customer along too. At the end of 2008, the credit crisis hit and I decided to join a management consultancy SFL that I had worked with at Shop Direct. The business predominantly operated in the not-for-profit sector, and I moved into a role as Lead Consultant for two large social housing accounts, as well as two large fire rescue service accounts. This took me into the complete unknown, in so many respects, despite the economy, my career was massively enriched. I could also utilise my commercial experience, as my remit was to make all four entities more commercial and cost effective, bringing a changing influence to organisations that had become accustomed to carrying out operations in the same way as they always had – and, by the time I joined, they were in need of modernisation. It was a tough call, but in terms of new experiences, this topped the list so far.

Coming from a commercial world to somewhere that hasn’t changed that much for years, you must have felt like you could influence it quite considerably.  

 It’s the old adage of a fresh pair of eyes, absolutely, but I just knew from the start that going in all-guns-blazing was not going to be successful so, compared to my previous change roles, which were more business strategy-driven and about speed, this was about values and making sure that people really did become the stakeholders of change. Social housing is very much the grassroots of life, and the tenants would attend board meetings. From my peers, I really respected their vocational qualities and values. From the consultancy, I wasn’t particularly looking for a new role, but I was head-hunted, which is always a good sign that people are noticing your input. I was approached by a head hunter to join a B2B telecoms business that was about to embark on a large scale growth programme and acquire ten businesses in 12 months. This was a new experience for me as I had never been involved in M&A. Again using what I learnt, a structured and pragmatic approach was put in place for the integration of the businesses, which placed new colleagues first, to ensure we retained their knowledge and kept them in the business. This role again was a huge learning curve, especially in working at significant pace to make change happen. The blue print integration approach we implemented was recognised by CIPD and I spoke at their annual conference on this subject. Following the integrations I was asked to head up customer experience, again another new experience – given I had not worked in a B2B environment – although I had experience from similar roles in B2C. I had built a strong HR team that enabled me to transition to this new role, and I loved the commercial side, looking after the contact centres as well, so I could use my commercial skills and overlay with the people skills, to enable positive change around the customer experience.

The amount of M&A activity must have been a huge challenge and in such a short period of time.  

I loved the pace and yes, it was tough – as M&As always are – whether you’re acquiring a start-up business or a longestablished company. I learnt that you cannot bring the change you need to with the old leadership in place, still running the business as was, and it was quite challenging, as they still operated in the same way and the staff were still looking to them. It taught me that if you deal with an acquisition, you can only have the existing management team for a short period of time, because it’s just too confusing and can become toxic. I then went to work for Home Retail Group on a contract, to support the Commercial Team with their digital leadership transformation, where again I used all the previous experiences to help devise and implement a people plan that supported the overall business change. This was a great role with lots of variety and scale. Then as the contract there came to an end, I was I approached by a head hunter for a Global HRD role for a private equity backed specialist software provider, e Front, with the added remit that the business was to be sold. But first, we needed to focus on efficiencies and adding commercial value. In terms of takeaways, I have to say that role made me realise that I have to be engaged in the product or service, and I just wasn’t feeling the love. The other revelation, I was working in France, our closest international neighbour, and the differences in cultures and ways of operating could not be more apparent. For example, I had never experienced a work council format – it just didn’t make sense to me, working against the company to keep your job – and the French law piece was a minefield. Without doubt, it was the most challenging role in my career. There was a lot of political turmoil and I remember saying to my boss: “I can’t do this anymore”. But I was told to just stick it out, because “I was doing a good job”! The other thing I learnt from that role was, it’s important to work with people with whom you share common values and views, particularly when you are in the change environment, and you need somebody you can engage with on a personal level. So my contract finished, we duly sold the business and, for the first time in my career, I really felt as if I wanted to take some time off. But that was short lived, as the Group HR Director role at Jardine came calling.

Was it a compulsion that you had the opportunity to move back into the car market, a sector that you had really felt engaged with early on in your career?  

I’m sure that was a significant, mitigating element as to why it grabbed my attention, particularly after the experience I had just had, and where my career started. But mostly, what interested me about Jardine was the sheer scale of the organisation and, above all else, the passion and commitment to transforming the culture in the business. That is what brought me here, and the change we have started to deliver is really compelling. Jardine Motor Group is a £2.2 billion turnover business and we have about 3600 employees over the UK, clustered in the south and south east, but also covering the midlands, north west and north east. We are a car retailer, new and used, and we service vehicles and sell parts. We represent some amazing brands such as; Porsche, BMW, Mercedes Benz, Audi and Ferrari. Up until recently, it was very typical of the motor industry – traditional in the way it operates, very male dominated in its demographic – but to me, the future potential of the market represented perhaps the biggest opportunity to change that, largely driven by a significant shift in customer behaviour and the need to modernise the offering in a digital landscape. Obviously, that means we are always looking for skilled people, and we have been working on our platforms to bring fresh potential into the business and developing our L&D model.

Some of my challenges were around increasing employer brand awareness – for example, it’s not widely-known that we are part of the Jardine Matheson Group, which is an organisation with around 400,000 people worldwide. So my challenge was changing the perception of the brand. When I first joined, when recruiting, I had to do a huge selling job on senior role candidates that we wanted to join the business. But now we have a waiting list of people wanting to join us alongside a solid talent bench. But ultimately, all the new measures and drive is pointed towards the operation moving to digital, so a real commitment is required to bring digital skills in and meet the ever-increasing expectations of customers, so a big emphasis on customer training. Keeping the current talent was also important of course, and this required some attention to make Jardine really competitive, in terms of the employee offer, including a greater drive towards flexible working and really looking to supporting people with families. This all meant that we could really begin to balance things up in terms of gender – with everyone onside to really make this happen – it’s something that we can really shout about, and is fundamental to what I hope to achieve. And on top of that, we’re modernising HR’s ways of working. So, a good deal of work to be done, but the momentum is well and truly there to make it happen – we have already delivered a significant amount of change in the past three years.

Also, part of the drive for diversity, not just gender and race, is looking at how we identify potential people and how we track them in from the wider field. In the past, the company typically recruited from the motor sector, but from point one, I have been committed to changing that culture and fixed focus, so that we bring in people with a wider knowledge and skillset from retail and hospitality, for example. To make sure that we would look appealing, we worked on some research to see what people thought about the industry, in terms of employer brand, and we took a long, hard look at ourselves – for example, for the sales teams, we modified the commission model so that it wasn’t just about selling cars, it was more about understanding customer behaviours and creating memorable experiences. We embarked on a new branding campaign which we are seeing significant results from for example, our direct hire rate is 95 percent. We’ve also introduced the Academy Programme, which is about employing people out of the industry, and training them to the absolute best benchmark, whether that be in sales or aftersales, using them as pioneers and advocates for what great looks like, which has been hugely successful and we are into our third year of that now. Lastly, pipeline, as I’m convinced that in this increasingly transient, short-term culture, the crucial provision is to make sure there is always people to step up to key roles with the minimum of disruption, and also take the heat out of trying to hire externally. One of the most important measures is whether what you’re achieving internally is being noticed externally and that you’re really attracting people to join – and that’s beginning to happen. It’s not all plain sailing, you hit some barriers, but if you have the trust and will of people, it will happen. In terms of diversity, it is fundamental and, we may have five core values, but we don’t want carbon copies of the same type of person. We are proud of what we have achieved in the past three years in relation to improving the percentage of females in management roles. In 2015 we only at seven percent and now we have 28 percent. Everybody, from my Directors’ group and across the business hold the same shared values, but are all individual and are all confident to be themselves in the workplace.

And of course there are massive changes ahead for the automotive sector.  

Yes indeed there are, and that is a big part of the ongoing change that we are undertaking and will continue to go through – it’s integral to being relevant and competitive in three, five or ten years’ time. That’s why we need a culture that is agile to change, keen to keep on the leading curve of technology and able to anticipate early enough to adapt. We have a lot of work to do around the future operating model but, encouragingly, discussion is pragmatic about the future, about reacting in a timely manner to change, not trying to hold onto the status quo by staving it off, which has proved deadly to so many established and hitherto successful businesses. In seven years, at least 80 percent of vehicles will be electric. That means a huge change for us in terms of the customer lifecycle and operating model and a massive infrastructure challenge for the Government. We hold regular Exec Board strategy reviews to look at how we continue to grow and prepare ourselves for change.

What would you like to have as the headline of your legacy story regarding your time at Jardine?  

There are a couple of HR cliché’s such as right skills, right time, a really healthy talent pipeline and sustainable reliable succession plan. But really, centre stage for me is diversity and inclusion, with the podium achievement being gender parity, right across the business. I would like, in three years’ time, to be able to say that we have moved to a 50-50 model of male and female colleagues and have more than 30 percent females in management roles. And finally, I would say my mantra is, always prepare for change, because change is not just probable, it’s inevitable, and never forget that we can always be better – the journey never ends.