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As if heading up HR in one airport wasn’t enough, Collette Roche manages four, serving 42 million passengers. Factor into the equation huge development and expansion in those airports, getting to grips with dramatic shifts in dynamics and operations, responsibility for the CIO division and, Group-wide transformation programmes into the bargain, Jason Spiller asks: “get up to much at the weekend?”

Collette, give us an idea of your early life and career, and why HR caught your eye.  

I graduated from Lancaster University with a degree in business management which involved spending a year as a management trainee at WH Smith Retail. This is when I had my first taste of leading teams, recruiting, coaching and developing talent, and realised I had a real passion for people management. When I left university, I joined Ford Motor Company’s HR graduate scheme; one of the best around at that time and most importantly for me, it allowed me to have a real job from day one, whilst continuing my professional studies. My first role was employee relations officer at Dagenham, a real challenge which, at the time, felt like a baptism of fire! Working closely with the management team and the Trade Unions, I managed all the day-to-day personnel issues for around 700 employees in the assembly plant. The trade unions were strong in the 1990s, the business was trying to reduce costs in order to compete with overseas manufacturing plants and I really was in the thick of it, introducing new production techniques and methods to create efficiencies and improve logistics. I realised in this instance, that building trust and credibility with both the management and trade unions was fundamental to getting the job done.

After a few years with Ford, I joined Siemens as an HR Executive. This really was a big change in so many respects, but the most obvious one to me was the demographic, it was such a young, growing and dynamic organisation, certainly in comparison to Ford. Siemens Business Services, part of the wider Siemens group was entering the business process outsourcing market, bidding for and managing long-term public sector contracts such as; the UK Passport Agency and National Savings. My role was to provide HR input into the bid, assess the people implications and build and deliver a people plan to transfer around 1,000 public servants across to the private sector. This involved implementing the right systems and processes for people management, the right people policies and training, the right organisation structures and therefore lots of change management. It really was an interesting time. Then in 2002, I had my first child and because my role at Siemens meant living away from home all week, I needed to find a position commutable from home, so I used this as an opportunity to make my next career jump and joined United Utilities as HR Manager for the commercial and international business. As it happened, this was a very exciting proposition and, during my tenure, the workforce grew from 500 employees to about 7500. At the time, United Utilities was one of the biggest UK utility companies, focused initially on water and electricity in the North West, and it used that capability to grow the business further in the UK and overseas. I had some fantastic experience; we put water where there wasn’t any in Manila, desalinated sea water in Southern Australia and built the fountains for the Burj in Dubai! By 2009, the business had grown tremendously with a turnover in excess of £800m and a diverse portfolio of contracts across the globe. It was at this time United Utilities decided to re-focus on its core business, so I, alongside my colleagues, had the task of selling the business to other utilities companies.

Tell us about your move to Manchester Airport Group and what attracted you to that proposition?  

Primarily, it was the level of ambition and the plans for growth. MAG was successfully running four airports in the UK when I joined; Manchester, East Midlands, Bournemouth and Humberside and a new Chief Exec, Charlie Cornish had been appointed to grow the business further. I joined as HR Director and the first thing I had to do was to get to grips with a totally different type of business to what I had been used to, and I guess that was a part of the attraction of the role. Airports are such diverse places, the range of departments from customer services and security, to the fire service and air traffic control. There’s such a diverse range of people, it’s like a town, and HR really is pivotal to its cohesion and smooth operation. I’ve spent as much time learning about the business as I have creating people solutions as for me, time spent in the airports, understanding all the different roles and learning about all the aspects of the business was critical.

Tell us how you have developed your HR team?  

One of the first things I did was to create one HR team. I brought the team together and built a scalable and efficient service centre, delivering quality HR advice and guidance across all our airports. I also invested in our specialist HR functions and recruited high calibre HR directors into the airports. My role was then around making sure we had the right people strategy in place to achieve our vision – to become a premier airport management services company. In addition to my role as Group HR Director, I now have responsibility for the CIO division and for Group-wide transformation programmes, which has been a fantastic opportunity to broaden my horizons and to further develop my team.

Give us an idea of the business challenges for MAG?  

Pressure and challenge comes from every corner, and no one aspect is more important than another, but one thing is for sure they are all interlinked. Certainly a big driver is the change in customer and airline expectations and the infrastructure around delivering a positive customer and airline experience has become much more sophisticated. Another challenge is that our primary responsibility is to ensure a safe and secure airport at all times. With the high level of regulatory requirements as a result of the increased security issues across the globe currently, our people, processes and systems need to be watertight. And last but not least like other businesses, we have shareholders who require return on their investment, so the drive for value creation through higher revenue generation, operational efficiency and asset utilisation is always front of mind. Therefore, I guess the overall challenge is the balancing act to make sure we deliver on our promises to all our stakeholders; the regulators, our customers, our airlines and our shareholders.

Looking at the airports individually, what is planned?  

For us, development and change is a constant, you can never be complacent. At Manchester, we are assessing options to modernise the estate to increase capacity and meet the evolving customer and airline expectations. We will be investing in new premises and technology to make the customer journey much more seamless, providing real-time personalised information about our service offerings and flights. We will also be investing in our frontline colleagues so they are equipped to deliver a safe, secure and positive customer experience. At Stansted, which we acquired 18 months ago we are at the tail end of our major transformation programme that has seen 80 million pounds of investment in our retail and security areas. But it’s not just about the infrastructure, we have also completed a full review of our operating model and costs to ensure we can attract a diverse mix of airlines, through competitive pricing and services. Through working in partnership with the Trade Unions we have reached an industry-leading agreement which will see the implementation of a new organisation structure, new working patterns and new terms and conditions.

This has been a huge challenge for our HR and leadership teams. We had to quickly gain trust and build meaningful relationships with the Trade Unions and our people, getting everyone behind the vision of rebuilding and growing Stansted. We made sure we met everyone in week one, we listened to what the trade unions and our people had to say and involved them in reshaping the airport. Last week I met with all of our MAG trade union reps and they said that they couldn’t believe how far we have come in our relationship and the results we have collectively delivered – it was a proud moment for our HR team! This work and investment we believe will make Stansted a credible long term solution to the South East capacity issue. Whilst other airports are full, we have the space and facilities to accommodate more traffic and we need to make best use of this.

Obviously, the big two, Gatwick and Heathrow, are battling this out as we speak, plus there's the notion of Boris seems obvious that Stansted should be a greater potential option to the increase in air traffic?  

Yes, we believe so. Our view is that it’s a much better proposition for passengers and airlines to have a network of wellconnected competing airports across the UK, such as Stansted, and indeed our other airports, to enable competitive pricing and customer convenience. The investment in our airports will hopefully enable this.

What's next for MAG?  

Put simply, the future for MAG is about getting better and bigger. In terms of getting better, it’s about focusing on driving operational efficiency and great customer service through investment and enhancements to our processes, technology, people and premises. As far as getting bigger is concerned, we are aiming to continue our above market growth in passengers, making best use of our current airport assets and delivering significant returns to our shareholders. In addition to this organic growth, as part of a newly formed joint venture, we are building an Airport City in Manchester – an 80 million pound property development, which will see the creation of a business, media, leisure and logistics park,attracting overseas investment and creating over 20,000 jobs in the region.

In terms of the future of air travel what is MAG expecting?  

Expect the unexpected has been the mantra for quite a while now, although planes taking-off vertically and the collapse of Europe’s smaller flag carriers have not happened quite yet. The big news is still the explosion in growth of low-cost carriers: from being a start up with a 15-seater plane just 20 years ago, Ryanair is now the world’s largest international carrier, and has just ordered 280 new and bigger aircraft. This is set to continue and MAG works closely with all the low-cost carriers to grow and evolve with them. Trends we see and support are moves to upmarket more business and other segment orientated services and also the move to medium and long haul, especially transatlantic, which no-one has quite made work yet.

We also expect the continued growth of the Middle-East carriers Qatar, Emirates and the heavily Manchester-accented Etihad, which between them have around a third of the world’s outstanding big plane orders for the next decade and who continue to invest massively in their Gulf airports as way stations between the busiest economies in the world. Directly or indirectly, the slow realignment of global trade and people travel around Asia generally and China specifically – the epicentre of economic growth this century – is something the more forward-thinking European operations are getting in front of. MAG also seeks to generate innovation: global systems like Chroma and organisations like Routes, the airport and airline networking conference, started in Manchester and many of our staff are working as we speak on novel ideas, some of which we hope will take root and may even change the future of air travel.

And the business models are changing, the cheaper carriers, booking and checking in online, customer expectations have never been more acute.  

Absolutely, like all successful and growing outfits, they continue to evolve, and MAG evolves with them. The low cost carriers are very wedded to online systems as it keeps costs down and speeds people through the airport to their planes. They are also very savvy in how they use that connection to build a quality relationship with individuals as customers, which is at the heart of growth in all consumer businesses. When you look at Apple, Google and Amazon, which have transformed themselves, they thrive by sucking information out of us and personalising to an incredible degree, everything we see of them, giving us a tailor-made offer in all the media and private interactions we get. That’s clearly what both airlines and customer businesses like MAG are trying to emulate and innovate into.

What employees expect from the workplace has changed too, in terms of flexible working for example, how are you accommodating that?  

It is changing yes and we have to understand the generation of workforces coming in, and assume that it’s going to get harder to attract and retain good quality people, so that requires us to be more tailored in what we offer. In support of career and personal development, last year we introduced four Talent Investment Programmes, delivering a thousand days of learning in partnership with Manchester Business School, including the opportunity to achieve an MSc. We’ve introduced a new Graduate and Intern Programme and increased the number of places in the Group six-fold. To attract the best applicants we’ve made sure we are aligned to the expectations of Generation Y, including really structured career paths and reward structure; invested in leadership training and experience early on in their career and included a week of charity work in Uganda in year one to stimulate their CSR interest early on. In terms of flexible working, being a 24 hour operation we are fortunate to have a good mix of part and full-time roles across a variety of working hours. We also have a part-funded nursery at Manchester and have a good gender balance across all levels of the organisation, including Board level. The challenge for the next few years will be responding to the growing demands people face in caring for both elderly dependents and children and I think that technology will be a great enabler to driving more flexible working and continue to deliver our ambition of being a great place to work. MAG is making a huge investment in technology and I see that as being fundamental in helping to give both customers and employees greater flexibility in the ever-changing world we live and work in.

How readily is the new technology being taken up by employees?  

Our employees seem on the whole to positively embrace new technology. In our back office functions we are investing in a new ERP system and we’ve involved our colleagues in the specification and selection of the technology. They are therefore fully on board as it will make their jobs easier and remove some of the non-value add activities, allowing them to focus on more important tasks. In the operational areas we have recently implemented a new asset management system. This means our colleagues in engineering now have handheld devices to schedule and record maintenance work, again reducing the administrative burden. From a business perspective we get better data around our asset performance and increased productivity. Again, we have worked with the colleagues to develop an implementation plan which addresses their concerns and gives them the right level of training to use the kit effectively.

How do you keep on top of employee engagement over numerous vast sites?  

Employee engagement is one of our main people metrics on our balanced scorecard, which feeds performance reviews and reward decisions for our leaders. We run an annual survey for all colleagues and this helps us to understand in what areas we are doing well and what areas need improving. We also supplement the annual survey with quarterly pulse surveys as this allows us to do a quick temperature check on how teams are progressing against their action plans. Our survey is completely confidential so we have an external provider who pulls together the data and provides us with in-depth reports for each area. From these reports detailed action plans for each department are developed and our leaders in the business own these. We have also developed an engagement strategy which allows us to address the common issues that have been raised across all four airports. This bottom up/top down approach helps to ensure we deliver both strategic and tactical improvements.

When you look back over your career, how would you encapsulate it and what about future objectives?  

I have been privileged to work with some great companies and with some great leaders and as a result, every role I have had has stretched me and provided the opportunity to move onwards and upwards. I love what I do; the challenge, the pace, the opportunity to learn and the ability to make a real difference in the business world. So overall I would say my career has been intense but very rewarding – with never a dull moment! I’ve learned so much about business and about how to drive business success through people so I consider myself to be a business leader first and foremost, who just happens to specialise in people management. This, I think has been key to me getting a seat at the top table. I’ve also learned that throughout my career, integrity in my role is everything.

You need to be totally objective, be willing to put the business and the people before yourself and be prepared to say (in the right way) the things that the rest of the exec team may shy away from. HR is often the conscience of the business and this is an increasingly important role in today’s society where culture and social responsibility are critical to business success and sustainability. In terms of the future, who knows? My ultimate ambition was to become a group HRD with a seat at the top table in a successful business. Now I am here, I am thinking, what next?

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