MEDIVET IS A GROUP OF 440 VET PRACTICES AND ITS MODEL PRESENTS AN INTRIGUING PROPOSITION FOR HR TO FIND BALANCE BETWEEN SUPPORT AND AUTONOMY. IN THIS FASCINATING STORY, HELEN CHARLES-SMITH TAKES US FROM BEING DROPPED OUTSIDE A PC WORLD RECRUITMENT CENTER TO BEING CPO OF EUROPE’S FASTEST-GROWING ANIMAL CARE GROUP. THROUGHOUT, HELEN EXUDES AN ATTITUDE FOR FINDING SOLUTIONS AND AN IRREPRESSIBLE BELIEF THAT PEOPLE MAKE BUSINESSES TICK.
CHIEF PEOPLE OFFICER , MEDIVET
BALANCE BETWEEN SUPPORT AND AUTONOMY
My Dad was an inspiration to me from a young age, he was an entrepreneur and set up his own business in the pub industry. This provided really great early experiences for me as I regularly accompanied him to work and watched how he dealt with his customers. I learnt about the importance of great relationships and personalised experience. I watched as he built his business from scratch and the energy and hours he put into making it successful. Supported by my Mum and my brother who was part of the team, their work ethic was astonishing. My dad would take any phone call at any time, nothing was too much trouble and I never heard him complain, he has been my role model in business. Then during breaks from my studies at University, I worked behind a bar in my local pub and I realise now there was no better place to learn about people – about different backgrounds and personalities – and how to build relationships in many different ways. You can’t work behind a bar and be a shrinking violet, you have to be confident, curious and enjoy learning about the person that is your customer. Being genuinely interested in them, learning about and remembering their favourite drink, the name of their child or important family moments, meant I could create a personalised service and they would stay longer and come back again, which meant the pub did well and I enjoyed it too. So, my early memories really created the connection for me that, working hard and being curious meant you can create memorable, personalised experiences for your customers and, if you enjoy what you’re doing as well, the business benefits follow.
As I left University, I wanted to experience everything I could and my attitude was to always try anything once, even if it’s scary. I also became a bit of a problem solver – I still love to unravel a mess – and I had this dream that my career would be about travelling the world and fixing business problems. Metaphorically, I had a suitcase ready to go for whenever I received the call and I imagined I would parachute in and change the world. I certainly never planned to go into HR. As soon as I graduated, my Dad dropped me outside an assessment centre for a new PC World store and told me not to come out without a job. It really was a great place to start and I learned about running shops, selling products and services and how to make a profit. I was lucky enough to have a manager who would listen to my ideas and let me improve things, so we could drive sales. I had worked out how to gain the best from the team and I was always looking for practical solutions that created overlaps in the motivations of the employees and the company, such as commission schemes and training programmes – and using data to prove to my manager that these initiatives improved performance. I guess I saw the whole human equation as a sort of chemistry set and I knew this was the space where I wanted to build my career.
I worked my way through various operational roles in retail, but I was definitely leaning towards HR. In my first regional role, I read everything I could about how to motivate and improve the performance of people. I attended every course and seminar I could find and I taught myself about all areas of HR. I was then offered a number of different HR roles in PC World and then Dixons, at the point PC World became part of the Dixon’s Group. I was enjoying the opportunity to channel my experiences, to make an impact on the shop floor and in the workforce, I tried everything that was offered to me, including generalist roles, reward, talent, recruitment and training. Dixons was very successful at the time and became a FTSE 100 business, with more than four chains and 30,000 plus employees, but the HR function slowly became highlycentralised and the immediacy and agility that I had enjoyed, was lost, so I decided it was time to move on.
That there seemed to be two types of HR – one is the function of ‘HR’, usually central HR operations – where we pay people, report on data, manage people transactions, create systems, processes and policy for consistency and governance… the basics. Then there is the ‘People’ agenda and that’s about the deal we offer our employees, so ‘why people should work for us’. Understand what is important to employees and align that to what’s important for the business and its customers and there’s an overlap where magic happens. Delivering a ‘People Deal’ is all about deciding which levers to pull, by how much and in which order, so that people have the best experience possible and pass this onto our customers, meaning ultimately, the business is more successful. These days, I believe you have to be able to do both as an HR Director as you have to grow a business with a people agenda.
I left Dixons after ten years and I was approached about a senior HR role at Wickes, which had just been bought by Travis Perkins. Travis Perkins was a FTSE250 builder’s merchant and Wickes, a DIY retailer and there was some difficulty in the integration – Travis Perkins was a decentralised, business-to-business model and Wickes, a centralised consumer facing retailer and so I joined at the point of massive change. I was the first Travis Perkins appointed HR Director onto their board and, back then, it was a very male-orientated world, but that didn’t faze me at all. The culture was good natured and senior colleagues were open to different approaches, as people management was pretty unsophisticated at the time. I hit the ground running and channeled my experience from the retail shop floor, to build the people agenda from the ground up.
Wickes was a long-established business that had changed ownership several times and had a confused culture, but a very clear promise to its customers, so the proverbial blank sheet of paper. This was where I realised how important it was to start by learning the business from shopfloor and not making any assumptions about what you think will work. I spent the first two weeks in a store, analysing all of the employee and customer interactions and talking to the store team about what helps them make those interactions so good that the customers have a great experience. This has to be complete, from answering the phone, to selling a complex kitchen design from one of the showrooms – and just about everything in between. I believe so strongly that businesses need to spend as much time and money on the experience, the services and the channels that their people have in the moments that matter to them during their journey with the business, as they do on engineering their customers experiences, that they would be more successful, because their people would take care of their customers. There were of course big changes, but also many subtle and nuanced, such as how to communicate differently and use different words in your dealings with employees. Again, for me, it was about the overlaps and the levers that I spoke about earlier. I quickly learned not to give the impression that HR was some sort of panacea, it was more a case of “what we can do as leaders”, making sure senior colleagues across the business took responsibility for creating and rolemodelling change – rather than expecting it to happen. It was also about the hard yards of HR, whereby you need to constantly show and prove, show and prove, in order to win confidence for change. Then when employees, leaders, managers and customers start to say “more, please”, then you have the greenlight to go quicker and reach further.
Due to the banking crisis, retail businesses – both out-of-town and in the high street – were suffering and many were closing their doors. This created an enormous challenge for the business and the focus was, how to keep performing in this climate. Sometimes, this meant making hard decisions about reducing resources in the shops, while at the same maintaining morale and confidence in the future. This was the horrible part of HR and I was channeled into restructuring, exiting people, merging jobs and, in most respects, much of the modernisation had to be put on hold. The whole experience taught me that you cannot do everything, you just have to go with the business, keep people motivated and keep money flowing through the tills. It’s in times like these that you learn about the resilience of people and the importance of culture and communication. I’m proud that we kept going and came through and eventually, things would come back on track. This is where it’s about connecting the dots in people and culture. You can continue to train, onboard, reward and promote – the operational wheels can keep turning – but more than anything, it’s making sure that everything is attached to values and purpose. This is where HR steps away from the basics and hygiene issues and focuses on the people agenda. Following this period Travis Perkins doubled in size through acquisitions and I was asked to take on a Group Organisation Development role helping to build the Group People Strategy and responsible for Organisation design effectiveness and development. With direct reports that included HR for some of the businesses and group functions. My objectives were to organise; resourcing, L&D, communications, change, culture & values and this was on a massive scale. At this point, Travis Perkins was the UK’s largest distributor of building materials, employing over 25,000 people across 20+ businesses and 2200 sites. I also had the opportunity to work with some exceptional senior HR colleagues, who each brought an array of experiences to the table, which I was able to learn from. Then in 2019, I left Travis Perkins and started a role at Vision Express.
The company was part of Grand Vision, the global leader in optical retailing, but was considered to be underperforming and its future was at risk. This was a great opportunity to take everything I had learned so far and apply it to a turnaround situation. I’d worked in the start-up, growth and maintenance business context, now it was creating the future proposition of Vision Express to make it great again. Grand Vision had parachuted in Execs from different countries as well as recruiting from the UK – a multi-culture C-suite – congregating in the UK with the objective of turning this business around and making it competitive. Each was responsible for their area of expertise – commercial, manufacturing, supply chain, finance, marketing, operations, IT and myself in HR. I was quite late to the table and it was clear that staff had disengaged and had lost faith in the leaders, strategy and brand. But I could clearly see where we could make the difference and everything that I’d learned so far in my career was to be tested here. I began by learning about the shops, people and culture and, in my third week, COVID arrived! We all know what happened to retail and healthcare, well Vision Express was a combination of the two – the front end of the customer journey with sales and the close contact between customers and clinicians. We became a frontline service – because we had to absorb eyecare away from the NHS – and so we had to adapt to customer service, under very rigid clinical guidelines, as well as stabilising the business. I had just landed and so I tried to learn the business fast, so that we could make big operational decisions for the short term. We had reacted fast to changes in direction and communicated quickly and clearly, to build confidence. This meant we focused on our colleagues being as important as our customers – a concept that informed all of our decisions – and we emerged with a new people strategy and a way forward.
The real golden nugget is, if you can find that one common theme that enables you to rally everyone behind. Working closely with the Marketing Director, we identified a shared purpose that could be applied to both customer and colleagues and then we built customer and colleague promises and that aligned closely. It was all achieved upside down, so was built by 3000 of our people, representing the 6000 Vision Express colleagues and launched through a 12-month activation campaign, kicking -off with a physical conference, beamed live to all 6000 people in one go. This was then followed up with themed months delivered through our online theme park. You could truly see the impacts of building the culture in this way and it impacted right on the business performance, throughout the pandemic period and afterwards.
I think a really useful insight has always been for me, what happens when you are not watching? So much of HR is observed and recorded, but the real litmus test is that now more people are working remotely, the glue that makes that a success or otherwise, is down to culture, trust and shared values. COVID was a tough test, particularly for a customer-facing business and it taught me that you can manage through a crisis and keep people and the business moving forward. I simply couldn’t envisage just hunkering down and waiting for it to blow over. There’s no question that the HR activity at Vision Express was taxing, we were part of a group of 44 companies with as many HR Directors for me to liaise with internationally. It was a huge bottom-up involvement campaign, culminating in an international board level presentation to the CEO, to demonstrate the plans. It was incredibly dynamic, bringing the new leadership team and work downwards, bringing cohesion to the new forming company. But it came to a point where I felt had taken it as far as I could and, as often happens in life, as I took a tough decision to close one door and another one opened, with an approach from Medivet.
Medivet is a leading European veterinary group with a main commercial focus on pet owners and supporting veterinary professionals across the group. It’s a compelling mix of an international organisation, but with strong local roots, that provides the very highest standards of pet care and client service. It prides itself on clinical excellence and breadth of care – offering routine and advanced care across an international network of clinics and hospitals. The business has been built on a unique branch partnership model, where vets can be equity partners in their own clinic, with freedom to run their business, but with support from the Medivet network. I was immediately compelled by the passion for animal care and the great balance of synergy and independence, with the shared purpose of delivering exceptional care that’s always there for its clients, patients and people. The company has experienced rapid growth in recent years – mainly through acquisition of new clinics and it now has over 450 practices and 5,500 people. Looking ahead, the business still has huge growth ambition – both organic and through acquisition – across the UK and Europe. It’s a growing industry, driven largely by consumers that increasingly view their pets as companions and want to spend more on their health and wellness and this is creating continued strong demand for veterinary services. But the industry is experiencing a growing shortage of veterinarians, leading to increased competition for quality clinicians. The challenges right now are, like many industries following the pandemic, that is attracting, engaging and retaining excellent clinical professionals in line with the demand created by our ambitious growth. For me and from an HR impact perspective, the opportunity at Medivet is to tailor the employee experience to the specific needs of our people and deliver these locally in the thousands of mini-interactions that take place in practices every day. By creating a culture and community with a purpose, we will be able to align the motivations of our clinicians and the business, to deliver exceptional care.
I’m relatively new to the role here and I don’t plan on showing up with a People/HR blueprint, from other businesses I’ve worked in. Working very closely with our clinical professionals and our management teams, we have to really figure some of these business and people challenges out first. Such as; how can we build on the dynamics of the Medivet brand that attracts the best talent in the market, internationally, not just the UK streams? What is our role in attracting and supporting students into veterinarian science and having a compelling story that inspires them to want a career with us. Considering the long study time and cost, you have to hit the benchmarks consistently to retain people in such a competitive market. There is no doubt that nearly all of the foundational necessities derive from delivering excellent HR, in this instance to create and support the vets and their practices across the business. It’s about delivering the “people deal” for their employees. There are challenges to consider from an HR perspective though, by the nature of their profession, vets are not necessarily experienced line managers, so delivering great employee experiences every day isn’t always as easy as it sounds especially when they spend a lot of their day in an exam room or operating theatre. So, HR plays a very important role in creating the solutions and support needed in the practices, to deliver great employee experiences every day.
To a great degree, there is consolidated motivation that can be used for momentum. In retail, you have different people carrying out a myriad of disciplines – logistics and supply chain, finance, selling at the tills – and they are coming from different industries who want different things in their career. But here, we have a workforce that has a shared set of values and passions and that’s something that can be tapped. Beyond that, the People Strategy has to make connections between all of the levers, so one doesn’t undermine another. It is wasted effort if we sell a compelling deal during recruitment, if in reality, when the employee arrives it doesn’t meet expectation. Connecting all the elements of the employee experience such as; reward, communications, purpose and culture, development, work environment and technology is critical in delivering a consistent and comprehensive set of experiences that bring the future Medivet to life for our people and to be competitive going forward. It’s going to take time to decide what to implement and in what order, because just about every aspect of HR is in the frame and that’s one of the reasons I was so attracted to this role, because it provides me with the opportunity to build almost from scratch and also, with international rollout ambitions, the scope is huge.
I don’t actually think you need a very big HR team to make massive impacts, but you do need to create a HR model that has all of the tools, expertise and experience to create, develop and support fantastic leadership at every level, which then goes onto create lots of great experiences for colleagues every day. That requires really clear lines, two-way communication, no ambiguity and wholehearted trust. You can scale that up without changing the size of the HR team too much – but it needs to be backed up by investment in system automation and great data – so that, for example, people can self service pay slips. With the day-to-day hygiene issues automated, you can develop an HR team with specialisms, so that they bring added value. Primarily, the business models requires building leadership and capability across the 440 practices and developing a skills pipeline, so that the vets and their teams can optimise their role in shaping their business and that in turn builds and galvanises the network. The big challenge we have to overcome in my opinion, is that there is definitely a corporate identity problem. The vets in single practices are focused on their locality and community and so the process of winning their trust and demonstrating the advantages of being in a group can be hard yards. They benefit from the support, the standard, the investment and technology – as well as access to recruitment resources – which takes a lot of the day-to-day admin work away. Vets want to put their time, energy and passion into the practice. They want to be vets, not business managers. Ultimately for us, that is about balance, trust and support. Not all corporates have this right and it can cause problems.
A lot of it stems from a misconception of what the actual relationship is. Where there have been issues between corporates and the vets in their group, it usually stems from a breakdown in trust. The direction of travel in recent years is that corporates have acquired a lot of the UK vet market and the worst case scenario is that the set up loses the local sensitivity. But if you dig deeper, if there is a particular problem, it’s usually a practice that has its issues, whether they were independent or part of a group. It’s like anything, there are those vets that give outstanding service and those that fall short, for a variety of reasons and ultimately, it’s down to customer power and choice, just like any other business. The potential concern is, because the corporate market is growing so fast, the pressure is on groups to maintain consistent quality and values. In a market where, of course, reputation and customer trust is essential, there is no margin for error or shortcuts in animal care and customer service. We are a private equity company and I work with an executive team and CEO that would never put money over animal care, under any circumstances.
In these still early stages of my tenure, I’m learning about what it is to be a vet on a day-today basis. I’m trying to understand the pressure points and concerns, as well as what they are passionate about. But above all, what I’m focusing on is what we can provide them, that will enable them to channel all of their time and energies into excellent animal and customer care. From an HR perspective, that means covering all of the people management and recruitment elements and, from a group and employer view, making sure that what Medivet represents as a brand to motivate them and enhance their lives, and supporting them to optimise customer experience. I really want to hold a promise, that represents all of those foundations and values, as an integral part of our group identity and a brand that is respected for consistently delivering customer care and animal health and welfare. At the same time, I’m rebuilding the HR function, which has mainly been calibrated to manage numerous acquisitions – to support and serve a fast-growing business. I really want to show a recalibrated HR function, that not only continues to enable the business to grow, but also helps people be the best they can be, with an HR system that can show real outcome where it matters. My ultimate goal is to really show the difference between people and HR, through every experience with every colleague, every channel and touchpoint.
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