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Interview

HILARY STABLES
HR DIRECTOR, Celesio

Deterioration in public health vs the travails of the NHS is a depressingly familiar narrative. Adding fuel to a wellstoked boiler, in December 2016, the incumbent Government proposed cuts of £170 million pounds to pharmacies up and down the country, whilst simultaneously proposing that high street pharmacists could do more to alleviate the incessant pressure on the health service. Somewhere in this paradox is opportunity and pressure in equal measure.

Hilary, tell us about your early life and why you decided on a career in HR.  

I started my career as a graduate retail trainee at ASDA, and at that point, a career in HR wasn’t on my mind at all. Initially, I was in the retail environment, in a general graduate rotation, and this eventually led to becoming the manager at an ASDA store in Rochdale. Eventually, I was offered the opportunity to work on the new store portfolio, because at this time – in the early 1990’s – like all the main rival supermarkets, Asda was in a highlyenergised stage of growth and development. CEO Archie Norman and his counterpart Allan Leighton, were the drivers of this expansion and they were in the process of turning the business around. The vibrancy in this area of operation, the speed and energy of the environment was truly invigorating, a springboard for me in many senses. It introduced me to new ways of working, at a strategic level on a massive scale and the driving force was multi HR-related, large scale training and L&D programmes across a multitude of areas, galvanising literally hundreds of thousands of colleagues, winning hearts and minds, upping engagement and launching new stores. My role was increasingly focussed on HR, which was a happy revelation, as I was actually quite good at the people bit and, importantly, I really enjoyed it! That is something that has always followed me through my life; seizing opportunity, taking a risk often outside my comfort zone. This led to a more centralised role in employee relations and I became an expert in this field, formulating the colleague engagement journey in ASDA, managing aspirations, and I was very engaged in the prospect of spotting great potential in somebody on the shop floor and supporting them through to being a fantastic manager. That’s the excitment for me, backing talent and developing it. ASDA was a massive catalyst for that, and it was a very exciting time – a new dawn in the supermarket sector. Many interesting things came out of ASDA, with the growth of the business and there were some amazing leaders, so I learnt from an early stage that, if you want a rewarding career, you have to have a go, take a chance on yourself and, if it doesn’t work, try something different.

And it's very much, as you say, taking a chance on an opportunity. You could have comfortably carried on as store manager for years.  

Absolutely, I could have stayed in the same place, and many do, and have fantastic and fulfilling careers. I don’t think it’s about ambition for the sake of moving up the ladder, for me it’s on a completely different level. My roles, such as divisional people manager, supporting about 50,000 people, were about self-development too, testing myself with a view to becoming a better leader, supporting rapid growth through acquisition and at the same time, maintaining the operations in existing stores. I look back at all this activity and I’m very thankful that it exposed me to the full HR spectrum. Then my 20 years anniversary with ASDA arrived and I thought, “now is the time to explore new opportunities”. I wanted to try something different and, at the time, I was fortunate in that there were a lot of potential career moves I could make. It was an opportunity with BT Open Reach that really caught my eye, just at the point when BT was in full roll out of fibre in the UK.

You knew all there was to know about supermarkets, but this really was a step change, how did you prepare yourself?  

You’re right, it was the biggest culture shock of my life. Here were two worlds colliding, with engineers, some with 40 years’ service and incredibly skilled and qualified in an engineering capacity, meeting the incoming technology. So, a stable workforce with proud traditions meeting an exploding requirement to fibre the nation with massive, future technology ambition. I do like a challenge! It was like spinning 22 plates at once, as we tried to keep the infrastructure running, whilst simultaneously developing and providing customers with the technology for the future. One ingenious solution to part of the skills problem was recruiting ex-service people. They have a massive, up-to-date skills base, and they made up the numbers in a newly-evolved mobile workforce, a sort of special force. They had the best cultural ethos and work ethic, a massive boost for us, and so a really innovative win-win strategy for all parties concerned. The next step in my career was the move to become HR Director in BT’s Facilities Services, then a newly-acquired division, and so the agenda was growing a team of facilities management professionals, customer facing with different skills, varied backgrounds and bringing together a dynamic team to support BT customers across the UK and Ireland. It was about flexing a service to fit demands, ranging from; servicing remote unmanned radio stations, to high-occupancy city centre trophy sites, or critical call centre and data centre buildings. It was a massive learning curve for me and just the change of pace and scene I needed. I was at BT for four years when the opportunity at Celesio came up, which had business objectives and an ethos that was too compelling to pass up.

Readers will be familiar with LloydsPharmacy, so tell us a bit more about Celesio.  

The organisation originated in Germany, and acquired LloydsPharmacy, which now operates under the Celesio umbrella. The business comprises a myriad of different commercial entities, all healthcare-related, and it really is one of the world’s best kept secrets in that sector. We are growing as a business with different formats where we can dial up or down and that’s what makes us different in the UK. At the point I joined the business, it had been taken over by McKesson Corporation, which is the global healthcare leader. What really won me over was, not only the ambitious international business plan, but also – in the UK – the driving commitment to support the NHS and the healthcare sector. As well as the LloydsPharmacy retail network we own pharmaceutical wholesaler AAH, which delivers to every dispensing outlet in the UK, including hospitals and the thousands of independent community pharmacies. We offer support to independent pharmacies through the Careway brand and we own John Bell & Croyden, a 200 year old wellbeing emporium and pharmacy in London, that holds the Royal Warrant. We also have a mobility and independent living business called Betterlife and an online doctor service – LloydsPharmacy Online Doctor. Since I joined, we’ve bought Sainsbury’s pharmacy, Bupa Home Healthcare and MASTA – a brand that specialises in vaccination and is well known in the travel vaccine market. We have grown our business by 4000 people in just the last 12 months, and in the current state of the economy, not many businesses are growing that fast.

The scale of the business is incredible, you have some very strong and defined brands. I imagine there are challenges bringing many different cultures together.  

Throughout the business, from the board to the grass roots, we are very clear about our value-set which we call ICARE. It was introduced by McKesson and it’s designed around the way we work, it’s what holds us together. It’s a big challenge with such a complex business to get everyone engaged, but what really impressed me is the way it is conveyed, rather than stating to new joiners that this is the value-set and to “stick rigidly to it or else”, they are asked to try it. And you know, most businesses talk about values but it’s something that can actually detract in some cases rather than help. These are values that absolutely resonate with people, something we can all stand behind; Integrity, Customer first, Accountability, Respect and striving for Excellence. My advice would be to always keep it simple. If you ask colleagues to, on the spot, relay what the company values are and they’ve forgotten, it’s time to review. It sounds a cliché and I make no apologies for that but ICARE is absolutely in our DNA, right across our brands, in less than two years. And it has stood the test when we have had to make the tough decisions and hard challenges that mergers and acquisitions invariably bring.

With such a dispersed operation, what is the framework of the operation?  

It starts at the top with the country board, that is the senior leadership team in each country. Changing the whole dynamic of our country board in the UK has been a great journey, updating and readying it for new markets. For example, we have grown capability through LloydsPharmacy Clinical Homecare (previously Bupa Home Healthcare), with a key objective of building a service around patients in their own homes, with a full range of therapies and support.

So you're aligning with the Government initiative for pharmacies supporting the NHS filling the gaps on patient care, where feasible.  

Very much so, it’s about how we take the load off the NHS. We are refocussing our pharmacies, which are known for picking and dispensing medication for patients, and the plan is for our pharmacies to evolve and to be able to provide a much broader variety of services, not just flu jabs, checking blood pressure and diabetes but playing a more significant role in community health and wellbeing. It’s a way of alleviating the burden from GPs and A&E, where possible. Pharmacy should have an integrated clinical role within the wider health service and pharmacists should be released to focus on patient interaction, where they can use their skills and expertise most effectively. Of course, this presents huge challenges, as to how we navigate with the NHS, and of course, it’s a pretty radical concept, and bound to split opinion. But we really believe this initiative presents a real potential to provide healthcare to more people, in the high street. We are working on how this will operate cohesively, collectively, collaboratively, consistently and with the utmost efficacy. Preparing the workforce for this is also a challenge. We need capable colleagues, trained to be able to talk to customers about their medical condition, and we need people who can provide services for our patients – focussed on doing the right thing.

What other areas are you focusing HR on?  

Diversity and inclusion is writ large on the agenda, and as with everything, it starts at the top, and is reflected from the board and out into the wider workforce. I’m very pleased to say that, on my watch, we now have a 50-50 split of male and female board members, in contrast to when I first arrived, when it was almost all male. We went out to search for individuals with the right skills and capability and do you know what? We ended up finding two incredibly capable women who are doing an amazing job, and that has been a real feather in our cap. We have a fantastic balance on the board which is paying off and, in response to the rapid growth and M&A activity, a good deal of our work in HR has been about drawing the family together, and really building relations. It is absorbing work but the benefits are immediately felt. As we bed things down, we’re seeing the commercial benefits very quickly and so this hasn’t cooled the ambition, which is to continue to grow the business, but we carried out a lot of acquisitions in 2016, so we’re concentrating on making sure that all is present and correct, before we proceed with more growth.

Across the workforce, we have a very even demographic, that great mix of traditionalists, those that are up and coming and the disrupters, and we have a great mix in terms of ethnicity, which is really enriching. It’s so evident in the workforce that we are fully focused on making sure there is true balance in management roles across the business. In my opinion, this is the great ambition, and it will fill in the blanks in the picture. I believe it’s about capability and attitude, and I believe in enabling everybody to have an equal chance. I simply don’t believe that positive discrimination is an effective antidote to inequality. If we have capable people, we are a capable organisation. I’m an advocate for strong role modelling and we are role modelling at leadership level, encouraging a diverse mix in our organisation to inspire people that they can literally take their career anywhere in the business, and we have a crazy paving career path, giving people the opportunities to have a go at different functions. Encouraging people to work in different places in the business really is a win-win, as it also builds empathy and understanding about other people and their roles. I also think that is the key to unlocking talent movement. If you have people with loads of skills collated from experiences moving around and across the business, this also builds agility. We really encourage and want people to take risks and move functions, but have the comfort to go back if it doesn’t work. So all in all, we have gone from being a very traditional business to really pushing boundaries, the rapid change in mind set and capability is huge, and defining and building the framework that enables talent and skill to thrive and achieve has been paramount.

With so many people looking to the internet for health products and also surfing for symptoms, the web side of the business must be a commercial imperative too.  

Digital is one of our two biggest growth areas. We have been seriously looking at our entire digital strategy and we recognise that innovation is essential, as our colleagues – like our customers – become more used to engaging with us in different ways and through different channels. A sign of that commitment is, we have just hired a new Digital Director. The scope for him is huge and the pressure is on. Other than the commercial aspects, we have been traditional in training methods, and that has to change. When you have a big diverse business, you can’t rely on face-to-face interventions. We are heavily into e-learning platforms, getting people to access those, and they will be our primary mode of learning for the future. We are in our infancy, we have had our e-learning platform for a year, and we have the foundations and our challenge now is making sure everybody has access to that system regardless of whether they work in a pharmacy, a warehouse or on the road. Crucially, it’s how we take people off the job to do that learning. Increasingly, people want to access from home and learn in their own time and we have enabled that. The key to successful L&D, in my opinion, is a two-way street, with no caveats, because if people are just going through a boring package then, guess what will happen? It won’t stick. It won’t make a difference to the business and the L&D budget will be under scrutiny. We are increasingly in a regulatory environment, and that means continuous learning, and that is all carried with much greater ease and less disruption with e-learning.

Cohesive communication is key here, especially for the widely-dispersed workforce.  

When you have a support centre, it tends to be the ticking heart of the business, but we have a clear communications strategy throughout the business. Communication is the key to our success, strong links and strong leadership is crucial. Without this you cannot achieve anything beyond chugging along from day-today, in siloed environments. So we strive for holistic colleague engagement and we have a very clear strategy that touches everywhere in the business. We flex our messaging to meet all the areas of the business, it’s not one message for all, it’s about flexing in and out of our functions. Our external comms is our window to the world and, as we are almost always facilitating some element of change, I cannot over-emphasise the importance of getting that right. What sits under our comms piece as well is our ‘Big Conversation’ where all colleagues from all over the business have a voice. It connects our different business and collects insights from the people on the front line – people that are closest to the customer. It’s two-way, the board listens to the outputs from these forums and this has helped to form a lot of business decisions – it was key in the ICARE values rollout, in defining our customer commitments, and helping to build our colleague wellbeing programme.

What do you perceive as the next commercial challenges for the business?  

Like all pharmacy businesses, we are facing a massive financial impact of Government funding cuts and, like many businesses, we will be impacted by the living wage changes, hiked business rates, the apprenticeship levy and Brexit. All that is happening, yet we are striving to grow the business. It isn’t a case of woe, we just need to focus on where to grow and grow it faster. Pharmacy will always be our mainstay, but our challenge is to grow by helping our patients at the same time. At the moment, we are not looking at any big external acquisitions, we are looking to consolidate and grow from our existing business. A lot of pragmatism is required and you can never stand back and look at your handy-work with a business like this. I think the key is being flexible and being agile in the market and don’t just think what you have done for the last 40 years will still work in the future. Most businesses in the UK are faced with massive changes – we aren’t alone – but it has put focus on what we need to do differently, and make sure we grow in the right way, with the right people.

On a personal level, what do you think has helped to propel your career?  

The last thing anyone should want is long-term predictability, it’s a sure fire way of getting stuck in a rut. I’m very thankful for the challenges that have been opened to me, because if you embrace change and challenge, it can take you anywhere. My advice is always to keep your mind open and embrace the change, you never know where you will end up. And, most importantly, you must never, ever pigeon-hole people… and that goes for yourself too!