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Interview

9/ll, volcanic ash clouds, adverse weather, budget air travel, radical changes in business models, players that have thrived in the hard hit travel sector have had to demonstrate irrepressible spirit and endeavour. Non more so than TUI Travel Plc. Jason Spiller interviews Jacky Simmonds, Group HR Director.

Jacky Give us an idea of your early life and career.  

I left school at 16 and trained to be a PA initially. I worked for a personnel manager, at High-Point Rendel, a civil engineering company which actually designed the Thames barrier. It was an academic environment, and I was involved in graduate recruitment, so an early taste of bits of HR that really whetted my appetite to train for my IPD. I enrolled in an evening class to do A-Levels, then went back full-time, to do a degree in Modern European Studies. When I graduated, I decided to revisit HR as a career and in my first role, I did a Master’s degree in Human Resource Management, specialising on the subject of change in organisations. I was really excited about HR as a career prospect, because I liked looking at the various mechanisms that make businesses tick, and I could see how HR was pivotal to a lot of the key components.

When I graduated, there wasn’t a lot of choice regarding HR as a graduate choice, they were very generalist. So I took a recruitment role at a small consultancy called Icon Computer Resources, and really experienced the pressures around the sector. Technology was a challenging sector to be in and, looking back, it was great experience to really get an overview of how different businesses work. Next, I made a move as an in-house recruiter at The Wellcome Trust. It was there that I took my Master’s in HR and quickly got involved in all other aspects of HR, which was growing rapidly at the time. It was a great experience in HR best practice in an extremely well organised and respected organisation.

I decided to change role to move into something behind the curve in HR terms and took on an HR role at the news trade magazine publisher, Hearst Magazines, publisher of Cosmopolitan, Company, Esquire and Harper’s Bazaar, amongst others. I joined as an HR adviser, and was brought in to work and restructure the HR department more broadly, rather than just focussing on hiring and firing. At the time, HR best practice was limited, and it was becoming patently obvious that the media sector really needed to get up to speed on HR practices fast. So this really was ‘right place right time’ for me, and, just over a year later, I was promoted to head of HR.

It must have been a bit Ab-Fab - fashion and celebrity publishing in the early 1990s - what was top of the HR agenda?  

It was predominantly female, and I could see there was a great opportunity to make a mark, in terms of supporting women’s careers around commitments with family, My team and I focussed on drawing up plans for; flexible working policies, focusing on performance management, identifying how the different departments (such as editorial and commercial) areas of publishing could work together more effectively to achieve the same goals. In what was a highly-pressured and frenetic world, I successfully introduced and embedded some key operational HR frameworks that wouldn’t look out of place now. I had fulfilled an objective, to get into a commercial HR role and demonstrate how it can make a difference.

Tell us about your move to what was then First Choice?  

I joined First Choice in 2000, at a time when the travel and holiday sector was undergoing massive change in the way it approached business. The market was just beginning to see the impact of low cost airfares and, of course, the internet was radically changing the customer interface, both of which were very significant game changers. For operators like First Choice, the impact on business was clear, and there was an immediate and critical need to change the business model and crucially, take cost out in order to compete in a very low margin business model. It’s a tough place to be, where you need to react to pretty extreme competitor activity but it is a reality for most businesses these days in all sectors, particularly in an increasingly international commercial world. And of course 9/11 took the wind out of the sails of the entire world, and it impacted on everything and everyone, particularly on air travel and the tourism industry. The terrorism atrocity in New York shocked everyone to the core, and like everyone else, we felt compelled to get on with life and business, so I came into this organisation in tough times. In terms of the business, and its operational model, we needed to react fast and with purpose on many platforms, and so in the first couple of years, we looked at the business model and were working through how we moved from having several separate entities to having a vertically-integrated business, with one view of the customer. Each business; retail, call centres, airlines – was running separately, and so it was crucial to get everybody focussed on a vertically integrated model, ensuring they all knew they were serving the same customers. For HR, this represented an opportunity to shape how the operating model of the business should work, and how people needed to work differently to align behind the same vision and strategy.

With all the disruption and change, what were the big challenges to get HR up to speed with what was going on?  

Everything, everywhere, not just in this business, was being forced to change to a lesser or greater degree, and for HR the challenges were no different. Yes, businesses are different, but the themes and the objectives are always the same; engaging people in the vision of the organisation with why it needs to change and ensuring the capability is there so that the business is future-proofed. In return, people want to know what their career opportunities are, how they can be developed and, more importantly, how they make a difference. There was much to do and for some time I was seconded to a business improvement team where I initiated and led significant change programmes, which really focused on the business model and how we could move the organisation on. I did that for a while, and was then promoted to HR Director for Distribution, spent a year with the airline, before moving on to become HR Director of First Choice. When First Choice plc merged with the travel arm of TUI AG in 2007, I became the HR Director of TUI UK,with the primary objective of managing the merger between First Choice and Thomson, which took two years to complete.

How was HR positioned in the business? I guess technology was forcing business models to change, the way customers interfaced with the products, that must have been an HR pressure point, to understand that and get the necessary skills and talent in.  

At First Choice we had got ourselves into a pretty decent place prior to the merger, with good strong processes in key aspects of HR. The talent agenda had been really good, we had a good pipeline of talent and regular healthy dialogue with business leaders, to ensure it had the focus, and that the business had the capabilities required to execute its strategy. With the merger between Thomson and First Choice, we had to go back to the drawing board and start again. Integrating systems, processes, different cultures and creating one new organisation all relies heavily on identifying the key levers that influence a culture, and using them to build a great new organisation. The business had a very clearly defined strategy of product differentiation, controlled distribution, and strong brands, and with that clarity, HR takes the role of helping make it become real to everyone.

What was it like merging brands that were rivals, competing in precisely the same, hard fought markets, each bidding to knock out the other?  

We decided that the best step forward was to identify commonalities in the businesses and create a culture that promoted collaboration. It was hard initially, particularly as the businesses were key competitors, but we spent a lot of time understanding the differences and similarities and, as I said earlier, focusing on the similarities helped to bind people together. A big part of being able to achieve that was, almost uniquely l should imagine, that the Managing Director, Dermot Blastland, had spent 20 years at both companies. So he had a really good insight into the cultures of both businesses, and we decided culture was key. We interviewed the top 100 people for their views on culture, and through that we got some crucial insight, played that back, and agreed on a new set of shared values for the group. We also created a blueprint of what success would look like and we had four key areas to focus on; what is right for Shareholders, Customers and People, and were disciplined on how we managed that through. We were pretty up front about the tough decisions that needed to be made, such as where the businesses would be located, the likely transition timeline and ultimately the number of redundancies.

We spent a lot of time involving people in the transition and having ‘transition teams’ that reflected both organisations, and we ensured there was a balance amongst the leadership. It was an extremely intense period and quite exhausting. To give you an idea of the intensity, a lot of it was done in the first year. We brought teams together and really gave people the scope and freedom to be a part of how to make the merger a success. Every new team that was formed spent time as a team getting their issues out of the way and also focusing on how they could make the merger a success. It was pretty amazing as the businesses had long legacies: Thomson Airways was formed from Britannia, one of the oldest charter airlines in the UK, and First Choice Airways was relatively young and they were working together within six months. We also built good relationship with unions, employee representatives and a number of other stakeholders to really get behind making the merger work. At the end of the first year, we had a management conference which was also a celebration of the first anniversary and from that moment on, we thought about and talked about ourselves as TUI UK and never anything else again. I think it required discipline, but also focus and a lot of time was spent aligning goals. It doesn’t matter what your history is if you can build belief in a future, anything is possible.

Do you think you had HR and the team well prepared for this, in hindsight, is there anything different you would have done?  

Of course when there is change, fears about jobs, disruption and a period of uncertainty, everybody looks to HR at this time to tell them the truth. So HR does take a pounding in these circumstances, but we really prepared the HR team well. There are some things that, when I look back, I can see we struggled with the speed at which things needed to be done. At such a pace, there is a real chance that what should be a smooth merge and alignment could turn into a collision, and you can get too focused on making sure that doesn’t happen. You can underestimate the importance of communication, insomuch as, even if you really don’t have anything to report, you still need to update people. Early on in the merger, we surveyed employee opinion and measured engagement and change management, and the following year, when we did a full opinion survey we found the engagement scores had gone up massively – at a time when people were still at risk of redundancy. The other thing we did is measure how well we changed, and despite the reductions in head count, and the difficult, painful decisions, we knew it was really important to get a handle on how people really felt. We were truly surprised at how robust we had emerged post the M&A, which was hugely encouraging for the future.

It takes some guts to garner opinion in a very public, transparent way, in the eye of the storm, and of course, two sets of HR departments were also merging.  

Indeed, and there were differing views about HR and its role and position. For First Choice, HR had always been involved as a key strategic partner and involved in business decisions and that culture wasn’t the same at Thomson. So there was a need for HR to take a driving role and I was very lucky that both the First Choice and Thomson HR teams were extremely collegiate, supportive and worked hard to make it work. I couldn’t have wished for better support, and my counterpart at Thomson took a leading role for HR with the merged Airlines and worked with me for a couple of years. Mergers are about people, not structure, and I was fortunate to work with a leadership team of like-minded people who were all committed to making it work, as well as a supportive HR team around me, and we worked as a team to bring it through successfully. You know, change can be viewed in different ways; if people are fearful, it’s like trying to push an elephant up the stairs, and people really struggle to cope with the uncertainty. However, change is not something that is going to start and then suddenly stop, so if you constantly focus on your business strategy and engage people in that, generally people come on board and see that great opportunities can also come from them.

How does the business look today, for example is the high street travel agency inevitably a thing of the past?  

More than most sectors, the web has changed the face of this industry, and of course much of what I’ve talked about today is how we have squared up to that reality, as have our competitors. People still do go to the high street branches for advice and reassurance and we have just won the Digital Store of the Year award at the BT Retail Week Tech Awards, for our new travel shop in the UK, for the future experience. The stores bring the high street experience and technology together, whereby people can access the websites in store and browse holidays. The other notable difference about the business, compared to 2007, is its scale and reach. We’re a truly global business, with a turnover in excess of £15 billion across the global businesses, we operate in 180 different countries, with more than fifty-four thousand employees – it is simply unrecognisable as to where it started. Another key element of the business today is that we are now becoming more aligned and a truly global player, and the big issues for HR now as we become increasingly global, is how we join up our employee experience, working in every corner of the world, so that they feel part of the same organisation.

With such massive growth, how do you gauge scalability correctly, and how do you keep pace with learning and development?  

The scale has been driven through the merger and the various acquisitions in our specialist and activity segments, but we are now looking at working in a more holistic way. One of the big projects is our ‘One Service’, which brings together people who work in destinations such as Greece or Turkey for example, under one management structure. It will take time to transition, but this is one area that really benefits from scale, investing once and deploying too many – that really leverages investment. You’d be surprised at how receptive people are, we’ve put a lot of investment in a learning management system to increase the speed of developing people, and although nothing takes away from face-to-face work, a blended approach works well. An example is our finance academy, with over 2000 finance people in different geographies, which has proven that online training is a great success. The sector is susceptible to external events, political and economic issues and has demonstrated its resilience over the years. Every year there will be a hurricane somewhere, political instability somewhere else, so such things must be prepared for, and you have to be very resilient – every year we build that into our thinking. If you take the volcanic ash cloud, that was a serious test and, up to that point, a unique phenomena. But every year there are extreme weather issues, and we manage it all very well. Travellers get home, and we look after them if they cannot. The ash cloud was a test for sure; but we owned the whole journey, so we could provide accommodation if we could not get people home, and everybody pulled out all the stops. It becomes part of what people get trained to do, but you can never be complacent.

What does the future hold for the business?  

I think technology will continue to drive change, play an even greater part in how we run the business. What that will look like is difficult to say, but it’s inevitable. TUI Group will be Europe’s largest leisure company, and we’re at a stage, a tipping point. We will become more known as a brand right across the globe. From an HR perspective, I’m keen to shift the model of HR globally – digital technology will shape this and our vision of HR is that, wherever you go, anywhere in the world, you will have access to career and development opportunities, and there is the same experience making TUI a great place to work. HR will continue to be a critical part of moving that forward.

FOR FURTHER INFO

www.tuigroup.com

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