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Interview

Triumph certainly lives up to its name: In 2016-2017, 63,400 bikes were sold. As the phrase British-owned marque has diminished almost to nothing, today, Triumph’s HQ for R&D and design, is a vibrant hub of technicians collaborating with mechanics – who are no strangers to Swarfega – talking bikes, sharing knowledge and contemplating symbiotic collaborations with future technology.

Jonathan, take us back to your early life, your aspirations and how you got into HR.  

I grew up in Mid-Wales in a town called Llandrindod Wells, a very rural and quiet area. I really had no driving ambition, other than I found the idea of a career – somewhere in the commercial world, and ideally in a city – very appealing. So, like a lot of students at that time, I chose a general business studies degree, hoping that in the course of time, a spark of light would illuminate my career path. In Mid-Wales, you’d be hard-pushed to find work experience in a corporate environment, so I chose a course that enabled me to have a placement year. I was lucky enough to work in London for Hill Samuel, the investment part of Lloyds bank, under the wing of a really strong mentor, who made sure I had a really thorough grounding. At some point, the HR signpost came into view, and I felt like I fitted in and, fortunately, the feeling was mutual, so they sponsored me to re-join them after I graduated. I enjoyed it so much that I was there for the next six years, and I only moved on because Scottish Widows and Hill Samuel merged, and the operation moved up to Edinburgh. At that point, I decided to take stock of my experience set and realised I needed to gain some experience outside of financial services. I applied for a role at AT Kearney, a firm of management consultants – so not a million miles from financial services – but a good halfway house and, most importantly, I was gaining new knowledge. Case in point, the way performance management was calibrated meant the pressure on the consultants to perform and reach the next level was always on, and the smart use of data, gave great insight into detail, so my first experience of proper analytics. It was useful learning while it lasted, but I thought, in terms of a firm to work for, what I was really missing was a proper end product. But I soon realised that, if your CV is dominated by experience in a particular sector, recruiters can be blinkered to potential, and I experienced the meaning of the phrase pigeon-holed.

Undaunted, I read an article about General Electric, which was an early adopter of the philosophy that, if you recruit people with the right mindset, they will adapt. Happily for me, GE practised what it preached, because I applied for an HR opening and was duly offered the role. Any hope of a rosy honeymoon period was somewhat dashed though, as I walked through the gates of a GE chemical factory, with issues, in Widness. It was, by any standards, heavily-unionised, and if there was an HR badge for valour in the face of challenge, this is the sort of environment to gain it. It was baptism of fire, but I relished and thrived in the role, really gained a valuable experience set in people management and I was promoted after a few years. I think I’d gained a reputation for resilience, and was seconded to a much larger plant in Groby, Leicester – which GE had just acquired – and worked on the process of integrating the business into the GE model, again with the close scrutiny of the unions. It was a busy and challenging six years, that’s for sure, but there was a missing piece in the career satisfaction jigsaw, which I was about to find and slot into the vacant position. I took a call from a recruiter about a job at Cosworth, a truly iconic company in the world of motorsport. As a self-confessed petrolhead, I was really more excited about the prospect of working for

Cosworth rather than what the role was and, the moment I walked through the doors into the works, I felt an overwhelming feeling that this was my world. I was offered the HR Manager role and during the next five years of my tenure, Cosworth re-entered Formula One and went through preparations for the company to launch onto the stock markets. Again, new learning and experience for me and I learned a great deal as my colleagues and I in HR prepared the company to go public.

As much as I loved it at Cosworth, I was at the time of life where I felt I needed to make career strides. Opportunities presented, and I was offered a broader HR role at Nissan, which was recruiting for their R&D centre in Cranfield. Having been captivated by R&D at Cosworth, here was a change to explore this area of the industry further, along with the opportunity for me to live and work abroad in Asia with Infiniti – Nissan’s luxury brand – in Hong Kong. This was a fantastic experience and the challenge for Infiniti in Hong Kong was around attracting talent, because although the proposition of basing a luxury brand in Hong Kong was obvious, there were few automotive professionals based there, and so I was given the role of devising attraction and recruitment platforms, to attract people from the local markets, which were primarily financial services, my own earlier experiences. Again, it’s about instilling that whole mindset and culture of not stereo-typing people based on their existing experience set, changing the onus from capability and experience to untapped potential.

It sounds exciting, daunting and a real culture shock for a still young person from rural Wales, what are your over-riding memories from this period in your career?  

Vividly, I can recall the excitement of being in an entirely alien environment and, for the first time in my life, experiencing what it’s like to be a minority – uncomfortable and self-conscious at first – but invaluable experience. The other memory was how the Asian economy was so chaotically driven and ambitious, it gave off static, and it was a wake up call that the European economies could ill-afford to be complacent about. Once my work in Hong Kong was completed, I returned to the UK, went back to Nissan’s R&D Centre at Cranfield, and once again felt the need for a new challenge. I really thought about what I was looking for in my next career move. Both Infiniti and Cosworth were relatively small and I relished that hands-on environment, so when I was approached about the HR Director role at Triumph Motorcycles, the scale, the private ownership and the iconic brand, how could I resist?

What were the business goals and the key HR challenges?  

There have been a couple of times in my career, when I have been fortunate enough to join a company that’s just about to enter an exciting and challenging era, and no more so than at Triumph. The firm was at a significant stage, about to launch a major new range, which was fundamental to the business plan. In terms of HR, my first impressions were that the department needed to be modernised and invested in. So with ambitious production growth as the backdrop, I made my case for fulfilling the resourcing element of that, outlining where I saw the clear necessities in investment, with a significant focus on attracting talent and learning and development. In terms of the scale and operations of the business, Triumph Motorcycles employs 2,500 people globally, with 900 based in the UK. There are three very large manufacturing facilities in Thailand and assembly plants in India and Brazil, so a global footprint, and we sell over 65,000 motorcycles a year, through a network of dealers across 80 countries. In terms of my scope, I report into the CEO and I’m part of the executive team The headline business objective is to become the leading, premium lifestyle motorcycle brand in the world. Up to the point of me joining, there was a disconnect between the determined objectives and the capacity to deliver on the plan, so that had to change rapidly. Moreover, the disconnect between headquarters, and the global network was clear to see. Much of that was down to legacy issues, underinvestment and the channels of communication had to be made clear and direct, which meant a companywide digitalisation programme to support the next phase of rollout, aligned with digital HR tools via our Infor HCM platform. In a business such as this, there’s no point changing everything for the sake of it, it’s about making tactical incremental changes to become more contemporary and efficient; investing longer term in digital tools so our employees and line managers are able to work with less friction. As with any change, there are compromises and legacy issues, and clearly the business had become manual and bureaucratic, and that was definitely alienating the younger generations coming into the business, expecting certain levels of technology.

In the much-reported war for talent, how does Triumph recruit for scarce skills in engineering and IT?  

Our UK headquarters is the home of our R&D, and our design engineers are all based in the UK, so we are competing across the board for engineering talent in the UK. It’s great to have a cool brand that works on so many levels, across the demographic, but that’s not enough, it is getting harder out there. We are really committed to our relationship with education, but I think there is more that we and the sector as a whole needs to do. University careers fairs, the online presence, sure, that’s a given, but the fact is, it’s an ongoing challenge to find the numbers we need to meet the future product pipeline. To keep up with demand, without compromising on quality, we have to look harder and harder. So we’re constantly looking further afield, promoting the differences and advantages of working for a smaller motorcycle manufacturer as opposed to our large noisy automotive OEM neighbours. It’s important we promote that we can provide a much broader experience, which is part of the secret is figuring out what is important to engineers, but not the whole picture – it’s about having all the components of a compelling story.

Why is there a lack of STEM skills. With youngsters constantly engaged with technology, it remains a vexing mystery?  

I think it’s a legacy perception of what engineering is all about. In the past, the sector as a whole hasn’t offered much more than tokenism, in terms of helping schools talk about a career in engineering in an exciting way, or making the link in the minds of young people. Are employers finally bridging the gap? My view is, it feels like there is far more engagement in engineering, particularly in initiatives aimed at schools. The issue now is, how long it takes to have a positive effect. In terms of gender balance, of course the motor industry has been traditionally male-oriented for generations, but that is, without a doubt, changing – albeit too slowly. We are encouraging and supporting a number of our female engineers to be as engaged as they want to, and they have been great ambassadors, talking to the younger students and inspiring them. There’s nothing more powerful than having really engaged female engineers in front of their slightly younger peers, talking about the exciting work they are involved in. That’s the most compelling component for change. The gender inequality issue is so stubborn to change. Frustratingly, girls tend to outstrip boys at O’ level math and science, then fall away at higher education, and that’s a cultural issue that education and employers need to address more effectively. Interestingly and encouragingly, we run a number of outreach programmes in schools for example the Triumph Design Awards, which has nothing to do with motorcycles, but encourages aspiring engineers to submit their designs to us. This is a hugely successful programme for us and the diversity is far more balanced than you’d perhaps expect to see.

You spoke about legacy issues, in terms of management and leadership, what work have you carried out in improving inclusion and addressing the gender balance?  

We’ve looked at this on three levels; with our junior, emerging talent leaders, we have been able to put in place a junior level leadership programme, running that with apprenticeship levy funding, having been able to convert it into a level 3 qualification. We’re in pour fourth year of running this programme, and it has highlighted some real talent that we might not otherwise have identified. At our middle management level layer, we have this year launched a programme at level 5, which is an in-depth programme that we put more senior leaders on. Finally, as a senior leadership team we spend more time now than ever before on working as a team and focussing on future strategy, which we are confident will have all sorts of benefits in the future and help our employees see there is a genuine career path here. In terms of social demographic mobility, you have to be conscious that we are in a town where we are one of the biggest employers and aren’t concerned about people’s backgrounds, relying more on finding people with the right skills and giving them the opportunities. In terms of pipeline, we focus on our placement students as our main feeder for Graduate roles and, of course, we’re very focused on apprentices. In fact, the apprentice pipeline had to be calibrated to meet our future needs and the levy has enabled us to take on more. It’s worked for us internally and our dealerships as well.

What would you say are the medium to long term ambitions of the business and the main challenges ahead?  

At the top of the agenda is; building the brand in new territories. We are just launching our business in China at the moment, and continuing to develop our existing markets. In terms of Brexit, whatever happens we need to prepare the business from disruption. Other challenges are the incoming technology of electric engines, but obviously, I can’t talk about future products in that sense, other than our R&D is focused on the present and future, in terms of the developments of electric motorcycles. We talk about technology all the time, and the agenda of AI and robotics is driving those conversations. It’s disruptive but hugely dynamic and exciting. If you look at our production facilities today, you would be struck by the presence of people building the bikes, aided by technology, rather than the other way around, which is what you expect when you choose to buy a premium product. Computers, AI and some robotics will have contributed to the precision and quality, but human beings are there to ensure that it’s beautiful looking – it’s far more of a partnership than you might see in a highly-automated factory. Perhaps we are what the future of a symbiotic human/AI relationship will look like in the near future? Certainly the synergy is something that occupies our minds and is noticeably forming opinion. But admittedly, we are still at such an early stage of development in AI. Undoubtedly, it will evolve quickly, but in my opinion, the fears that it will replace all our jobs are unfounded. If anything, I think it will enhance our working lives as routine transactional jobs may be replaced by AI, allowing employees to work on more interesting, engaging tasks.

In terms of HR plans and how we’re preparing the HR teams to take on challenges ahead, the next phase for us is the implementation of the Infor HCM software suite. There are a couple of tools which we are really excited about, some very smart analytic tools which will make our hiring process much slicker, but also provide analytics on the behaviour profiles of peoples in the business. That could give us the possibility to use people analytics to help staffing a new team to design a new motorcycle. This would allow us, for example, to put more creative visionary engineers on a programme at the beginning of a project, and then rotate to more “attention to detail” project management-focussed engineers towards the end of the design cycle.

HR is becoming a more tech sophisticated profession but the conversation is about a lack of analytics skills in the profession.  

We are a relatively small HR team but by nature of the people we hire, most typically they have an analytical mindset anyway so for us that is beginning to change. The point is not to have siloed departments, and tunnel vision, but to look more widely for capability and skills. The HR platform needs to be a broader collaborator. For the business as a whole, the digital journey starts and ends with the way our customers  buy a bike in a dealership, and on the journey, it’s about employees and their internal experience all being part of the same software platform. It allows us much greater insight and will enable us to forecast much more accurately. In terms of challenges ahead? I think the UK generally will go through considerable turbulence over the next couple of years. With that in mind, communicating with our employees and ensuring that they feel stable and reassured as we go through difficult times will be key. You can never encourage line managers enough to engage with their employees and give them feedback. As an HR team, our focus is on providing them with the tools to do that. For the business, there’s the balance of scale – that Triumph is a premium brand – not mass market and mass production. At 65,000 bikes a year, we are focused on building our brand in a holistic way. Last year, we opened an adventure centre in Wales where customers can try out our bikes in an off-road setting and in 2017 we opened our Factory Visitor Experience. We are also investing in our clothing business too – exciting new initiatives that we are working on to develop and launch to a wider audience.

Triumph Motorcycles

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