THE TRADITIONS OF THE GRAND CITY STORES WERE INTEGRAL TO THE SHOPPING EXPERIENCES OF GENERATIONS. BRANDS AT THE HIGHEST LEVEL IN RETAIL – HARVEY NICHOLS BEING WIDELY-PERCEIVED AS PEERLESS IN QUALITY AND ASPIRATION – SET THE TRENDS AND FASHIONS FOR THE FORTHCOMING SEASON, WITH STYLE AND PANACHE. BUT THE IMPACTS OF THE DIGITAL REVOLUTION ARE UNDENIABLE AND NOW THIS HIGHLY-LOVED AND DESIRABLE BRAND IS STRATEGISING ITS FUTURE COURSE ON THE GLOBAL STAGE.
GROUP HR DIRECTOR, HARVEY NICHOLS
“THE WORLD OF HARVEY NICHOLS IS ABOUT THE HUMAN TOUCH, THE RELATIONSHIPS AND THE TEAMWORK AND THAT VALUE CANNOT BE BLOWN
AWAY IN THE WINDS OF CHANGE”
My working life began as a receptionist at the RAC Country Club in Surrey, moving onto a hotel in Torquay, where I worked as an assistant manager in food and beverage. After a couple of years, I joined the then hotel chain Forte at the Kingston Lodge Hotel in Kingston-uponThames. Forte was recruiting for its general manager development programme and there was a particular emphasis on personnel, which I was gravitating towards. Quite by luck, just a short walk away was Kingston Polytechnic and I enrolled in a part-time course to study for my CIPD. I quickly moved on to the Forte hotel at Heathrow Airport, where I took on responsibility for personnel and training and finished my CIPD. Looking back now I realise what a great early career opportunity and personal development Forte provided me with. So, the hotel sector became my life for the next ten years, in an HR capacity at Browns in London and head office and several Post House hotels. My time working in hotels exposed me to every type of reactive HR situation and personality. It was demanding work, but I thoroughly enjoyed my time and it was dynamic and empowering. People really did work hard and play hard! It was a time of mergers and acquisitions in the sector and I left just prior to Forte being purchased by Granada. I moved to the Retail Catering Division of Compass that later became SSP, which only a few years before had been part of British Rail. As it happened, six years later, Compass merged with Granada and so it was a busy transformational time for the business and HR was at the forefront of that change. It was on joining Compass that I really became an HR professional, under the leadership of an amazing HR Director, Venetia Harper, who was an incredibly talented and driven individual who developed and empowered the people around her. I was given increasingly more responsibility and opportunity. As an ex-British Rail business, many people at all levels across the organisation were ex-BR employees – with a culture and ways of working that was forged from being part of a nationalised industry – coming to terms with being part of a highlycommercial, FTSE 100, international hospitality corporation. This was HR transformation at its most complex and exciting, as we transformed everything from culture to ways of working.
We started from the ground up, really looking at absolutely every aspect of the business and the way it operated, as well as the organisational design and the skills and experience we needed. Developing a compelling EVP was critical to attract and retain the right talent and effective onboarding of new people was imperative. But equally important – and less straightforward – was the engagement of existing staff, not just taking them on the journey, but exciting and engaging them in the direction we were heading. I knew that if we ignored this population, they would have focused on what used to be, as well as their insecurities. That meant gaining people’s trust quickly and convincingly and it taught me three early and important lessons – one, you have to really listen to people, what is important to them, as much as what they want – and secondly, identify a quick win and deliver it. In my experience, when people see you care about their needs and deliver, it’s a good way to start garnering trust. The third was that communication had to be open, honest, timely and constant. If people don’t feel valued and treated with respect, levels of engagement erode. I’ve spent my entire career in customer-facing businesses with hardworking loyal staff for the most part, who don’t join hospitality or retail for the money. What is important is the opportunities available, flexible hours and the buzz and satisfaction of a successful shift. For too long, the phrase ‘our staff are our biggest asset’ has been bandied about in many businesses, with leaders unwilling to do what was needed to nurture and reward that asset.
No question about that! Whatever your perspective on Brexit, in terms of resourcing, it was a game changer because, like retail, the whole hospitality sector was heavily reliant on people from all over Europe. Then of course COVID has been the most obtuse and unremitting specter for a world reliant on customer footfall and personal, face-to-face interaction. I think lockdown gave people the opportunity to reflect on their lives, what was affirming about it and what needed to change. Consequently, people took bold decisions to make changes, including their work and career choices. With a long-standing reputation of low pay and unsociable hours in hospitality, many moved on. As the competition for talent increases, candidates can be more choosey and demanding. For example, chefs can often earn more working through an agency and work hours and locations to suit themselves.
It was a very vibrant and dynamic time to be involved in such an ambitious company. But it was also an organisation that didn’t forget its people in the rush. Personally, they provided huge opportunity, extensive personal development and sponsored me through my master’s degree. I was given real exposure on an international level and was involved in the global employer branding and talent management projects at the time. For SSP, the division of Compass where I worked, there was also massive change for the business in how it operated. No better example of that was the changes in customer expectation, which was increasingly driven by high street brands – for example Burger King, Starbucks and M&S Simply Food – to name a few. This changed the whole look and proposition to SSP’s business at airports, railway terminals and motorway services. Compare the branded environments now with the generic own-branded travel terminals of old. The right move to working with third-party high street brands, meant that operating margins were reduced and HR played a key role in improving productivity and streamlining ways of working. From a people point of view, the changes were significant, because we were recruiting and training staff to work across a multitude of own and third-party brands. This gave challenges to the development of our employer branding, finding the focal point for attraction and creating a red thread through the culture and values of the different brand propositions.
From an employee brand point of view, it was a challenge because from a management candidate perspective, people would buy into the corporate organisation and hourly paid staff would identify with a particular offer, whether it be one of the bars, coffee shops or Burger King, each had its own brand identity. Although we had ownership for culture and behaviours, we had to uphold third-party brand standards. We had to balance the position and needs of the third-party brands with that of our own, tailoring recruitment and L&D solutions. We worked hard to manage differing needs in the most cost-effective way for the business, while still offering bespoke brand solutions where needed. For example, we made the most of the apprenticeship funding available, we developed in-house, as well as externally, accredited apprenticeship programmes across the organisation, at all levels, including a degree-level apprenticeship that we developed in partnership with Coventry University. We really innovated, tried every avenue, covered the full employment cycle from attraction and recruitment to retention and minimising attrition, a notorious challenge in the sector. In terms of innovation, rewarding people in a sector not renowned for being salary competitive requires not just financial consideration, but meaningful ways of reaching people. I’m talking about those clichés – empathy, understanding and building engagement – the elements that make a job well done worth doing.
I agree, climbing the career ladder at one organisation for years is rare. Now we are seeing nonlinearity and nuance and the way that performance management has changed is significant. In retail and hospitality companies, you have to consider a level of support and engagement that transposes those working in an office, with somebody spending the day on their feet serving customers. I believe it is really important to have practices that are equitable across those contrasting work settings. I can honestly say there was never a dull moment during my time with Compass and SSP. After departing from Compass in 2005, SSP was private equity owned, before an IPO in 2014. I reported to 11 different CEOs over my 20-year tenure and personally, I thrived on the constant change in leadership and the fresh thinking each individual brought. It was after more than 20 years, having reached Group HR Director for SSP and very proud of what I had delivered, that I decided it was a good time to move on, look for the next challenge and write my next chapter. I was fortunate to be able to take some time out and really think about what I wanted to do next. Although my timing wasn’t great, with the commencement of the Brexit saga.
A new experience for me was head-hunters circling and I was put forward for a number of potential new posts in firms in a variety of sectors. I really needed to put the brakes on for a short while, just to gather my thoughts and decide what I wanted for the next stage of my career. It was an interesting time to just watch and take things onboard. There was the Brexit referendum, a lot of political upheaval and, for the first time in a long time, I enjoyed being a passive observer and could recharge my batteries. However, I won’t deny that I was really excited when the role of Group HR Director for Harvey Nichols came up. Despite working for a large FTSE 200 company, due to its B2B nature, the name was unknown to many. In massive contrast, most people had heard of Harvey Nichols.
Despite the complexities and opportunities presented, I liked the idea of a business that I could put my arms around and be an HR Director on a more personal scale – for around 2,000 people – a fraction of what I was used to at Compass. As for the people, I was delighted to be welcomed by extremely friendly, down-to-Earth individuals and teams – nice and easy and very informal. That was important to me, I didn’t want to feel like I had to worry too much about fashion and what to wear and set my alarm at 5am to be ready for work. I hit the ground running, quickly gaining a grip on the business and what was needed from a people strategy. I admit that I was surprised by the level of HR practices in place, as there was no employer brand value proposition, a basic careers website with no ATS and minimal L&D tools. Once I had taken everything onboard, I set out my three-year plan, which was, to say the least, comprehensive and far reaching. It covered onboarding, a new competency framework, a new training academy and talent management, as well as remuneration, reward and employee benefits. The HR team had some great people, but it was on the backfoot, lacking leadership, purpose and structure and we needed to win the hearts and minds of the managers and their teams, making engagement paramount.
Harvey Nichols has always been an aspirational brand – whether you are a customer or an employee – and commercially, it had always been successful and so employees really didn’t ask too much from the HR department. But in more recent times, there have been some significant challenges, which has put pressure on the retail sector in general. I’m talking of course about the impact of digital and internet shopping, which has shifted the commercial impetus away from the high street, which in turn is impacting towns and cities in ways that cannot be ignored. For stores such as ours, that have always been about footfall and inspiring and compelling customers to walk through doors, the challenge is palpable. Of course, this pressure transfers to colleagues and so the necessity for a strengthened HR provision that is also innovative, agile and ready for the plans and objectives the business has for the future, is fundamental. Add to this the financial squeeze, caused by long-term austerity, the cost-of-living, geopolitical volatility, the impacts of Brexit, the introduction of the National Living wage – for which I’m a strong advocate, of course – all of which have added to the burden for employers and the challenging times we are now in are plain to see for the majority of businesses, across multiple sectors.
Your readers will know the scene well I’m sure, but when you are new to any organisation, it is essential to initially curb your enthusiasm and not bowl people over. It’s important to gain trust, observe and listen and gain a grip on how the business operates from every aspect. You must fully understand commercially what drives the organisation – what makes it tick – and, most importantly, meet people and listen to what is said… as well as what isn’t. It was very clear that the wonderfully aspirational consumer brand had done a great deal of the lifting for the employer brand, which was clearly a focus. So, I set about a plan that covered the entire employee life-cycle, looking at what could be leveraged for the EVP, the values and the culture of the business, which was of course already steeped in heritage, surrounding customer care and satisfaction. I was looking to reflect that glow back into the business. When it comes to culture and values, I see them almost as notes and tones which can create a compelling harmony. Before you engage with people in recruitment scenarios or in colleges and universities, they are already familiar with what the organisation represents and that needs to permeate every message that filters out from the business, from job advertising, right through social media platforms. It was also key to move the emphasis away from just jobs, to great career potentials and here, L&D needed to step up to the mark. We put in the Harvey Nichols Academy – an internal, self-running apprenticeship programme – which went right up to management development. Then finally, it was about building greater retention. Retail is a very transient sector and the elements to work with are the usual ones – comp, benefits, rewards & recognition and engagement. But in all aspects, these have to be contextual to these changing times and actually, what people want and this requires a pragmatic discussion with colleagues. In terms of business plans, it used to be the case of giving a vision of ten years’ time. Now, time scales for planning are significantly shortened, but I still like to look at a three-year plan, with very distinct milestones to achievement. What I found exhilarating was that this was a textbook HR challenge and so worthwhile for such an iconic brand. It is always with some trepidation that you put forward a game-changing plan and I was encouraged when the Board gave the greenlight. It seemed the overriding feeling was that everyone was relieved that there was a clear route forward and explanation about how to arrive there. I believe that is the first rule of HR, to set a compelling future vision and a clear roadmap. I have worked with the CEO to redefine the Management Board, creating new roles to make the most of commercial opportunities and overcoming the sometimes overwhelming new challenges of running a business in today’s fast-changing world.
It was a particularly cruel and unremitting spectre and, for many people, it was of course devastating. For us, after initial uncertainty about what to do and what to expect, like every other non-essential retailer in March 2019, we set about closing all of our stores and restaurants. In fact, my entire six-year tenure has been about setting up for the future, then shutting everything down and then, more recently, opening back up again in a much-changed world and bringing people and processes and operations back on track. Now we are back up and operating and although COVID has abated, there are still those existential challenges as a business that we have to tend to. With the increase in online traffic, our objective is to build the aura of Harvey Nichols online in a way that complements the heritage of the stores. From a people perspective, during the pandemic – against a backdrop of often late and confused national guidance – our employees looked to us for support and guidance to help them through. This has remained to a greater extent than pre-pandemic, as we now provide far more wide-ranging assistance solutions for employees than ever before, whether to support their mental health, financial matters, lifestyle or social principles.
Prior to the pandemic, from an HR perspective, we were in a good place, able to evolve and improve what the department delivered to the business. Now, we have had to take a step back for some of the fundamentals, such as recruitment and talent management. Never before has Harvey Nichols had to worry about attracting and retaining great people. Our world is about the human touch, the relationships and the teamwork and that value cannot be blown away in the winds of change. From recruitment, through onboarding and induction, we make that clear to new joiners. I think the pandemic turned convention on its head and our resilience took over – for example, we recruited a new Finance Director in the middle of the pandemic – and I didn’t physically meet him for nearly a year. We are still adjusting post-COVID and we relocated our stand-alone head office from Chiswick, creating a hot desking space in our Knightsbridge store. The central London location is popular with staff and there are definite benefits to having our HO team on site at our flagship store. Teams are able to work in a hybrid style, coming into the office where their role necessitates, to meet and work with their teams and other department teams and, equally importantly, to socialise. We have found that this approach of structured flexibility has worked well for the business and the teams and we have spent time listening to their views on what is working best. As to the longerterm impacts, we are mindful of the fact that each colleague is an individual, with differing needs and our culture is to take the journey with our people and not force the situation. A culture such as that at Harvey Nichols, was one of fun and being together and very social, in the process of giving customers a really great experience in stores. Obviously, that suffered during the pandemic, but now it’s finding that balance of the culture that people loved, with the new way that people want and expect to work. The basic parameters of the world of work and business operations have been tested to extents that were unimaginable pre-COVID. But I truly believe that there is a way forward. Fundamentally, leadership was paramount, during the pandemic, the big frustration was not being able to support and influence how people were feeling, or how they were engaging with the business and vice-versa.
What is the alternative and also, why would anyone want to return to the good old, bad old days, which didn’t really work for anyone with a life outside work? All of those hard borderlines have vanished and that means all aspects of HR need to adjust, from how absence is reported, to how performance management is carried out. Case in point, in terms of annual performance reviews and appraisals, we are simply not going to have them anymore. We are currently looking at how individuals can constantly engage with their line manager in real-time, using their phones or tablets with an app and making the conversation the focus and the admin minimal. My view is that people should be measured by their contribution and outputs and delivering what is required on time. I know this is another cliché, but if you think you can’t trust someone in a hybrid and remote setting, you shouldn’t trust them fullstop. This way of working comes down to everyone being clear about the organisation’s purpose, the company as a whole, their department objectives and the role they play to deliver those goals.
If I were able to answer that question, I wouldn’t be talking to you, I’d be on a beach in Barbados. My concern is, I don’t think anybody knows what the best answer is for the future of retail, in terms of bricks and mortar. Right now, it’s the challenge that is occupying our thoughts. But there is no silver bullet solution, it will have to be a combined effort from across the sector and with cooperation and innovative thought from towns, cities and councils. In London, what used to be shop real estate is in the process of being repurposed and in towns up and down the country, boarded up shops tell the story in no uncertain terms. For us, the Harvey Nichols brand is globally renowned for quality and aspiration and so our future is extending our commercial arms around the world.
There are, without question, some big challenges ahead, but also great opportunity and that is where our ambitions and plans lie. Our customers have shown us that they continue to respond to exceptional in-store experiences and our online brand has grown significantly. We have worked hard to not be associated with disposable fashion, for example and we’re really promoting sustainability across the business. We have appointed a Director to inspire and drive our hospitality offer across all stores, as well as our food and drink retail products. But I don’t think the sector as a whole is moving fast enough, or necessarily supported by existing policies, such as tax-free shopping and I am sure there will be more casualties in the next 12-to-18 months in retail and hospitality. The pressure is on from so many different directions and the cost-of-living will unquestionably add to that. Hybrid working is still finding its balance, but whereas shops could rely on the mass commute, the stolen 30 minutes at lunchtime, now the traffic and footfall is, by its nature, unpredictable. But I’m optimistic and although COVID accelerated change, it was going anyway, so we may as well roll our sleeves up now rather than later. Businesses have also had to accelerate action concerning DEI and ESG, which are essential to remain relevant to customers and employees and of course investors. At Harvey Nichols, we are working in collaboration with our employees, to progress in all these areas, incorporating it in people’s roles and having group-wide forums with Board sponsorship. Diversity-of-thought in an organisation is so important to its future. I think that it is fair to say that HR has a jam-packed agenda to contend with, each one being a priority and the demands of businesses and employees are vast, far-reaching and moving at great pace. Finding the right answer is no longer good enough, you have to preempt the right question and be ready with the answer. Alongside people seeking work/ life balance, fulfillment and all those other life enhancing wants and needs, AI is accelerating faster than the majority of us can keep up with. Business leaders need to have their answers ready for employees, both existing and potential, who are wanting to know what this latest phenomenon will mean to their job, career and life. Finally, I think we have to take a pragmatic view of life going forward, constant change and disruption is here to stay. Harvey Nichols is an enviable brand that has survived the most disrupted time in human history, from the humble beginnings of a linen shop in 1831 to the world-renowned brand we know today. That deserves our full effort and attention to help write the next chapter of this historic business.
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