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Interview

Liz Ellis
HR Director , Danone Early Life Nutrition

Mergers and acquisition is cut and thrust, even cut throat, and all-to-often people are rendered little more than collateral damage, as leaders battle for the best deals. As Danone has grown as an organisation through merger and acquisition, it has developed a philosophy where respect for the people as well as the business, is an essential element to the outcome.

Liz, give us an idea about your early life and why a career in HR?  

My early career choice? I wanted to be a doctor, and I went through my entire secondary education with a career in medicine in mind. But I just didn’t quite make it – I didn’t achieve the grades in my A levels that I needed. I could have re-sat but family circumstances at the time meant that this was not a real option. I decided to take a degree in physiology instead. This confirmed my love for science, and I looked at the possibility of carrying out some research towards a Masters – one on the study of sleep and another on sports science. But, after much thought and although I really enjoyed the academic environment, I instead decided I wanted to make a start on the career ladder and work in a business environment. I landed a job with Lombard, which was part of NatWest at the time, in finance and credit control. I stayed there a couple of years, then we moved from London to the Midlands. I joined WH Smith’s Distributors as Credit Controller a nd rapidly inherited more functions, including customer services and distribution claims. I really enjoyed it, WH Smith’s at the time was a very dynamic business and a great company to work for. Subsequently there was some changes to the company, the part of the business I was in was sold and bought as a management buyout. In the mix of the M&A, I left and joined HP Foods. They were a local employer to me and had just been acquired by Danone. I went into a Sales Operation role initially and then roles such as Sales Planning where I was the first female manager to take on this position. It was during the take-over that I experienced this unique approach to acquiring a business: not at all aggressive, but supportive and eager to work with the strengths of the other organisation. And, most notably, a really respectful and considerate attitude towards the employees. It’s not often you feel that a takeover is the best thing that’s happened, but for myself and my colleagues at HP, it certainly seemed that way. The social values and what we stood for as a business fitted my personal values. So I felt really compelled to stay. That was 28 years ago. I still feel this is totally true today.

When did the opportunity to break into HR arrive?  

During my performance review, there was a conversation around whether I should try for the Sales Director role as that was the next logical step, but I realised that wasn’t what I wanted. I looked at Marketing and also considered HR, and eventually I decided on the latter. I shadowed the HR Director for a while, and decided that this was the right option for me. I studied for my CIPD and, although I was still in Sales, I waited for an opportunity to move into HR. One came along just at the right time, as the objective was to drive a new people agenda to meet the forthcoming, highly ambitious business strategy for growth and acquisitions. With my commercial experience, I was the preferred candidate and was offered the job. People move sectors and job types freely now, but in the 80s you were very much pigeonholed, so it says a lot about the organisation that I was given this opportunity. From the outside, HR looks easy, but people often forget that you can quickly find yourself in the firing line when things go wrong. Anyway, you always think it can be done better – I certainly felt that way back then. I remember what the HR Director said to me: “Come on then, put your money where your mouth is”! I should imagine change has been a significant part of your role over the years at Danone.

How did you get to grips with disruption as the normal, day-to-day?  

I would definitely say that my role in HR has been focused on change management and building culture and engagement, which suits me fine, as I love being at the front-end of change. I don’t naturally think of HR in the traditional sense, and I don’t use HR jargon – a throwback to my commercial roots I suppose. Also, going back to Danone’s takeover of HP, I really felt confident about its people-centric approach, so even though there was a good deal of change, it didn’t make me uncomfortable. The Danone way is all about strength of the local business and celebrating that. I was then promoted to the role of HR Director for the Dairies and Waters businesses in the UK. The business was transitioning and reshaping itself to focus on health, long before many of our peer businesses started to go down this route. This also meant going right back to the company’s origins; our core mission as a company is to bring health through food to as many people as possible. At this point, I could see the story of the business being crystallised, and I could see what it was aiming for. And, importantly, I clearly envisaged my role in it all. Also I was learning to be more strategic. If HP was the learning ground, here was a significant step in my career to expand my experience and capability. However, the big shock was that both Dairies and Waters were tiny by comparison to HP. I didn’t have a team to begin with! Nevertheless, I was at the centre of shaping the future strategy of the business, which was massively ambitious. And, as there was no HR to speak of, here was my chance to really make my mark on the business. I did wonder whether I had bitten off more than I could chew, but it was too late to back out. My first job was to bring the two Danone businesses, Dairies and Waters, together on the same site. What was a great help was that the spirit was very entrepreneurial, very open to trying new things and giving me autonomy.

What were the signs that you were making positive gains?  

When the business made one pound profit we celebrated! But seriously, in terms of the people journey, we understood that we had to benchmark ourselves externally against our peers and not just within Danone. So, in 2004, we started putting ourselves forward for The Times Top 100 and subsequently Great Place To Work. And in 2010, we were number one Great Place To Work  company within the medium business category in the UK. So I knew we were focussing on the right things culturally. One aspect that’s crucial here is that we’re being consistent in our approach to how we look after our employees. If your mission is to bring health through food to as many people as possible, this can’t only apply to the consumers who buy your products – you have to start with your own people. And we also wanted to make sure that our people really feel a connection with our mission. So in 2004, we launched our Active Health programme, which eventually evolved into the Health Matters programme in 2011. The aim is to connect health, wellbeing and nutrition for our employees by focusing on four aspects: Health, Food, Life Management and Work. The programme includes a number of initiatives to support our people in leading a balanced lifestyle that helps them be the best they can be. To give a few examples, this includes in-depth health assessments, free yoga and pilates classes, sports teams, free head and shoulder massages, flu jab, the list is long. Then there’s a subsidised canteen on-site with healthy breakfasts and lunches, plus we have free healthy snacks in the office, like fresh fruit and of course water and yogurt. We also take our employees’ mental health very seriously, so we provide them with the right resources if they have a problem. Anyone can find themselves in a situation they find hard to cope with, and it can make the world of a difference to know that you’re in a workplace that supports you. So we’ve teamed up with BUPA to give all Danoners access to its Healthy Minds programme, which is free and confidential of course. Also, all senior managers in our businesses are externally qualified coaches, so we have the right tools to help our people internally too. Looking at the engagement levels with the Health Matters programme from our employees, they’ve been high from the get-go, so we knew we were doing the right things. People now associate themselves with Danone, they feel that they matter to us as an employer and that they are well looked after.

How do you reflect upon your nearly three decades with Danone and how your career has progressed?  

This very much goes back to the importance of values; I always felt that strong connection with the organisation. I felt that the things that I believed were right also were the things that Danone stood for. I never just wanted to develop a career – you can do that anywhere. I wanted to develop a career in a business where I respect the social values and ethics, and I’m lucky that I really found this here. Ever since day one, I’ve always been well supported, challenged and given opportunities. Like most people I’ve had personal challenges, but the company always supported me on my career path. For example, my personal circumstances stopped me from working outside the country, but they never stopped me from progressing within the organisation. The culture and the environment really allowed me to explore different opportunities and try new things. I took risks by changing functions and categories within the business, but Danone supported me throughout. Looking at where I am today in my career within the company, I’ve been in HR longer than in any other function, but it’s still as exciting as ever. HR is always changing and evolving. One of the things we’ve been focusing on over the last few years is how we manage to follow a streamlined HR agenda across the different businesses, in fact that’s something we keep focusing on continuously. We first started tackling this about five years ago, and from the start, we had complete autonomy in how we wanted to approach this. There wasn’t a template from head office at all, so we had the freedom of doing this our own way. What we did was to set up a shared-sourcing recruitment team and a shared rewards team. As HR Director, along with two of my HRD peers in Danone UK, we each championed one area. Mine was learning, the others looked after resourcing and rewards. We didn’t have a shared service centre, but we had a group of HRDs who were there to deliver services to the other HRDs, so there was a sense of dependency. As a result, I feel we have created a very strong way of working with Danone. Last year, in line with our HR vision, we set up our Danone Business Service team for UK and Ireland. I’m HR Director for this as well as for our Early Life Nutrition Business. Business Services include HR, Finance, IT, and Corporate Affairs, and all of these functions work across the four  businesses, so that’s; Dairies, Waters, Early Life Nutrition and Advanced Medical Nutrition. It’s a very interesting model, it allows me to be really involved in all businesses.

What are the future business objectives and what do you see as the main HR challenges going forward.  

Danone is determined for HR to be the backbone of the business. It’s also determined for the function to be fully-integrated at local level, but also for it to benefit from greater centralisation globally. This is all about finding the right balance: doing things in line with the wider vision as a global player while maintaining a workable level of autonomy on local boards. Everything we do has to have the right impact for our people here and bring the right benefits locally. I think one thing we are all grappling with is HR’s perennial problem in that we’re expected to be the only ones owning the people agenda. Looking after your people should run through a business like a stick of rock, not just be owned by HR in a well-appointed silo. In my opinion we would have failed terribly if we were the only function talking about our people. I expect my colleagues across departments to own their people agenda. HR drives a transformation agenda for the business and I see more energy brought towards that. I think that the future will largely be about transformation.

Businesses have been working in tough times for a decade and in many respects, it's made organisations better - more efficient, more determined and there's the necessity for innovation to get an edge.  

It’s true that we’re in a marketplace with many challenges at the moment, that’s nothing new. For us it always comes back to our purpose. If you know why you’re doing what you’re doing and what the contribution is that you’re making, it will help you through tough times because you have that core conviction that’s not shaken by, say, a drop in sales. You can be much clearer about what your objectives are and what you want to focus your efforts on as a business. You’re also more driven to innovate in the best interest of the people who buy your products, and you’re driven to act responsibly towards all of your stakeholders. In terms of HR, our purpose is what guides us when it comes to how we support and engage our people, and how we ensure that they are connected to this purpose. And it plays a big part in how we recruit our people. If you come to work for Danone, you are someone who shares our values and convictions and who wants to put them into action.  As for the future? We are looking at various elements which could impact on us. From an HR point of view, we have carried out our due diligence. Are we dependent on the outside world? In many ways, yes. Do we have programmes that are adequate to grow talent for the future? Probably not as things stand right now. Because of the size of our organisation and its constantly changing dynamics, this is an area we have to focus on. We need to boost the brand as an employer. The competition for talent in this day and age is hectic, and we need to make sure we get through to the right candidates. When we have people in front of us, we tell a compelling story around our purpose. But we don’t appear on nearly enough radars as a potential employer, and that is a significant challenge ahead of us. We need to tell a broader story of what Danone stands for. Our focus on health is very strong, and I believe this really resonates across generations. But it goes beyond that; more and more often it’s businesses that set out to make a difference and are driven by a sense of purpose that cut through and build rapport with their employees that’s based on authenticity.  We’ve always been incredibly purpose-driven, it’s part of our DNA. In 1972, our then CEO Antoine Riboud gave a speech in Marseille where he said that corporate responsibility doesn’t end at the factory gates. This means that our employees are deeply affected by their working environment, and it also means that the way we go about making our products has a lasting impact on our customers and on the planet. That was the foundation of what we call our dual project – we’re committed to social progress as much as we are committed to business growth. I would say that our single-minded focus really helps us with any challenges in the market place. It makes it easier to be more dynamic and agile, to make decisions. In terms of the next three to five years, the talent piece is a significant focus for us. Our approach to talent is different, in that we apply this to every single employee, not just a chosen few. Every Danoner has a talent, and our job is to support an environment where people are able to develop their talents, whatever they are.

You’ve talked a lot about culture and values, the younger generations coming in are re-defining companies like this and running agendas.  

Can you understand and work with their ambitions and their tendency to look for the next best thing?  It’s true, companies with purpose seem to resonate strongly with young people who are now coming into the workplace. They are also more impatient about getting things done, and it seems to be quickening the pace of doing business. They also question things and hold people to account. If you say something, you should stand by it. I like that approach, and I like the immediacy that their way of working brings about. But on the whole, I have to say that I have a bit of an allergy to this conversation about generations in the workforce. When you put labels on people, I get that it does serve a purpose, but it can be really counterproductive. We try our best to create an environment where people believe they can be what they should be and bring out the best in the individual. The only way true parity and inclusion will be a reality for all will be when there are no categories and labels.

Let us look at your next objectives.  

Commercially, Danone’s ambition in the UK is to continue to grow. It’s about expanding and delivering across the product portfolio and it’s about continuing the journey in nutritional-based foods and beverages. To this point, we’ve recently acquired WhiteWave, which means that we can now offer a wide range of plant-based products as part of our portfolio, like Alpro for example. This is also in line with our new company signature ‘One Planet. One Health.’ Emmanuel Faber, our CEO, revealed it at a conference in Berlin a few weeks ago, it really ties back to our dual project and the understanding that we all have a part to play if we want to keep ourselves healthy and ,keep the planet healthy. In terms of the HR challenge, we have another evolution of our HR model ahead of us. We will have to reform again, all while supporting the businesses and constantly looking for synergies. So while we’re driving a transformation agenda within the business, we’re transforming ourselves along with it. HR in Danone has a lot of autonomy and we’re empowered to manage business scenarios as much as our commercial colleagues. It’s not about being partners to the businesses, it’s about being a part of it. We have joint agendas. You will not get a people plan from me because this is already integrated into the business plans. That I think allows us to be present at all times in the business.