WORKING ON FORD’S FIRST COMBUSTION ENGINE IN 1888, HENRY FORD FAMOUSLY SAID: “IF I ASKED WHAT PEOPLE WANT, THEY WOULD SAY ‘FASTER HORSES.’” THE AUTO INDUSTRY HAS ALWAYS BEEN PIONEERING AND EVEN THE WAY CARS ARE BROUGHT TO MARKET HAS CHANGED BEYOND RECOGNITION. BY FAR, ONE OF THE BIGGEST BUSINESSES THAT IS PART OF THE DISRUPTION IN THE USED VEHICLE MARKET IS CONSTELLATION AUTOMOTIVE GROUP AND ITS INNOVATIVE PLATFORMS
PEOPLE DIRECTOR , PART OF CONSTELLATION AUTOMOTIVE GROUP (COVERING cinch, BCA UK , BCA LOGISTICS , ELMO , GROUP COMMERICAL & SUPPORT FUNCTIONS)
What have been the key people challenges for an automotive business
I grew up in a small village called Ingleton in the Yorkshire Dales where I still love returning to visit family and friends. Despite strong early expectations, I chose not to enter our 19th century-established family business that is based in the area – opting instead to progress my education through to university at Lancaster. I embarked on three years’ study there with some apprehension – given the big family business decision I’d made – and without a clear alternative career path in mind. Initially I studied economics, as it was a broad subject, but even the diamond water paradox failed to inspire me! As part of my first year, I also took an HR-related module called “behaviour in organisations” which was about leadership, people and business, which really fascinated me and has ever since. So, I decided to switch my studies and ended up attaining a very good HR degree, but there remained an expectation for me to join the family business, after my studies were completed. However, I was really determined to follow my own ambitions and I secured a position on a graduate scheme for a European logistics company called Arvin Meritor. Although it wasn’t specifically HR, it was a very good graduate scheme in a big, commercial, private-sector organisation and it gave me a brilliant grounding in the wider world of business and exposure to real-life people challenges.
These first experiences chimed with what I’d learnt from my parents and grandparents in the family business, that trust and respect are crucial to working effectively with people. After a year at Arvin, an opportunity arose to join the retailer Matalan – a junior HR recruitment role – a graduate placement and I just knew this was the start that I’d been looking for. I progressed really well at Matalan and it was a great time to join the company because the business was changing quickly, fueled by a newly appointed executive team, led by; Paul Mason as CEO, Andy Clarke as Retail Director and Roger Burnley – who is now leading Asda – as Logistics Director. There was a clear growth and investment plan for the business, with one of the main beneficiaries of focus and funding being the whole people and HR infrastructure. The HR team and agenda rose quickly – as did my learning curve – and I was part of shaping and delivering significant new initiatives such as; a new learning and development strategy, a recruitment model and a different approach to reward- effectively what we’d know today as our wider employee value proposition. The great thing about the changes HR was driving was that they were clearly integral to improving the business. Matalan was then and is today, a very successful market-leading retail business. I developed hugely in the six years there and I also achieved my CIPD qualification. My final role was a Regional HR Manager, leading a team of six HR Managers, covering over 3,000 people in the biggest region in retail operations. However, I knew I needed to broaden my horizons and I subsequently secured two external HR job offers; one to join the then retail giant Arcadia and the other with the Co-op. I chose the latter, as it represented a wholesale change in environment, a multi-sector business with 110,000 employees, a turnover of £13 billion and a different business model.
The Co-op role was a true HR Business Partner, working with the compliance function in the financial services business. The new business and HR function required me to learn and adapt rapidly, as I was now working in a much bigger, corporate, regulated business – partnering professional lawyers, risk management and compliance experts – and in a much larger, HR matrix structure too. It was worlds apart from my previous business and role and it was working in a mature “Ulrich” HR operating model consisting of 160 people with a range of people specialisms, experts and roles. The business was also heavily unionised. At its peak, four trade unions were recognised, two national and two staff ones, which exposed me to all sorts of new complexities, particularly in delivering change. I also learnt a lot about culture, talent and leadership development – all of which the Co-op heavily invested in. Later, I also studied for an externally accredited executive coaching qualification and it’s great to say I remain qualified today and I still use all the key skills I developed. The Co-op, including the financial services business, was a very well respected and established organisation and it was a brilliant place to work and develop for the majority of my seven years there.
There was also an intense focus on the changing customer relationship and a lot of disruption in the industry, as it moved to being truly customer focused, with regulation fundamentally changing to enforce that. The major shift was that financial services businesses were no longer assumed to be treating customers fairly. They now had to clearly prove and evidence they were – and if they couldn’t – it was assumed they weren’t. The FSA regulatory body completely restructured to drive this change, new regulations and scrutiny were also implemented, along with more governance – much of which was enabled through a more intensive spotlight on culture, values, professional people competence and credibility. The most interesting element for me was culture, which heightened my understanding about the importance of having an aligned customer and people focus and how to drive business commerciality with this as a priority. Throughout my time at the Co-op, we carried out a lot of work around culture and how to meaningfully change it to improve the business operation and be genuinely customer-orientated. I learnt so much about changing and influencing culture, which is multi-faceted and involves a clear purpose, vision, values, leadership behaviour and role modelling – together with integrated people policies, procedures and measures. Without question, the biggest influencing factor of culture is leadership behaviour.
It was clear very early on that I was outgrowing the scope of my HRBP role and, in a matter of months, I was asked to move onto one of the biggest transformation programmes in the Co-op Group. It was a large, professional, transformation programme enabled by Deloitte’s, another new experience for me and I was out of my comfort zone again. After that, I took on several secondment roles – one leading a strategic review of our overall business recruitment strategy – and others such as being part of project leadership teams implementing a new HR system and a Group-wide HR operating model. Ultimately, I was offered two Head of HR roles, one in the new Co-op legal services division and the other heading up Business Partnering in the financial services business. I took the latter, which was my last role in my final two years at the Co-op. My personal circumstances then changed significantly and, ideally, I needed to find a role which had a dual North West and Midlands base and I came across the lead HR role at Topps Tiles. This really intrigued me as it was and is, a market leading specialist retailer in the UK and in fact, the world.
It’s a fantastic business and it was perfect for me, as it was hugely innovative, tech and digitally focused and the sort of scale where I thought I could really make my mark at that stage in my career. This was my first HR leader role, responsible for the company-wide function and I felt that I was ready for it. Topps was a very successful business to be involved with, steeped in traditional values, a true customer obsession, along with a clear business goal, strategy and culture, whilst also being incredibly commercial too. Very quickly, I learnt a great deal about PLC businesses, attending leadership meetings in the city and understanding how the analysts officially report on PLC business performance, in context with director and exec level responsibilities. The business was moving rapidly and my confidence in driving change was growing. As leaders, we should never be afraid to implement and trial change and to ‘fail fast’ if things don’t work. Topps’s clear business goal and well-planned strategy saw it successfully grow into the commercial market, whilst maintaining and growing its number one UK domestic market position too. My time there was integral in my personal leadership development and with the team, we really enabled the business to progress even further on all fronts. I was understanding a new level of business and functional leadership and a broader mindset, recognising that I was running a key enabling function. I was mindful too that, what makes you successful at one leadership level, doesn’t make you successful at another and you need to be pragmatic and adaptable.
That definition is clear, when you acknowledge that you are a business leader first and a functional leader second. It’s a state of psychological recognition that you’re there to really understand, challenge and push the business and leaders forward and to drive the right change. At this level, the stakeholders you need to consider are no longer just senior internal leaders, employees and your team, they are customers, shareholders and a board of directors too. Topps had real momentum, but after four years and with proven delivery of positive change, I just felt my personal runway was shortening and I’d progressed as far as I could. So, when I received the call from – what was then BCA Marketplace (now Constellation Automotive Group) – about an HR Director role, with a big people transformation agenda, I knew I needed to take a closer look. I was compelled by the size and scale of the business and its ambition and I was highly impressed by the senior leaders I met. Automotive was an entirely different sector for me and it was going through colossal change – not least the switch from combustion powered to electric powered vehicles – but also the way people buy and own cars too. Unquestionably, it was a sector transforming, which appealed to me, as well as the challenge to take the HR function to a new level of maturity.
The overall business has grown to be Europe’s largest digital used car marketplace. It has a number of exciting brands such as webuyanycar, BCA, cinch, Marshall Motor Group and Elmo, which operate across C2B, B2B and B2C markets, with the overall business selling approximately 2.5 million vehicles annually. One of the key market changes that intensified during the pandemic has been how customers have moved to buy more vehicles online. We responded by developing the cinch brand, to be an online retail sales platform that B2B customers could use to continue to trade with retail customers online, recognising that several customers didn’t have the scale or capability to do that in-house. The traditional BCA remarketing business, which has historically facilitated the wholesale of vehicles through physical auctions, also moved to transact predominantly online – giving customers more choice and the ability to operate more efficiently. To make both of these changes, we’ve invested in our infrastructure, developed a host of innovative digital products and also improved data and intelligence to really support customers as well. Another key market change has been the provision of new stocks and services. As an example, we’ve evolved our vehicle refurbishment capability to produce the option of retail ready vehicles for our B2B customers and have changed many of our operational sites to be multi-functional and more efficient. To support the growth of electric vehicles sales, we’ve continually looked to provide our customers with the widest range of stock through various sourcing avenues and new and existing business relationships. We’ve improved our transport services by investing in our logistics infrastructure and we now have more trucks to give our customers an even better service. The other market change has been how people own vehicles – and how that may change as the transition to electric ensues – so we acquired Elmo, which is an electric car subscription service, that is focused on being the easiest way for customers to make the electric choice.
Three spring to mind: Because of our business growth and developing a more diverse business model over recent years, we’ve had to significantly increase and improve our people capability and experience. We are also focused on attracting, retaining and developing a more diverse range of people, with the right and different skills, mindsets and behaviours. Our second challenge has been how to continue to drive, adapt and be energised by change together. We’ve all experienced incredible change in the last few years and our experience has been that we have generated even better team working and connectivity, which has allowed us to capitalise on opportunities to benefit everyone. It has also reinforced the understanding that we’re stronger now together across all of our platforms and we fully acknowledge that our competition is definitely external. The last challenge has been to improve and leverage all of our people infrastructure. By that I mean the right modern people technology, policies, processes and governance to best support the business both now and in the future. What is really encouraging is, the majority of the changes and improvements, all stemmed from our people vision and approach. We’ve accelerated recruitment, particularly apprentices, improved our end-to-end recruitment and on-boarding approach and processes and, for the first time ever, we’ve developed clear employee value propositions for our key brands. We’ve implemented a new L&D approach, developed new, modern manager upskilling programmes, improved our graduate scheme and launched a new approach to optimising people performance. Our reward package has evolved, our wellbeing approach and support is enhanced and we’ve implemented flexible working, where we can, to give people more flexibility, allowing us to attract people from wider talent pools, whilst ensuring people remain connected and productive. In terms of infrastructure, our existing people technology is being updated and added new technology introduced, where possible. We have even implemented a new people service delivery model, a host of core people processes and better people data and analytics. Add to that, improved people governance and risk management has been introduced too. So, as you can imagine, it has not been a quiet period.
As a whole business, we don’t have one overall competitor, as we’re relatively unique. But each of our businesses have individual competitors, which we keep a very close eye on. We tend to have the mentality of leading and trying to give our competitors the problem of being wary of us. But you can never be complacent and we constantly talk internally about having a ‘healthy paranoia’, particularly important when you are the market leader. So, a strong level of curiosity has to be a good thing, questioning what we do, how we do it and why. A big challenge comes from our success; if I look at vehicle refurbishment for example, that requires high levels of technically skilled people. Those skills are in a defined and limited talent pool, so it’s becoming harder to recruit them. There is no doubt that Brexit has impacted here, because in the past, we’ve relied on some of these skills coming from a transient Europe market. We’re now developing a brand new academy, so we can really grow ‘more of our own’ and we’re working hard to put the right proposition together to ensure we retain our talent. We have to compete strongly for other key skills too – such as tech, product, engineering, data and cyber and infosec security – and we’re continually looking to source these skills from a much broader, diverse range of sectors and locations now.
There are approximately seven and a half million used vehicle transactions in the UK each year. We expect to do over one and a half million of that number, so there is plenty of market share still to be taken. But that relies on us continuing to provide outstanding customer propositions, services and all-round excellence. Behind any exciting brand, you have to have the best service – because there’s always fierce competition – so a clear strategy, the right people, great operational delivery and an innovative, customer-focused culture are paramount. Market conditions are tougher for sure right now – the five big European used car markets have contracted in the first half of this year – and that’s down to the macroeconomic factors that we all know about; the war in Ukraine, chip issues, COVID and the Brexit aftermath. However, we remain optimistic and ambitious, but mindful that we have to manage that ambition at all times, to deliver our longer-term objectives and sustainability.
That’s of course one of the major changes that’s transforming the automotive sector. It’s only really scratching the surface right now when you look at the number of electric vehicles on the road, compared to vehicles with traditional combustion engines. That said, like-for-like electric vehicles sales are the biggest growth area and so the direction of travel, as it were, appears well set. It’s important for us that we’re prepared and ready to adapt and transition internally. So, for example, we’re considering how we will develop our own site and business infrastructure to accommodate the ongoing management of greater levels of electric vehicle stock. It’s a challenge, because although 2030 sounds a long way off, it’s a deadline looming large for everyone. As with anything in business, timing is everything and I’m pleased to say that we’ve been proactive again with the acquisition of Elmo and the fact that we’ve recruited some real electric vehicles experts and graduates to develop the plan, to meet all the challenges and opportunities coming our way.
There are several: Quality leaders focused on people and ensuring they’re aligned behind the right direction, priorities and they’re all pulling in the same direction is the big one for me. As I said before, you have to keep the competition external. Resilience and pragmatism are up there too – you have to acknowledge where you really are and not operate in hope, denial or the proverbial bubble. Although it has become a buzzword – agility as well is absolutely crucial. We have a natural continuous improvement, innovative culture and a relatively flat structure, with limited red tape which all helps us adapt quickly. Then remaining laser focused on our customers goes without saying and the other element that stands out in our business is our scale and diversity. That really helps in tougher times as you can scale and flex different parts of our business model when needed too. There’s ots of essential elements and we don’t take anything for granted. We’ve a clear direction and plans and we’re not afraid to make changes to those plans. The pandemic taught us that you still need clear direction, but the days of defined, long-term, rigid operational plans are a thing of the past.
I think this links to the different generations and the changing world of work. For me the employment relationship between employees and employers was already changing, COVID just accelerated it. As we all know, there are multiple generations in the workplace now, all with hugely different expectations and needs. People entering the world of work are more interested in purpose, beyond commercial performance. It cannot be a binary choice of profit or people, planet or results. The younger generations certainly keep your learning and your thinking fresh – which is really positive and energising. In terms of how they work, I’m seeing that they tend to expect more inherent flexibility, want some influence on broader decisions and regularly question why they should work for a particular business and stay there. They have limited fear of changing sectors, professions or careers, which is liberating and exciting for them and challenging for businesses congruently. All the signs and insights suggest they’re likely to have multiple careers and non-linear career paths and they just see far more choice than many previous generations ever did. Therefore, it’s crucial to continually develop leaders to be flexible, relevant and rounded, so they can continue to predict, create and retain the roles, skills and talent businesses need.
It is a strange paradox that from something so disruptive and debilitating can come positive changes. Businesses innovated like never before and new levels of resilience and unity surfaced. The intensity of change was legendary, with massive changes being implemented at breakneck speed. It was something that most of had never seen and many of us would have probably thought impossible before. When lockdown hit, business had no time for inertia or perfection, it was exhilarating and exhausting at the same time and I’m hugely proud of how we came through when the going got tough. People were trusted and roles that couldn’t be done remotely, somehow were. Work flexibility boundaries weren’t just stretched, they were smashed open and it’s important now that we ensure people remain connected to the business, each other and they continue to be productive too. People took responsibilities for things that often they had little or no experience of and delivered what needed to be done. They just adapted. I recall on one businesswide Teams call one of our leaders simply, and instinctively stating; “leave your job title at the door”, which instantly galvanised everyone and drove even more diversity, equality and inclusion. I look forward to telling my children about the historic impact of that challenging time in the future and how many people not only came through it, but actually grew and developed exponentially. It sounds coy, but true leaders emerged and were born. The challenge for all organisations now is to work out and retain all the pandemic-accelerated changes and learnings that are right for their market, sector, business and current and future workforce. To coin the cliché, there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ formula.
A recession can force businesses to ‘batten down the hatches’ immediately, meaning they can lose sight of medium to longer term goals and opportunities. For me, the key business objective is therefore to effectively manage that balance between the short and medium to long term. In other words, focusing on delivering short-term business performance, while continuing to focus and invest in key medium to long-term capabilities and goals, so that the business is ready to capitalise when market conditions improve. That’s a very awkward balance to strike. Retaining a healthy cash flow position is also very important in tough periods too. From a HR perspective, the key people challenges are the classics of retention and attraction which is arguably becoming harder in challenging times and with greater workforce diversity and the more ways of working that we have today. For me, we have an even bigger accountability to lead the employee value proposition – continually reminding new and existing people why they should work in the business and ensuring that the actual experience lives up to the words of intent and keeps evolving. We also need to ensure that there is focus on the key practical factors too, such as effective wellbeing support and ‘cost of living’ help. The other crucial HR role is to challenge and support business leaders to own and lead their people through the change and ensure they have the right business operating models and capabilities. We need to remind and coach leaders to have the right perspective, give clear and regular direction and to create a sense of ongoing belonging for their people – who’ll look to them even more in challenging periods. Finally, we also need to ensure we’re driving a focus on critical capabilities, roles and talent and having the right plans in place to manage these specific risks too.
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