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Interview

Stuart Branch
HR Director , Weetabix

If Line Managers don’t believe what the business is trying to achieve, the game is lost right there.

Stuart, tell us about your early life and why you decided on a career in HR?  

I started my career in the leisure and hospitality business which still shapes and influences me to this day. I started out in operations, in an assistant management training programme and a fast-track training programme at Whitbread thereafter. This could not have been a better start for me, as it is an incredibly competitive sector, commercially dynamic and all absorbing, with a pace of operations that takes no prisoners – I think it shaped the person I am today! Also key was customer service ethics, something that was drummed into me by my father who worked at Unilever, from whom I learnt so much about brand positioning, knowing your customers and meeting and exceeding your customer’s expectation. To survive and thrive in hospitality is all about hard work, coupled with a good dose of pragmatism and common sense and, if you have that self-starting nature, you can be successful, but it takes dedication. I was successful, I managed a number of restaurants, pubs and hotels as general manager, with P&L and general personnel responsibility, and was doggedly determined to live up to the brand and customer reputations of the businesses I was running.

You could say I was obsessed around the motivations of people, what made them tick and how I could get the very best out of my team, getting them to work as a team rather than as a bunch of individuals. I started a number of experiments in terms of motivations and communications and really developed the business. I was operating and observing the teams, trying different strategies and, without knowing, gaining a real understanding of HR management. I was very training-focused, and I garnered the collaboration of other managers and assistant managers to help me run some of the training courses. I was also very much involved in recruitment and the assessment of recruits, and so all of this activity gained me a reputation and, with that, the opportunity to join the HR team. I remember clearly weighing up the options, “did I want to continue managing restaurants or HR”? And after a good deal of thought, I realised that my passions might have been in managing on the ground, but my future lay in operations and people.

Whitbread was incredibly active and dynamic, growing, acquiring and diversifying, and on the leading curve in terms on HR strategy.  

I learned a huge amount through their formal programmes, they were way ahead, and I took every opportunity that was thrown at me, embroiled in learning and development to keep pace with resourcing the needs of rapid growth and brand development. There was certainly career conversations about how you go from smaller to bigger brands, and being around senior and management teams made me ambitious, and having my on-the-ground experience as a restaurant and hotel manager paid off as it gave me useful insight. Whitbread was an early adopter of things like the balanced scorecard – one had people as the core quadrants for the business, and there were regular conversations, again about how you need to balance shareholders, customers and employees. In terms of the business expansion, part of your question, the latter years of my time at Whitbread was increasingly large scale, HR generalist and specialist roles, and the last role was heading up business change, for example introducing an ERP system over the brand, the team I was part of was implementing this in; Premier Inn & Marriott Hotels as well as Costa, TGI Fridays and many more household names. Such an amazing business, you had to have a good reason to move on, but often the best time to move is when you’re on a high. I was increasingly involved in business change through the nonstop commercial activity of M&As, and despite thoroughly enjoying those challenges I was approached for the role of Head of Learning and Organisational Development at Alliance & Leicester.

Again a sector, which has changed considerably over our lifetimes, M&As, consolidation.  

Yes, and I’m sorry to say it’s one of the businesses that isn’t around today. The mission statement then though had me sold, to be “the most customer-focussed financial service provider in the UK bar none”. I liked the ambition of the challenge, and I felt drawn to the consumer financial services sector. I had considered, but in truth under-estimated the culture difference and that made the shock all the more profound. But for me it proved the old adage that HR has a lot of transferrable skills, it was a case of fitting it in with the culture and ways of working, right the way down to the core competencies of the organisation. Whitbread, at heart, was successful because of brand and marketing, but they were also very operationally led, it was about commerce, business and serving customers. No matter how I tried, the financial service sector just wasn’t the same. Most of my time at Whitbread had been generalist HR and specialist roles, and key to that was the clear link between HR and the business, there just wasn’t that tactility at Alliance & Leicester, I felt a little siloed and unsure of what impact my input was having. I did have the HR business partners of the corporate functions reporting to me, and that gave me a better grip on the overall business objective and so I was able to keep my hand on the business element. But looking back, I’m extremely proud of what we achieved in the two years I was there, but from the off, I do remember the reputation I had in week one which was “the bloke that doesn’t wear a tie” and that stuck around for a few months but, near the end, I wasn’t the only one.

You then moved to Boots, and you went in as Group OD director.  

Yes, the merger between Boots The Chemist & Alliance Unichem was more than rumoured and very likely to happen before I joined. My role, I knew, would be about that merger, as well as leadership and talent. I was desperate to get back to a faster paced and more operational led organisation and Boots satisfied that. I truly loved that time in retail and worked with some outstanding leaders and some great people in HR too. We worked on some organisational leadership programmes, and a lot of the activity was around integration. At the time we were active in integrating the two businesses. The Group CEO – Richard Baker, Boots MD Scott Wheway, and the group HR director Mike Cutt, and a number of other key people left when the business went into private hands, and it was a shock – this was the largest FTSE takeover at that point. But it was fascinating learning at the time, the challenge and pace was immense. One area particularly that was a steep learning curve was around trying to manage communications to employees, during the take-over process, it’s a very uncomfortable feeling if the story starts to run away from you and takes on its own pace through the media and on social media – the latter a relatively new phenomenon then – it is extremely difficult not being in a position to ensure employees hear news from you first hand. Apart from that, Boots was and is a superb business, unparalleled consumer focus and a fantastic culture. I feel privileged to have been a part of it, but the truth is, when the time comes to move on, you’re not doing anyone any favours staying.

Tell us about your next move.  

There wasn’t an abundance of jobs out there that particularly appealed, so I set up CAB Associates, a consultancy, and was kept busy with various projects from old colleagues and a piece of work with my old Boots boss, who was then Group Director of Thomas Cook. I worked there for a bit until taking on a role as HR and Customer Services Director at the Bristan Group and then joined Masco Corporation which owned the Bristan Group, doing the same role across six businesses in Europe. Masco Corporation is a Detroit based, typically American corporate of considerable scale; approximately 12 billion turnover at the time, about 1.5 billion accounting for Europe. It’s origins was as a riveting business in the motor industry, would you believe, but in the early part of the new millennium, its focus was fundamentally home improvements in the US and parts of Europe, incorporating such commodities as; glass, PVC extrusion and brassware companies. The headline attraction for me was, this was a scale of business that impressed, coupled with the stated strategy of the organisation, the size of the change agenda and the capacity and capability of the whole organisation that was being mustered to achieve the business ambitions. The role was European HR Director, and I was working for the European President, there were six CEOs in six separate businesses, all with their own HRDs, so getting a handle on the scale and complexity was a massive challenge. Masco in Europe is operated like a holding company, rather than a head office, and there was very little the business was trying to drive as synergies. So it was a case of opening up communications, sharing best practice and winning confidences, my boss was very clear, it was not about telling people how to run processes, it was very much about coaching and supporting, having honest conversations with my peers and the CEOs.

It’s obvious to see the elements you enjoyed so much in Boots being able to wrap your arms around the business. I get the feeling this was a different proposition, you were HRD, it must have been quite a different set of experiences?  

Indeed, it was very different, particularly about how you could make an impact. Most of these businesses had an HR director and a small HR team in place, so they were individually responsible for leading, motivating, hiring, and retaining. Each one of the businesses were not that huge, the business offices were often on site with operations and manufacturing, so they were close knit, you knew the names and personalities; you could develop relationships in regular meetings. With the Masco businesses spread across Europe, there was a tendency to travel, so I spent a lot of time on planes and in airports, and you can only do that for so long. I think one of the attractions for me about Masco was the combination of HR and customer service. It had been an ambition for me to combine the two and really think about how to create value through all of your people, all day, every day, delivering the brand, and that was enjoyable. The next move in Masco required me to go to the US. They wanted me to be based in Detroit, but with the two daughters I had at school, coupled caring for my mother who was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, that wasn’t going to happen, and I chose to stay in the UK. I was very happy and wasn’t looking for a new role, when I was introduced to Giles Turrell, Group CEO at Weetabix

So the headline at Weetabix was change, which I have always found to be a compelling force. Giles spoke about the history and legacy of the brand and shared his vision of this household name brand capitalising on the health agenda, again this goes back to meeting and exceeding customer needs. I could see that what had made the business in the past may not necessarily work going forward, and moving to a combined tactical and strategic HRD role appealed to me greatly, plus the chance of working with such an iconic brand, the number one breakfast cereal in the UK, of course, was thrilling. The business has been around since 1932 and the original mantra was to bring better breakfast to homes in Britain. You have the cultural element here where all of the commercial and support functions sit on site with manufacturing and operations. It’s a high volume business, and most of our factories work either 24/5 or 24/7. So it’s a fast moving business, with a lot of the elements that Masco had, with manufacturing and the continuous improvement required in the organisation, and the opportunity to learn, develop and grow.

One of the first priorities was to shape the culture to being even more customer and consumer focussed. Plus we needed to be developing new products to suit consumer needs, and both of these objectives would require a culture shift. It’s that element that I’ve touched on a few times in this interview, it’s how the organisation thinks about the customer. We also needed a change in how we communicate, really shift the mind-set of the organisation so that everybody is focussed on sales, revenue and continuous improvement opportunities, thinking more commercially and taking accountability for execution to ensure we are delivering to the consumer all of the time. There was also a challenge that HR wasn’t really at the table, and wasn’t partnering the business as it should have been, so that had to change quickly along with changes to the HR team in general.

What were the HR objectives?  

I think firstly, it’s about commerciality, understanding the business model and the future of the organisation, in terms of product and business development, and how HR needed to support these objectives. Of course, top of that agenda was skills, existing and future, and also developing a new mind set for line management, and drawing clearer lines from leadership throughout the workforce, so that there is a clearer understanding of the business, greater transparency and building self-responsibility, where people can more clearly understand where they fit into the organisation and where their efforts and inputs impact. Line managers are critical – if they don’t understand or believe in what the business is trying to achieve and the role they play in engaging their team members, then the game is lost right there and then. In my opinion, they are the glue of the organisation, they need to own the context that their teams operate in.

It’s this whole idea of cohesion, you can get a silo effect in a business.  

Totally, and I think a clear sign of some success is around the relationships and connectivity of our senior leaders. We have invested in them and brought them together more often, and through a greater cohesion and everyone pushing in the same direction, the ambience and strength of relationships amongst them as a team has been fantastic. It’s a testament to the work we have done in the organisation breaking down the silos and getting people to work more cross-functionally than ever before. To your question about the main objectives, moving the business onwards, business growth is something that keeps me awake at night, because in terms of Weetabix as a steady and established business, the next stage is pushing the organisation out of its comfort zone. For example, we have ambitious plans for international growth and development in China, the Middle East and Africa. The team in China is multiplying as we set up and start to operate there, and business in that territory is growing rapidly. We have also launched our Weetabix On-The-Go drinks ‘a proper breakfast bottled’ business, developing the target operating model and creating a dedicated team, within the group. My HR teams are working with peers across all departments, improving organisation, re-designing delivery in line with our strategy and support the critical growth areas.

I can’t let you go without asking you about your Channel swim, it’s a useful metaphor for life and one's career, a sort of, against the odds objective.  

Indeed, it’s an undertaking you cannot take lightly, and it calls on all the attributes that you need to progress in life working at optimum level; planning and preparation, fitness and endurance, and yes it does link to a lot of what we have talked about today. Why did I do it? I am motivated by challenges and goals, people say I’m always talking and thinking about achieving goals, striving for ambitions and that’s what the Channel swim is all about. It’s about learning, about not only the task ahead, and all of the challenges that brings, such as; the cold, tides and currents, swimming through acres of jellyfish in the busiest shipping lane in the world. You literally go from swimming lengths for eight hours on a Saturday and seven hours on Sunday a mile at a time across Dover harbour, acclimatising and wondering what it will be like when you are at those certain points when you’ve had enough, and fighting not to put your hand up and be picked up by the support boat, always thinking what that very public failure would feel like.

Throughout all the months of training, you have that vision in your mind, the end of it and you successfully fulfilling the objective. Again, it is a useful metaphor for life because if you’ve done the training, and are both mentally and physically as prepared as you possibly can be, this seemingly inhuman impossibility is possible, but you cannot cheat it or yourself, and you can never take anything for granted. In the event, the crossing was thoroughly enjoyable, I had taken the training seriously and a crew member at Dover said he hadn’t seen many people better prepared than I was. I think when I set my goal, I did genuinely write down that I wanted not only to achieve it, but to enjoy it. I knew enough from the chat groups around Channel swimming that over half people don’t succeed, you are pitting yourself against mother nature, hyperthermia and jellyfish stings, there is a certain element of luck, but the better prepared you are, the less the things you can’t control take their toll. It was the training that was the real test, the swim itself was really enjoyable. As I stood on the rocks, a little numb, I was very emotional almost crying and laughing at the same time, it was a genuinely humbling and proud experience that I shall never forget.