Food for thought: HR at Kerry Foods

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Kerry Foods’ staff were very loyal, but the business needed a collective people agenda to continue entrepreneurial growth

As Emma Rose dons hairnet, white coat and wellies to pose for HR magazine’s photographer in the industrial kitchens of Kerry Food’s Southall production site, it’s clear that this is a leader who takes great pride in her organisation.

So much so that Rose invites us on a tour of the site’s kitchens – where chilled and frozen meals are made for supermarkets including Tesco, Sainsbury’s and M&S – and to sample the food over lunch. When put to her that this is a departure from typical interview protocol (not to mention the kitchen uniform being a departure from the glitz of the HR Excellence Awards, where Rose was crowned HR director of the year last June), she simply says: “this is what we’re all about”.

This passion is something Rose says runs through Kerry Foods’ 6,500 employees and across its 19 UK and Ireland sites. “Our people are very proud of what they do,” she says. “For those involved in creating food for our customers it’s a bit like making food at home – you want to eat food that’s been created with love and that’s how our people feel when they’re creating our food.”

Which is in part, she believes, down to keeping the kitchen doors open so customers can see their chilled food and the branded products (Cheesestrings, Richmond and Wall’s to name just a few) being created.

“Our customers come into our factories all the time. We don’t hide people away or ask people not to speak to them. Our customers tell us that it’s our people that really make the difference as they share their stories, and our customers can see there’s real passion for what they do, which all makes a real difference to the product,” Rose explains.

“If you involve people and help them to be the face of the food they make then they’re very happy to show off what they do.”

It’s all a far cry from the factory-floor horror-stories (timed toilet breaks at Amazon spring to mind) that have cropped up recently in other organisations. And this pride is what attracted Rose when she joined back in January 2016.

“In my first two to three weeks I realised there was something special about the culture,” she says. “We’ve got lots of long-servers and people who have grown up in the business, which has developed a culture where people feel connected with what’s been created over the years.” (Something that becomes apparent when members of the kitchen team ask HR’s photographer to take a huge team portrait of them.)

Unsurprisingly one thing that connects the workforce is a love of food, and Rose is very much a self-proclaimed foodie. It’s a culture she is keen to maintain. “I remember interviewing someone and I said ‘why would you like to work for a food company?’ and they said ‘oh I hadn’t really thought about the fact it’s food’. I thought ‘that’s not really going to work then’,” she says. “We spend a lot of our working days talking about food or trying our products, so foodies are naturally drawn to working here.”

Yet for all this shared pride and love of food, there were certainly challenges for Rose to get her teeth into (excuse the pun) when she joined. Back in 2016 Kerry Foods was poised for the next stage of growth. But it needed help to shape a people agenda that would support this.

“The business was already a top-10 supplier to all the big retailers, but if we were to go to that next stage we would need to take a step up in several areas,” she says. “There hadn’t been a collective agenda or even really a common identity in the business – each site had a family feel but they each felt like different businesses.”

So Rose set about shaping a people agenda, which included creating new company values that resonated with everyone. “They were quickly embedded as people just thought ‘yeah that feels likes us’,” she explains. “It’s the first time I’ve worked in a business where I’m confident you could now talk to anyone and they’d be able to tell you what the values are, whereas often they just sit on a PowerPoint.”

She adds that a common language is paramount to both attracting the right people to the business and helping the workforce connect to the wider strategy. “One of the first things I did was work on creating a narrative around the strategy and new values, which was the first Kerry Foods Story,” she says. “The [six-chapter] Story is a really simple way to describe where we’ve come from, where we want to go and how our values will help us get there. It brings a human side to talking about our strategy rather than using cold business language.”

Another effort to bring all the sites together came in the form of Rose’s employee engagement brainchild Trailblazers. It’s an initiative she’s “especially proud of”.

After joining Rose discovered that, because the firm had grown so quickly in a short space of time, processes and discipline were clashing with the entrepreneurial spirit the business was once known for. “It was ready for a fresh injection of energy and entrepreneurial spirit to go with the new growth,” she explains.

Launched in January 2017, Trailblazers was designed to engage employees around creating innovative products for Kerry Foods to take to market. Modelled on a Dragon’s Den-style scenario (a show Rose likes because of “its fun and energy” and its “commercial angle”) the initiative saw employees pitch ideas, with concepts then narrowed down and finalists sent on bootcamps and given support from across the business to develop these ideas, before a final showdown in front of the ‘dragons’ (namely the leadership team). Around 860 ideas were generated by employees from across all roles and sites, with 60% of entries coming from the factory floor.

The results were impressive. Not only has the firm got two winning products to take to market (one that’s part of the re-launched Fridge Raiders range, and the other still under lock and key), Rose believes the month-long bootcamps meant “even if they didn’t win finalists came away having been developed in some way, shape or form”. Employee engagement scores also reached 77%.

“The big thing about it was around building belief in the business that we want everyone to contribute to where we’re going and to be excited about the products we take to market,” she says. “We’re a business of 6,500 foodies so we knew everyone would have an opinion.”

However, it’s not been about fun competitions alone. Rose is the first to admit there have been some challenging decisions to make over the past three years, starting in HR. “To be honest HR wasn’t really at the heart of the business when I joined; it was kind of like an additional function,” she says. “We just didn’t have a community for HR and that’s where the opportunity was.”

So HR was restructured from an operational function with a small central team and separate HR teams on sites reporting into the site general managers, into a strategic function made up of three hubs, HR business partners and a centre of excellence all reporting into HR – something Rose says was “a big change” and required some internal persuasion.

“The sites were worried they wouldn’t get the support they had before, but when HR was on the sites people ended up doing things that weren’t their job and weren’t the value-add. So we’re bringing more value through this new structure,” says Rose.

She also insisted that HR had a place within the leadership team for the first time. “On my second day there was a leadership team meeting and I turned up and just carried on turning up,” recounts Rose. “How can HR drive the people agenda without understanding what the business is trying to do? It’s impossible.”

HR now owns the people agenda in partnership with the leadership team, and there is a leadership team owner and HR team owner for each of the four pillars of the also recently-formed company vision. It’s this joint ownership that Rose credits as being at “the heart of the transformation”, as “we’ve built that connection between what we’re trying to do as a business and the people agenda”.

Part of maintaining this, she says, is running quarterly people days that bring together Rose, her direct HR reports and the 10-strong leadership team to work on delivering the agenda. The last people day involved half a day on building the agenda for next year and half on the ‘inspiring amazing leadership’ pillar, focusing on the development of the 80-strong senior leadership group (another of Rose’s creations).

But for all the progress there are still challenges – most notably a tough retail climate, which is seeing retailers demand more from their suppliers, and Brexit uncertainty, which threatens to affect both consumer spending and the diversity of Kerry’s workforce. “Like most businesses in our world we’re facing pretty turbulent times in the market, so we have to make sure we’re as efficient as possible going into these challenges,” says Rose.

Which for Kerry Foods has spelled the need for what she describes as a “tough” restructure. “When people lose colleagues they care about it’s very difficult,” she says. “When you have to make difficult decisions you have to do the right thing for the business. But you can also do it right for everyone so that people can live with it and leave the business with a great experience.”

Helping the workforce through times of change is something Rose is no stranger to, having been HR director of commercial at Cadbury during US food giant Kraft’s takeover. “It was a hostile takeover so it was highly emotional on both sides and a huge integration – and all of that was exacerbated by the public opinion of what was going on,” she says. It’s a period Rose describes as both “the hardest three years of my career” and “one of the most rewarding roles [she’s] done”.

“You’re managing your own emotions at the same time as managing other people’s emotions, and in HR you have to work through all of that quicker than everybody else as you’re there to support and help others,” she says.

“But it showed me that you can make changes the right way. I’m now not frightened of change – which I think a lot of people in business are. I think it’s part and parcel of life and business sustainability.”

Change will no doubt continue for Kerry Foods, as Rose turns her attention to developing the business’s people managers (the Kerry Foods way of managing) and continuing the community agenda (which includes taking staff volunteers to the 2019 Special Olympics in Abu Dhabi).

For Rose the biggest challenge is “not being able to do everything as quickly as we’d like”. “We always want to do more stuff but I’m passionate about embedding things properly so they have meaning and longevity,” she says. “It’s a bit of a joke in Kerry that our eyes are bigger than our bellies.”

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