Inside the world's largest food company: Interview with Nestlé HRD

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There can’t be many HR directors who have responsibility for an organisation’s property, facilities and security functions.

But then as Matt Stripe, group HRD UK and Ireland at the world's largest food company, explains: "Nestlé is a very complicated business." And, in the nicest possible way, Stripe looks as though he might be quite at home minding the door of a fancy nightclub – he is Nestlé UK and Ireland's chief bouncer after all.

Nestlé is so massive, it's no surprise it's complicated. Headquartered in Switzerland, it has operations in 86 countries and at last count employed around 328,000 people (9,000 of whom are Stripe's responsibility). It is home to roughly 8,000 brands. Some will be familiar to UK consumers – KitKat, Nescafé, Frosties – others, less so: Contrex water, Orion chocolate and Thomy mustard, anyone?

Stripe has been part of Nestlé since 2003, when he traded defence manufacturing at BAE Systems for food manufacturing. Although he originally trained in engineering, a "temporary" move to European defence contractor Matra BAe Dynamics' HR department at the age of 23 became anything but. "It was a move for six months to get some people experience, and I never came out," he recalls. "HR really clicked with me. I'm fascinated by how organisational design (OD) and development enables a company to move forward. And I know it's an HR cliché, but I love working with people; being around people and involving people in decisions is what keeps me here."

His passion for OD has seen him work with many influential names in HR thinking, including Dave Ulrich, Wayne Brockbank and CK Prahalad from the University of Michigan. He is also the chair of Lancaster University's Centre for Performance-Led HR. "Right now, I'm doing some work on where we go next with the three-box model [Ulrich's design of the HR function]," he says. "And I'm looking at how we can turn centres of expertise into centres of excellence." His academic interests indicate a sharp mind, and Stripe clearly likes to be kept on his toes by his role. He relishes the fact that no two days are the same. "One of the fantastic things about Nestlé is that we are the world's largest food company, but I don't think people in the UK recognise how big we are. We [in the UK and Ireland] operate across a number of categories and businesses. We have really big businesses like confectionery and coffee, and small ones like performance nutrition. We have a pet-food business, a waters business, a cereals business... And I get to work across them all. They are all at different stages, all in different styles."

If Stripe is correct about UK consumers not having an appreciation of Nestlé's size, can it be a challenge to attract the best talent? The food-manufacturing industry may not be seen as the most glamorous choice for top graduates, after all. "It's a journey, and it depends at what point you ask that question," he admits. "We have many fantastic brands, so attracting people into the marketing division isn't difficult. People are savvy now - they want to come and work on a billion-dollar brand like KitKat or Nescafé. Divisions like engineering have been more challenging, but we are raising the profile and it hasn't been as hard in recent years."

In a bid to attract, develop and grow more young talent, Stripe has set up the Nestlé Academy. "I see it as a virtual university," he says. "It promotes lifelong learning. In the UK, we have a very traditional approach to recruitment that mirrors education. But in reality, people are at different stages at different times, they get ambitious at different times, and they want to join the organisation at different times. We shouldn't have one single path. The aim is that people join the organisation and then we figure out the best path for them and what will get them the furthest."

This holistic approach is being mirrored in Nestlé's new strengths-based recruitment methods for graduates. "We went back to basics and looked at our selection model," explains Stripe. "It was traditional and based on competency. But graduates now are incredibly savvy. They can Google the responses and tell you what you want to hear. You don't find out about the individual.

"We started thinking about strengths," he continues. "At this stage in their lives, candidates don't have huge levels of experience, so competency questions don't help. A strengths approach is about having a conversation with someone about what they are good at, what they enjoy and what inspires them. After that, they feel energised, and maybe even learned something about themselves."

This approach has proved so successful at uncovering perfect fits for Nestlé that Stripe has had to close the selection process up to four months earlier than usual. "It's finding us the right people," he says. "The feedback from the senior leadership team is great, as we are not putting people in front of them unless they are a good fit for the organisation. And the successful candidates are energised and really want to work for Nestlé - they think it's going to be a great fit for them."

It's not only answers to interview questions graduates are researching, it's a company's reputation, culture and, thanks to the growing influence of websites like Glassdoor, pay scales and benefits. "People do their research. They look at companies, investigate them, and make informed choices. People are looking at what you're doing in terms of sustainability and creating value for communities."

Nestlé has had a rough ride in public opinion when it comes to corporate social responsibility (baby-milk scandals, Ethiopian debt and child labour to name but three controversies, plus embroilment in the ongoing horsemeat palaver). Despite that, Oxfam recently ranked the company top of all the food multinationals for its work tackling social and environmental risks within the supply chain (admittedly, the competition wasn't fierce). And according to Fortune magazine, the company is in the top 10 best large companies for social responsibility.

"Our CEO [Paul Bulcke] has a great phrase," says Stripe. "He says Nestlé acts big, and talks small. A lot of our competitors do the opposite. We operate in most countries, but don't manufacture in different countries and import in; we have factories in those countries. Plus, we could spend hours talking about what we're doing on water and energy. It makes good business sense."

Nestlé's sustainability strategy focuses on creating business links to communities. So at Nestlé in the UK, that means training dairy farmers to lower emissions, or working with schools to promote healthy eating. "It makes people proud to work for Nestlé," says Stripe. And this applies internally as well as in external communities, he says. "We have 10 corporate business principles. They are not rules as much as a philosophy around our people and value to society. The challenge is to make them relevant to every employee. One example is water. How do you make that real for someone at an organisational level? You get them to think about how they can help their machine use less water. It's about embedding it into the culture of the organisation."

Another one of these principles is health and safety. Nestlé is the only company HR has visited where we have had to sign a form on arrival promising to hold a handrail when taking the stairs. "Safety is all behavioural," says Stripe. "If I don't hold the handrail, I make it OK for my team not to hold the handrail. It might sound silly, but it's about caring about your people. We are role models." It's an approach to leadership visibility that means the CEO comes and answers questions from staff every month.

Nestlé might be one of the few companies today that has the right to call itself truly global. How many other organisations can claim they have a sales force in North Korea? It means that Stripe can recruit Chinese nationals studying in the UK to go and work in China, and that international travel is very much part of the role for any future leader. "One of our challenges is that when people say they are mobile, how mobile are they really?" he says. "They would like to go to Switzerland, Canada or Australia - but nowhere that ends in '-stan'."

Still, that's just another issue for Stripe to add to his ever-growing to-do list. As he says: "From an HR practitioner point of view, it's simply a fascinating business to be in." There might be challenges, but you sense he wouldn't have it any other way.

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