Interview with Andrew Castle, HR director at Bosch

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Bosch HR director Andrew Castle's background in finance could explain why he is logical and analytical and more concerned with harmonisation than staff engagement. Peter Crush reports.

The more you find out about Andrew Castle the more you realise he is not what you would call a 'normal' HR director. The man responsible for 5,500 UK staff at Bosch (the company best known for power tools and white-label goods, but most of whose business comes from components for the automotive sector) has no long-service history in the world of HR. In fact for all but the past couple of years Castle has been what some might call a bean counter. He is a chartered accountant by profession and former finance director/consultant who, since 2006, has found himself looking after people - not numbers. Surely such a transition is not possible?

"Ha, everyone always talks about HR being more strategic and, coming from the business side, I suppose that's me," he quips. "I have three HR managers below me - and they are all CIPD-professionally qualified. My role is managing these people, but based on having sound business background. In my view, you can't run HR without understanding how a business fits together."

According to Castle - who says financial numbers are simply "the stories about a business and the stories of the decisions people make in a company" - his move into HR was perfectly logical and one that actually typifies the culture of internal transfer that he and the rest of the HR function want to encourage more of throughout Bosh.

"As a group, we expect people to acquire different experiences," he explains. "We always prefer to hire internally, and at senior level (SL) - what we call SL1, SL2 and SL3 - Bosch requires, for example, one year's experience of an interdisciplinary project, evidence of a cross-divisional move, a cross-functional move, international experience, or project leadership in some capacity. I made a functional change, something that is more about managing other experts. When you understand that this is what Bosch is all about, it's a real penny-dropping moment."

Examples of where this has been successful litter Bosch, but Castle is not content to leave systems like this alone where he feels some new value can be added. "Harmonisation and standardisation have been my watchwords since I started - particularly about what we expect from staff. Nowadays I have to recognise it's going to be hard to require people to spend two years in our German head office, for example, before they can advance. This is now not the case, and we are putting much more emphasis on just cross-divisional or cross-functional moves. What I want to do is prove to staff that there are opportunities for people to tick development boxes. HR needs to understand that people have reasons for not wanting to follow fixed paths."

Perhaps this emphasis on internal recruitment harmonisation explains why staff turnover is just 6% including redundancies (with the UK managing director, for example, having just completed his 25th anniversary with the company). But harmonisation is a word Castle uses more than three of four times during the course of this interview. One of the first things the HRD did was standardise the company's fleet policy, and from the start of this year, a new, single pensions plan has just come into force. "When I first arrived we had five different pension schemes, all costing different amounts. This has now just been amalgamated into a single, more cost-effective pension offering," he says.

The zeal Castle shows for standardisation is impressive. "I've just told the board we are going to proceed with bringing a single IT system into the UK that already exists in Germany," he proclaims confidently. Part of this confidence comes from natural stature and authority, but at Bosch Castle really is a big cheese - he is the nominated deputy for the UK managing director, superseding the existing financial director.

But, with all of these improvements being fiscally driven though, is Castle still harking back to his finance director roots? He takes the question graciously. "I definitely think I'm more logical and systematic than someone just coming through the traditional professional HR route. Yes, I do want to look at processes and value for money, but it's not my main driver."

Perhaps it is because he wears an analytical hat that Castle appears to be less obsessed with terms such as 'engagement' than other HR directors might be. "Sure, it's important," he says, "and in our last staff survey in 2007, we got an 83% take-up rate. But is it our key driver? No. It's important we keep to our primary values, but for us this is about ensuring people are motivated. In Bosch, engagement as a concept is not the most important thing." This attitude is reflected in the new, slightly improved survey which will be rolled out this year. "We've tried to change it from being something people can use to complain about things, to asking people where they think they fit in the organisation," he says.

Small tweaks to well-run HR policies are what Castle is all about. One of the first things he did during his handover period was find out what he thought "HR should be" while at Germany. "Compared to Europe the UK has a much more flexible workforce," he comments, "while union representation is much stronger in Europe than here. Where I can, I want to iron out as many differences that exist as possible. It's madness to reinvent what's already being done by other countries."

One unique HR project that was launched by the previous HR director in Germany, Klaus Oswald, is Bosch's Management Support programme, and it is something Castle wants to see grow in the UK. The scheme allows retiring Bosch employees to continue working at the company on an ad-hoc basis, and last year it won the company an innovation award at the Human Capital Awards. "Just like any heavy engineering/expertise dependent business, people hold enormous levels of skills at the point of retirement," says Castle. "It doesn't seem logical to turn this tap off from one day to next."

Anyone from Bosch can apply, and they will be assessed for the skills they have. Castle favours it because it reduces the need for expensive consultants, and because Bosch employees do not waste time getting to know the business. Some 30 of these people have been through it in the UK, and already one former head of the company's power tools business performed a critical review of another part of the business.

While Bosch Management Support helps smooth recruitment troughs at the upper age end of the company, Castle is also using the mantra of standardisation to the graduate and apprenticeship-level intake. "Where we have had one real disconnect in the business is over the independence with which different parts of the business recruits graduates," he says. "We decided to change this. Instead of letting sites hire their own grads - whom they keep and take on - the graduate scheme will be more centralised, and we'll encourage grads to spend time at different locations, doing different projects. It's as much to do with moving with the times as anything else," he adds. "Nowadays, the business moves so fast, the jobs grads may have been earmarked for might not even exist when they finish their training. We're trying to be more creative. It's about saying to new people that when they join Bosch, they join the company, not a specific job."

Because apprenticeships remain very job-specific, individual Bosch sites will still have authority to do their own hiring, meaning the graduate tweak is less about establishing a Bosch culture and more about just choosing what works best. "We don't brand ourselves really heavily internally," says Castle, "and we certainly don't want to go down the route that other companies are going down, which is accrediting our own qualifications. We have a very simple set of competencies about what is required in each job, and we have a very simple, single word that defines us - "BeQik" - the letters of which stand for results, quality, innovation and customers in German."

With a more financially astute HR director at the helm than most organisations can boast, and Castle's clear concern to help reduce company costs, the year ahead for Bosch employees is in better shape than most, considering it is a business whose survival is mainly based on the fortunes of the automotive industry. "We have had redundancies," he says sadly, which is the only time his mood gets heavier in this interview (it had been announced that 250 jobs would be axed at Bosch's Miskin plant in South Wales before Christmas). He adds: "It is difficult times - new car registrations fell 37% last year, and this year could be 10% lower still, which is worrying considering we sell ignition and braking systems. But we hope that by doing small re-organisations, and handling redundancies as humanely as we can, we will weather the storm."

I still can't help wondering whether Castle will approach his job in a downturning 2009 by seeking the relative comfort of what he knows best from his financial background. So I ask him directly whether he think his role will be more about appeasing management as it will be employees. There's a long pause, and a knowing look that signals he knows I've asked him a conflicting interests question.

"Tough one," he says finally. "Which is most important?" he muses. "I think it's both... management are employees too," he says with a twinkle in his eye.

CV

1954: Born Hemel Hempstead; educated Queen's School, Watford; 1986 admitted to Association of Chartered Certified Accountants

1987: Financial controller, Grote & Hartmann

1990: Financial controller, Universal Flavors

1993: UK head of finance communications, Landis & Gyr

1997: Joined Bosch initially in finance

2004: Worked for Bosch in Germany as a financial consultant

2006: Appointed HR director, Bosch UK

Outside interests

Current affairs, travel.

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