2 Sisters' HRD: Brexit is an opportunity for HR

Brexit may have many burying their heads in the sand, but not at 2 Sisters Food Group

For many in HR ‘the B word’ has become something of a curse – liable to send shivers down the spine as HR professionals contemplate the legal, talent and trading condition challenges Brexit is likely to throw up.

But not for Nigel Perry, group people and change director at 2 Sisters Food Group. The shiver he experiences at talk of Britain leaving the EU is the thrill of living and working through momentous, exciting times. For Perry there’s been no greater or more fascinating time to be in HR.

And he should know. Perry’s career in HR started some 34 years ago when he switched from marketing to personnel on Unilever’s graduate programme.

“I didn’t have a clue what personnel was,” he recalls. “But I thought: it’s around factories and people and employee relations and things like that so it sounds quite interesting, I’ll give it a go.”

These formative experiences very much set the tone for what has continued to be Perry’s HR ethos at every job he’s held. “I went fairly quickly into a really big factory of more than 1,000 people, aged 26, and that was where I got a great grounding,” he explains. “Early on it shaped a real understanding of what the key issues are. And matching these with people solutions in a simple straightforward way.”

What it also set in motion was Perry’s love of fast-paced, varied challenge. For this reason roles in FMCG organisations have been a constant. But, with spells tackling the challenges of making HR initiatives land in the Middle East (“people would say ‘that’s the best idea we’ve ever heard’… then in four months you’d realise absolutely nothing had changed”), and as VP of HR, North America with Heinz (“I just got on a plane with my wife at a moment’s notice to Pittsburgh”), Perry’s always been mindful of keeping things fresh.

Indeed it was Unilever’s still “bureaucratic” nature back in the ‘90s that spurred him to leave and move on to the “blank canvas”, family-owned, fast-growing environment of the Brakes Brothers; his sense that it would be “more of the same” after eight years at Brakes that spurred him to move to Heinz; and then the chance to work on such a broad portfolio of products at 2 Sisters that meant he landed there in 2015.

And it’s his love of a fresh challenge that means Perry is rubbing his hands with relish at the challenges Brexit presents.

But this isn’t down to glibness about the scale of the challenge, or a slightly sadomasochist streak on Perry’s part. He is positive about Brexit because he feels it presents an opportunity not just for HR to consolidate, and in some cases prove, its value, but for the business as a whole to be better at what it does and how it does things.

“I think the way we’re trying to approach this is you can either go ‘this has the potential to be a real toxic mix, all the stars will align as such that it’ll be really negative,’ or you can take the opposite approach, which is what we’re trying to do, to say: ‘You know what? This is a fantastic opportunity,’” says Perry.

The biggest threat Brexit poses to 2 Sisters Food Group is losing foreign labour. It is the largest food group in the UK, with 43 production sites spanning the whole gamut of products, from Foxes biscuits to ready meals to red meat and chickens (the company produces around a third of all the poultry products eaten every day in the UK). It is perhaps the biggest company you’ve never heard of. As such it relies on many EU-born workers as part of a 36-nationality, 23,000-strong workforce.

The business is unequivocal about what it wants from the government in terms of upcoming immigration negotiations. “Do we want the UK government to reassure our non-UK nationals they can stay? 100% yes, and we’ve been lobbying Defra [and other government departments] to get that,” says Perry.

But sitting alongside this is an awareness that UK businesses might not get their way, and so 2 Sisters is contingency planning for the worst. This, conversely, means taking positive steps to reassess the organisation’s employment proposition and working out how it can do better at attracting and developing homegrown talent.

“Brexit forces us to think differently about productivity, the jobs we’re offering, where we’re positioned in the marketplace, candidate attractiveness, career approach, how we source people, the calibre we’re looking for, into the remuneration piece, the add-ons we give people, thinking about being a more progressive employer…” says Perry.

Upbeat as he is, he isn’t naïve about the scale of the employer branding challenge here, particularly where the less glamorous world of meat production is concerned. “One of the things we fight against is parents and teachers saying: ‘If you don’t get your exams you’ll end up working down the chicken factory,’” reports Perry, explaining that going into schools in regions where 2 Sisters is a large employer is critical.

“We’re trying to show it’s not demeaning; it’s exciting, it’s interesting. It’s food and it’s important. We’re trying to change that whole approach,” he says. “We’re trying to really show the kind of career opportunities – like team leader and supervisor roles – people in those factories can enjoy.”

It’s important the firm majors on what 2 Sisters has always been good at: helping hardworking, sparky individuals rise through the ranks.

“The quite unique thing is we have a significant number of examples of people who started at the very bottom, maybe even coming in through an agency, and have risen to very senior levels,”

says Perry. “In my experience there are a lot of companies where to reach the top you have to come in on a graduate scheme. Here I’m really keen we have this sense that if you’re great and work hard and have real aptitude you can go far. I think that’s a strength.”

As Perry references, he’s keen Brexit be taken as an opportunity to make more of the agency workers 2 Sisters employs and sees rising through the ranks as a real possibility for them. “Coming back to the opportunity piece, we need to embrace having fewer agency people and more core 2 Sisters people,” he says. “Because agency workers can be more expensive. So there’s not the cost advantage there’s historically been. In many cases agency people become our permanent people. So we should be supporting and encouraging them to see the opportunities, seeing them as the feedstock for the future.”

This requires HR to not differentiate in the way the now infamous likes of Sports Direct and Hermes have, he believes. “It’s vital the line teams and the HR teams see agency people as our people and we don’t treat them differently, on pay for instance,” says Perry. “When we do ethical audits, for example, customers want to speak to them not just 2 Sisters employees. And that’s absolutely the right thing.”

The fact the company’s still headed by its founders, husband and wife Ranjit Singh and Baljinder Buparan – who started as a business cutting and packing frozen retail portions back in 1993 – creates a unique “high accountability, high drive, high delivery” dynamic that must be retained. It’s important the business understands this won’t be for everyone though: “It’s a bit Marmite. People either get it and thrive on speed, delivery, low resource, being adaptive and standing on their own two feet, or for some it’s not for them, and that’s OK.”

It’s similarly important Perry’s HR team move this culture and way of working to something more formal and considered as the business continues its rapid growth.

“From my perspective, this is around keeping the essence of what has made the entrepreneurial, enterprising spirit of the organisation so successful but enabling us to equip ourselves for the next phase of growth,” says Perry, pointing to 2 Sisters’ ‘Better Before Bigger’ mantra.

“I come back to my experience at Heinz where we were doing well, but we found a way to think ‘now we’re successful we need to do something different’,” he adds. “At Heinz we’d been in a growth phase for four years and it’s at that crest of the wave that it’s time to start thinking about doing things differently, because it’s so easy to just carry on doing the same things.”

Perry points to the recent high-level appointments of Peter Judge as operations director and Frank Robinson as commercial director, big names from leading food producer Tulip. “Historically people have maybe moved on a bit quicker than we’d have liked so we’re upgrading our talent,” he says. “Great people are magnets for great people, and it gives a signal to people in the industry and outside that things are changing here; things are different… There’s always a bit of a perception time lag on that and I think it’s part of my job to speed that up. It’s about raising the profile a little bit in employment terms and getting people to think differently about who we are and what we stand for.”

Also vital for moving the business into its next chapter and combatting the Brexit challenge-cum-opportunity has been increased focus on training and development. But thinking about the kind of training that will “land well” and be targeted enough for people to see the value in making time for is crucial. “The sort of training we do is very business-focused, so we wouldn’t do a programme like we did at Heinz on game-changing leadership,” says Perry. “We’d do leadership stuff but it’s really around practical application in terms of enabling people to understand how they can be great leaders in our context.”

Which is what, coming back to his early experiences on the factory floor at Unilever, good HR for Perry – particularly in FMCG – is all about. “One of the things sometimes mentioned is that to be a great HR person you need to have worked in a different function,” says Perry. “I’ve not done that so I wouldn’t say that was absolutely necessary. But I do think you have to care about and understand the business you’re in. If you don’t you can’t be a good HR person. So where I worry is when people come into the function in the food industry who don’t have that.”

He continues: “Good HR people need to be fantastic salespeople. You need to be able to articulate and sell a proposal in a way that senior business people can understand, otherwise you’re dead. I’m not a great one for theoretical models. I’ll always ask: what practical bit can I take out?”

And a better business will always mean, for Perry, positively embracing even colossal HR challenges like Brexit. “I’ve been very fortunate in my 30-plus years in the food industry,” he says. “I’ve loved it – there’s never been a dull moment. And when there was I’ve decided to do something about it. And I just think for HR at the moment it’s a fantastic time if you embrace it.”

“From an HR point of view this moves us from being in some cases support actors to centre stage,” he adds. “If you can’t get excited about the environment we’re in at the moment and the challenges we’ve got, you’re in the wrong place.”