Best supporting actor: HR at Vue

At Vue International HR has standardised processes so that others in the business can feel confident talking people

Being in the business of constantly asking senior, busy individuals to take time out of their hectic schedules to tell you everything they’re up to isn’t always easy. But it turns out HR magazine needn’t have worried. Or at least not on this occasion, when interviewing Vue International’s executive director of group HR Dee Vassili.

“It’s quite therapeutic to talk about it,” Vassili remarks near the start of our interview. And it’s not the plush surrounds of The Ivy where we’ve arranged to meet that are putting her so at ease; nor that she has any specific trauma to thrash out. And it’s certainly not that this editor has any particular qualification in providing a therapeutic, listening ear.

What Vassili is finding so restorative is for once being centre stage and presenting the many things she’s achieved over the last 15 years supporting the meteoric growth of the Vue International brand.

Vassili joined the business in 2003 shortly after starting at Warner Brothers as European HR director, only to discover just a few months later that it had been sold to SBC, which then rebranded to Vue. She was asked to be HRD of this new venture – a big risk at the time for someone who had already established themselves in global, large, matrix-organisation roles at Virgin Megastores and Thomson Reuters.

“SBC had four UK cinemas and a very small senior team… But I really bought into Tim [CEO Tim Richards]’s vision about this being the start of a big journey,” says Vassili. “I realised I would have the chance to shape my own HR agenda. I could try things and start HR off exactly how I wanted it to be.”

And lo and behold the brand has grown steadily since; it now has 8,500 employees across 10 countries and 212 cinemas. Having changed ownership several times over the years to ensure this growth, the business is currently seeking a new buyer to take it to the next chapter, with rumours at the time of going to press that the biggest cinema owner in South Korea CJ-CGV was considering the chain. Vue is also exploring the possibility of a public listing this year.

The evidence that HR has played a critical role in this growth is, conversely, not that Vassili has frequently devised and presented high-level, standalone HR strategies. But that’s because people strategies are so thoroughly embedded within all wider business plans, she explains. And that’s why it’s so “therapeutic” to step back every once in a while and recognise how far HR at Vue has come.

“I don’t care that it’s not me standing up saying ‘here’s the piece about people for digital’,” she says. “I know I’ve achieved and been really successful when the commercial director stands up and says ‘here’s my plan’, and within that is the people piece I helped him create… I’m one of the first people they call for input. So I know I and my HR team are hugely valued.”

Building HR’s credibility in the business has been Vassili’s mission since day one. The HR function she inherited from Warner Brothers was largely transactional, she explains.

“I built a team with the right specialist skills in. We then put all the HR infrastructure in place. The model that we set up was that everything needed to go through line management; they owned their people,” she reports. “It was about upskilling them and making them responsible. That’s a hard cultural shift.”

The HR team has always been lean, reports Vassili, and is particularly so now the infrastructure is in place to support ongoing growth. “In the early days I had some big specialists: full-time permanent people who could work on the things we were putting in like recruitment. Today it’s a lot more generalists and business partnering.”

She adds: “We use external consultants where needed, so you can turn the tap on and off. When you go through a lot of change you can’t have a team set in stone; it has to be agile.”

One key project Vassili’s worked on alongside one of her trusted consultants is rethinking recruitment and job specs for certain roles. This is crucial for relatively niche jobs, she says.

“For example, we have screen content professionals, which is very industry-specific. It’s not something you can go and find like-for-like as you would in HR and finance where there’s a transferable skillset,” says Vassili. “Our director of screen content left a few years ago and we didn’t want to go to our competitors.

“So it was a good opportunity to look at what we wanted going forward, and we decided we wanted that person to be more analytical. Our search consultant came back with Amazon… And we did find someone from Amazon – he’s doing amazingly.”

This redefining and thinking more creatively about competencies, required experience and skillsets now extends across the business. “When I first arrived everybody in head office all came from cinema backgrounds,” says Vassili. “That’s great because you have great knowledge of the industry… but fast-forward to today and we have a really good mixture of people who have a wealth of experience.”

The same scrutiny of what skills are actually needed and where to find them has been applied to cinema workers on the ground. When Vassili first joined general managers were those who’d been in the right place at the right time, with plenty of potential but no proven competency, she explains.

“We wanted to make them more commercial, because they didn’t understand how a P&L worked and which levers to pull,” says Vassili. “So when we first started looking for general managers we went to retail, fast food, leisure and hospitality… because these are absolutely transferable skills.”

She adds: “I remember late nights with the HR team, the ops team, the ops director and assessment centres… all so we could land on a consistent agreement of what good looked like.”

Again, a sign HR had succeeded was when the HR team were able to “back off”, says Vassili: “Now someone from HR only gets involved at the final stage. That’s a good example of where we shifted culture and got everyone aligned.”

A key task taking up the HR team’s time currently is rolling out such standardisation in all areas and across all territories. “We’re trying to identify the core operating procedures of running a cinema – because whether you run a cinema in the UK, Italy or Poland it should be the same,” says Vassili.

“Different territories can add their own bits, but the architecture will look the same,” she adds.

Once the operating model has been standardised, training can fit around this, with the journey here already well underway – for example in the form of different levels from one to four for cinema staff (four being general manager level). “We have a buddy system in the UK, which is what I want to standardise everywhere,” adds Vassili. “We’ll take someone who likes training people. It could be simple stuff like how you cook hotdogs, but they have a specialism in something, they’re good at it.”

This not only ensures knowledge sharing but, crucially, builds pride among staff. This is enhanced by a ‘Buddy Award’ initiative that sees winners taken to a premiere, often getting to meet the stars of the film. “That helps connect people to the glamorous part of the industry,” says Vassili. “Because the day job sometimes isn’t glamorous. They’re cleaning toilets and making popcorn. So it’s connecting people with the amazing product they sell.”

Vassili is similarly passionate about the role of well-defined career paths in motivating and retaining staff. “We have a talent pool development programme, succession plans…” she says. “If you want to work with us and want a career we will help you to develop that. We’re growing constantly so there’s lots of opportunities if you’re a self-starter.

“On the other hand, if you want to work with us for three weeks (which is a lot of people) that’s fine,” she adds. “What we try to do is get a lot of students who then come back and work at different times of the year. And some of those end up as permanent people later on.”

The company is keen that the career opportunities for self-starting types become increasingly global as Vue expands. “That’s what the standardisation is about,” says Vassili. “If you can do that then you can start to move people around.”

Communicating the fact that such exciting international opportunities are coming is vital to making sure staff are enthused by, rather than worried about, the company’s next change of ownership and next growth phase. “You have to communicate that to employees,” says Vassili. “Because it’s not something that’s ‘happening to’ them. If I’m a customer assistant in Blackpool I need to understand the value [a new owner] is adding. Because they’ve got to have a purpose for why they’re here, in the same way I’ve got to have purpose.”

Which brings Vassili back to her ongoing motivation for staying at the same business for 15 years. “What keeps you is the continuing growth and the next stage and pushing the business forwards,” she says. “I wouldn’t be in this job if it was a caretaker, maintenance-type role.”

Vassili shares others in her profession’s concern, however, that not enough HR practitioners are as motivated by driving change through commercially switched-on HR. The “turning point” in Vassili’s career was when she was appointed to a team tasked with restructuring operations in Europe while at Virgin.

“They created a small senior management team for northern Europe and picked four people: the heads of finance, operations, product and HR,” reports Vassili. “I remember sitting there and the language being used was business language. That was so different and I had to learn quickly.”

She adds: “So I think we have to train HR people from a very early age about how to read a P&L, how businesses operate in terms of profitability; they need to speak that language so it’s not new when they suddenly sit at an exec table.”

Vassili muses that part of the problem is selling HR to those starting out in business. She describes after graduating “com[ing] out wanting to rule the world”, and her eye being caught by a job in HR at Virgin Megastores. “That was my training ground,” she says. “I saw that HR could influence every part of the business and I liked that. I thought: I can go into all the areas and make it functional where it’s not; no other role can do that.”

Nearly 30 years on and Vassili is very much the embodiment of how influential HR can be. “It’s never me with this separate HR piece over here,” she reiterates. “There’s all this debate about HR not being credible. I have faced that in my career, but you have to earn credibility.”

So Vassili may not always be the one directly in the spotlight. But there’s no doubt about HR’s critical role, behind the scenes, in the ongoing growth of Vue.