Building HR with a can-do attitude: Joe Dent, Princes

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HR hadn’t always had a seat on Princes’ board but when COVID hit, all that changed. As a result, a business that was “difficult to love” has become an employer of the year, with HR at its heart, finds Jo Gallacher

Casting your mind back to March 2020 is a specific form of self-torture few would advise, but to learn from history we must first understand it.

We saw the country explode into raucous applause every Thursday evening for our keyworkers and paint rainbows in our windows for the NHS.

But we’d be remiss if we also did not remember the empty supermarket shelves, raided by those very same people who clapped at their doorsteps, after perhaps watching too many zombie apocalypse films.  

Spring forward to the last remaining months of 2021 and it’s likely many of us may still found the tins of tuna, peach slices and baked beans we’d swore blind we desperately needed, gathering dust in the back of a cupboard. 

Having to deal with the run on the shops were the country’s food and drinks manufacturers, whose staff quite rightly became key workers throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s something Joe Dent, chief people officer for Princes (yes, the canned fish connoisseurs), couldn’t possibly have prepared for.

Like many organisations, the pandemic catapulted the business into a complete overhaul of its operations, offering both large opportunities and challenges aplenty. 


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Princes is owned by Japanese giant Mitsubishi Corporation and is one of Europe’s leading grocery suppliers. Its Liverpudlian roots now stretch out across the globe, with over 350 food products available under the Princes brand, including fruit juices, canned vegetables
and canned tuna. 

It also owns well-known brands such as Italian cooking brand Napolina. 

It’s no surprise then that the business had extreme supply and demand pressures throughout the pandemic, which often relied on quick-thinking strategic decisions from the HR department, so its people were kept safe while the country’s shelves were restocked.

Dent says: “We had lots of challenges around our keyworkers at our sites, keeping them safe and productive, and keeping sites open. 

“We’ve been commended by numerous bodies for our response and – touch wood – have not had any major COVID outbreaks. We did on one occasion have a handful of people with it, but we managed it well.”

Remote working under the same roof as the rest of the family had its own unique set of challenges but spare a thought for those who still had to traipse outside of their own homes, putting their lives at risk, just to do their job. Did Dent ever feel any guilt asking his people to go to work while he was safely working from home?

He says: “It was a lot of responsibility, and you look at yourself in the mirror and ask whether you’re asking people to do things you wouldn’t do. But then we looked at ourselves and said we were very colleague-focused, we made it flexible for people and were open about the fact we wouldn’t penalise people if they were ill.”

Ensuring Princes people did not feel obliged to come in while sick was in fact a priority for the business. 

“We realised that if we didn’t make that distinction, we’d have people coming in whether they were ill or not because they wanted to be paid,” Dent adds. “We removed that issue straight away and communicated with them a lot.

"We took a proactive view in terms of health and safety and ultimately we recognised we were playing a very important role in society at a very difficult time, in terms of manufacturing food and drink products. We were doing the nation a service and we should be proud.”

 

"We’re making Princes more of a community; we’re a business with heart and soul"

 

Princes not only looked after its own people, but also worked closely with retailers and charities such as Fairshare on its government packages for other keyworkers. All directors of the company also gave a part of their salary to Princes Keyworker Fund meaning all its keyworkers received a payment in gratitude, which they were presented with at the company’s Pride in Princes awards. 

Dent and his team have also focused their efforts on the re-training of managers to prepare them for the inevitable challenges this new world of work would present.  

Dent says: “We quickly engaged with colleagues to keep them up to date and make sure they were okay from a health and wellbeing perspective as well as productivity. Some of the ways of working changed overnight for us.” 

“We offered lots of material and touch points to see how staff were doing and put a lot of emphasis on the line managers to say the way you used to manage last month is completely different to how you manage now.”

This focus on skills and improved welfare check-ins helped Dent to better connect with Princes’ people, using benchmarks to measure progress.

He adds: “The communications we sent out went off the scale over the last two years, and as a result the amount of engagement we’ve had with colleagues has gone off the scale too.” 

Dent is hopeful the pandemic has changed how society views certain jobs. He says: “No one would say the NHS hasn’t done a fantastic job but I hope what the pandemic might’ve done is shine a light on supporting businesses, organisations and sectors that, when the country grinds to a halt like it did for a while, are equally as important.” 

Princes’ philanthropic response will no doubt echo many organisations which saw an improvement in their culture throughout the pandemic as a result of working to better understand their people. But this transformation is all the more impressive when considering the complex nature of the Princes model.

Up until around seven years ago, the business, in Dent’s view, was doing ‘metronomically well’ so there was no real impetus for cultural change, regardless of calls from the HR department to improve its services. A failed learning and development programme, from which bosses were left scarred, meant there was a real reluctance to change. 

Dent says: “The people running the company at the time didn’t believe in the things I was trying to sell and couldn’t see how that was going to add value when the business was already doing well.

“And then the business begun not performing anywhere near where it had been. We wrestled with that for a while and there was a recognition that it was through the people that we were going to turn the business around.” 

A change in leadership on top of a few lean years meant Princes begun to take its people offering more seriously, and developed its HR department into a more sophisticated operation.

Dent says: “For many years some of the guys would call me the fifth Beatle; I was kind of always in and around the board setup, but it was a bit like ‘it’s just HR’. Then finally you make that breakthrough in what you’ve done, your deeds and influence.”

In April this year, Dent joined the board, demonstrating the improved status of HR within the organisation. And it’s quite the personal leap too, given HR wasn’t an obvious option for him at the beginning of his career.

He says: “HR wasn’t always seen as an automatic career choice for a man, there’s that nuance with it where it used to be seen as ‘personnel cup-of-tea and sympathy brigade’.

"When I joined at the time there was a very strong female presence and people told me they didn’t meet many blokes in HR. And I thought that was interesting and saw it as an opportunity to push on as a bloke in HR, and we see a lot more now.”  

 

"HR used to be seen as the personnel cup-of-tea and sympathy brigade"

 

It was only when Dent began to deal with the often-messy situations organisations get into did he see the real potential of the role. 

“I came to life when I got into my first role and got stuck in with working with line managers and trade unions learning the full generalist approach to HR. There was never a dull day, and I dealt with lots of issues, got lots of battle scars early on and dealt with tough people.

“HR were the people no one would talk to. People thought we were the snitches or internal police. But the HR function has developed and evolved from personnel to the business value-adding function it is now. And that requires a different skill set and requirement.”

Dent now sees HR as a much more appealing career choice given the value the people profession can bring to an organisation. He adds: “Lots more people are encouraged to go into it because they can see the diverse opportunities, they can see how HR can add value and businesses take it a lot more seriously.” 

This change in narrative for HR meant it had more bargaining power, and could begin to introduce a new iteration of its people strategy.

The ‘Our Princes, Our People’ strategy now has a six-pillared approach: values, award, performance, community, health and wellbeing, and journey. Under each of the six pillars is a clear and articulated strategy, all created to make Princes an employer of choice. 


Five things I can't live without:

  1. Wife, kids and lockdown dog - Why did we wait so long to get him?
  2. Smartphone - Everything’s on there these days. 
  3. Coffee machine - For that caffeine fix
  4. Garage gym - It was a life-saver through lockdown
  5. DJ kit - I’m having lessons at the moment with my son

This hard work culminated in the organisation taking home Employer of the Year at this year’s Grocer awards. For Dent, this was a real moment of recognition. 

He says: “The Grocer award has helped me no end. It’s helped me say the stuff we’re doing is right and we need to stick with the process. It’s great validation that we’re doing the right thing. 

“We’re making Princes more of a community; we’re a business with heart and soul and we are changing the culture from old historical command and control into an environment where it’s really inclusive and we embrace diversity and creativity. 

“Princes didn’t used to really stand for anything. There was no heart or soul, and I used to always say it’s a difficult business to love, particularly from the inside because of the historical culture. We want to make it somewhere to be proud of, and the award represents just how far we’ve come.” 

 

The above was first published in the November/December 2021 issue of HR magazine. Subscribe today to have all our latest issue of HR magazine delivered right to your desk