· Features

Interview: Mike Williams, CHRO for KellyDeli

"We needed to do something, or risk losing half our workforce,” said Williams

It takes a passionate person to turn a low-impact people department into a well-respected and strategically successful operation. Luckily for the Asian-inspired restaurant business KellyDeli, global chief HR officer Mike Williams was up to the task, as Claire Muir discovers

Although we’re well beyond the lockdowns and low points fuelled by Covid-19, there is no easy ride for HR professionals in the hospitality sector.

Despite a changing economic climate, a cost of living crisis and tight labour markets, the international founder-led brand KellyDeli has boosted loyalty during ‘the great resignation’, maintaining a consistent 15 to 20% labour turnover rate. This compares with the food retail industry average of 40% (48% during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic), according to the Food Marketing Institute.

The secret to this success? A focus on talent and retention, says global chief HR officer Mike Williams, who has been with the sushi kiosk operator since 2020.

“When I joined, I found an HR function lacking credibility, value and impact. It was viewed as uncollaborative,” he explains.

Turnover was high (35%). At just 13%, we were far off our 30% target for internal succession. We had a problem in that if some key individuals were to leave, our growth ambitions and diversification strategy would be significantly disrupted.”

KellyDeli’s HR function needed to shift from being focused on administration to becoming a change agent, and fast. The CEO gave Williams four weeks to formulate and present a transformational people strategy covering thousands of kiosks and hundreds of staff across 14 countries.

Read more: Why apprenticeships are so important to hospitality

“KellyDeli has seen phenomenal growth,” says Williams. “In the four years I’ve been here, we have opened more than 400 kiosks, a grocery business and series of delivery kitchens. But the people and franchise partners are important to the founders of KellyDeli, and the board. I wanted to work for an organisation that was prepared to take its people strategy as seriously as its commercial plans.”

Williams quickly overhauled the HR function and its activities, introducing a learning and development offering, a benefits suite and a talent programme. New faces – specialists in L&D, talent acquisition, culture, engagement and reward – arrived. Staff who had previously lacked clarity about their roles and accountabilities found themselves empowered under Williams’ lead, working with clear areas of responsibility and more structure, ownership and accountability, he says. A franchisee strategy was established to support partners as entrepreneurs, and they got their own HR manager.

Company awards, the Kellys, were launched along with a scheme that allows colleagues to recognise each other publicly. A competition called ‘My Big Idea’ gave staff the chance to suggest new initiatives or improvements. “We had 52 ideas from across the business, and have implemented several new products,” explains Williams. “Each country’s winner received €200. The overall winner received €1,000.”

Read more: Hospitality sector offering more employee benefits

Reporting that he is at his best when building, improving and creating, the role has played to Williams’ strengths. “I feel proud that we were able to live according to our values and do the right thing by our people and franchisees during Covid,” he says. “It was really rewarding to see the team grow and develop when pushed out of their comfort zones to deliver at pace.

“This was my first real international HR experience. My learning was how to deliver change while respecting cultural differences and local legislation.”

So, did it all work? Were there tangible impacts on the business?

Williams confirms that there were: “Sales increased and 250 new kiosks opened, which would have been impossible without HR enabling a scale-up in headcount. By empowering the HR team to own their own space and develop their annual plans, and also by coaching the team through the process, we were able to make progress on many initiatives in the first year.”

The second year saw Williams focus on reducing the company’s 35% turnover rate. The average tenure of leavers at that time was 2.4 years. “With 48% of the workforce having under two years’ tenure, we needed to do something, or risk losing half our workforce,” he admits.

Fortunately, pioneering creatively designed and cleverly implemented talent and retention strategies comes naturally to Williams, who says: “Talent programmes not only create stability, impact churn positively and boost your employee engagement, they reinforce your culture through progression people who have bought in to it and live by your values.” So, once again, he got to work.

Talent mapping was implemented across all countries, to inform succession planning. Bespoke personal development plans (PDPs) were established for second-tier leadership and key people the business wanted to retain. “We developed new processes, new forms, new toolkits and guides, and training on how to use the new processes. This included how to write reviews and PDPs,” adds Williams.

“The annual reviews became part of a talent cycle, incorporating reviews linked to our values, and a half-yearly check-in on objective progress. Performance became linked to pay, and the talent reviews led to bonuses.”

With a firm belief that everyone is talent, Williams offered access to external courses and professional qualifications for all KellyDeli staff. For high-potential candidates, a specific programme, Erito, was designed to boost retention and support succession plans.

Now, succession planning is in full swing. The business has a 29.1% internal succession rate, considerably improved over the 13% before the talent strategy was introduced.

“Half of the senior leadership team now has a one-to-three-year successor in place,” Williams expands, “and 20% have a three-to-five-year plan. We also made two internal C-suite appointments from the Erito programme.”

Meanwhile, retention levels are soaring – 100% of people in critical roles, and 94% of high-potential individuals are still in place since the programme launched in 2021. Labour turnover has reduced from 35% to 15%.

“Our people are happier at work, in part thanks to us listening to their requests for more opportunities to learn and develop,” Williams comments. He attributes the firm’s successful HR transformation to collaboration of thought, and says that he particularly enjoys working with a board that shares his passion for people.

“But the best bit,” Williams says, “is when you start seeing that spark in the eyes of team members who are fired up to deliver and buy in to the culture.”


This article was published in the March/April 2024 edition of HR magazine.

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