· Features

Interview with Sandra Porter HR director of Starbucks' and her CEO Darcy Wilson-Rymer

Starbucks' HRD, Sandra Porter, can't understand why so many HR professionals don't get on with their bosses. She and CEO Darcy Wilson-Rymer have a close working relationship.

Newly-married Sandra Porter, HR director of coffee chain Starbucks, smiles happily at the man of the moment. But this is no post-honeymoon afternoon photo-shoot. Darcy Wilson-Rymer, who is on the receiving end of her smiles, is not her new beau. He's her boss, Starbuck's UK CEO, and their relationship couldn't be more amicable.

"There's no battle to get HR in the boardroom, no battle for HR to get my ear," says the Canadian-born Wilson-Rymer, who joined the company in 2007 after 19 years with Yum! (owner of Pizza Hut and KFC). "Sandra has an equal, if not louder, voice on some occasions in this business," he adds. "I don't recognise it when people talk of rifts between HR and CEOs. It's just not the case here."

The chemistry between the two directors of the 702-store, 9,500-employee (they both call them partners), coffee colossus, is evident. Wilson-Rymer describes having an "informal and formal" relationship with Porter. "The formal one-to-one meeting over a coffee (his favourite is the Arabian Mocha Sanani) at the start or end of the day is diarised." But, he says, the informal is far more educative: "We hire for values; this business can't operate without HR leading the way. I'm much less interested in heavy financial stuff, like staff turnover figures," he says surprisingly. "I'm more fascinated in Sandra reporting back on the 'voice' of our staff. This is what sets my agenda - real data about what partners think. I find it's the less formal side of things where I get my best information."

This personal touch (he visits three to four Starbucks per day, half unannounced, the other half planned "so partners can specifically prepare to talk about what is on their minds"), might come as a shock for a company often perceived as an all-conquering behemoth. But outside London, the company is significantly more diluted. Despite opening its first outlet in a London hospital recently, and doubling its presence in Welcome Break motorway stations (a move that takes its number up 34), 270 of its 702 locations are inside the M25, and all outlets are going through a process of refurbishment to de-corporatise themselves, and be more individual, reflecting the area they serve. Wilson-Rymer is, in addition, a prolific 'Tweeter', with more than 3,000 Twitter followers passing updates on staff service. He assiduously answers them all. Today's Tweets thank one follower for her views about service (he says he'll "pass it on to the relevant person"); another responds to what he says is one of the most often-asked questions: 'When will the UK sell pumpkin lattes?' - they do in America - and 'will they introduce the state-side cherry mocha here too?'

Porter is not just a receiver of Tweets from this very HR-centric CEO, she too has her own schedule for putting herself at the heart of the business to understand, as Wilson-Rymer puts it, "who is working for us and why". Porter says: "It's everyone's job at head office to understand the business; we cannot sit in our ivory tower. If there are great things happening in stores, I need to know about it, and tell everyone else straight away."

Wilson-Rymer adds: "Being with partners is important, but we both have to resist having a hero mentality - sorting out issues we see there and then. That's not how things should work. We need to target the right people to sort out problems. If there's a problem in one store, it's the manager's job; if the same thing happens in many stores, it's the regional manager's or HR's task to sort out; if it's national, it's my problem."

Wanting to know more about partners and their motivation for joining Starbucks (which has historically hired a high proportion of student/transitory employees), is especially forward-looking for the company that recently posted third quarter profits up 37% (UK like-for-like sales rose 5% between April and June). This is a turnaround from just over a year ago, when group profits were down 77%, (the UK lost £10 million), explained in part by over-zealous store expansion. The reason, as Porter and Wilson-Rymer exclusively announced to HR magazine is that a six to eight-month project with more than 400 partners had just finished, and has resulted in a series of new initiatives - not least the creation of the Starbucks University which, from next year, will offer accredited training. It will begin with the shift supervisor population, and will provide the equivalent of a NVQ equivalent qualification. A tie-up with Ashridge Business School will also offer more general business skills.

"Talking to partners left us with a mountain of information," says Porter, who ran the sessions. "We didn't know what to expect. We simply asked: 'What can we do to make a difference to you?' But themes around helping staff build transferable skills and enhance their careers were incredibly strong." According to Porter, while Starbucks' peripatetic staff stay a little over a year, the rest want stable career progression.

"Our customer promise is all about setting people up for the day," says Wilson-Rymer. "We believe our employee promise should be how to best set them up for life."

It makes particularly good business sense for Starbucks that its staff feel they have the career and learning development that encourages them to stay. "We want to form part of the community," says Porter. "We want to be in communities where people want us to be there. When this happens, our partners become familiar faces. People genuinely form relationships ... in fact one of our Starbucks managers," she digresses, "met her husband who was a regular customer."

The project is also about raising Starbucks' profile as a place people think of when searching for a career. "We're on every high street, but often people don't think of us," says Porter. Groups it is particularly working to attract are mums (it has just launched a partnership with website Working Mums) to make a virtue of the flexible hours partners can work, and of being a local employer. To make sure this happens, store managers will soon start being trained on how to hire better. "Often stores hired existing colleagues' friends without much discretion," admits Porter. She adds: "Our 'Best Baristas' programme tends to focus on what people 'can' do (ie, their coffee-making skills) rather than whether it is something they 'want' to do. And while we never have to advertise roles, we do want to hire for values more. This is something competency models don't often tell you."

With Porter's hands-on approach in perfect harmony with Wilson-Rymer's HR-driven perspective, this looks like a match made in heaven. "This is an evolving process," says Wilson-Rymer. "I don't understand the notion that HR folk need to battle it out in the boardroom," he repeats. "My advice for anyone in a CEO role is to wholeheartedly view HR as an enabling function. If you don't, it will take you longer to achieve your end result."

When Wilson-Rymer and his senior leadership team meet to talk about store issues, he even calls it a form of speed-dating. "We say what's on our mind, we don't hold back," adds Porter. As with any good relationship Porter and Wilson-Rymer clearly have no trouble communicating. Tonight, they're off to have dinner with each other to discuss their next plans for the future. Let's hope Porter's new husband isn't the jealous type.

Starbucks in 60 seconds
Number of stores: 702
Number of employees: 9,500
Number of years in the UK: 12 (Starbucks US celebrates 40 years next
Number of customers per week: two million
Number of cups of coffee sold last year: 80 million