Magic HR at Merlin Entertainments

Retaining creativity and innovation at a global firm like Merlin Entertainments isn’t just fun, it’s business critical

Receiving notice of their first job offer or interview is a momentous moment for most teenagers. So imagine how great the feeling would be if you’d received that first interest in the form of an email from the CEO of a £1,250 million company whose work – namely creating those hair-raising theme park rides you all but live for of a weekend – you hugely admire.

This is exactly what happened to 16-year-old Alton Towers and Thorpe Park fan Isaac. He wasn’t a tech-genius or business prodigy. Rather the extremely grateful recipient –after he emailed CEO of Merlin Entertainments Nick Varney to express his love of the company’s attractions and ambition to be general manager there one day – of something known within the business as the ‘Merlin Way’.

A personalised hands-on approach is perhaps not surprising for a company still passionately led by the same person as 15 years ago. What is more surprising, perhaps, is that the business has managed to maintain such a personal feel throughout its meteoric growth. It’s gone from a 25 attraction, 800 employee, six country-wide group in 1999, to one that now boasts 111 attractions and 26,000 employees across 23 countries, and is the second largest global attraction operator after Disney.

In fact so rapidly is the group – which comprises of such notable brands as Legoland, Sealife Aquariums, Madame Tussauds and The Dungeons – still expanding, that the exact number of attractions is something of a pleasant surprise even to HR director Tea Colaianni. “Gosh, 111,” she exclaims, pleased, as we chat in Merlin’s seaside headquarters in Poole.

Yet what Colaianni and her team have achieved since she joined in 2010 is anything but low-key. “When I joined we had more than 60 attractions in 16 countries. There was a small group HR team but it didn’t have any senior HR capabilities,” she reports. “There wasn’t a clear strategy in terms of what HR was here to do.”

But Colaianni is no stranger to challenges. She started out as a lawyer in Brussels at a time when few businesses were particularly interested in employment law. Colaianni saw a niche emerging with the rise of European Works Councils, and decided it was her chance (aged 25) to make her mark.

“It became my thing. I didn’t want to be number two or three. I wanted to be number one,” she says, explaining: “The firm had this policy that if you brought in a new customer you would get 10% of the revenue relating to that customer. That policy had never been applied before and I was the one who forced them to apply it. It was always one of the partners before but here was this 25-year-old Italian.”

Rewarding as this was, Colaianni decided she wanted to be the one actually implementing employee relations good practice rather than advising on it. She embarked on her first HR role as director of employee relations at Global One in 1996. Fourteen years – and some highly successful spells at KPNQWest, GTS/Ebone and as vice president of HR Europe, UK and Ireland at Hilton Hotels Corporation later – and Colaianni was ready for her next challenge.

Merlin has certainly delivered on that front. The business’s meteoric growth between 1999 and 2010 had, somewhat inevitably, outstripped the capabilities of functions such as HR. So Colaianni’s first task when creating a streamlined, efficient, and unified company was standardising the basics.

“All of the acquisitions before I joined had been brilliantly executed from a financial perspective but we had Legoland parks standing on their own; we had the Tussauds Group that had its own rules and regulations. There was no sense of identity,” says Colaianni. “So the first task was to make sure we created one company from a people perspective. That was important because we needed to show the opportunities of joining Merlin Entertainments. It’s about people having a career with us not just doing a job at Legoland.”

Standardising HR is no mean feat in an organisation with 26% of activity in continental Europe, 22% in the US, and 13% in Asia. “With the induction programme for example, we support the materials with conference calls and webinars to make sure people understand what they’re about, then six months later we’ll refresh them,” reports Colaianni.

However, such formalisation must be balanced with the freedom to be creative and take ownership, she explains, pointing to CEO Varney emailing Isaac as a classic example of Merlin’s down-to-earth, non-bureaucratic ethos.

“You can’t force that excitement and creativity on people,” she says, adding: “The real entrepreneurialism comes from actions, and general managers being able to do what they need to do. If somebody at an attraction has a good idea they have the budget and authority to do it.”

As an example of getting the balance right Colaianni points to Merlin’s Spark an Idea initiative. This counts a junior employee coming up with the idea of turning turtle feeding time into a visitor attraction – and the thousands of pounds of revenue this brought in – among its successes.

Maintaining such an entrepreneurial spirit now the company has reached FTSE 100 status is a fine balance particularly manifest in the business’ new pay structure, explains Colaianni. “We had to prepare for life as a plc so there’s a big focus on how we attract and retain people in a plc environment; it’s finding the right reward philosophy that allows us to embrace our entrepreneurial spirit but also keeps us compliant,” she says.

Impressive growth aside, the tragic accident at Alton Towers in June has inevitably taken its toll on the workforce at large.

“It’s been an exceptionally tough year emotionally,” says Colaianni, adding: “As well as offering counselling on site we’ve offered counselling to employees at other attractions and in Poole. It’s affected everyone. The number of messages coming from employees around the world has been quite unique.”

Distressing as the accident was, Colaianni points to Merlin’s public response as further evidence of the importance of creating a culture where people genuinely care.

The organisation is understandably looking forward to embracing the fresh year of 2016, and the new opportunities and challenges this brings (scheduled openings of Legolands in Shanghai, the US and Dubai; Sealife Aquariums in Rome and China; and Madame Tussauds attractions in China and Istanbul, to name just a few). These are challenges – though huge by anyone’s reckoning – that Colaianni doesn’t regret taking on for a second.

“When people ask ‘don’t you get bored in the same job?’, I always reply ‘I can’t say it’s the same job’. It’s the same company but it’s changed so much,” she says, explaining that taking the position was a gamble. “I had my family sorted but I threw it all up in the air, took a risk, and came to Poole, where if it didn’t work out there isn’t much in terms of other companies. But did it work out? Yes, it did.”Colaianni, who sits on the board of Leadership Council for Women 1st and the Prince’s Trust Women Leadership Group (alongside her NED role at Poundland), explains that encouraging women to take more such risks is something she is passionate about. “I think that women have to be brave enough to take risks a bit more,” she says.

But there are many other factors in female senior representation, not least a lack of willingness on HR professionals’ parts to challenge headhunters, believes Colaianni. “Some headhunters don’t take you seriously. When you say I want a 50/50 shortlist they think you’re only saying it because you have to,” she says.

“We have a diverse organisation in many ways but I’m the only female executive on the executive committee. If I look at my top 350 senior leaders we’re at 35%, but at the top 50 or 60, the percentage drops to 20%, so we need to do more,” she continues, adding: “We did a big piece around unconscious bias. People say ‘I don’t have any,’ but actually everybody does.”

Colaianni explains that regional representation at the company’s senior level is also crucial. “If the largest growth market for us is China you need to have someone who understands the market,” she says. “So it’s not just the governance piece, it makes sense for us to have broad diversity.”

Merlin’s rapid growth must never entail losing sight of employees’ sense of spontaneity and fun, and empowering them to really own the roles they adore, says Colaianni. “When I went to Legoland with my boys at the weekend on the way back my eldest said ‘why can’t we stay at Legoland for a whole week like everybody else?’ That’s what we do: create those magical memories,” says Colaianni.

“That’s something I have never experienced before. When you talk to employees they say ‘I get paid to do a job I love’. People don’t work here because of prestige and status; it’s because they love what they do.”