· 7 min read · Features

Rank insider: interview with Sue Waldock, group HRD of the Rank Group

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What could silver screen siren Celia Johnson, troubled comedian Michael Barrymore and staid old photocopiers have in common?

Just ask Sue Waldock, group HR director of the Rank Group - because at one stage, her company has employed or made (in the case of Barrymore, as well as copiers) all of them.

Johnson was the star of - and Oscar nominee for - the 1945 classic film, Brief Encounter, which Rank was the production company behind. Barrymore started his career on stage and screen as a 'redcoat' at various Butlin's resorts, operated by Rank from 1968 to 2000. And the company had a 50% stake in Rank Xerox (the clue is in the name), most notably manufacturer of, yes, photocopiers.

In fact, in its time, Rank has owned or been involved in some of the most well-known brands in the world, ranging from Hard Rock Café to Odeon Cinemas and Pinewood Studios to the Deluxe Film post-production and distribution business.

Founded in 1937 as the Rank Organisation, Rank Group continues as it always has, to seek to "excite and entertain" its customers. Now it is specialising in gaming and leisure, running brands including Mecca Bingo, Grosvenor Casinos, G Casinos and online gaming provider, Blue Square. But although the company (in a similar vein to other hospitality firms such as Whitbread) has moved to focus on one particular area of the hospitality and leisure sector, its competitors are not only other casino chains, bingo halls and online casinos.

"We have to attract customers through the doors," says Waldock. "We serve food and provide entertainment and in that respect we are competing with bars, restaurants, ten-pin bowling... even The X Factor on a Saturday night.

"These are hard trading conditions. The smoking ban in 2007 was tough and, just when we began to turn a corner in 2009, the recession came."

Speaking to Waldock, it is immediately clear she is prepared to be pragmatic and honest - without PR spin glorifying the business and throwing out the usual quotes journalists love.

But any good journalist does their homework and Rank's results show the company's 2011 adjusted profit before tax came to £26.3 million (compared to £25.1 million in 2010). In the 16 weeks to 16 October this year, Rank reported a 7% increase in customer visits from the previous 16 weeks.

"People only have a limited amount to spend on leisure, so our ethos is that we try to anticipate and exceed our customers' expectations," adds Waldock. "This way we can add more value to what we do."

I am no expert in the casino or gaming industry: indeed, prior to meeting Waldock, I genuinely imagined casinos to be full of fat cats, 007s and honey traps - and bingo halls the elephant graveyards of groups of good-time girls. But the Grosvenor Casino in Edgware Road, London, where I met Waldock for lunch, had a welcoming, warm feel about it. I did use the phrase "family atmosphere", until Waldock quickly informed me under-18s are not admitted.

Nonetheless, the point about modernising places of gambling still stands. And in 2009, Grosvenor developed G Casinos, its next-generation offering. Focusing more around leisure and entertainment, featuring more prominent bars and casual dining facilities, the brand is designed to attract a fresh, wider ranging clientele.

Over the next five to six years, Rank plans to open casinos in south Manchester, Stockton and the Wirral. It already employs more than 8,000 people in the UK, plus 700 across Spain and Belgium, and each new venue could need anywhere between 70 and 100 staff to operate.

As the company evolves, no way will Waldock let herself be confined to an HR department, or an "ivory tower", as she puts it. Her background is in line management and operations, having at 25 become one of the youngest female managers of a Butlin's resort. Eventually moving into the role of HR director of Rank's gaming division in 2001, she became HR director of the group in 2006. But her business sense has been paramount in her role.

As a trustee of the pension scheme, Waldock led the organisation through one of the first defined benefit pension scheme buyouts - blazing a trail for other large companies to offset the costs of their pensions liabilities and move forward with defined contribution arrangements. Speaking of which, Waldock and her team have already put two years' worth of work into preparing for changes to pensions legislation next year, that mean the company will have to move people into occupational pension schemes.

Now she sits on the group's executive committee, reporting directly to the group CEO. Outside her day job, she is chair of the employment group for the private sector strategic body, Business in Sport and Leisure (BISL).

This business knowledge has allowed Waldock to gain credibility with the Plc board. Although not a member, Waldock is no stranger to meeting it to present succession plans. This relationship has come in handy over recent months, not least because Rank is on the brink of the biggest HR launch in its history.

In the spirit of attracting new customers and its need to recruit, the company is in the final stages of preparation for what it is calling Project PRIDE ('people, recruitment, inclusive, diverse, engaged'). It is a major strategy to refine and enhance the methods Rank uses to recruit, train and develop its staff.

Ahead of its roll-out in the new year, I am keen to find out more about this fresh 'HR strategy'.

Waldock stops me in my tracks, almost shocked. "It is not an HR strategy - this is a business transformation," she says. "Everything in HR and business is interlinked. I had to get buy-in from the Plc board - I had to get senior managers to support this. Every part of the business is involved. Operations and MDs [of Grosvenor and Mecca] will have to be involved - the thinking is collaborative and our strategy is not as simple as following what's in vogue. This is not just the domain of HR."

Since January, Waldock and the nominated leaders at Rank have been working with Guildford-based recruitment and performance consultancy RPOZone on implementation. The scheme is divided into 11 parts, with a different member of Rank staff heading a particular work stream.

One example is employee advocacy: giving potential recruits a good experience to build up talent pools and giving existing staff a clear plan of how they can progress within the business.

The company has carried out almost a year's worth of research to segment the employees it employs - or wants to employ - into five areas. Staff have been classified as 'balancers' (those with families in need of a work/life balance and who want to feel valued, although they are unable to commit to full-time hours); 'progressors' (highly focused on developing themselves); 'friends' (engaged employees who buy into the team spirit of the organisation and see work colleagues as a vital part of their life); 'believers' (staff who are engaged with the brand promise and values and see Rank as their ultimate career destination); and 'essential seekers' (who work for the money and see their job as a means to an end).

"Many of our staff and recruits are aligned to particular brands they work for, such as Mecca or Grosvenor," says Waldock. "Some of our workers are part time and are 'essential seekers'. We have had workshops with these sorts of employees to show them they could find a career with us - in another brand or in another department, such as marketing, IT, finance or HR.

"We want to show staff and recruits that 'proper jobs' can exist in our business. We are using tablets [such as iPads] for bingo and we need leading-edge programmers, who can have a fantastic experience with us."

The company has also developed facilities to carry out campaign recruitment for specific roles and will strategically use social media channels as a recruitment tool for the first time.

Rank has plans in place for a complete suite of an 'on-boarding portal', to guide staff in a consistent way from when they apply for a job, through the selection process and preparation for their first day on the job. "We want recruits to be excited about the brand they will go to work for," says Waldock. "But at the same time, we want them to be sure that what they see will be what they get."

In another strand of Project PRIDE, the PR department will work to develop and promote the employer brand. Although Rank Group is a FTSE 250 employer, potential recruits are often unfamiliar with its brands.

Diversity and inclusion will be a key focus in recruitment and development and the final part of the scheme is the implementation of value metrics to report on progress. Success will be measured by ends, empathic feedback, employee engagement surveys and robust measurement of employee turnover.

The steering group of managers from across the business, which is headed by Waldock, has, so far, met each month to discuss progress. The next steps, she explains, are to roll out the online systems to staff over the next few months - and train them to use them.

Elsewhere, as trading remains difficult, given the nature of the economy, including tightening public purse strings, the gaming and gambling industry has come up against significant changes in legislation over the past few years. Waldock says: "At the moment, tax on bingo is higher than tax on betting shops. We just want there to be a level playing-field - so we are lobbying Government on this. It will cost more to some businesses in the sector, but at least it will be fair."

Times are tough - and there is a war for talent - so will Project PRIDE change the views of recruits, develop high-performing teams and take Rank Group forward?

Waldock just smiles. "Our employees are proud to work for us. Our research has shown that they are delighted with where we are going," she says.

"A lot of Mecca and Grosvenor customers are regulars - I have heard of staff not seeing customers for weeks and calling them up because they are worried. Our Mecca venue in Catford was damaged during the August riots and staff worked round the clock to repair it - with one employee making curry to feed colleagues.

"Last year, staff raised £2.5 million for Marie Curie Cancer Care and a 67-year old staff member did a sponsored skydive for this. I could go on...

"In a nutshell, this PRIDE is about being considerate to those who are delivering to our customers," Waldock explains. "It has been a huge amount of work in developing the systems. It feels like we have built a new house - and now we have to decorate it." 

Follow Rank Group's progress across all its strategic areas during 2012 at www.hrmagazine.co.uk