· 5 min read · Features

Rising to the occasion: How Greggs manages change

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Greggs' HRD Roisin Currie may have found a winning recipe as the company goes through a difficult change programme that includes closing in-store bakeries.

Is the humble sandwich Britain’s “biggest contribution to gastronomy”? The Wall Street Journal thinks so, and hungry consumers seem to agree. According to the British Association of Sandwiches (yes, that’s a thing), we purchase 3 billion sandwiches every year. Things have come a long way since the 4th Earl of Sandwich demanded cuts of beef between bread so he could keep gambling.

But as the market has grown, so has competition. For leading bakery and food-on-the-go retailer Greggs, “the competition has ratcheted up,” group people director Roisin Currie tells HR magazine, when we meet at the company’s surprisingly leafy, stately home HQ in Newcastle.

Greggs, which has almost 1,700 shops around the UK, estimates it is second in the market for sandwiches, and number one for savoury snacks and breakfast.

“We have gone into spaces we haven’t been in before, like the coffee market,” says Currie. “Competition is extremely tough. You’ve got to make sure you’re available every part of the day.”

Last year, the company reported a modest decline in sales and announced that rather than open new stores, it would focus on refreshing its current estate and broadening product lines. In a highly competitive marketplace, modernisation must also go on behind the scenes, and Greggs is currently grappling with a large cultural change programme.

“This is a business that’s been built by acquisition,” explains Currie. “As a result, we’ve got a patchwork quilt [of systems]. It’s sticking plaster over sticking plaster, and it’s not a cohesive or sustainable way to work.”

To tackle this, the company is investing £25 million in upgrading its technology and processes. But as with any change programme, it’s not as simple as buying a new piece of kit. “Technology is part of it, but people are much more important,” says Currie. “Getting people behind one way of working will be absolutely critical.”

Currie’s background means she is perfectly placed to help deliver modernisation. Before joining Greggs in 2010, she worked her way up the ladder at Asda, taking on roles including head of reward and distribution people director. After 20 years at a retail giant, she says “it’s lovely to be part of a business you can put your arms around” – although it’s debatable how small a FTSE 250 company with 20,000 staff actually is. “Only nine of us sit around the operating board table, so we have to work collegiality,” she clarifies. “If you make a decision today, it can impact on the business tomorrow.”

The challenge now is to ensure that Greggs’ staff, many of whom have worked at the company for years, will be swept along willingly. “We’ve got long service: people join the business and they stay,” says Currie. “We have to make sure we engage with everyone around what this change programme means. People resist change because they are frightened and don’t know the impact it will have. From day one we’ve tried to be as transparent as possible.”

Greggs was founded by John Gregg in 1939, and the family are still involved. It’s a business that still feels like family, and being appreciative, honest and respectful are key values, Currie says.

Greggs has already been through a “massive amount of change” this year, and Currie has strived to keep those values front of mind. In January, the company made a number of redundancies, 92 from head office and some 300 from the frontline, due to the decision to scrap in-store bakeries.

“[Closing the in-store bakeries] was a massive change for people, and one of the most uncertain times the business has had,” explains Currie. “People were surprised: they might have thought they had a job for life. We worked hard to make sure if people were leaving, we looked after them as best we could.” That meant enhanced redundancy packages and contacting other big retailers to try and find new roles for those leaving. The company also saved several jobs in other areas through collective consultation.

Currie is realistic about the impact this will have on engagement: “Some people do feel sore about it, and I think we will get feedback through our engagement survey.” But she remains sanguine about the need for change in a tough market: “This is a reality of the competitive landscape we now operate in. If you’re not always changing, you will lag behind.”

Now the focus is taking advantage of the organisation’s strong values and making it fit for the future. “We’ve got fantastic foundations to build on,” says Currie. “We are trying to inject some of the programmes and systems you see in other organisations.”

This includes an employee recognition programme and a scheme to crowdsource employee suggestions, called ‘Your Ideas Matter’.

“It’s about getting people’s ideas in, no matter what they are,” says Currie. “We’re adamant everyone will get a response, so the director responsible for that function is copied into every idea; we want accountability to stay at the top. If we can engage 20,000 people to give us their ideas, that will drive this business forward. We have to balance delivering change with remaining one step ahead of the competition.”

Talent management is also critical to keep forward momentum. Greggs focuses on building internal skills via formal programmes and informal ‘espresso sessions’, offering 90 minutes of short, sharp learning. It also runs an innovative graduate recruitment programme, which only targets “internal graduates”.

“They are graduates who have either worked for us part-time while studying or have left university and worked full-time in our shops because the job market was so depressed,” Currie explains. “We’ve found that by taking internal graduates, they stick with us and fulfil their potential a lot quicker as they already know the business.”

The change programme is also leading Currie to “look differently at the talent we’ve got in the business”. “Talent management will either allow us to continue at the pace we need, or halt us,” she says.

Offering satisfying career paths is one vital way Greggs can help the North-East, which was hit hard by the recession, to move forward. Currie says as a large employer, the organisation feels a responsibility to do so. The Greggs family set up the Greggs Charitable Trust in 1987, which rebranded in 2009 as the Greggs Foundation. “Its reason for being is helping disadvantaged people in local communities where we operate and where our colleagues live and work,” says Currie, who is a trustee.

Activities including a thriving breakfast club programme at local schools – Greggs feeds 12,000 primary school children every day – and a hardship grants scheme, where the Foundation offers smaller grants to those in need. Keeping things local is key and there are regional charity committees across the UK. This also helps with staff engagement, as shops are “given freedom” to work with their local communities.

Separate to the Foundation, but central to Greggs’ mission in supporting local communities, are extensive employee volunteering programmes.

“If someone sees a good cause and wants to get involved, the business is supportive,” says Currie. The company is keen to do more skills-based volunteering, linking CSR to HR. “We are trying to do more skills-matching,” she explains.

“If a small charity needs support managing their P&L and financial strategy, we will ask the FD to lend one of his team. All we ask is one day, but you normally find they engage much more and encourage other team members to do the same. It’s a virtuous circle.”

The organisation also runs a programme called Get Ready to Work, working with offenders and ex-offenders, and Currie sits on the Employers’ Forum for Reducing Re-offending. Greggs staff, in partnership with those from other organisations, go into local prisons and run employability workshops for inmates. Greggs also has prisoners on day release working in its shops and bakeries, and offers jobs to them on release if the vacancy is there.

“Some people might think that’s risky, but I believe it’s one of the safest things you can do, as they are closely monitored,” says Currie. “A number of people have somehow got into a difficult situation, and that can be circumstantial. They want a way out, and for employers to help them. But this isn’t a numbers game; it’s a one person at a time agenda.”

Taking a lead on community engagement is a big part of why Currie “loves” her role. “You’ve got the business agenda, the competitive landscape and the need to move forwards, but somehow we manage to make space for this great work around community,” she says. “It’s the strength of that which binds us together and keeps us strong.” Change may be a constant, but Greggs’ role in the future of the North-East is clearly here to stay.