· 6 min read · Features

Roadchef HR director challenges negative perception

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Keith Lockton leans back in his chair, looking contemplative. The HR director of motorway services company Roadchef is sitting in his office - one that would be totally bare except for a couple of recruitment ads hanging proudly behind him. The ads promise managers 'exciting career opportunities' in a 'lively and evolving environment'. Yet, you have to squint to see any sign of a Roadchef logo.

Those of the companies the firm has franchises with - WH Smith, Costa and BP - are just as visible. So what is going on?

"We're moving away from the Roadchef brand," he explains cryptically. "I said to myself: 'Would I attract employees by saying 'come and work for Roadchef?' or would I attract them more by saying 'come and work for a business that works with Costa and WH Smith, and, by the way, we are Roadchef'? It's about not being too hung up on your brand name, it's about knowing what will turn people on."

The idea is certainly a novel one, but for the former chef whose first job was slaving over a hot stove at the Savoy Hotel in London, it is all part of a deliberate plan to change people's negative perceptions of the roadside caterer and convince them that Roadchef is an employer of choice.

For many people, Roadchef (which boasts more than 20 sites servicing more than 60 million visitors per year) is probably best known as the place for a toilet stop, and to buy a paper or some sweets rather than as a destination that the highest-calibre staff seek to work. It's also a sector associated with employing low skilled, poorly-paid workers. But Lockton's clear strategy is to have this perception permanently changed. In March 2007, Israeli property firm Delek Real Estate bought the company from Nikko Principal Investments, resulting in a brand new board with a new CEO, commercial director, chief financial officer and HR director (Lockton) - recruited since last September. Now that the loose ends of the sale are all tied up and the management is in place, Lockton says he can get down to the task in hand.

"The challenge," he says "is getting people across the threshold and making them look at the business differently." The recruitment ads - which play on the fact that jobseekers may at first dismiss the multi-million pound company - are his first step in this process. More than 400 people actually replied to the first ads, which first appeared in November, 2007.

Before the campaign ran, Lockton admits it was a struggle getting people to even look at the firm as a place to develop a retail management career. But the new-look employer branding has gone some way to change this. "Four hundred responses to one campaign is a phenomenal number compared to many of the other businesses I've worked in," he beams. "We've just taken on two people at site-director level, one of whom had never taken time to look at us as a business. Now his perception has completely changed."

Other initiatives to complement the recruitment drive include introducing a graduate training scheme for management. The aim of this is to "increase people's commercial and business sense", says Lockton, and is intended to be a 12-month programme. But he is not ignoring the rest of the Roadchef population either. For those below management level he says his next big focus is tackling the issue of low wages. Currently, around 400 of Roadchef's 2,500 employees nationwide are on or just above the minimum wage. Lockton wants this figure to read zero and intends to introduce paying staff between £6 and £7 per hour on a site-by-site basis in the next two years. "We want them all above that," he says with conviction. "We don't want to be a minimum wage employer."

By his own admission though, it is in skills development where he says his greatest challenges still lie. It is the firm, as opposed to one of its franchise partners, that employs and trains everyone working on Roadchef premises, including its headquarters in Norton Canes, just off the M6 motorway, where Lockton himself is based. So although the people manning the forecourt may wear BP T-shirts, and sales staff work in WH Smith, they are in fact Roadchef employees. "They are working for Roadchef, but they are also working within a brand," says Lockton, who denies that having employees aligned to other brands could dilute the sense of a uniquely Roadchef culture. "We're like an umbrella - looking after them and managing their employment."

The consequence of this is that each brand demands its own set of skills, something that Lockton says can be a headache. "We have what we call first- gear training for more general stuff like health and safety, and second-gear training, which is learning unit standards," he says. Unit standards training provides the employee with the necessary skills to do their particular job, whether it is serving coffee as a barista on the Costa stand, or working on the BP forecourt.

"We're now trying to encourage employees to do as many second-gear units as they can," says Lockton. "The benefit for us is we have a multi-skilled workforce, so they can switch between Costa and WH Smith, for example.

"And their pay reflects this," he adds. "Employees like us offering them development and making things more interesting. I believe we have a better system of training than I have seen in most businesses of this type."

Interestingly, Lockton says he is looking forward to learning from the newest brand with which it has recently agreed a franchise deal - McDonald's. Roadchef is particularly excited about this partnership, believing the restaurant's standards of employment and training - as well as consumers' relationship with the brand - will drive better recruitment for the motorway services company. It also hopes to provide better training for its staff: Roadchef managers will be going through exactly the same training as any other McDonald's manager out on the high street, as well as more specific training relating to the motorway services company.

It comes as no surprise that Lockton places so much emphasis on training. This was how he was first drawn to HR from his catering days. He was one of a number of Compass managers picked to help train up staff. "I realised I got just as much of a buzz out of the people side as I did out of the production of food," he says. "But I'm not your conventional HR person by any stretch of the imagination."

Indeed, he counts himself lucky to have a CEO who is "genuinely very people focused", admitting "he comes up with more HR focus than I do at times. The team dynamics are very good," he says, describing management's relationship. "We all come at things from a different angle."

Lockton admits that when the sale had gone through, the Roadchef's management team breathed a collective sigh of relief. "During the sale, close management of the business had not necessarily been the main focus - and quite rightly. But what we have to do is bring people back to focusing on the business," he says. Lockton now demands data on how managers are performing, ensuring they are customer focused and not what he calls "backroom boys" working on spreadsheets too much. "We want to make them feel proud about what they do," he adds.

The signs are that the beginnings of Lockton's revolution are showing results. The company got a 65% response rate to its latest employee engagement survey (up from 40% a year ago). The areas employees said the company did well on, were 'wellbeing' and 'giving staff a fair deal'. Workers also said they did not feel stressed at work; that they were happy with their work environment; and that they were paid fairly compared with their colleagues. But the firm also took heed of the less positive feedback, recognising it needs to do more to boost its CSR stakes, and also more to make work more interesting and career enhancing.

Roadchef's Strensham site is where the firm pilots many new initiatives, including the McDonald's partnership - which kicked off last month. Lockton's eyes widen with excitement at the very mention of the changes that lie in store for Strensham: "We are launching a whole new package - an increase in hourly rates and changes to terms and conditions. We'll be looking at flexible working too - all the things you'd expect a modern company to provide." In the meantime, at all Roadchef locations, there has been an overhaul of the incentives programme, and new benefits introduced, including free meals while at work - Lockton's current favourite is the fish and chips.

Lockton's stark office is a good metaphor for his approach to business - out with the old and in with the new. "I have pulled a lot of stuff down off the walls because I'm so keen to change the employer brand," he explains. But with an HR team of five reporting into him and many new initiatives under way, the HR function is not quite the blank canvass his office is. However he, more than most, realises there is still some way to go in convincing quality candidates of the opportunities to be had at Roadchef. "I think we have a really good people development framework," he says. "Where we fall down is in letting people know about it."

If Lockton continues on his mission, though, his empty walls will surely be cluttered with examples of successful recruitment ads before he knows it.

CV: 1961

Year of birth; educated at Loughborough Technical College and DeMontford University

1980: Spent 10 years in catering roles

1990: Joined First Leisure Corporation as personnel and training officer, dancing division

1993: HR/training roles, with Rank Group; finally head of HR, holidays division

2000: Bourne Leisure, director of HR

2003: Director of people, Paramount Restaurants

2007: Head of HR, Roadchef

Outside interests: Food, music, cinema and theatre.