Talent, change and innovation at Warburtons

In the ultra-competitive bread market innovation rules. But creative products and processes are impossible without the right talent

As far as unlikely bedfellows go, it’s fair to say they don’t come much more surprising than Sylvester Stallone and the UK’s most popular bread brand. Yet the action star’s turn as ‘The Deliverer’ – a man who will go to any lengths to ensure the shops of Bolton receive their freshly-baked loaves on time – in Warburtons’ latest TV advert is not the only thing that’s a little bit unexpected about this family-owned baking firm.

“Family businesses get the reputation of not being pace-setting and ambitious,” Warburtons’ HR director Sue Yell tells HR magazine at the bakery’s head office in Bolton. “But our business has always had this restless ambition to get better and do things more effectively. We dispel some of the common misconceptions around working for a family-owned business. It’s pacy, ambitious and professional.”

It’s this “restless ambition” and “embracing of change and innovation” that has not only led to the world’s most unlikely casting, but is also behind a raft of new products making waves in UK supermarkets. Take Warburtons’ sandwich thins, for example. Three years ago they didn’t exist; now they sell more than one million units a week.

Innovation is central to Warburtons’ strategy, and to maintain its premium position as the number one bread brand in the UK, being first to market is a non-negotiable. The need to be agile and creative is driven by the overall decline in the UK bread market, explains Yell, with carbohydrates in general getting a bad reputation in many parts of the press.

“It’s really important there are different products so it’s not just about wrapped bread,” she says. “There’s much more variation. People are eating on the go more and have fewer sit-down meals.” Other challenges include the “commoditising of the category”, driven by supermarket price wars, and the resulting squeeze on suppliers.

Then there’s the changing nature of how people shop. One of Warburtons’ key selling points is its freshness, but as Yell points out, working out how to ensure its products remain fresh when people are embracing online shopping or multi-channel solutions like click and collect can be tricky. “It has implications for working patterns,” she adds. “There’s a volatility in terms of the pattern in which people buy bread, which has an effect on production.” And of course, by extension, people.

“The continual need to innovate has significant implications for us,” Yell explains. “It’s not just about finding the right product, it’s new equipment, new training processes, new recipes... There’s a whole set of knock-on people implications for getting innovation right.”

When Yell joined Warburtons in 2011 (she was previously HR director at retailer Iceland), she found a business that while ambitious, didn’t quite understand how the people piece could best aid wider strategy. Since then she has reshaped the HR team she inherited, using the business partner and centres of excellence model, and overhauled an archaic set of people processes.

“We have stripped away every people process there was in the business because it was all over-engineered, too complex and not appropriate,” she says. Take performance management, for example. Yell says it used to be a “turgid form-filling exercise” that only a small percentage of managers actually completed.

Now there’s a 99% completion rate and performance reviews are seen as “a dynamic business driver”. “We have created a line of sight between what people do and the business strategy,” Yell explains. It appears to be working: 89% of employees say they understand how their job contributes to Warburtons’ success.

“Performance reviews should be dynamic throughout the year,” she adds. “The performance management process is used as the engine room for all the talent planning that we do.” And talent planning is absolutely critical. In Yell’s view HR professionals need to have “a relentless pursuit of talent”, both in attracting top talent and developing the people they already have. “Our stance as a board is that one of the biggest strategic risks is not having the right supply of talent to meet our ambitious targets.”

To mitigate that risk, Yell and her team attack on several fronts. Apprenticeship programmes across manufacturing, engineering and driving help bring in younger talent (an important issue given that more than 40% of the workforce is over 45), and the company also partners with local schools and colleges. In Bolton, Warburtons’ “heartland”, it is a sponsor employer of the local university technical college, meaning it has a say in the curriculum, which ensures young people leave with relevant skills.

Another area of focus has been holding managers more accountable for their staff. The business has introduced detailed ‘people plans’ for every site, which require managers to identify and report progress on five key areas: organisational structure, organisational capability, talent management, culture and engagement, and performance management culture. Yell is keen to stress that “this is not an audit”, rather it encourages “good quality conversations around focus areas”.

“It’s fabulous that we have this obsession with quality around our products and service, but when I came here, I didn’t find the same forensic attention to detail around people and leadership,” she recalls. “The view was, ‘we’ll do it if we’ve got time’. That has been the biggest challenge. Unless managers believe that it’s fundamental to spend time and energy developing their people, you will not embed it. We have been able to achieve a much higher proportion of managers who now do understand that their obligations are not only to get bread out of the door, but also to achieve results through their people.”

Manager buy-in on the importance of developing talent internally is crucial if Warburtons is to overcome the challenges of an ageing workforce, and Yell believes “eyes are being opened”. Now every board member discusses their succession plan and critical roles with the head of resourcing. “Around the talent piece there is momentum within the business,” she explains. “I would expect all my colleagues to have an input on [talent], just as they would expect me to have an input on a P&L account. It’s that collective responsibility that a board should have for the development of talent.”

By making managers more accountable for talent, she believes she has been successful in helping people processes not to be seen as purely “an HR thing”. So, for example, managers are now held accountable for “not the output but the outcome” on talent management.

“It’s not enough to tick the box and fill out the form,” says Yell. “Now it’s about: what have you done with the people who are high potential? What are you doing with those under-performers? What is the point in putting the same names in the same boxes? We are very challenging. We have to review the people performance in the same rigorous way as we review the financial and operational performance.”

Just as managers are encouraged to focus on outcomes, so is Yell’s HR team. “We talk about not just the HR department delivering outputs, focused on process, but outcomes. Yes, there will be people processes, but so what? What is it delivering for the business? I’d encourage HR teams to not only be thinking about what’s going on within their company, but also externally looking at what’s happening in the market.”

Yell, who is listed on the HR Most Influential practitioners list, believes the chance for HR to influence more widely is there and that “we have never been better placed to influence and drive the organisation’s change agenda”. But she worries: “I don’t know that all HR functions are ready, equipped or even want to have that level of impact and influence. It’s up to us whether we grab that [opportunity]. We have to learn the language of innovation and growth.”

“If as an HR function you are still concentrating on the day-to-day, transactional, bureaucratic processes, then you’re only ever going to stand still,” she adds. “We have to be more agile, more creative, and more forward-thinking in how we operate.”

To enhance the capability of HR, and business leaders more widely, she is a fan of cross-functional experience, something she believes HR can be a “little bit closed door to”. She herself has focused on breaking down the traditionally vertical siloed approach at Warburtons, putting leaders into roles they and the business might not have expected – for example, asking the supply chain director to run a big OD project. “Sometimes we are very reliant on external consultants, when the answer lies within,” she reasons. “Where people have that right level of learning agility, strategic intellect and emotional intelligence, go for it. We should use these people and welcome them into the HR function.”

Just as Warburtons’ approach to its products is to keep things high quality and straightforward, so too is Yell’s approach to HR. She is an advocate of “keeping things simple”, with a “clear purpose and direction”. “It’s about being able to define what good looks like for your business. My challenge is to make all this people stuff...” she pauses and smiles, “our bread and butter.”