· 5 min read · Features

The Byron interview served with extra relish

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Katie Jacobs meets Steve Rockey, the head of people at burger chain Byron who is hooked on the adrenaline rush of rapid company expansion

In London, it seems you can’t go anywhere without falling over an achingly cool burger restaurant. From Honest Burgers to Meat Liquor and American fast food import Five Guys to the altogether fancier Burger and Lobster (no prizes for guessing the menu there) – the humble hamburger is having a moment as the capital’s most fashionable food. McDonald’s this ain’t.

But arguably the daddy of them all is Byron. Founded by entrepreneur Tom Byng in 2007, by January this year Byron had grown to 36 outlets. Although most sites are in London, Byron has been expanding to cities including Liverpool and Manchester. The chain, previously owned by Pizza Express owner Gondola Group, caught the eye of investment capitalists Hutton Collins Partners in October last year, which bought it for £100 million.  By the end of 2014, it is expected to have 45 restaurants. Evidently, there’s gold in them burgers. 

The 'Byron' factor

As Byron grows from a smaller London-based chain to a national business, head of people Steve Rockey has an HR challenge on his hands. How do you retain what makes Byron ‘Byron’ during a period of rapid expansion? How do you retain, as he puts it “that bit of magic”, which brought in earnings of £6.9 million in 2013?

“As we grow, that’s the thing that wakes you up screaming: how do we know that the guys in Manchester are as Byron as the guys in Soho? It’s about making sure everyone has that same spirit,” he tells me over drinks in the Beak Street branch. “As we grow further out of London, the ability to visit and see what’s going on reduces. We need to make sure everybody in the team knows what we are, what it is we do and how we as a business like things to be done.” 

With plans to grow at a considerable rate of 10 to 15 restaurants a year, operational consistency is ever more paramount. “We need to make sure the new guys we’re bringing in are as focused on quality, service and health and safety as everyone else,” Rockey continues. “I would never want anyone to feel they’re a standalone restaurant just because the nearest Byron is 100 miles away. We need to make sure we’re engaging people as widely as possible so we never lose the feel we’ve got, which is the feeling I got when I joined: feeling included, listened to and part of the Byron family.”

A smokey start 

Rockey is used to big business. In fact, with every job move he has downsized organisation. Having started his HR career at contract catering giant Compass Group (then Granada Food Services), he later moved to Pizza Express at restaurant group Gondola. It was there he first came across Byron, which then didn’t have a dedicated HR director or department, and realised there was something special about the brand. 

“I went to the soft launch of the High Street Kensington branch,” he recalls. “I remember it clearly because the extraction failed, the entire restaurant filled with smoke and you came out reeking of hamburgers. But even with that, I still walked away thinking: ‘Wow, this is different’.”

After that somewhat chaotic introduction, Rockey “made it [his] business” to find out what was going on in the organisation and offered unofficial HR support.

“They had gone around every other brand in Gondola [asking for help] and no one was interested. I managed to make sure if they had a problem, they came and spoke to me about it,” Rockey says.

Tearing up the handbook

It was the entrepreneurialism that attracted him. “It drew you in terms of excitement and being able to shape how things could be done,” he says. “I always thought at some stage they’d need someone to run a people function.” 

That day finally came when Byng was taking Rockey through the staff handbook. “It was four sides of A4, stripped from various other handbooks. It looked terrible and sounded awful,” he recalls. “I looked him in the eye and said: ‘You know this is rubbish? You need someone to sort this out for you’.”

Byng agreed, and hired him as Byron’s first head of HR. When Rockey joined in 2011, the chain had 18 restaurants and there was a “huge focus” on recruitment and growth, as well as putting some of the basics in place. But coming from a more corporate environment to a more entrepreneurial and agile one, those basics needed to be, well, basic. As he puts it: “It isn’t a 10,000 people problem, it’s a 500 people problem, so you need to think about it differently.

“I had my list of what I was used to in terms of policy and compliance and had to think about the bare minimum of what we needed. It’s great to go through that exercise. The last thing I would ever want Byron’s people function to be is bureaucratic. We rage against putting anything that feels clunky or sticky. Ask yourself: why do we need to do it? And if you haven’t got a great answer, don’t do it.” 

Take social media policies, for example. At Gondola, Rockey had been used to a four-page document. With Byng an active Tweeter, he simply wouldn’t accept something as long. A four-page document became five lines, adhering to Byron’s philosophy of simplicity.  “You don’t need any other fluff,” says Rockey. “It’s what do you need to do, what do you not need to do. We achieved a considerably smaller document saying the same thing in a better way.”

Entrenching culture

Now the “boring process” is in place, Rockey can get on with the more exciting task of supporting Byron’s culture through a period of rapid growth. “I’ve spent a long time trying to pull together the answer to the question: what makes Byron ‘Byron’? Why does it get me out of bed and why is it so exciting? One reason I joined is because people here love Byron and it’s infectious. It would be a disaster to lose that.”  

At least part of the answer lies in five key areas that “make Byron tick”, also known as Doing it Properly: you smile, you know your stuff, you execute flawlessly, you help your mates, and you charm them. “If you’re doing those five things,” says Rockey, “you won’t be going too far wrong.” The next step is to link those key areas into every people-related aspect of the business, from recruitment to succession planning and L&D. 

When it comes to recruitment, he cautions against “panic hiring” or not having a strategic workforce plan in times of rapid growth. “If you’re bringing in the wrong people, the perception of your brand goes downhill pretty quickly and you’re always chasing your tail to get back to where you were.” 

The strategic L&D stage

Once you’ve got the people and grown, it becomes more about simply having “bums on seats” and strategic L&D needs to kick in. This is the stage Byron is at now. “We’ve fought hard to get these great people, so what are we going to do to keep them and make them better?” says Rockey. “A key part of joining a business growing at the rate we are is the ability to grow and progress to bigger restaurants. Two years ago, L&D was just a dream as it was all about getting the people in. Now, we’ve got some great people in the business, we need to work out what we are going to do with them. That’s the real value HR can bring.” 

Would he rather Byron had brought in a head of HR sooner to embed these processes? The answer is 'yes' and 'no'. “If I’d joined maybe five restaurants prior, I would have felt I was always catching up. But then, if you ever feel you’ve caught up, something’s probably not quite right,” he muses. 

And part of the joy of joining a smaller, entrepreneurial business from a larger, more corporate one is the “adrenaline rush of the start-up”. He adds: “You can get things done quicker. And it’s ok to make a mistake. If you try something and it’s not right, that’s ok. In a bigger environment, I never thought screwing stuff up was ok. But it is ok here. You can just crack on.” 

He pauses and considers before adding: “It’s been quite a ride.” Given Hutton Collins’ Partners plans for Byron’s growth, it’s a ride that’s only just begun.