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To grow a brand, develop talent from within, says De Vere CEO

Over the past 12 years, I have been privileged to run some of the most exciting hotel brands in the UK, including Malmaison, Hotel du Vin and De Vere.

These brands have all had one thing in common: the cornerstone to their success has been investment in people, and prioritising people ahead of the normal corporate ‘humdrum’.

For me, growing talent from within has been the main focus when embedding the true DNA and culture of a brand.

In 2004, I returned to Malmaison as CEO, having been away for four years. I was shocked to find the talent that had been so pivotal in the launch of the brand had left. The ‘hand of corporate’ had squeezed the goodness out of the brand. A brand that was once so rich in talent had lost its soul.

We immediately changed the agenda: people had to be first. We put more budget behind the development of people and ditched the name HR in favour of ‘people development’. To grow a brand, you need to develop the talent from within.

Two years ago, when I joined De Vere, I could see again that talent was not ‘buzzed up’. We were miles off staff engagement and job enrichment, and the talent bank was dormant. But my people development director Mike Williams and I could see the business was packed with talented people who were yearning to grow.

Recognition tools such as rising star programmes and Purple Cubed’s Talent Toolbox helped us unearth this talent. Now, we are focused on growing the Village Urban Resort brand. We are opening in Aberdeen and Edinburgh next year, and Glasgow soon after. Finding sites is easy. Financing is getting easier. Finding the right people is always the hardest part. But now, two years on, we have the talent ready to fill the key positions in our new openings.

Promoting from within has many advantages. ‘Village people’ have the brand running through their veins, and they understand what makes this brand tick and what it stands for. All that, and they don’t cost a recruitment fee.

One of my philosophies is: if you’re good enough, you’re old enough. Many of the young people at Malmaison, Hotel du Vin and De Vere will hopefully look back and see we gave them a chance before most would, because we believed in them. I believe in the kids with fire in the belly, a get-up-and-go ethos, who work hard to get to the top. Hiring comes with an element of risk, but your gut normally tells you what to do. I would advise other CEOs to give young people a chance.

Perfectly piecing together the people jigsaw is what has allowed us to grow and lead. Our cost of recruitment is down year-on-year by £400,000, an 80% saving. Engagement is up by 15%, to 88%, and we have shown a direct correlation between staff engagement and customer satisfaction. Our people are the brand: it’s as simple as that. People development is not a cost, it’s an investment. Too few CEOs in my industry think like this and then wonder why they can’t get the talent to grow their businesses. In the words of Malmaison founder Ken McCulloch: “Great service isn’t a mystery – just hire nice people.”

Robert Cook is CEO of De Vere Group