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What has HR ever done for... Simon Burke?

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In the first of a series of interviews with business leaders on their views of the HR profession, Elaine Rowe talks to Simon Burke, executive chairman of Hamleys

Ive known Simon Burke for years. He first interviewed me in 1990 for a personnel and training manager post at Virgin Retail and then again when I was promoted to HR director, so it was a tad surreal to be on the other side, giving him a light grilling.


Born in Dublin, Burke trained as an accountant, joining Coopers & Lybrand in London in 1982. He then moved to the Virgin Group as group corporate finance manager and held a number of positions there before joining Hamleys as chief executive in 1999. It was an ailing business with a big brand but little profit. He is now chairman and the company saw a 12.5% increase in sales at Christmas last year. The London Regent Street store has been restored to its former glory and there are now 22 Bear Factory outlets where you can make your own teddy. The kids seem to love the results and the City is happy too.


How in less than 20 words would you define HR?


I really struggled with this one. But to me its the discipline that enables businesses to manage their people fairly, efficiently and humanely.


Humanely? Thats an interesting word to use.


Its an important part of HR. Ive always set great store by treating people well. That way employees are committed to what the business does. Lots of inhumane stuff goes on in business all the time. A classic example in retail is the operations director who uses fear to rule a Himmler figure who goes round intimidating the hell out of everyone because he thinks thats the way you get things done. Its the job of the HR director to educate the business to change that way of thinking.


What in your view is the role of the HR director?


There are two: the first is to provide professional expertise and advice regarding people management; the second is to take an active role in the management of the business and not just stick to their own field of expertise. All directors have to accept collective responsibility for the business and pull their weight.


What do you see as the three key skills HR directors should have?


Commercial awareness is top of the list because we are talking about a business, and being a director means that you need business skills. HR management needs to be seen in the context of the business and return on capital employed to ensure the company has a secure future. Next come professional skills an HR director needs to be competent at HR. Third, empathy I would expect the HR director to have the most empathy with the workforce. It would be odd if it was the finance director who was saying, I cant cut these costs think of the people.


Would you like to work in HR?


Absolutely not. A lot of it is quite detailed administration, regulations and data gathering and I dont find that appealing. What I do find attractive is the chance to work with people in an empathetic and personal way.


Would you miss the power of being the big boss?


Well, I was never a functional director. My first board appointment was as MD, which is very unusual. Once youve been the CEO it would be hard to settle for anything else.


Do you have an HR director on the board?


No, this is a small plc and a small board is appropriate so I only have three executive directors. Thats the reason. I have no buying director or IT director either. We do have senior functional managers and I would say the HR manager is one of the most senior in the business.


In your experience, what are the most important tasks for HR in a business?


To provide the people management dimension to strategic business planning ensuring that the plan fits in sensibly with how people work and are treated.


To monitor and safeguard the good treatment and well-being of people in the business and pick up on loss of motivation and loyalty.


To provide a safe haven for employees where there are problems with their manager or other issues, it is valuable to be able to go and discuss problems off line.


To manage the employee-employer relationship in an orderly way making sure that people are paid accurately and on time and that data is kept secure, for example. It is important that these things go smoothly. I would feel pretty put out if I was paid late. I remember my first job (Dunnes Stores an Irish chain similar to Marks & Spencer) working for 14p an hour the most important thing was the little brown envelope every week being right.


Can HR do these things alone?


HR can provide the advice and processes to enable managers to do what they have to do. People in a store are motivated by their manager, but HR practices ensure that the right manager is there.


Is there a commercial benefit to developing a specific organisational culture?


Yes, I think there is. For example, in a small business like Hamleys, an entrepreneurial culture is very important. Many people are multi-functional. In general, in smaller businesses, highly structured processes for decision-making are too expensive and too slow. Developing an entrepreneurial culture has been key to our success.


As an accountant, does it matter to you when you cannot quantify the result?


Not in the least. Here at Hamleys Regent Street we needed a physical refurbishment but also made a number of other changes of management style and attitude to service. I put all the ingredients into the pot and stirred them up believing it would create a Hamleys that people would like and it did. But weve never analysed which bits had what effect.


How do you measure HR success?


In qualitative terms you measure success by what a business feels like to be in; how management style is expressed for example, how notices are worded; and what staff do outside their basic jobs schemes that add dimension to what they are doing. Ive always believed that how people are treated and how they feel has a big influence on how they behave to customers.


In quantitative terms, you want to see employees getting a good deal without crippling the company. You look to HR to find ways to give competitive packages in order to recruit and retain good people at a financial cost that makes economic sense.


I have to see the relationship between putting money into HR and the business benefit (even if that is intangible). I will not accept non-specific justifications offered for spending money, for example, on glossy and expensive training packs or special HR notepaper. I wont accept vague reasons like, We want to do things better. Quite frankly, thats bollocks; it has to be much more grounded than that.


If you could ask for just one achievement from an HR team, what would it be?


A strongly motivated, competent workforce at moderate cost.