Until about four or five years ago Donaldsons, a traditional Chartered Surveying Practice, had fallen into a state of atrophy; Alan Geaney HR Director who joined the firm in recent years was charged with helping the business deliver its strategy by moving it and its staff into the 21st century.
It isn’t easy putting a new face onto a tired body but that was exactly the challenge Geaney faced when he arrived at the firm.
The business which was founded by Henry Donaldson in 1869 at the age of 19 bowed down to traditional methods that failed to keep pace with the changes in the external environment.
At the heart of the business and integral to its commercial success has always been the enormous dependency on its people, for an industry driven by personality, getting the right people in place and keeping them is the key; for Geaney he had to reinforce this mindset and help nurture talent.
Today the firm describes itself as ‘consultants specialising in property’ and at the core of the operation is the retail market for which Donaldsons is best known.
The firm comprising over 1500 staff runs shopping centres in the UK with a scattering of retail outlets in Europe, predominantly centred in the Eastern block.
“Up until about four years ago the firm had atrophied. It was certainly a solid and respectable firm but it just wasn’t very spectacular. Things started to fall down during the last major property recession and the old-fashioned ways weren’t working. The challenge was to put in place procedures to move the business forward.”
On joining the firm Geaney was confronted with an ‘old-style personnel function’.
“It was mostly about record-keeping and staff welfare and what we needed to do was move it towards an advisory function. I had to ensure that the perception was right, that it was seen as an important part of the business not separate but something that feeds into everything else.”
Geaney, who has a seat on the board, has been able to address the crucial role that recruiting the right staff and developing key workers has on the bottom line.
An ongoing challenge, says Geaney remains the resourcing issue.
“It’s part recruitment, part succession planning and part training. The issue for us is that you can’t rely on filling roles from outside as the company becomes more successful. We are a market leader so when we recruit a graduate we recognise that we need to pay them and train them well in order to keep them. It’s about establishing an environment in which they can flourish.”
Engaging the workforce to meet business strategy is a key method for providing the necessary platform from which Donaldson employees can develop their skills and talents, communication and employee involvement are key, explains Geaney.
Importantly the firm is committed to supporting its graduates throughout the Assessment of Professional Competence (APC) qualification. A personal APC supervisor and counsellor is assigned to each student and those nearing their assessment day are supported with practice presentations and mock interviews conducted by in-house APC examiners.
Stressing the integral part HR plays in the business, you get the impression that Geaney sees his function playing a business partner role in the firm.
For this HR Director, it is not just about how HR can help business deliver strategy it is more than and beyond that and in the property industry a service based on knowledge and intellectual property poses a unique challenge for any HR professional:
“Most of what we provide is in people’s heads. HR hasn’t just helped with this, it is an integral part of it. Just as you wouldn’t run a business without counting the money, you also wouldn’t run a business without having the right people on board.”
Sticking to the fundamentals is Geaney’s key philosophy. Aware of the changes in the external environment his belief that solid HR services will deliver in the end seems to ring true:
“If you have the right calibre of people in the right position and you train them well. Things will flow appropriately whatever the structure.”
It is clear that the building blocks of this bricks and mortar business are the people, attracting and retaining the best staff is the rock from which the business has been able to grow and develop.
Today Donaldsons turns over in excess of £40 million a year.