Alan Cairns’ diverse career has seen him work in various roles across a number of national and international companies, from GE and Alstom to Littlewoods and JCB. Here he tells Verity Gough how he’s finally found his niche.
For a man that started out in mechanical engineering, Alan Cairns has carved a pretty impressive career in HR. Over the last 20 years, he has held senior HR positions with blue-chip companies in the food, drink, engineering and chemicals sectors. He has been HR leader for Northern Europe at specialist chemicals and service company, Hercules/GE Water, filled the role of group director of performance and capability at Littlewoods Shop Direct, and managed the baggage handlers as executive vice-president of HR at Servisair. With such a rich diversity of roles on his CV, is he pleased he finally settled within HR?
Climbing the ladder
“When I started out in mechanical engineering, I worked for Alstom before being offered the job of managing the apprentice training scheme, passing on my knowledge and developing the young engineers of the future,” says Cairns. “This also involved me competing for employees with some very big employers in the area. I guess the combination of seeing the obvious benefits of training coupled with the excitement of recruitment drew me into the world of human resources.”
While he certainly appears to have found his forte, he reflects that it was never something that he would have envisaged himself doing when he was at school. It also meant that on top of his engineering accomplishments, he had to complete two different sets of qualifications: a diploma in training management in Wigan and the CIPD post graduate diploma in human resource management at Manchester Metropolitan University.
“The combination of the two proved very useful,” he remarks. “I think the CIPD qualification is essential if you want to develop your career in HR. I also developed lots of HR contacts this way.”
A glance at Cairns’ impressive CV and his aptitude for dealing with people is soon evident, as is his philosophy on career development: set objectives and decide what you want to achieve, but also be prepared to modify your plans. This ability to see the bigger picture has meant that Cairns has often switched between roles if it helps learn new skills and ensures that he makes the most of any opportunities that come his way, unlike some of his contemporaries: “Many HR people aren’t as commercially aware as they should be, as they spend all their time in HR functions,” he comments.
This unflinching dedication to his craft has even seen him take a three-year break from HR to fill the role of operations manager at a JCB equipment plant in order to better appreciate the business and the challenges of operational roles.
However, it hasn’t all be plain sailing. There have been other challenges along the way, such as supporting one company through its darkest hour before emerging the other side as a profit-generating business again. And, no matter how often he has to do it, making people redundant is always a challenge for him. “You’re taking away someone’s livelihood and however it is handled, it’s never nice. Being professional and being dignified are two ways I have always handled it.”
Now Cairns faces a fresh challenge. Having been recently appointed as HR director at moneysupermarket.com – one of Britain’s online success stories – he has been given a broad remit covering such areas as recruitment and selection, employee relations, communication, compensation and benefits, and training and development. So how is he bringing his wealth of HR experience to what is ultimately a very different business medium?
Alan Cairns, moneysupermarket.com
“By having a HR strategy, recruiting talented people, engaging with them, developing them and retaining them,” he explains. “This involves getting compensation and benefits right, putting the right performance management in place and understanding how to build the right employee relations plans and communications.
“The starting point is surveying your employees, finding out what needs to be better and then working at it – that’s how you get value. Managing retention is another area of focus, and putting robust performance management processes in place can certainly add value.”
True to his roots, he has already been mixing things up by changing the original HR set up with the firm’s other business partners to secure his own seven-strong team: “Now I have a functional structure which allows specialisms to develop. It also means I can move the HR team around to develop their careers.”
So for someone who nearly slipped through the net, what is the best thing about working in HR? “The fact that no two days are the same, and the opportunity to work with talented professionals from other industries. Ultimately it is about seeing the positive impact you can have on an organisation.”
Cairns has clearly embraced his skills and his infectious passion for people has meant that he would have undoubtedly found his way into HR at some point. Thankfully for his employers, it was sooner rather than later.