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Spotlight: John Roberts, HR director, Ford Retail. By Lucie Benson

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John Roberts

In a return to our series shining the spotlight on HR directors working in a number of sectors, Lucie Benson talks to John Roberts, HR director at Ford Retail, about how his experiences working for some great companies over the years is driving him to ensure his current organisation is a success.


Vital stats:

  • Company: Ford Retail

  • The aim: To be recognised as the best car retailer in the market

  • Number of staff: 3,000

  • Number of HR staff: 15 across various locations

  • Location: Head office in Colchester, Essex. Businesses spread across 65 sites.

  • Contact: www.dagenhammotors.co.uk

  • John Roberts ‘fell’ into HR in the 80s. He was working in operations in pubs at the time, and had applied to hospitality company Whitbread for an area management role on the south coast.

    He was successful in his application, however, there was a proviso that he would take on the role of regional personnel and training manager for the first three years, as Whitbread had gone through a major reorganisation at that time and there was a need for some operationally-focused people in HR.

    “I thought it would be interesting to do for three years and then I would get back into operations,” he comments. “Well, that was the plan.”

    In fact, he enjoyed that role so much, he never looked back. “Whitbread is a fantastic company and I gained a massive education in HR there, with a steep learning curve,” he recalls. “I was successful in that role, which was effectively about the recruitment and training of licensees to run pubs, and making sure there was staff structure and training in place within the pubs. At the end of it, I was promoted into the divisional headquarters at Luton and effectively never got back into operations.”

    Luck on his side

    By his own admission, Roberts has had a “lucky time” when it comes to his career. After leaving Whitbread, he moved into high street fashion, where he was an HR and marketing director. He then joined retail group Kingfisher, where he looked after learning and development for global retailer Comet, after which he became group HR director at pub retailer and brewer Greene King.

    It was after his stint at Greene King that he changed tack slightly and got into executive coaching. “I am a qualified executive coach and so I did that for a year. It was good fun but I found the business-chasing side of it pretty frustrating. Actually I thought working three days a week and playing golf the rest of the time would be good fun, which it was, but after a while I found it a bit boring and was in need of a full-time challenge.”

    Which brings us up to the present day. Roberts looked around for a new opportunity and his current position for Ford Retail came up, which, he says, ticked a number of boxes. “I have now been in the role for three months. It is multi-site, which I have been involved in all my working life, so I understand how that works. It is a new market for me, working with cars, but I can bring all the experiences I have had working for some great companies, to help Ford Retail be more successful.”

    “I thought working three days a week and playing golf the rest of the time would be good fun, which it was, but after a while I found it a bit boring and was in need of a full-time challenge.”

    John Roberts, HR director, Ford Retail

    Due to the way his career in HR has successfully progressed, Roberts has no formal CIPD qualifications, and he feels this hasn’t hindered him at all.

    “I think commercial awareness in HR is absolutely critical and, for me, if people have that and good experience, it is as important as having a CIPD qualification. Having said that, I will support anyone who wants to do the CIPD qualification, as learning and development is as critical for us in HR, as it is for anyone else.”

    Ford Retail, owned by Ford Motor Company, has rapidly become one of the largest dealer groups in the UK, and boasts an annual turnover exceeding £800 million. Roberts is based at the company’s headquarters in Colchester, Essex.

    “My main responsibilities as HR director are to ensure the HR function adds real value to the business,” explains Roberts. “So that is making sure we recruit, retain and motivate people in our organisation, so that we can be commercially successful for our shareholders and ensure our own people have a great working environment.”

    Ford Retail is a new company, put together from a number of dealerships, and is only three or four years old. The HR department is even younger than that, at about two and a half years.

    “The HR team initially worked on a range of enormous projects, putting a number of companies together and driving in common terms and conditions which, across an employee base of 3,000 people, was quite a challenge,” he remarks.

    Reduction in absence rates

    The department has since had a number of successes, including reducing high absence rates by half over the last couple of years, through highlighting those people who were recurrent or absent long-term, and by doing return to work interviews and so on. Staff turnover has also come down from about 30 to 20 per cent. “This was done by focusing in on the retail dealerships, where there was high staff turnover, and working with the local management there to see what we could do to address that,” he explains.

    Roberts is currently putting together some long-term plans for the business, to develop the employees’ skills. “We need to operationally deliver, whilst at the same time put the building blocks in place for the future,” he remarks. “We need a better structure and delivery around learning and development, and that is both the skills to do the technical jobs and looking at the broader thrust of management skills, so we are looking at the whole issue of performance management, appraisals and so on.”

    The HR team at Ford Retail is made up of five regional HR mangers spread across the country, and a number of HR advisers who support the managers with issues such as recruitment and training. “Plus we have a payroll team who are new in, because we took on a new payroll system in April, and we are learning about how to make sure pay and benefits management is used well,” he adds.

    Roberts also has a key relationship with Henry Ford College in Loughborough, which is a training and development centre, supported by Ford of Great Britain. “I have a dedicated resource there whose job is to ensure our people have the right training and development, so we need to work much closer together to make sure this gap that we have identified, in terms of training and development, is met and they can be a key resource in making sure that happens.”

    “The best thing about HR is that you have an involvement in all aspects of the business because your function is people, so by that very nature you get the opportunity to be involved in all parts of it, including helping people to realise their own true potential.”

    John Roberts, HR director, Ford Retail

    Having worked in the retail sector for many years, Roberts has come across a great deal of challenges within HR during this time. “In retail, the challenge is in influencing your fellow colleagues that some things take a long time to deliver, if we want it to work really well,” he remarks.

    “Anyone can shoot from the hip and put something in place, but actually in a strategic sense, everything needs to link together. So one of the real balancing acts for any senior HR person, in my experience, is the need to react, as well as persuade people that some things may take a little bit longer and it is a worthwhile wait.”

    One other universal HR challenge that he mentions is downsizing. “It is one of the trickiest things you can ever deal with because it is dealing with real people, and it affects their personal life as well as their work life and there are families involved.”

    Yet, says Roberts, HR has many rewards too. “The best thing about HR is that you have an involvement in all aspects of the business because your function is people, so by that very nature you get the opportunity to be involved in all parts of it, including helping people to realise their own true potential – if the right structures are in place.

    “It is absolutely brilliant when you can look back after a few years and see talent in the organisation, which then obviously drives its success, and you can prove that the work you did had a direct impact on the profitability of the business.”


    See also:

  • Spotlight: Liz Booth, HR Director, NSPCC

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