Karen Gregory talks to Lucie Benson about her diverse HR career, mainly in the retail sector, and how it is the enthusiasm and commitment of the people at Magnet that make her want to stay.
The aim: ‘To be the UK’s kitchen experts’
Number of staff: 2,500
Number of HR staff: 21
Location: Head office in Darlington, County Durham
As a graduate fresh out of university, Karen Gregory knew straight away that she wanted a career in personnel, as it was known back then. That was in the mid 80s and she hasn’t looked back since.
Her interest in HR was spurred on by a brief stint at Marks and Spencer, after which she joined the graduate training scheme at high street retailer BHS. “It was an excellent all-round training scheme,” recalls Gregory. “It was very commercially-based and I got a good understanding of the business as well as getting a good grounding in HR. I don’t think you get those opportunities as much now. It was only as the years progressed that I realised how good that grounding was.”
Gregory then went on to work at supermarket chain Sainsbury’s, where she was to spend the next 13 years in various departments and roles, mainly in training. “I began in head office, as a management skills trainer, so I ran many courses for department managers and deputy managers within the branches.”
She then looked after the retail training scheme, and when a northern regional office was opened in her home county of Yorkshire, she took the chance to move back there to become a development manager for the northern region, which involved looking after the recruitment, development and succession planning of the department and deputy managers there.
Karen Gregory, Magnet
Following the many challenges and development opportunities that Sainsbury’s provided for her, Gregory decided to branch out on her own. “I worked on an interim and consultancy basis for seven years on various different projects, doing all different types of HR and training roles. This enabled me to get a really good understanding of different organisations, both within the public and private sector,” she remarks.
Her time as a consultant also led to her landing the job of HR and training director at Magnet Kitchens, as she explains: “I had done a number of projects for Magnet during those seven years and they asked me to come back in April last year, to work on a project reviewing the HR and training strategy because they were getting bigger and more successful. I conducted that project and as a result, I was offered the position of HR director to implement those plans.”
Enthusiasm and commitment
Gregory admits that she had been offered a number of positions during her time as a consultant, but the Magnet offer was the first time she had really known that this is what she wanted to do. “It is the people within Magnet that make me want to stay. We of course have our challenges, but the enthusiasm and commitment is fantastic.”
In terms of qualifications, Gregory is CIPD-qualified and says that whilst it has certainly been useful, she was lucky that she had such a good grounding at BHS. “However, for somebody who is embarking on their career, then it is a useful qualification,” she comments. “But I don’t think being CIPD qualified is an entry into everything. You won’t be all-knowing – you have to balance that with experience.”
At Magnet, Gregory explains that there isn’t actually a separate HR strategy within the organisation – there is simply a clear business strategy. “Our role is to develop the business strategy with the business leaders and make sure that everything we do within HR and training is helping to support and meet the business strategy. So that is to recruit, develop and retain our people.”
Gregory says that Magnet operates in a very competitive market, with many new store openings and so on, therefore it is vital they ensure they are the employer of choice for people coming into the sector.
“Once we have recruited people in (we have an outsourced recruitment provider who works with us), we have a great four-day induction that everybody goes on; and after that, we have to ensure that we manage to develop and retain people in the business, and we have got lots of plans around that to make sure that happens.”
The HR team within Magnet is made up of 21 people in total, including HR business partners (HRBPs) working in sales operations, an HR administration services team, who provide admin and payroll support, and a training and development team.
“In terms of how we coordinate and manage things, the HRBPs offer services to sales operations, and there is also an HR manager who offers services to the supply and manufacturing side of the business,” she explains. “To ensure consistency across the organisation, the HR and training team report into me but with a strong dotted line relationship with operational directors.”
Gregory remarks that her HR department adds value to the business by supporting the recruitment, retention and development of the right people. “I sit on the executive so have an input at the top level in business decisions. We can affect the organisation in that way, but that is what we set out to do. We provide challenge to people’s thinking. It is important that we achieve the business aims and do it in the right way.”
When asked what her biggest challenge within HR has been to date, Gregory notes that there have been many over the years. However, she picks out an example at Magnet in particular: “Magnet is owned by a Swedish organisation, and HR and training operate quite differently in Scandinavian countries than they do here. So it was the challenge of convincing our leaders of the worth of HR and training, and how that can add value to the business. We are well on the road with that but it was a real challenge to my thinking and ability to influence.”
And the best thing about working in HR? “It is the challenge of every day,” she states. “You never get bored in HR!”