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Spotlight: Simon Bion, HR director, BrightHouse


Simon BionLucie Benson talks to Simon Bion about his role as HR director of multi-outlet retail business BrightHouse, and how he believes HR professionals need to have business credibility to become part of the company agenda.

Vital stats:

  • Company: BrightHouse

  • The aim: To provide customers with the means to access household goods to improve their quality of life.

  • Number of staff: 1,600

  • Number of HR staff: 12

  • Location: Head office in Caversham, near Reading

  • Contact:
  • Simon Bion’s HR career began in the early 1980s, when he was head of training and development at Ladbrokes. He then moved on to hold a similar position at Barclays Bank, before becoming director of training at Woolworths. A 12-year stint as a management consultant was followed by two years as group HR director for Courts plc, and his vast experience in the retail industry helped to land him his current role as HR director for BrightHouse in July last year.

    BrightHouse specialises in the sale of home electronic and domestic appliances, household furniture and related products, primarily on a ‘rent-to-buy’, affordable weekly payment basis. It operates 154 retail stores nationwide and employs close to 1,600 people.

    “We are positioned to be affordable,” says Bion. “Customers are able to return goods, provided they have taken out the right cover, so that they don’t get into a credit trap if they can’t afford to continue to pay. The other distinctive thing about BrightHouse is that it is a relationship business – so because of the payment process, the customer will quite often come in weekly to pay for their agreement. That means that we see the customers and build up a very strong rapport. So we get a continuing relationship which is a strong part of our offer.”

    Bion is a member of the CIPD and has completed a great deal of additional training over the last 20 years, as part of his continuing professional development. “I also have a lot of experience and I feel it is important to have a blend of both,” he remarks.

    HR agenda

    At BrightHouse, the people are regarded as the company’s most critical asset. Bion sees his responsibilities as leading the HR team and the HR agenda at a senior level. He breaks down the agenda into six areas. “The first is compliance, and making sure our policies and processes are current and meet legislative requirements as well as our own requirements,” he explains.

    “The second is recruitment – we have to be very sharp in this area – and the third is succession, which is extremely important to this business. We are a growth business and we are a successful business, and if we don’t get the people succession right, it will really put the brake on our plans.”

    Next, he says, is recognition and reward: “We have to make sure that we are externally competitive and that whatever processes we have internally are credible and affordable.”

    Fourth and fifth is the HR responsibility for learning and development, which is a critical part of the business; and finally, there is employee engagement and making sure the HR team is constantly in touch with all staff on all issues.

    “We can, with confidence, work with each other because we each bring different abilities to the party, which also means that we will be seen as part of the problem-solving activities that go on in any business.”

    Simon Bion, HR director, BrightHouse

    “Also, I am a mentor and coach – that is a very important part of my ongoing role as a member of the leadership group,” he adds.

    As HR director, Bion has five direct reports in his HR team. There is a learning and development manager, a corporate HR professional and three divisional HR managers. The managers each have one trainer reporting to them, who primarily train store staff. In addition, there is a small payroll team of three.

    Bion believes that HR has to be seen as a part of the business, otherwise it will not be invited to be part of the real agendas and the problem solving.

    “You need a blend of operational and professional HR people,” he comments. “Two of my divisional HR managers are from retail, and so have business credibility. We can, with confidence, work with each other because we each bring different abilities to the party, which also means that we will be seen as part of the problem-solving activities that go on in any business, rather than being seen as a service to be called on when there is a problem. Without all of that, HR has no chance to become a credible part of the business.”

    Adding value is crucial

    He also remarks that adding value is a crucial area that they must constantly look at. “HR, in this company, is adding value in the areas of training and development. We are adding value by being vigorous at looking at all the costs and benefits that we get from training and development.

    “We are also challenging the status quo, and really working to provide a change-ready organisation; plus we add value in developing stated intents in the business. We will continue to build on the value we add and help the business to deliver that stated intent.”

    When asked what his biggest challenge in HR has been to date, Bion cites the growth at BrightHouse over the last six months. “It has given us huge opportunities to get better at things that we were already quite good at,” he explains. “For example, in the area of training staff, it has given us the opportunity to re-visit the training programme and see if we can do it differently, more efficiently and get better qualified people out of the process. We now use a lot more computer-based training, and put a higher focus on skill developments.”

    This, he says, has led to a better training programme that is more efficient, improved in learning design and blended learning, and is therefore producing better results.

    So what is Bion’s view on the best thing about working in HR? “It was when I was accepted as a businessman with a specialism, rather than a specialist who happened to be in business,” he remarks. “That is what makes the difference.”

    See also:

  • Matthew Brearley, UK HR director, Vodafone

  • Stephen Taylor, HR director, Bounty

  • Carol Lath, HR director, Kingsley Napley

  • John Roberts, HR director, Ford Retail

  • Liz Booth, HR director, NSPCC
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