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Janine Milne

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Talent spot: Andrew Lawson, Head of People at Drake & Morgan

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Andrew Lawson, head of people at bar and restaurant group Drake and Morgan, has spent most of his working life working in the food and drink industry for organisations of all sizes. But if Lawson had stuck to his original plan, he would have been in the kitchen rather than in an office.

His first job at a vegetarian restaurant in Ipswich ignited an interest in catering and hospitality that is still burning brightly more than 20 years later. It was here he started to learn to cook and encouraged by the staff, Lawson decided to pursue cooking as a career, enrolling in catering college. But once on the course, Lawson increasingly found himself drawn to the management side of the industry rather than food preparation.

During and after studying, Lawson worked for a film and TV catering company, feeding actors and production staff from a big location truck on well-loved TV programmes such as London’s Burning and the film The Madness of King George. “I had a great experience and fell in love with hospitality,” remembers Lawson fondly.

People automatically assume that if you want a career in hospitality, you will inevitably work in hotels at some point, but that route never appealed to Lawson. It was food and drink all the way. After college and after gaining some management experience at Aroma Café, Lawson landed a job at fast-food chain Pret a Manger, which at that time had about 45 stores. “It was an amazing experience,” enthuses Lawson. “It was a really innovative business that put people at the heart of it.”

It was the tail end of the 1990s, and the industry was “staid and traditional”, says Lawson, but Pret a Manger was beginning to shake up the high-street – and one of the key differentiators was its people. “I could see the intrinsic link between looking after people and making people feel valued as well,” he recalls.

Five or 10 years later, a lot of organisations began to recognise this link, but Lawson believes that at that time Pret was a trailblazer. And Lawson was happy to play his part in the trailblazing. As general manager of the Cheapside branch of Pret a Manger, Lawson managed to achieve a 48% growth in business year-on-year, earning his branch lots of awards and accolades – all possible, he believes, because the team was engaged. His time there really rammed home home the incredible effect pride, passion and commitment can have on the bottom line. “It was great to get accolades and sales; it was all about igniting the team and engaging them, he says.

Enthused by what engagement could achieve, Lawson decided that a career in HR would enable him to use these skills to good effect. “I guess I had a lucky break; a role presented to me in a very small start-up Soup Works, which was looking for its first HR and training manager. Luckily for Lawson, the company wasn’t looking for someone with a classical HR background, but an operational person who both understood the people side and could structure a training programme. Lawson’s experience made him the perfect match. It was great job, but the business didn’t survive – largely because the soup market was too seasonal – and he was made redundant.

It was a “watershed moment”, remembers Lawson. Up to that point, Lawson had worked for relatively small businesses, but now he decided he wanted to work on something on a much grander scale. So, in 2001, he moved to a North London Asda and handled the people perspective for the store’s 700 staff and became involved in new openings. After three years, Lawson began studying the learning and development section of the CIPD course and thought “wow”. He believed that training and development was where he could really make a difference.

He put this into action with his next role at Coffee Republic as head of people for two and a half years. His focus was on revitalising a brand that was emerging from a tough phase after over-expansion had put a strain on the business. “I came in at an exciting stage to drive the people agenda,” he says.

Although he has specialised in hospitality, Lawson spent 2007 to 2008 in an interim role at Carphone Warehouse to broaden his experience and have a taste of different sectors.

“It was a very different culture,” he says. His role was human resources manager, but his remit expanded into marketing and a commercial function. “There was lots of exciting change and a focus on culture and acquisition and it was fast paced,” he remembers. “Then I realised that hospitality really was under my skin.”

So, in 2008, he returned to hospitality once more as head of human resources for the Jamie Oliver Food Foundation which runs the Fifteen restaurant brand.

Jamie Oliver set up Fifteen as a charity to offer young, unemployed people the chance to train as chefs. Although a not-for-profit organisation, Fifteen still needed to deliver commercial success to support the apprentice programme. Lawson joined at the same time as a new chief executive with the brief of establishing a culture based around social enterprise. It was a high-profile business and the first time he’d been involved with a charity.

A key task was to tweak the apprenticeship recruitment process. Lawson explains: “One of the things that came up in the apprenticeship programme was that the success rate was relatively slow, so the challenge was to recruit people with the right mindset, who really wanted to do it and wanted to turn their life around. They were going to have an amazing experience, but it was not going to be easy and they had stuff in their personal lives they needed to deal with and needed to work in an environment where they had to get up early each day.”

He reworked the recruitment process to ensure that only people with the right attitude and traits were were taken on. As a result of the policy change, Fifteen had its most successful year commercially, but also a great year in terms of rate of apprenticeships. But after a restructure at the company, which saw all the support functions centralised, Lawson needed to find another new challenge.

After a short stint as an interim at the National Magazine Company in 2010 which proved a fascinating mix of dynamism and creativity on one side but culturally quite traditional, Lawson came “back home” to bar and restaurant business, joining Drake & Morgan.

One of the things he’d noticed at National Magazine and other big companies was that when there’s a huge HR team, you can feel very far removed from the customer and Lawson enjoys working closely with line managers and being operational as well as being strategic. “The conclusion I came to was that I didn’t want to do big companies. I wanted to work in hospitality and be close to the business,” he says.

Lawson joined London-based bar and restaurant group Drake & Morgan in 2011. The company has a headcount of 270 people across five London eateries, including the refinery in Southwark and the parlour in Canary Wharf, and was named the sixth fastest growing company in the Sunday Times Virgin Fast Track 100.

When Lawson joined he needed to put in place training, an induction process and customer service programmes. With that in place, the focus this year is on recruitment – the company will recruit up to 100 people over the next 12 months. Another key focus is customer service, which will impact the way managers lead and behave and how they develop their teams. The aim is also to improve support for general managers to help them become more successful with the commercial aspects of running a restaurant and identify ways to build business. Other HR plans include establishing an online learning system and expanding the appraisal system beyond general manager level to management and other staff.

“We have a successful formula. The Drake & Morgan group is made up of individual restaurants, which are all slightly different but consistent. Individuality is key,” notes Lawson. “We’re very much leading from front, but there’s a constant need for rejuvenation and change.”

Who do you admire most and why?
I admire people who have a vision and turn it into reality. Jillian MacLean, chief executive at Drake & Morgan is a brilliant example of someone with amazing vision. Also Julian Metcalfe and Sinclair Beecham who came up with the brilliant idea for Pret a Manger.

What’s your most hated buzzword?
“Employee engagement”. Of course I agree with what it means, but the terminology is misguided and lots of organisations believe there’s a secret formula – if we put this and that in place then we’ll have engagement.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
“Do what you’re good at and enjoy your work.”

How do you relax?
Spending time with my young family, cooking and being with friends.

HR  Advice

Andrew’s key tips to recruit and train people for outstanding customer service.

1. Recruit for personality and attitude.
Use a range of tools and skills to seek out people with great personality who will without prompting want to ensure that customers receive a warm welcome and attentive service. It’s a natural trait to want to help people – we just put some structure to it. Make sure that interview skills are top of the list and that personality traits are non-negotiable, even at the expense of experience.

2. Right people with the right skills delivering the right training.
Choose the right people with the right skills and personality to teach others. Training is about process and structure, but finding people who love to train and reflect the company culture is also key to an engaging employment experience.

3. Plan. Structure. Review.
Great training needs a structure, it needs planning and it needs to be measured. So make sure you have a system and the right resource in place to deliver. In the short term it is an investment, but the longer term gain in terms of the customer experience and their loyalty to the brand is priceless.

4. Make training part of your culture.
We measure our training almost as much as we do our business results. Embedding training as part of your culture is about robust measurement, but it’s also about the language we use. Our trainers report daily on training attendance and weekly on key achievements and training progress. Our general managers can see the benefit of great training in terms of stability and standards and that makes it intrinsic to what we do.

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