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Janine Milne

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Talent Spot: David Kast, head of HR at Hogg Robinson Group

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When David Kast first started working in a branch of travel agency Hogg Robinson Group  in the early 1970s, he had no inkling that he would still be working for the same firm 39 years later – or that his career would have veered off into HR and training.

Kast had left school unsure of what he wanted to do, but luckily that was in the 1960s – a period when jobs and opportunities were plentiful.
 
“For the first year, I was an electrical apprentice, but I decided rapidly that this wasn’t for me. I escaped from that,” he says with some relief.
 
In 1973, Kast joined Hogg Robinson and worked his way up to become a branch manager. But seven years later, his career focus shifted as business interest in the issue of training and development started growing.
 
“Up until that time, training was very academic, with people coming out of university and going into training. But then you started to see people coming out of business and going into training,” Kast remembers.
 
He began running sales training courses on a part-time basis and quickly seized an opportunity to become training manager at the company, reporting directly to the group personnel manager, who had promised to share all of his training knowledge with the inexperienced Kast.
 
Unfortunately, the personnel manager left the organisation almost immediately, leaving him to manage the training department by himself. “I found myself being training manager with very little experience and no mentor,” he recalls.
 
It was a challenge, but a challenge that Kast relished and he is proud that the training scheme that he set up, helped to drive the expansion of the HRG’s huge network of shops in the 1980s. In fact, he concentrated on training for most of that decade.
 
“I was HR manager at that time. In those days, I never saw a division between training and HR – all the objectives of training were based in line with HR and HR at that time was very much paperwork,” he points out.
 
But in 1993, major changes shook the company when the leisure and travel business was sold off and HRG decided to concentrate on business travel. “At that time, I actively backed off the HR side and spent time as HR’s head of training,” Kast says.
 
Culture of trust
 
There were a couple of reasons for this. Firstly, while the travel industry was quick to grasp the importance of using technology, this situation also presented training challenges as staff needed to be brought up to speed with new ways of working.
 
Secondly and more importantly, the shift in business focus meant the workforce required a different skillset.
 
“We were very much a commission-based industry, but our model changed in the 1990s to a management fee model, where our costs and profitability were known and where we had people who worked in our client’s premises," Kast explains. "People were paying us to be consultants, so we needed different skills.”
 
In 1999, however, he changed direction once again, this time to head up HR for the whole group. One of his key recent challenges – like pretty much every other UK firm – has been working out ways in which to weather the recession, however.
 
Some 40% of the company’s clients are FTSE 100 firms that were focusing on controlling costs, so the challenge for HRG was to find ways to strip out its own costs accordingly. But it didn’t just want to impose cuts on staff.
 
Instead, the organisation asked its employees to come up with ways of their own to save money. “We wanted to weather the storm as well as possible and keep compulsory redundancies to the minimum,” Kast notes.
 
Options included voluntary redundancies and voluntary salary cuts. “At the end of the day, employees gave up 5% of pay for a period. We never promised to give it back, but 12 months later gave them back a 10% bonus,” Kast says.
 
This type of cooperation between management and personnel is only possible where a culture of trust has been developed, however. “There’s a great family feel here,” Kast believes. “I’ve been here 39 years and I’m not alone. Our chief executive started life as a branch manager.”
 
Although Kast does not sit directly on the board (he reports to the chief operating officer) that does not mean to say that he is removed from corporate decision-making processes.
 
The open, family-style culture means that there is plenty of communication between senior team members and he makes sure that he takes advantage of this scenario to stays up-to-date with business goals.
 
“You have to earn trust. HR can be very much seen as a bureaucratic function – there’s a lot of noise made about being a business partner, but you have to understand the business,” Kast concludes.
 
And finally…
 
Who do you admire most and why?
Nelson Mandela. I admire him for his humility, tenacity and his vision.
 
What’s your most hated buzzword?
‘Low-hanging fruit.’ I think it’s just such a cop-out and a cheesy phrase.
 
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received?
Never ever stay in your comfort zone. Always challenge things, otherwise you will never find out what you are capable of.
 
How do you relax?
My big hobby is the theatre. I’ve been involved in the theatre for the last 40 years and enjoy acting and being front-of-house or working as a stage hand.
 
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