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Janine Milne

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Talent Spot: Karl Jolly, director of people at the Welcome Break Group


Karl Jolly has spent his whole career in the hospitality and food and drink industries.

Today, he is director of people at Welcome Break Group, helping to ensure that the 80 million people who pass through the motorway service station and hotel operator’s doors have as good an experience as possible.

“About 98% of 80 million people use our toilets! Our challenge is we’ve got people coming to the building and so, given that it’s never going to be cheap, how can we give them the products and service they expect,” Jolly asks.

But he has come a long way since 1986 when, as a teenager, he worked as a dish washer at TGI Friday’s, before being promoted to a bar job.

At that time, Jolly was studying computer science at college, but gave it up to work full-time at the restaurant chain. He loved being a barman – it was the 1980s and the Tom Cruise film ‘Cocktail’ was riding high, giving the role an air of glamour.

But while enjoying the work, Jolly was also learning a lot. Unusually for bar workers at that time, TGI Friday’s sent them all on a 10-week training programme, which meant that Jolly experienced first-hand the beneficial effect of training.

Making moves
And it wasn’t long before he was able to put this interest into practice. After a few years of bartending, Jolly became a front-of-house manager, but then left to join another company that was looking to improve its bartending practices. As a result, he began training people in how to run bars more effectively.
His employer was subsequently bought by gin and vodka distiller, Greenalls, which led to his informal development activities becoming more formal and structured, and he was officially appointed training officer.

By 1994, however, Jolly was looking for a new challenge and so went to work at Pret A Manger. It was an exciting period in the company’s history. Although the sandwich chain has stores on most high-streets today, at that point it had only 25 outlets.

But during the five years that Jolly worked there as training and development manager, Pret opened another 80 or 90 shops. “In those days, it was a great concept and had a fantastic approach to people but lacked structure, so I was able to put in processes and management and get training and recruitment set up,” he remembers.

From there, Jolly made the jump to another high-street regular, All Bar One, moving into his first HR role at the same time. “It was a good opportunity to work for a bigger business as it was part of Bass then [it is now owned by managed pub operator, Mitchells and Butler],” he explains.

Jolly had no formal HR training, however, and so it was a massive jump. But he says: “All my moves have been early: I got into training and development early and HR early, but I don’t regret that – it’s up to me to get to grips and get to own it.”

A people team
Working for Mitchells and Butler also provided him with some useful experience. “It was a very difficult job, taking big organisational strategy and implementing it into brands. It was far more formalised and structured,” Jolly points out.

In 2006, however, he took up his present role as director of people at the Welcome Group.

“The new chief executive wanted to revisit the HR function. There had been a separate HR and training function, so the first thing I did was to bring HR and training together to be the ‘people team’,” says Jolly, who is not keen on the HR moniker. “IT is IT, finance is finance, why is people HR?” he questions.

Welcome Break is made up of a number of different franchises from regular high-street favourites such as Waitrose, KFC, Starbucks and Burger King.

Although each has a very different brand identity, the operator is responsible for hiring and training all of the people who work there. “We have to get the right people for Welcome Break and for the franchises,” Jolly explains.

Over the last couple of years, he and his team have focused on creating a more cohesive company culture rather than having seven or eight teams on site who do their own thing, which used to be the case.

Getting involved
This means that everyone who works for the organisation can taste life in the various franchises and are offered plenty of scope to experience different environments.

“My mantra or brief is that I see myself as a representative for a culture that provides performance,” says Jolly. “The biggest culture change is equipping the business to deliver the different brands because before it was just our brand.”

His key focus now is on encouraging new people to join the organisation as well as supporting the development of existing employees. One of the ways that he attempts to do the latter is to select four or five high-performing managers each year and, as a thank you, send them on a course at Harvard University.
“It’s to say thank you and that we’d like to invest in you. There’s no huge expectation when they come back – it’s to help them develop personally,” explains Jolly.

But while he has come a long way since his days behind the bar mixing cocktails, he has never lost interest in what is going on at ground level. “There are two types of HR professionals: HR people and HR operations people and I am firmly on the ops side,” he says.

This means that, although Jolly could easily find enough things to do without sticking a toe out of his office all week, he makes it his business to get involved.

And finally…

Who do you admire most and why?
I have a lot of respect for Steve Jobs and his ability to be clear about what’s important and what makes a difference. What I take from that is you have to have clarity and not get caught up in the day-to-day stuff.

What’s your most hated buzzword?
“Deep dive”, as in let’s take a deep dive into that.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

Get it right first time, do it well, and make it stick.

How do you relax?

I spend my Sundays in Coventry Skydome watching ice hockey. I can barely skate, but I grew up watching it.