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Janine Milne

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Talent Spot: Kath Austin, HR and Marketing Director, Pizza Hut

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Like so many graduates, when Kath Austin, HR and marketing director at Pizza Hut, left university in 1997, she wasn’t entirely sure which direction to go in. Joining a graduate training scheme seemed like the sensible thing to do and British Airways a good brand to work for. It turned out to be an inspired choice.

 
Austin is a foodie, so much so that she won a young chef competition as a teenager. At BA, she ended up working on designing the menus for the likes of Concorde, World Traveller and first-class passengers – all requiring different menus, but still needing to reflect the same BA brand.
 
She was flying round the world dealing with suppliers in far-flung exotic locations. “I got the opportunity to combine my passion for food with learning how a major business operates and a company that is grounded in service,” remembers Austin.
 
She loved it and really thought she’d be in that business for the rest of her life. But then the former group HR director, who had moved to Barclays, made her an offer too good to resist. 
 
So, in 2001, she joined Barclays and began working on the strategic project team looking at its customer strategy. At that time, Barclays had a very devolved structure and it was beginning to centralise its resourcing, setting up central frameworks and standardising training through a shared service centre. She gradually moved into general HR, looking after a big slice of the business. 
 
Towards the end of her time at Barclays, Austin took part in a sponsored global challenge world yacht race, where 18 crew members were stuck together for weeks on end in very cramped quarters. “I think I learned more about myself in that year than any other,” says Austin. 
 
Banking on success
 
When she came back, she was wanted to try something different, so she joined executive search consultancy Wrightson Wood. But it wasn’t long before another big brand lured her into corporate life once more, this time LloydsTSB.
 
She joined as HR head of direct banking in 2008, working on its online and telephony banking businesses. It was a great place to work with good people and fantastic culture. “I had an amazing opportunity with Lloyds,” she remembers, particularly as she was there during the HBOS acquisition. “From the people perspective it one of of the most interesting times to be in banking,” she adds.
 
Her remit gradually grew broader and broader and she became director of HR, direct banking and the Halifax Community bank. She wasn’t thinking of leaving, but then she got an opportunity to return to the food arena once more, this time working with Pizza Hut. More than the food connection, however, she found the chief executive inspirational and it was an excellent opportunity to be part of the turnaround team to rethink the Pizza Hut brand in the UK. It was a chance, she says, “to look at the Pizza Hut business front to back from the people perspective.”
 
So she joined the efforts to change and update the business, and shortly afterwards the sale of Pizza Hut was announced, which was completed in November. Working out how to maintain talent during such upheaval proved a great learning experience.
 
As the company emerges the other side from all this change, the focus now is on how to improve engagement among its 10,000 employees. One initiative that is already proving immensely popular is “Hut Space”, Pizza Hut’s internal social network. Everyone from the chief executive down is on Hut Space. “We didn’t tell people they had to use it, but it’s been in use over one year and 7,000 are active users and it’s growing week on week,” she says.
 
It isn’t corporate and it isn’t policed, but it used by management as a way of spreading information using podcasts or videos – a far more personal and effective medium than email, maintains Austin. Hut Space enables everyone to “talk very honestly about the period of change, which is very difficult with a very large population working in different restaurants,” she says. 
 
Senior management also use it as a quick way to litmus testing an idea. They can post something during meetings and get a response from 20 or 30 people to an idea in a matter of minutes. Austin notes that one of its chief benefits is that it’s taken silos down between departments and managers and other workers.
 
Pizza celebrations 
 
This year, it’s the company’s 40th anniversary in the UK and the company has a number of different initiatives planned to mark the occasion. The first part of the year is dedicated to looking back over its history. Employees were asked their favourite product and unanimously voted for a pizza called ‘The Edge’, where the topping goes right to the edge, and this pizza will reappear on the menu. In the summer, there will be lots of celebrations, while the latter part of the year, dubbed “life begins at 40”, will be dedicated to looking at the future of the firm.
 
Alongside HR, Austin also runs marketing for the company. She believes the two business disciplines sit well together in a service industry.
 
“Our people are our brand. If you truly believe that, and we do, then marketing and HR do sit well together,” she notes. “My advice to anybody in a service business or customer service is to look at bringing HR and the brand together.” 
 
She sees internal communications, HR and marketing like as virtuous circle: internal comms leads you to PR, which takes you to marketing and campaigns reach out to customers. Marketing needs to be grounded in core business, not just selling customers something, but demonstrating the brand, so that customers keep coming back to the restaurants.
 
The company has invested £3m in training over the last few years in a bid to improve its service and entice lapsed customers back into its restaurants once more. Plans for this year include rolling out Hut Space onto different mobile platforms, tailoring career paths using coaching and training and investing in apprenticeships.
 
Q&A
 
Who do you admire most and why?
My grandmother. She was one of those amazing early 20th century pioneers who travelled the world in a hard hat. She also set up the first ballet school in India.
 
What’s your least favourite buzzword?
“Take it to the business” – change should be coming from the business.
 
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
“Ask for forgiveness not permission.”
 
How do you relax?
I’m a bit of a runner, so if I want to chill, I go for a run. I live in a water mill, although we produce electricity not flour. So I’ve become an expert on hydroelectricity and actually supply the National Grid.
 

One Response

  1. HR at Pizza Hut

    Interesting background leading through to the present job, but can you tell me Kath how you communicate with the remaining 30% of your Staff, and do you have any idea of the mix of those 30% ie half middle management etc?  I ask because your experience is not uncommon, and the real trick I find  is to engage the rest as effectively.  So far I have not found the ‘perfect’ solution so would appreciate your experience here.

    Cheers.  DonR.

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