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Janine Milne

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Talent Spot: Kevin Fisher, HR director at Blemain Group

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One of the six key tasks that Kevin Fisher was set when he joined specialist lender Blemain Group as an interim was to find a permanent HR director.

And he found the perfect candidate: himself.

From Blemain’s perspective, having Fisher on board as an interim HRD first of all enabled senior managers to ‘try before they buy’, he says. But this approach also worked both ways and likewise gave Fisher a chance to get to know the Manchester-based company.

 
He liked what he saw, but could also clearly see where he would be able to add value.

Originally, however, Fisher had planned to make a career in sales and so had joined the John Lewis Partnership management training scheme. Subsequently though, an opportunity came up to work in the training and development department.

 
Lured by the prospect of a promotion and more money, Fisher thought he had nothing to lose by taking a year out before continuing on his original path. But he fell in love with learning and development – and basically never left.

Eventually, however, he felt that he’d gone as far as he could within John Lewis and was keen to broaden his HR experience. As a result, he took on a number of consultancy-type roles before going back in-house. “I was working on my own and missed the interaction of being part of a business,” Fisher explains.

 
Sector-hopping
 
Over the years, however, he has taken on numerous different permanent and interim roles across industries ranging from retail and warehousing to leisure and entertainment. “While it’s great and a big advantage to get properly qualified, having the experience of other businesses and working environments is critical,” Fisher advises.

But while sector-hopping has given him a wide-angled lens view of business, he believes that: “99.9% of what HR does could work in absolutely any sector. People are the same the world over.”

 
The 0.1% that does change, however, is the culture – each company and sector has cultural differences that it is important to tune into quickly, he points out.

But although Fisher says that he had some interesting and rewarding experiences while working as an interim manager, he doesn’t consider himself an interim careerist as he prefers to get under a company’s skin.

 
He also sometimes found it frustrating that he never got to see the fruits of his labours – despite putting measures in place to create long-term cultural change, he always left before any of those changes really began to take effect.
 
“You make the changes but who becomes the champion of that when you leave? You don’t get to see the results of what you do,” Fisher observes.

Nonetheless, sometimes, he was allowed to indulge his curiosity. When working on a major restructuring project for a public-sector client, for instance, he ended up getting involved in all aspects of HR.

 
Ironically, the opposite was true on being taken on by Blemain in August 2010 though. Instead the company was very particular in its demands and tasked him with six activities that it wanted him to do rather that get involved in HR in a more general sense.
 
Graduate training programme
 
One of those six requirements – and the key reason that an expert was called in – was that the firm had never employed an HR director before and was unsure what the role could bring to the table.

Although Fisher did have an HR function to run, it was largely operational and tactical in focus, handling pay, benefits and so on without taking a strategic view.

 
Despite this situation, the company had made some good strategic decisions, which included setting up a graduate training programme three years earlier.

“One of the things that really impressed me with Blemain is that they had a graduate scheme for three years and it is not a large company. People who’d been on that scheme were still in the business and had done very well,” Fisher points out.

Key to the initiative’s success was that it was centrally funded, which meant that managers did not have to worry about finding the necessary budget to hire trainees in the first place.

 
But although it was working well, Fisher identified a number of areas in which improvements could be made. “It needed more structure and rigour,” he explains.

Under the original two-year scheme, for instance, graduates were supposed to stay in a given department for six months before moving on. In practice, however, people tended to find an area that they liked and stayed put. But “that’s not giving them the breadth of experience they need”, Fisher notes.

 
Tweaking rewards
 
As a result, graduates are now expected to stick to the intended six months’ arrangement and receive more formal training rather than simply being expected to learn on the job. They are likewise given regular reviews.
 
But Fisher is also in the process of trying to better understand what it is that different parts of the business specifically want from its graduates. To ensure that they obtain the experience that they need, for example, managers now have to explain why they want one.
 
”You have to make a case if you want a graduate – about what you’re going to give them and how they will spend their six months. The idea is that if you can articulate that, then hopefully you will look after the graduate,” Fisher says.
 
This year, Blemain has received 350 applications – compared with 150 last year – for four positions on the scheme, which will kick off in September.

Another area in which Fisher has tweaked an already established scheme, meanwhile, is the firm’s rewards programme for star performers.

 
“When I came into the business, they had already spent time working on a new set of shared values, which was really well done, and then they had also set up the ‘Wow’ awards where people were acknowledged for their work,” he explains. “We’ve revamped all that.”

He has done this by bringing the two areas together and giving awards to people who can demonstrate the company’s three core values. “It’s about how do we get people to live the values more,” Fisher explains.

Although it hadn’t originally been his plan on taking up the interim post with Blemain, he says that he is happy be a full time employee again, which he has been since April 2011.

 
Challenges and motivations
 
“I really enjoyed working with the team, but also the business has got a lot of challenges ahead of it this year and I wanted to be part of that and that’s what made me decide it would be fun,” he says.

Those challenges are partly to do with the industry that the company operates in. Although it is not easy in any corner of the financial services market at the moment, the 350-strong firm, which has been going for nearly 40 years, has seen nearly 80% of its competition disappear in the last three years. But it is still managing to grow.

Another issue that Fisher does not have a problem with is the fact that the HR director role is not a board-level position. In fact, he says: “It drives me mad when HR people go on about being on the board. You can still be the power behind the throne and you can still make stuff happen in a business.”

And he believes that his actions to date have demonstrated the value that the board can gain in having an HR director in place anyway. “I wanted to be able to show them that HR can do more than just tactical operational stuff,” Fisher explains.

 
As a result, on discovering an area in which it was possible to “get smarter in the way we do projects”, he kick-started a revamp that was subsequently taken over and adopted by the business.
 
“It showed them that HR isn’t just about the people context in traditional HR. I’m quite challenging of the status quo and they didn’t expect that from the HR role,” Fisher says.

Above all, however, the key thing that keeps him interested in HR generally, and motivated at Blemain specifically, is simply the variety of the job. “No two days are ever the same; it’s part of why I love what I do -because it’s so varied,” Fisher concludes.

 
And finally…

Who do you admire most and why?
I don’t have one particular person – I tend to admire a number of individuals for the great things they do.

 
One of them is someone I know who has been through some tough times at work and in their personal life. I really respect how they have managed that situation and how they’ve managed to carry on at work.

Also, and this will sound a bit cheesy, a few years ago my wife had to completely change her career as we had to move for mine. And she’s now become a milliner – that came from nowhere. I’ve a great deal of admiration for people who can change just like that.

What’s your most hated buzzword?
“People are our greatest asset.” I always think of an asset as a piece of furniture that can wear out. And when something wears out, you throw it out.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
It’s an old one, but it works for me: ‘You can’t please all of the people, all of the time’. I’ve found it to be so true in everything I’ve done.

How do you relax?
At the moment, I’m working away from home so, weeknights, I go to the gym and, at weekends, I spend time with my wife and 4 1/2-year-old daughter.

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