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Janine Milne

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Talent Spot: Philippe Ferrie, head of HR at Vallourec


When a global company has a decentralised culture, it can be hard to persuade people to accept standardisation that is handed down from head office, even if it makes their work lives easier.

This was the situation that Philippe Ferrie, worldwide employee relations coordinator at Vallourec, found himself in when the company chose to implement a worldwide HR information system in five months.

But rising to a challenge is something from which he has never shied away. Whatever the challenge may be, the simple principles of showing people respect and listening to what they have to say have stood him in good stead.

It was seeing first-hand the effect that communication – and miscommunication – could have on a business, however, which convinced Ferrie as an undergraduate that HR was the career for him. So after studying for a law degree, he took a postgraduate course in the closest thing he could find to HR at the time: labour regulations.

Ferrie landed his first job at the aluminium wire and cable manufacturer, which today is known as Rio Tinto. From 1985 to 1990, he was involved in training and development activities as well as dealing with the unions over legal matters.

“It was a classic old manufacturing environment, dealing with very basic topics to manage with the union. Plus there was quite an aggressive training plan as there was a big company restructuring and we needed to prepare people to transition to new jobs,” Ferrie explains.
Non-traditional values
The big issue was that most of the staff at the manufacturing site were hired for “more their physical capabilities than their mental capabilities,” which made dealing with the situation both “interesting and tricky”, he says.
The dynamics were also similar in his next job at Sanofi. Although today it is a massive pharmaceutical firm, at that time it was quite small but growing quickly due to an aggressive acquisition programme.
“There was an aggressive development programme, which was creating a culture and base line on everything: training, HR everything,” Ferrie says. “So it was another exciting time. And at this time, Sanofi was really giving lots of opportunities to young guys.”

From there, he moved back into the manufacturing sector, but US chemical firm DuPont had a very different business strategy to the average. It wanted to set up a green-field manufacturing site built on non-traditional manufacturing values and based on a non-hierarchical management structure.

“It was a step change in the way we do manufacturing, having people empowered and engaged in the business, including at the shop-floor level,” Ferrie explains.

The company also turned the recruitment process on its head too. Culture and values were prized much more highly than skills, which came as a surprise to many people.

HR make-over
“When we announced the new manufacturing site, we said ‘if you share our values and our philosophy, if you want to create something different, then join us’,” Ferrie says. “There was no reference to graduation, to skills, nothing. Just do you want to join us?”

Although a rigorous selection process was followed, the key idea was to hire people with the right attitude and train them up to gain the required skills.

Ferrie stayed in France for five years, before moving on to other projects within the company both in France and the US. He was headhunted to join Vallourec in 2002.

Because the company, which makes specialist tubes for the oil and gas industry, had a more traditional manufacturing set-up, Ferrie once more found himself negotiating with unions and having to communicate tough decisions such as closing plants.

The HR department also required a major make-over. “When I joined in 2002, the use of Excel was very rare, so I spent six years recreating the HR organisation and trying to make it more professional,” Ferrie says.

Another aim was to ensure that the department reflected the global nature of the firm’s business. As part of this shift, Ferrie was promoted in 2008 from his role as head of HR at one of Vallourec’s companies to assume the newly-created position of worldwide employee relations coordinator.

Standardising operations
His remit was to create a corporate HR organisation and forge links between HR managers in each of the 20 countries in which the company operates. “There was almost no relationship or process, so we wanted to create a corporate organisation plus a corporate perspective,” he explains.

The idea was to establish how things were being done in each territory and to share best practice across the firm. In technology terms, however, some countries already had their own software in place, while others were still on trusty old Excel.

But it was Ferrie’s job to try and standardise operations and so he chose SAP’s SuccessFactors unit’s Software-as-a-Service-based offering to help him do so.

“Usually, HR IS projects are never-ending projects because of the size, magnitude and complexity – and the different country perspectives,” he points out. “It was a challenge and we were hesitating between let’s do it in three years and let’s do it in six months. And then the decision came, let’s do it in five months!”

It was a tight deadline, but they made it. “The reason we made it is that, by making the deadline short, people were focused. It means we had to simplify and find quick wins and easy things to set up so we could deliver something,” Ferrie explains. “The more time you take, the more you expose yourself to new issues and to change. In the end, it was a good thing to do – but not always fun!”

But the secret to delivering any HR project on time – as with so many things – is to communicate what you’re doing effectively, Ferrie believes. Do that well and everything else should – in theory – fall into place.

And finally….

Who do you admire most and why?
Guys like Bill Gates are people I have some admiration for, not so much for the IT side, but for the visionary side – the way he managed his business and what he’s doing now.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
It was in my very early career when I met the training and development manager at the aluminium company and they told me: ”If you do one thing in your career, always try to think out of the box and challenge your own assessment.” Today I always ask my team to challenge me and I will challenge them too. It’s from this dialogue that we can create a broader perspective.

What’s your most hated buzzword?

The type of sentence I hate is: ‘We have to wait for/until…’ or ‘It’s not my/our priority’. It seems to me that it is just an excuse for poor performance or planning.
How do you relax?
I’m a big fan of motorbikes – and spending time with my family, of course.

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