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Paul Freeston



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What keeps apetito CEO Paul Freeston up at night?


Paul Freeston is Chairman & Chief Executive of food manufacturing company apetito, who have provided meals to care homes, local authorities and hospitals for over 50 years. He talks to HRZone about his stance on engagement, how he’s developing competitive advantage through people, how apetito’s talent strategy is evolving, and what keeps him up at night.

Jamie Lawrence, Editor, HRZone: One of your goals is creating competitive advantage through innovation. Can you expand on why this is a core part of strategy and how your employees fit into this goal?

Paul Freeston, CEO, apetito: One of the key factors in creating a sustainably successful business is that of innovation. Companies that fail to innovate over time don’t fail to progress, they actually start to move backwards. Oren Harari, who was a leading management thinker, talks of prospering in a Copycat economy and the need to focus on Breaking from the Pack. Ultimately, today’s great innovation risks becoming tomorrows “Commodity” as it is mimicked and imitated by others. For me, creating competitive advantage is impossible without a culture of continuous innovation.

As a CEO, my role is about creating an environment, a culture if you will, where our team is encouraged to innovate. We have invested heavily in supporting innovation in recent times with notable successes. One such example has been the development of a range of meals for people with dysphagia – a form of swallowing difficulty – a field in which we are now the world’s best and making a real difference to some of the most vulnerable people in society.

This culture of innovation is also highly attractive to our employees and prospective employees. We are supporting our people not to be afraid to try something new – even though it might fail. This creates a supportive “can-do” environment where everyone benefits.

Jamie Lawrence, Editor, HRZone: As a CEO, how do you want HR people to talk to you about engagement? What metrics are important?

Paul Freeston, CEO, apetito: It’s important that one understands what really matters when driving engagement. It’s pointless focusing on world-class training for example, if your employee is disgruntled with a perceived inequality in their shift allowance. It’s key therefore to talk to your people and understand what matters to them, and not simply assume you know. We have engaged on a fair Pay project at apetito after listening to our staff. I’m incredibly proud that following that, we now have over 82% of our staff now being paid over and above the National Living Wage and that we have committed to becoming an accredited Living Wage employer in January 2016.

Engagement works when one is clear on the benefits for your people and clear on the benefits to the organisation.

Jamie Lawrence, Editor, HRZone: What’s your talent strategy at the moment and how do you think this will evolve over the next five years?

Paul Freeston, CEO, apetito: Retention of customers is key to any successful business and retention of great staff is a key function of that. This is a key focus of our organisation – showing appreciation, giving recognition and maintaining a culture of “team apetito.” We invest heavily in our people, providing learning and development opportunities throughout our Organisation; I’m particularly proud of how many developmental opportunities are filled by people progressing within apetito. This isn’t down to chance; it reflects our clear programme of identifying and investing in talent.

Attracting new talent is also fundamental. We are a successful and expanding organisation, so having a clear ability to forecast supply and demand for different roles and skills enables us to identify key challenges in the labour market. I’m especially proud of the graduate programme that we have developed; in this year alone we will have taken on more than 10 graduates in a mixture of permanent and placement roles.

Jamie Lawrence, Editor, HRZone: As a CEO, what keeps you up at night?

Paul Freeston, CEO, apetito: I sleep well, as I have the privilege of working with what I believe is the most passionate workforce in the UK for an organisation that makes a real difference to the lives of some of the most vulnerable in society.

However, in attempting to answer your question, if you asked those that I work with, I am sure that they would refer to my fear of complacency; this more than anything drives me forward. As an organisation, we must never become complacent.

Jamie Lawrence, Editor, HRZone: How do you take a ‘temperature’ of the prevailing culture as a CEO?

Paul Freeston, CEO, apetito: This is a good question. There are many ways in which one can do this, some more formal than others. At the more formal end of the scale we take part in the Great Places To Work Survey, which provides us with detailed feedback. At the other end I am a real fan of just taking time to “dip into” the business – testing the temperature and seeing reality on where our customers and our front line team are.  

It’s then just a case of asking them and engaging in an open and honest dialogue.

Jamie Lawrence, Editor, HRZone: What’s next for apetito when it comes to employee engagement?

Paul Freeston, CEO, apetito: Engagement is, and always will be high on our agenda here at apetito.  We see engagement as the primary tool that drives people to perform to their best.  Furthermore, as an organisation focused on innovation we need to be continually creative, finding new ways of working that set us apart and to create an environment where people can thrive. That’s the key driver for me – to been seen to be supporting a culture where each and everyone can make a real difference and seek to reach their potential.

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