When Esther O'Halloran, HR director of Paul UK, came to the company three years ago the CEO questioned whether or not they needed an HR function at all. But with increased retention rates and a huge reduction in staff turnover, it has become an essential component in driving the business strategy.
The Paul UK HR team had to build the function from scratch but, for O'Halloran, this was an opportunity to make a big difference. Faced with an inefficient recruitment process, poor retention rates and few opportunities for staff to develop their careers, the HR team created a function that influenced the business strategy and brought costs down.
The team were recognised for this achievement at the Personnel Today Awards 2010, where they picked up the award for HR team of the year, sponsored by Frazer Jones. The judges said that the bakery had come a long way in a short period of time and had delivered excellent results with business-focused objectives.
O'Halloran says: "Going into a business where you have a blank canvas means you can shape the business and the culture going forward.
"It gave me the opportunity to say: 'What does this business need? What is going to make the most impact? And what are the basic things my team needs to put in place?'"
Recruitment was a big issue for the HR team. In 2007, the company was using 12 different recruitment agencies, which O'Halloran admits was a "crazy" system for hiring staff. She asked each of the agencies to come in and talk to her and decided on three of them, one primary agency and two secondary, to cover all their recruitment needs going forward. Because the volume of candidates going through each agency rose, they were able to negotiate the price down.
O'Halloran also attributes improvements in the hiring process to their recruitment manager, Doreen Conteh. "She is very resourceful," O'Halloran explains. "She will go out and about, see who's out there, give them her business card and a baguette and say: 'Come and work for us, you're great.' She networks to get people."
It is measures like this that have transformed management's view of HR from an administrative function to a team that can generate huge business benefits.
"It's been really good to actually show that HR is a function that can add value to the bottom line and put things in place that are easy to implement," says O'Halloran. "It's certainly increased our kudos as a team."
And to battle the thorny issue of staff turnover, they focused on training and building an employer brand. Staff were offered a clear career path, benefits were improved and line managers were educated in HR processes to ensure that they complied with the law. This has fed back into recruitment and applications have doubled every year since 2008.
O'Halloran comments: "In the last two years in particular, we have grown and become a more established business, we've built a reputation that we do have great training and we recognise people. People want to work for us."
In recognition of the HR team's achievements, O'Halloran will be working with her French equivalents to show them what can be done.
And the night of the Personnel Today Awards was a double celebration for the bakery, as Paul UK also received accreditation on the same day, which will allow them to enter new parts of the market.
"I think for us it's the icing on the cake. It's really given us a great taste of success and I still have a grin on my face," says O'Halloran.