Barratt Developments had no HR director for almost 20 years until Jayne Mee took on the role just over a year ago. Since then, she has rebuilt the company’s people strategy from the ground up. Jo Faragher met her.
It might not be everyone’s dream job. When Jayne Mee joined housebuilding company Barratt Developments in November 2006, she was the first human resources director at the firm since 1989.
Not only that, but the company had never had any formal performance management measures, and was spending a fortune on employment lawyers to draw up compromise agreements with aggrieved staff.
What many HR professionals would regard as a no-go area, Mee saw as a challenge. “I thought it would be a ‘green field’ job where I could come in and formulate the strategy,” she says.
“The culture of the business was one which did not know what HR could do to benefit…”
“I was also excited by the business culture – it was male-dominated, traditional, thought HR was soft and fluffy. This meant I could come in and really benefit the business.”
So if the company had managed without HR at this level for almost 20 years, why bring in the function now?
The re-introduction of HR at Barratt coincided with the arrival of its new chief executive, Mark Clare, in October 2006.
Having been used to having HR at the centre of the business in his former role as managing director of British Gas, he began the search for a board-level HR director before he even joined the company. Mee started working for him just six weeks into the new regime.
“Before I joined Barratt, the business had realised that its competitors had started to get into HR, albeit on a smaller scale than we have now. The business felt there should be something in place to support performance management, disciplinaries and the like,” explains Mee.
Before her arrival, there were five HR managers in place, who all reported to the company secretary, rather than the chief executive. On joining, Mee restructured the team.
With such a blank canvas, it might have been difficult for Mee to know where to start. Talent was at the top of Clare’s agenda. The construction industry is well known for being short on skills, but Barratt also had the opposite problem: where people stayed so long in the business, but did not have any clear progression plan. “We hadn’t had a succession plan to promote people to the next level. So people tended to be technically very strong, but didn’t have leadership capability,” says Mee.
In response to this, Mee has steered the creation of three leadership development programmes: one aimed at technically-sound middle managers needing senior management training another at senior managers looking to step up to the very top level and an MBA-style programme for Barratt’s high potentials -available to a handful of staff and including a Dragons’ Den-style competition, where the best idea will be backed by the company.
And the succession pipeline is also a lot clearer. “We now know who’s going to take not just the managing director roles, but also the divisional director roles and the managers below them. These people now have individual development plans to grow them through the business.”
Barratt’s talent development programmes also stretch to a formal apprenticeship scheme, which, from September, will train recruits up to NVQ Level 3 – potentially preparing them for site manager roles. Like most of its competitors, Barratt had operated an apprenticeship scheme in the past, but had often wasted this investment because once trained, the apprentices would go and work for its subcontractors.
Barratt also boasts a new graduate recruitment scheme, which takes graduates from all disciplines (not just engineering or technical), and involves eight-week stints across the business so recruits can get a feel for all aspects of housebuilding, from planning to construction to sales. The first cohort of 54 graduates, who joined the company last September, attracted proportionally more women than men.
For Barratt’s staff, many of them long-standing, all of these new HR initiatives, introduced in quick succession, must have been something of a culture shock? Not so, says Mee.
The new performance development reviews, for example, were enthusiastically welcomed by employees because they had never had a formal channel to discuss their progress with their manager before.
“Now the business embraces HR and sees what HR can do,” says Mee. “Before it was just a bolt-on.”
One of the most daunting challenges Mee has had to face in her first year at Barratt is a complete reorganisation of the company’s pay structure. When she joined, the executive committee was unhappy with how directors were remunerated, primarily based on commission.
Some staff, who had been with the company for 30 years or more when the bonus hurdle in their contract was a lot lower, could be earning considerably more than someone newer who was achieving the same targets.
“The challenge here was, how do we grant people an incentive, but make sure it’s equitable across the business?” she says.
Mee led and managed a review of how the company’s top 250 directors were rewarded, and after a 100-day consultation process, her team came up with a remuneration package based around several variables, rather than just revenue.
These include profit, customer satisfaction, people and personal job satisfaction. As staff move through the business, their bonus grows on top of their basic salary. Barratt also introduced a long-term share incentive plan, so longer-serving staff feel like they can own a stake in the business.
Having been virtually non-existent before, HR at Barratt is now highly visible. But Mee is used to dealing with high-profile business activities.
Prior to joining Barratt, she was HR director at pub chain Spirit Group, where she led the staff reorganisation when the company sold off 400 of its pubs and leased a further 750 to Punch Taverns, its new owner. The company was being managed by private equity investors, and Mee had to respond to the commercial requirements of preparing a business for sale.
“It’s a different mindset. You’re getting the company into shape,” she says. “You have to think: ‘If we were coming in to buy this company, what would we do?'”
The reorganisation involved inevitable redundancies. Mee says the key to handling this transition was to “be honest with people, over-communicate. You’ve got to be totally commercial and know how to reduce costs, but you also can’t throw the baby out with the bath water. We had to hold onto our talented people too.”
Getting close to the business is also core to her role at Barratt. When Mee joined, she spent the first few months touring the country, visiting building sites and getting to know how the company worked. This was a surprise for some of the more traditionalist staff, for whom a female HR executive on a building site was unheard of.
“Barratt is very male-dominated, but if you’re a strong woman and you’re prepared to give as good as you get, that’s fine. We have a debate, there’s plenty of banter and leg-pulling, and they like that approach,” she laughs. “If you talk to everyone in the way they like to be communicated to, then they will give you permission to get in and do things.”
When Mee dutifully declares that this is ‘the best job I’ve ever had’, you have to believe her. After just over a year in the post, she has achieved what most HR departments have spent the past 20 trying to get right.
CV: Jayne Mee
Nov 2006 to present
Group HR director
Feb 2005 to Jul 2006
Spirit Group (Punch Taverns)
Apr 2004 to Feb 2005
Head of organisation development
Royal Mail Group
Apr 2001 to Aug 2004
Director of organisation development
Oct 2000 to Apr 2001
Director of organisation development/HR director
(Pubs Inn line) The Pub & Bar Company @ Whitbread
Mar 1997 to Oct 2000
Jayne Mee Consultancy
Feb 1996 to Jan 1997
Head of personnel and staff development
Sep 1993 to Dec 1995
Various HR roles
Sears Sport and Leisure
Apr 1990 to Sep 1993
Training and development manager
Jul 1987 to Apr 1990
Area training and development manager
Boots the Chemist
1980 to 1987
Boots the Chemist