CEO interview: One complete solution

As chief executive of the support services company that sponsors the impressive new £25m Vauxhall stand at the Oval, it is perhaps appropriate that Chris Cracknell uses a cricket analogy to describe his view of HR.

“The HR department doesn’t just make up the numbers anymore,” he says. “It is now very much at the forefront of our attack.”

And whereas the England cricket team has traditionally been inconsistent in its performance, the level of commitment to HR at the support services giant remains as consistent as ever.

The company’s people initiatives, led by HR director Peter Caley, are at the core of a new business strategy dubbed ‘Building on Success’. The strategy, launched last year, aims to boost turnover from £537m last year to £1bn by 2010, with a profit margin of 5%. A pretty ambitious target, which Cracknell describes as “audacious, but deliverable”.

But if the people strategy can drive the company towards achieving the aims, it will silence those naysayers who still insist that HR does not add any value to the business.

Not that Cracknell, now in his 10th year as CEO, has ever sat in that particular camp.

An OCS lifer, who began his career at the company as a window cleaner in 1977, Cracknell does not have to be persuaded of the value of HR.

“You would be foolish not to make HR central to your business strategy – 80% of what we do is people,” he says. “It is fundamental to have experts to guide and develop management teams. And it’s not just about buying management off the shelf – you tend to lose a bit of team spirit if you bring lots of new people in.”

And the vow to put HR at the centre of the Building on Success strategy is not just lip service on Cracknell’s part.

“We cannot address the challenges that these audacious business goals bring without improving HR,” Cracknell says. “We are looking for an attitude of change, led by people in the business – a real team effort. Good management practice will be critical to improving resourcing and retention.”

New ways of working

To drive the change, managers throughout the business need to develop new ways of working, Cracknell says. “We need new skillsets – leadership, coaching, reward and recognition process, communications. Do new people know what we’re about? We also need to establish measures – what are internal customers looking for?”

This sounds like straightforward HR stuff, but for a company with 32,000 staff and 40 business units covering technical, security, catering, transport, cleaning and hygiene services, no company-wide initiative is simple.

Indeed, the scale of the business can sometimes restrict the scope of HR, admits Cracknell. “With 40 separate business units, HR has to play a mechanical role, but at another level it plays a key role in breaking down the silo culture,” he says.

It is this integration job, which is part of the company’s ‘One Complete Solution’ long-term rebranding programme, that has been the main focus of HR director Caley, since he joined in October 2003.

“When his predecessor retired, it was a good chance for Peter to come in to evolve policies and tidy up,” says Cracknell. “It was about bringing things together – health and safety used to be separate, for example – and helping to deliver the business strategy.”

Caley, who is on the group board, has made “real progress” in overhauling the performance management culture at OCS, according to Cracknell, with 80% of staff now going through an appraisal, including ‘job chats’ at least once a year with their line manager.

He has also been looking at the top 200 managers in terms of calibre analysis and succession planning, putting in a grading structure to underpin the management recruitment model.

Supporting HR

Other initiatives have included introducing mandatory training and development for first line managers, ensuring that all operational managers have people skills.

All this has convinced the OCS board to throw its weight behind HR.

“The board is supportive of HR. It does ask where the money is going but [HR] is certainly seen as integral,” Cracknell says. “Five years ago, HR was about problem solving. Now I am saying: ‘Can you help me with these changes?'”

Change has been the key focus at OCS in recent years. From being largely associated with cleaning services, the company is now moving towards offering complete business service outsourcing.

“There is a huge opportunity for us,” enthuses Cracknell. “There is an evolution of the industry. The ultimate model is the client outsourcing everything apart from their core activity.”

But Cracknell is quick to dispel any idea that the company, which is more than 100 years old, is losing sight of its heritage.

“We have got a lot to be proud of – our core values of a family business have stood the test of time,” he says. “However, we recognise the environment is changing. For example, as a business, we are moving away from a part-time workforce, which has been happening for the past three or four years.”

Moves such as changing the balance of the workforce – improving the effectiveness of training and career progression – will play a key role in helping OCS meet its ambitious aims, Cracknell says.

“The seeds we are sowing today, the management team will reap down the line,” he says. “The board’s role is very much about balancing long-term growth with short-term needs.”

And with Caley describing their relationship as “joined at the hip”, it is clear Cracknell is bringing HR along for the ride.

Chris Cracknell’s CV



  • Born in 1958, educated at Eastbourne College.
  • Joined the OCS Group in 1977, working as an office cleaner and window cleaner.
  • After holding posts in the UK and overseas, he was appointed to the group board in 1985, responsible for emerging companies and international development, including Thailand and New Zealand.
  • Appointed chief executive in 1996.
  • Married to Carole with two children, Edward and Elizabeth.
  • Interests include spending time with his family, travel, food and wine.

What Cracknell looks for in an HR director



  • Vision
  • Competence
  • Communication skills
  • Not working in isolation
  • A belief that you can make a difference

The HR view: Peter Caley, HR director, OCS

What are your major challenges?



  • “We’re working in a sector that is renowned for high turnover and retention. We also have real issues around the national minimum wage
  • “Organisational development is also a challenge. There is a huge piece of work on management grading to do, and you can’t do that in isolation
  • “In the long term, developing a reward culture that is right for the company, HR systems and recruitment.”

What are the relationships like with the unions?



  • “Relationships are pretty good at shop steward level. We were on the edge of the Gate Gourmet dispute (OCS has 1,000 staff at Heathrow). It is something we are aware of – we have a role to play in managing the workforce family in a tough environment
  • “We have established an information and consultation forum, with an elected board of 24 people from across the firm at all levels, to address any issues.”

Where is HR at OCS right now?



  • “As a function, HR has really developed over the past 10 years. There is a strong framework in place, centred on employee relations. The challenge is to retain that, develop it, and focus on the quality of people succession.
  • “It helps when you’ve got a CEO who is like-minded. It is made easier when you have buy-in at senior level – although that is not to say everyone is flying the flag.”

How can HR become more strategic?



  • “HR strategy has to be linked. External pressures mean we have to do things in certain ways, but internally we are working with the board to develop a people culture that adds value.
  • “It’s not about a ‘purist’ HR strategy. You need practical and positive support processes to enable people to be more productive. HR needs to earn respect – it’s not just about policy. You need to work alongside people in the business, otherwise you don’t need HR. It’s about building relationships, not just keeping people out of jail.
  • “I am continually striving to stress the needs of business competence among the HR community. I have seen some fantastic people without business knowledge. But being commercially astute is the key.”

What are your views on human capital management (HCM)?



  • “I’m not a great advocate of HCM as a concept. There are some simple measures that we use, not numbers for numbers’ sake.
  • “We have some key performance indicators and are working on some others. Our measurements are focused on increasing stability, particularly in the first three months. How many people join us and stay for 12 months? We have introduced SAP Payroll to count people better
  • “We are also measuring training investment, in terms of cost and productivity, but don’t want to focus on too many key performance indicators. We want to get alignment between people numbers and customer numbers, which can be quite difficult.”

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