First class delivery

Express parcel delivery group Business Post didn’t need to convince chief
executive Paul Carvell that investing in staff skills would impress clients and
customers – he was already a training evangelist. Guy Sheppard meets the CEO
who is determined to show commitment from the top

When Paul Carvell became chief executive of Business Post Group two years
ago, there were only two in-house trainers for the 3,400-strong workforce.
However, such a ratio is unremarkable in the express delivery sector, as the
skills needed for collecting, sorting and delivering parcels are fairly
limited.

Carvell’s previous background in logistics partly explains why training is
now given far more prominence in the company. He started out as a graduate
trainee with Lex Service in the late 1970s, and has since worked for TNT, TDG
and Christian Salvesen.

"I had some of the best training in the world as a graduate and have
always been passionate about training," he says.

"Throughout my career, wherever I have been able to influence training
policy, I’ve always been extremely supportive of the economic business case for
it. If you spend more money, time and effort at the front end on progressing
people, you will get the return. It is no coincidence that companies which
spend money on training and career development tend to be more
successful."

Personal beliefs

Carvell’s personal beliefs are not the only reason why annual spending on
training will rise from £650,000 to about £1m by 2005.

When he arrived, the company’s share price had slumped from a high of £10 to
£1.65, and City confidence badly needed bolstering.

"It was a company that had always been pretty financially successful,
but the City has its own perspective on the world. It had marked the company
down, primarily due to a whole series of management issues."

A three-year strategy began rolling out from April 2002, with the aim of
achieving a profit growth of at least 15 per cent a year.

"One of the biggest challenges was ramping up our career and management
development programme, and focusing on making Business Post a better and more
enjoyable place to work," says Carvell. "That involved a lot of
training and closer management of employees and associates."

Associates, who account for almost 60 per cent of the workforce, either work
for the company’s franchisees or are owner-drivers.

Among the most tangible signs of the new strategy is a new HR department,
employing six trainers.

In addition, a £90,000 mobile classroom with an IT training suite and
lecture room has just begun touring the company’s network of 63 depots. Called
Training Express, it is expected to increase training days per employee by 50
per cent.

Introduction

Other initiatives include boosting the induction period for new employees
and associates from half a day to four days and establishing a new management
development programme.

But what was the point of all this training investment when the skill base
required is relatively low?

Carvell says turnover among Business Post’s drivers, warehouse staff and
loaders has traditionally been close to the industry average of 30 per cent.
"That level of turnover was probably costing the company at least £1m a
year. Clearly there was a big prize to be claimed if we could recruit the right
people, train and develop them and make them want to stay and work for
us," he says.

The company is aiming to bring turnover down to 10 per cent by 2005.

One of the first tasks given to Val Reeve, the head of HR who was appointed
in January 2002, was to gauge employee views about the company. The feedback
was not encouraging, with many saying it lacked commitment to training and did
not value its workers.

Since then, Carvell has spent three months visiting the company’s 63 depots
around the country.

"Just being there was positive. I felt the general response was
fantastic. A lot of people told me what they thought of the company."

Another reason for boosting the training budget was winning the UK contract
to handle deliveries for FedEx, the global distribution giant, from September
2001.

"When it came along, it was almost like a blinding flash to see the way
it worked," says Carvell. "We had to do 5,000 man-days of training to
get our people ready to take on what would become about 10 per cent of our
turnover in one go. It put massive investment into the front end of recruitment
and training of its staff."

A driver joining Fedex will undergo up to four weeks’ classroom training
before beginning work. Carvell says that even without such pressures, the
parcels sector increasingly needs better-trained employees.

"We are moving into a more technological business. People need to learn
how to use things such as bar codes and you have to ensure they understand all
the paperwork associated with international requirements. People have to be IT
literate and know how to use the various systems."

Software

The first course being run on Training Express demonstrates this need,
covering a new software programme that gives much more instant information
about each customer who contacts the sales team.

"It is really designed to make the customer feel welcome and know we
are interested in them," says Carvell.

"There are 450 initial users of that system. To train that many people
in sufficient detail was looking like a bit of a nightmare. It made perfect
sense for the training teams to visit staff in their own places of work so that
training can be given without disruption to the running of the business."

Carvell says franchisees are expected to invest a certain percentage of
their budget on training each year. Courses in areas such as recruitment,
health and safety and accounting are offered to them on a cost-only basis.

High turnover

The need for a management development programme was partly inspired by high
turnover.

"We were seen as a good feeder ground, giving managers a lot of
responsibility early on," says Carvell.

A rolling programme of two- or three-day courses for junior, middle and
senior management grades began late last year at a hired training centre in
Warwickshire.

He wants to encourage more operatives to move into supervisory jobs, but
admits that preparing them for this switch is a big task.

Every manager’s progress is assessed annually by a superior. Although this
is nothing new, Carvell says little importance was previously attached to the
results.

"No-one ever used the information that was coming from the appraisal
system to start identifying succession planning. We have to get a picture of
who is ready for the next step."

Carvell intends to address managers personally at the beginning of each
course. "I will tell them how we genuinely want them to be part of
Business Post. We are growing fast and if they get their heads down, we would
rather promote from within."

He will also be the opening speaker at two one-day conferences for managers,
sales staff and franchisees this year. "They are big events with 400
people attending to be informed, motivated and communicated with."

Commitment

His physical presence at these events will help to reinforce the impression
that his commitment to training and development is for real. But how will he
strike the right balance between maintaining a hands-on approach and not
interfering too much with the work of Reeve, the head of HR?

Although he expects managers to manage their respective departments
themselves, he says he needs to be regularly updated on their progress. He sees
Reeve once a fortnight but says it is not simply a case of him interrogating
her. "She can tell me of any areas where she is finding a road-block that
she wants me to remove."

He firmly believes in the adage ‘people do what you inspect, not what you
expect’. "If you assume you have a great team and it is all going to
happen by itself, you would be sadly misleading yourself. Very often, I can see
things they can’t because I am looking at it from a distance."

With all the main training and development programmes just getting underway,
it will be some time before any new initiatives are undertaken.

Despite his desire to develop talent from within, he is wary of introducing
mentoring and coaching schemes. "There would be a lot of suspicion and it
would be seen as favouritism. If people were told to work alongside a main
board director, it might raise their expectations too high."

But, he does not rule it out altogether, and says it may be looked at when
the strategy for boosting the company’s fortunes ends in 2005.

Although it was only launched last April, the strategy appears to be
fulfilling its main function of boosting confidence in the City and among the
workforce. At the time of writing, shares were around the £4 mark and initial
indications suggest that labour turnover has already dropped from 30 per cent
to 25 per cent.

With the company due to take over some of Royal Mail’s business later this
year as part of the Government’s liberalisation of postal services, that
confidence could be set to increase even more.

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