Just two months into his role as HR director at standards developer and business services provider BSI Group, Jim Newell has already made the corner office his own.
High up above Chiswick High Street in west London, with views over the Thames to Kew Gardens, it is full of knick-knacks collected over the course of his unusual career. Miniature cars, planes and guitars are scattered across the broad windowsills – testament to his broad interests both in and outside the workplace.
A big friendly Irishman with an infectious laugh and a passion for Six Nations rugby, Newell took an unconventional route into HR, starting out as an engineer.
Born and brought up in the County Antrim port town of Larne, he left school at 16 for an apprenticeship with GEC. But, like so many of his generation, Newell chose not to live in a Northern Ireland beset by the Troubles, and moved to Canada.
After a couple of years, he returned home to finish his studies. The political situation having worsened in his absence, Newell headed across the water to Warwick University, researching the niche field of wind resistance in magnetically levitating high-speed trains.
His subsequent move from aerodynamics into HR may appear bizarre, but to Newell, it made perfect sense. “Research didn’t satisfy my need to be in the broader arena, bouncing off people,” he says.
He took an entry-level role as a recruitment officer at Austin Rover, his engineering background giving him a rather better idea of what to look for in candidates than colleagues who had taken a more traditional route into HR.
Newell began to spot some of the factors behind the function’s lingering ‘tea and sympathy’ image – not least his colleagues’ approach to interviewing. He recalls how line managers would turn up for interviews bearing “a crinkled little list of eight questions to ask, regardless of the candidate or the role.” He adds: “HR representatives were expected to just sit thereor, at best, to perform pre-straining interviews – involving nothing more demanding than walking applicants through their CVs.”
This tedious process had its entertaining moments, however. Newell stilllaughs when he recalls seeing the same loud suit twice in one day. He says: “It turned up on an interviewee in the morning, and reappeared in the afternoon on a different guy – it was a pretty distinctive suit.”
Newell’s career has taken him abroad on more than one occasion. While this has made him familiar with cultural differences, he says working in Miami was nevertheless an eye opener. Sent to Florida to provide HR input for Rover’s takeover of a distributor, he says the lack of staff loyalty came as a shock. “People would leave you for another 10 cents an hour.”
A two-year stint at British Aerospace aside, Newell has spent almost 25 years in the automotive industry. His departure was timely – the industry’s current problems are well known, and he feels that it is struggling to deal with the outcome of poor decisions made in the boom years.
Newell had been with TI Automotive for eight years when it was bought by a private equity firm. Kept on to wind down the executive team, he then found himself without work for the first time since leaving school at 16. He took six months to think about his next move, and questioned whether or not to stay in the corporate world.
So what prompted the move to BSI? Following a career packed with travelling opportunities, the organisation’s international remit was an important factor for Newell. He also has tremendous confidence in chief executive Howard Kerr.
“He’s got a strong vision of what he wants, and sees HR at the core of it,” Newell says. “I don’t think he was just selling me the job – that’s the way he speaks to his audience inside the company.”
BSI Group is unique among Newell’s employers in that it does not offer a tangible product – as a business services organisation, its offering is its people. Newell says that his challenges at BSI lie in continuing to turn it into a more commercially and customer-focused organisation.
The company has been expanding rapidly over the past five years, and has had to bring in external staff to cope with the growth. Newell is keen to end this – he sees the creation of a strong leadership pipeline as one of his key priorities. Although some work has been done on succession planning, he sees it as a “paper exercise rather than a substantive planning process”, stressing that it is up to him to embed it within the organisation.
BSI has a workforce of just under 2,500. While most of its staff are in the UK, with the next largest group the US, the organisation’s presence in China, Japan and India is growing – to the extent that Newell now spends the majority of his time on non-UK issues. Given his own career history, it’s not surprising that he makes a point of sending staff overseas as part of their development.
Newell believes that HR should sit on the board, and admits that he has been lucky enough to have spent the past decade with progressive companies that have understood the function’s worth.
He believes that HR practitioners with broader experience are most likely to find themselves on the board. “They understand the business and can contextualise HR within it, not as a function, but as a strategic player providing a service.”
Newell doesn’t think the current tough economic climate will improve for 18 to 24 months, but sees the downturn as a chance for HR to prove its worth. He feels smarter use of resources is vital, and argues that this is an area where HR can and should stand up and be counted.
Newell has few career regrets. He believes his experience at Austin Rover was one of the strongest HR groundings he could have had, and still regards the HR function there as having been ahead of its time.
“Although I wish I’d spent more time learning to play the guitar – I would have chosen, any day, to be [Led Zeppelin guitarist] Jimmy Page rather than Jim Newell,” he jokes.