Talent management: the golden ingredient

The business

Baxter Storey is the UK’s largest independent food service operator, providing restaurant and catering services to blue-chip companies including Barclays, ITV and Oracle.

It has annual revenues of £120m and employs 3,300 staff. In recent years, the company has grown at a rate of 20% annually, fuelled by a combination of organic growth and acquisitions.

The challenge

The vast majority of Baxter Storey’s employees work remotely on client sites, rather than at the com­pany’s Reading headquarters. For the company’s HR team, led by HR director Linda Halliday, that raises obvious challenges in terms of co-ordinating the appraisal process and identifying talent in individual units that may be located several hundred miles away.

“My life would be so much easier if all 3,300 people were located in the same building as me,” she says.

At the same time, the growing company is keen to maintain the spirit of entrepreneurialism that characterised its early years – and that means empowering regional managers to foster and promote talent where they find it and report back on the results to head office.

The solution

Prior to 2002, Baxter Storey had an effective – but largely paper-based – appraisal process in place. But as the company began to grow rapidly, it became increasingly hard for the central HR team to keep track of the individual strengths and weaknesses of catering managers in the field, and to recognise who was ready for promotion and who needed extra training. With the existing appraisal process starting to creak under the strain, the situation called for a hefty dose of technology that would take the process online and automate many of the administrative tasks it involved.

“Getting managers to do appraisals and follow up on progress could be difficult, because they were far away and, understandably, they preferred to focus more on operational issues in their units, rather than filling in appraisal forms,” says Halliday. “It was then that we came across Talent Toolbox from Learnpurple, and it seemed to fit the bill by making appraisals faster and simpler.”

Talent Toolbox is a web-based communications platform that provides a review and appraisal system that can be customised to fit the needs of an individual company and its employees. It has been specifically designed to optimise completion rates, and because the system is hosted by Learnpurple, there’s no IT support burden on the company using it. Instead, it simply pays an annual licence fee for using it, based on the number of appraisals it performs.

When appraisals are ready for online completion, the system prompts line managers and their employees via an e-mail that provides a link to the Talent Toolbox system. The employees grade themselves against a pre-defined list of competencies, and their line manager also grades them. Comments can be added, along with examples to support the grades given.

Talent Toolbox then generates a single form showing both sets of grades and comments. This is used at a formal appraisal meeting between the employee and their manager, at which the employee’s performance is analysed and their training needs discussed.

Finally, the manager inputs the details of this discussion and the results are fed back to Halliday and her team. Throughout the process, they can track who has completed the necessary forms, how many meetings have been held, and which appraisals have been signed off.

“In this way, we know how things are progressing and gently ensure that it all gets done in time,” she says.

The outcome

For an annual licence fee of £40,000, Talent Toolbox gives Baxter Storey’s HR team great insight into the strengths and weaknesses of the employees with whom the team does not have regular, day-to-day contact. It also automates a number of HR tasks that would otherwise need to be carried out by a full-time employee on a salary of about £25,000.

Staff turnover has dropped “significantly” in the five years since Talent Toolbox was introduced, and continues to decline year-on-year, says Halliday.

“We’re able to spot an employee who is at risk of leaving the company much more efficiently. That’s happened three times in the past year, and all three employees have stayed with Baxter Storey because of the swift action we were able to take. In fact, two of them have been promoted and are doing really well. Had we lost them, there would have been significant costs associated with their departure,” she says.

But the good work didn’t end with the system’s roll-out in 2002. In fact, the company has regularly added new customisations and begun using enhancements to the system in the intervening period.

For example, in the past year, the Baxter Storey HR team has started using Talent Toolbox for succession planning – a simple matter of adding new questions to the appraisal process.

“Not only can we see who is ready for a move, but also the appropriate timescale for such a move, and what the employee might be looking for from their next role,” says Halliday.

Likewise, questions have also been added about how employees feel about Baxter Storey as a company and what it could be doing better as an employer.

“Effectively, it’s become a staff survey mechanism – without Talent Toolbox, it would be really hard to collect all that information,” she says.

The toolbox has been such a success for Baxter Storey that the company is now planning to extend its use of the system. Initially, it covered only catering managers in individual units, but from next year, it will also be used by middle and senior managers at Baxter Storey. That will involve further customisation, she says, because expected competencies differ from level to level within the organisation.

For catering services provider Baxter Storey, a widely distributed workforce means extra challenges when it comes to staff appraisals. Jessica Twentyman reports.

Employee perspective

As an operations manager at Baxter Storey, Andrew Richman is directly responsible for 12 managers running 13 catering units at Baxter Storey clients across the City and Docklands areas of London.

In keeping with Baxter Storey’s emphasis on self-reliance, he’s happy to give those managers plenty of autonomy – so each of them keeps the accounts for their own units and liaises directly with the client company, as well as handling operational and health and safety issues as they arise.

To be able to give them that freedom, says Richman, he must ensure that their training needs are met and their performance is measured on a regular basis, which is where the online appraisal system comes in.

“Talent Toolbox gives a structure to what could potentially be a pretty disorganised process, because there’s so much to remember,” he says. “Because it’s an online system, I can log in any time that suits me to update records, and it’s great in terms of ensuring that I deliver what I’ve promised to employees in terms of training and career moves.

“The quality time I spend using the system leads directly to quality results in the units I’m responsible for,” Richman adds.

Guide to Identifying an appraisal system

in 6 steps

if I could do it


One thing Baxter Storey HR director Linda Halliday would definitely not change is using a hosted system to automate the appraisal process.

“It’s great, because 99% of the admin is carried out on our behalf by Learnpurple, so I don’t need someone on my team monitoring it,” she says.

But she firmly believes that Baxter Storey’s experience with Talent Toolbox demonstrates that an electronic system is often the best way forward when a manual process begins to feel the strain.

“The information we now have at our disposal gives us so much power to plan more effectively,” she says.

Performance management: play to their strengths


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