Out go the big presentations. In come Alf Turner’s plans for British Gas staff and, in turn, its customers
Sitting in a modest, glass-fronted office, wearing an open-necked shirt, Alf Turner looks every inch the modern HR director. He joined British Gas in May 2001 and talks confidently about his department’s role in organisational change and developing the brand.
He has his own distinct ideas about what works and what doesn’t. “I’m not for big presentations and plastic cards. I don’t think they achieve much,” he said. “The history of British Gas is probably littered over the past 30 years with people doing cultural change initiatives and failing.”
So what makes Turner think what he is doing will result in a different outcome? “The most powerful thing we did was produce a video called Doing the right thing,” he said.
“It has small stories on the way we should be interacting with customers – it sets the standard. It’s getting across that the little things our people do every day of the week make the difference.”
Turner wants British Gas to attract as much employee commitment and customer loyalty as companies such as Tesco, First Direct and Pret a Manger.
“HR influenced the leadership team of the clear line of sight between commitment and loyalty. My point was how can we expect customers to be loyal and committed if we’re not committed to our employees?
“We’re trying to develop an employee promise in the way they will be treated and developed. In turn, we know that flows through to the customer,” he said.
Turner also acknowledges there is a need to strike the right balance in doing this throughout the company. “If people think they are being ‘HR-ed’ then we’ve got it wrong. The aim is to create the right ambience.”
The main thing that strikes you about Turner is that underneath his calm exterior there lies a no-nonsense approach to the job.
“Historically, people look at British Gas as a bit of a monster, that we’re big, boring, overly bureaucratic and slow to change,” he said.
“But I think we are good at change, it’s just the business takes too long to do it – it needs be lighter and more nimble.”
His appetite for what he calls “the tough stuff” – turnaround situations and organisational change – remains undiminished, although he admits to being battle-scarred from previous jobs.
“I believe HR has a special responsibility to lead the people agenda. Sometimes that makes me popular, sometimes unpopular,” he said.
Turner is also unconcerned about winning any popularity contests with the trade unions. “Our relationships with them are very interesting. I do believe in trade unions and that employees have the right to be represented, but I don’t believe in ‘tea and chips’ issues.
“If we’re talking about the state of the staff restaurant then neither of us are doing our job properly,” he said.
The GMB union, which represents more than 90 per cent of the company’s service engineers, is more candid about industrial relations.
GMB senior organiser Ed Blissett, said: “I’d like to see a real change of attitude and willingness in the company to meet with us both formally and informally.
“I can’t disagree with the interesting comment, but I would add [relations] are sometimes fraught.”
Leaving this aside, Turner is sure the company is heading in the right direction. “Our customer satisfaction scores have never been so good. Our internal surveys show the vast majority of staff know we need to do the right thing for the customer,” he said.
“I want to make British Gas a high performing, successful business and there is still an enormous agenda for us.” Here, Turner draws parallels with painting the Forth Road Bridge.
“It really is a never-ending process. We’re good at the holistic HR approach but it never stops.”
British Gas – the HR story
– 25,000 employees ranging from mobile engineers to call centre agents
– HR team includes: 25 brand partners, 26 in HR operations, three in recognition activity and about 100 people in HR shared services
– Completely revised the terms and conditions for more than 20,000 staff. Moved away from team-based reward to more individual schemes
– Huge shift from a product-based strategy to customer facing strategy. Launched Doing the right thing, a campaign and video to promote focus on the customer
– More direct communication with staff through focus groups and conferences. Big push on the development of first and second-line managers
– Revamped call centre training by establishing a customer excellence academy and sharing best practice
– More work to come on leadership assessment and talent development
Alf Turner: Up close and personnel
Where and when were you born?
Dagenham, Essex 1957.
Who are your influences?
Hugh Stirk (ex-personnel manager at Unilever): “the best negotiator I have ever been with” and Margaret Thatcher – we have a duty, not a right, to manage.
Why did you get into HR?
I was interested in industrial relations back in the 1970s.
How do you relax?
I under-perform on the guitar and piano and going to the movies.
What drives you mad?
What is one amazing fact about yourself?
I have climbed up the vertical face of Table Mountain in Cape Town.
What was the last book you read?
Empire by Niall Ferguson.
1978 Graduated from University of Hull. Joined Unilever as a graduate trainee. Progressed through a number of HR positions.
1989 Personnel controller at Northern Foods. On the board and accountable for personnel function for Bowyers and Dorset Chilled Foods.
1994 Joined BOC Group as divisional HR manager. Other roles included group manager, employment policy and director HR services. Appointed HR director in August 2000.
2001 Joined British Gas as HR director. In May 2003 became non-executive director of NHS Heatherwood and Wexham Park Hospital Trust.