Bring me Sunshine

Senior figures at Unilever, the Anglo-Dutch household goods giant, must have a lot on their minds at the moment. The multinational’s latest set of financial results showed its sales growth is way behind that of competitors such as Nestle and L’Oreal, while investors have called for the company to be broken up so that it can react to market forces in a more agile way. And City analysts slammed the company for being too conservative, complicated and bureaucratic.

But at its Northwest Liquids site in Port Sunlight, Cheshire, the atmosphere is very different. In 2004, the site’s HR manager, Damian Hughes, masterminded a two-year training and culture change initiative comprising talks by motivational speakers, personal development coaching and technical skills training. Not only has the programme seen cost efficiencies in the way the production lines operate, but also a much higher level of engagement – and therefore productivity – from staff on the factory floor.

Cloudy skies

When Hughes joined Northwest Liquids from another part of Unilever in 2004, staff were disengaged, having undergone several years of senior management changes and several rounds of redundancies that had left a factory headcount of about 400, compared with around 1,700 in the late 1980s.

“When I joined, the workers felt there was a dissonance between what Unilever said and what it did,” explains Hughes. According to Jimmy Meadows, a trade union representative at the factory, staff felt that the training that had been promised was not delivered in the way they would have liked. “Before, I reckon we wasted 80% of our training budget because we sent people on courses because we felt it was necessary – but they got nothing out of it,” he says.

So, together with the site’s training manager Dave Morgan, Hughes put together an eight-page brochure of more than 250 training courses on everything from welding to creativity, and sent it to workers’ homes, rather than handing it out at work.

“That way it was more personal – a way of saying: ‘This is your personal development plan’,” says Morgan. It was made clear that the training was optional. “If people feel things are imposed from above, they tend to resist what you’re going to tell them,” he adds.

At the same time, Hughes was using up much of his spare time to identify and book in motivational speakers to do talks at the factory. Since the programme began, Northwest Liquids has played host to the likes of Daley Thompson, Nick Leeson and legendary cricket player Sir Garfield Sobers. “The idea was to get the speakers in, generate interest in self-development, and then engage people in the training,” says Morgan.
Hughes also helped develop a series of ‘positive thinking’ courses together with sports psychologist Gary Leboff, who has worked with a number of Premier League football clubs. These courses are pitched at people “who want to become a better dad or lose weight or improve their golfing handicap” in the hope that this will help them to perform better at work – rather than pitching it as a course to improve their job skills. In addition, Hughes has been running courses with Martin Perry, who has appeared as guest psychologist on reality TV show Big Brother, on fostering a ‘can-do’ attitude at work.

Brighter outlook

Offering motivational speakers and positive thinking courses is nothing new, and often only creates a short-term boost in staff morale. But Morgan insists that the way HR pitched the programme has been critical to its success at Northwest Liquids.

“Through the speakers, we get the message out that people have to take 100% responsibility for their own development. It’s not just about what the company does for you, but what you do for yourself,” he says.

The staff who are coming through the programme certainly feel it has impacted not just on the way they behave at work, but also at home. Rick Haney, who manages a production line of 24 people, says the changes he has seen in himself have been “dramatic”. “It’s shown me that everything we do is down to the choices we make – whether that’s at work or at home – and this is something I’ve instilled in my two sons,” he says.

The programme has also generated measurable benefits in terms of efficiency. This is in great part down to something called the Continuous Improvement Team – a group of 19 volunteers who were invited to come up with ideas on how the business could be improved, in return for a day’s training off-site.

The team achieved its target of saving 100,000 during 2005, but its greatest achievement has been in negotiating a deal with unions to bring temporary recruitment firm Manpower on-site to hire short-term contractors. Before the team was set up, the unions had simply refused. Since January 2006, when Manpower entered the factory, there has been a 2% to 3% increase in productivity, and six members of the Continuous Improvement Team have been promoted.

Storms ahead

There is still a long way to go in ensuring the positive changes seep right through the site, however. The trade unions at Northwest Liquids, for example, are suspicious about the programme.

“I don’t feel the unions are totally on board because they feel the positions of individual managers or stewards may be under threat,” says Meadows, a representative for Amicus on the site. “People are getting promoted and the unions are trying to find a hidden agenda. There are still a lot of people to convince.”

But the HR function at Port Sunlight has as good a chance as any of carrying through the changes the programme set out to make, according to Lucia McCann, the works director (and most senior manager) on the site. “HR is incredibly important in making this factory tick,” she says. “There are so many people that rumours can get out of hand. HR tends to know about it before it’s happened, as they’re living and breathing the operation.”

And the site has history on its side. William Lever (son of the founder of Lever Group, which became Unilever in 1929 after merging with Dutch food manufacturer Unie) founded the first factory there in 1889, pioneering not just new ways of mass producing household goods, but also a means of offering accommodation and welfare services for his employees. McCann believes that what is happening at Port Sunlight today is a “modern interpretation” of Lever’s paternalistic values.

Elsewhere in the company, however, the various divisions are struggling to move beyond the company’s reputation for conservatism – hence the calls from shareholders for the company to de-merge its two key divisions, food and personal care. This makes it all the more surprising that senior managers at Unilever have not jumped at the chance to copy Hughes’ change programme elsewhere in the business, despite his best efforts to communicate its success.

“I would like to roll this out,” says Hughes. “It could have an ever greater impact in other parts of Unilever and beyond. It could be applied to any organisation.”

With the heat on from investors and the City, perhaps it’s time for the senior management at Unilever to sit up and take notice of how just one project – led by HR – not only improved staff morale, but also boosted productivity at this huge corporation steeped in tradition. 

Liquid Thinking

HR manager Damian Hughes, who used to work as a football coach for Manchester United before joining the Unilever graduate scheme in 2000, was so inspired by the programme at Port Sunlight that he decided to write a book about its values.

But while many self-penned ‘management’ tomes go little further than the author’s own bookshelf, Hughes’ book – Liquid Thinking – includes an introduction by Richard Branson, a foreword by Mohammed Ali’s boxing trainer Angelo Dundee, and endorsements from sporting heroes, such as world beaters Jonny Wilkinson (rugby), Nobby Stiles (football) and Daley Thompson (athletics).

Alongside the chapters on ‘Achieving success’ or ‘Turning water into wine’, there are personal stories of workers at the Port Sunlight factory, and how they have overcome challenges to succeed in a particular area of their life – whether that’s overcoming cancer, or completing the London Marathon.

“I wanted to tell the stories about our own people, to show them they are as comparable to Richard Branson or Jonny Wilkinson as anyone else,” says Hughes.

The book was distributed to all Northwest Liquids employees as a Christmas present last year.

For more information on Liquid Thinking or to buy a copy, visit All proceeds from the book support the Collyhurst and Moston Lads Club, a youth club in Manchester.

Port Sunlight: a history

Port Sunlight was founded in 1888 by William Hesketh Lever as a community in which his soap factory staff could live and work. These days, it survives as one of the best preserved model villages in Britain, consisting of more than 900 Grade 2 listed buildings, and home to the Lady Lever Art Gallery.

Although the majority of today’s Unilever staff now live outside the site, it remains a thriving community, and the company sponsors a number of programmes to ensure the village retains its charm.

Over the years, Port Sunlight has produced hundreds of famous household brands, including Sunlight Soap, Pears, Comfort and Domestos.

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