As Personnel Today’s number one Power Player for the second year running and winner of numerous other awards, David Fairhurst, HR chief at McDonald’s, is no stranger to publicity. In fact, part of his success is probably largely down to his media-friendly, down-to-earth persona.
Unlike lots of other leading HR directors, he’s not a fan of jargon and has a knack of making his people policies seem like common sense, both to McDonald’s staff and the general public.
As senior vice-president, chief people officer (northern Europe) for one of the most well-known brands in the world, Fairhurst is not afraid to put himself in the line of fire. His one man crusade to get the term ‘McJob’ rewritten in the English dictionary may not have been a total success, but it certainly made people sit up and take note.
The straight-talker from Wigan readily admits that he likes to challenge people. “There is a bit of ‘Northerness’ about me,” he says.
“I’ve been relatively disruptive because I’m not what people expect. I remember in a previous job doing a speech where everyone was expecting a corporate, suited and booted type with a posh accent. But all my examples were ‘when I was talking to Burt last week’, and ‘when I was talking to people on the shop floor’.”
Despite working in the HR field for more than a decade, including a stint at supermarket giant Tesco – the largest private sector employer in the UK – Fairhurst’s enthusiasm for the profession remains undimmed.
“I’m really excited to be working in HR,” he says. “I’ve tried to move beyond the debate about whether we deserve to be at the table or the debate about the function itself – that’s passé. As basic as it sounds, it has to be about adding value to the business.”
And to add value, he says, HR practitioners have to be able to think commercially.
“The way to get value is to think of the business first and HR second. Also that dirty word measurement – the connection between people, sales and profitability – is hard to get, but it’s not impossible. If you use the right methods and get insight and research, you gain respect.”
Fairhurst is largely responsible for the fast food giant becoming an accredited educational body, which expects to award 30,000 NVQ qualifications this year. Giving employees better training prospects is clearly something he feels strongly about.
“We’ve challenged the old tradition of ‘if you’re bright or rich, you went through one route – university – but if you leave school at 16 and don’t go on to higher education it’s down to luck,'” he says.
“Employers need to play a role in stepping up and we’ve set a new standard in education. Young people’s expectation of their employer is totally different to older generations.”
McDonald’s now offers staff the A-level equivalent qualifications in basic shift management, including modules on HR, finance and hygiene. It was one of the first employers to gain accrediting powers from the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority earlier this year.
“My ethos at McDonald’s is to have committed people who have competence and confidence,” Fairhurst says.
“It’s about employee engagement – which drives loyalty and business growth. I’ve kept on that strategy to maximise the degree to which we can drive those three ‘c’s.”
Despite an increasingly turbulent economy and mass job cuts across the UK, Fairhurst remains confident in the burger behemoth’s ability to ride out the storm. McDonald’s announced plans to create an extra 4,000 jobs in the UK in August, and clearly doesn’t anticipate being significantly bitten by the credit crunch.
“As we enter choppy economic waters, I think it’s important for us to remain focused and work hard to maintain the momentum we have developed in recent years – not forgetting that a key driver of that momentum has been our people,” Fairhurst says.
However, he remains pragmatic about staff turnover and the general perception of McDonald’s as a stop-gap for students and young people.
“We’re a career for some, but a stepping stone for others. But you have to put this in the context of the business you’re in. Hospitality and retail have got proven stepping stone ability,” he says.
“HR directors feel they have to talk about absence and turnover. But we should be focusing on engagement, not retention. We should be asking: how do you engage young people and train them?”
And although he has big plans for McDonald’s and is reassuringly confident about his abilities to deliver, he remains true to his roots as a shopkeeper’s grandson.
“People tell me I’m a natural storyteller but when I speak, I speak from the heart. I’ve taken some interesting and brave steps at Tesco and McDonald’s. I like the variety but at the heart of it all, it’s about dealing with people.”
McDonald’s opened its first US restaurant in 1955 and its first UK restaurant in 1974
It now has more than 30,000 restaurants across the world serving 52 million people a day
It operates in more than 115 countries
More than 70% of McDonald’s restaurants worldwide are owned and operated by franchisees
Has 1,200 UK restaurants serving 2.5 million customers a day
Employs more than 67,000 staff in the UK.
CV: David Fairhurst
2007-present: Senior vice-president, chief people officer, northern Europe, McDonald’s
2005-2007: Vice-president of people, McDonald’s
2000-2005: Group resourcing director, Tesco
Previous roles include European director of recruitment and leadership planning at pharmaceuticals giant SmithKline Beecham, and group manager at food manufacturer HJ Heinz