Fit for purpose

Energy and boundless enthusiasm are probably prerequisites for any job in the local gym, but even by these standards you would hate to be waiting behind Lesley Cotton to get on the rowing machine.

HR director at health club Holmes Place, Cotton would probably be more at home on the shopfloor urging people to strive for those elusive ‘five more repetitions’ -such is her drive to get across the new HR message at the firm.

Cotton has only been in the post for around seven months. She joined the company at a time of major change when the organisation was looking closely at its offering and deciding how it could stand out from the growing crowd of competitors.

As HR director for UK and Europe, Cotton admits the sector is currently booming and that competition is increasingly tough, but she is excited about the contribution progressive people policies can make to the company’s success.

“In this business, the people are the product and that’s a great situation for HR. It’s all about customer service and our people building the brand,” she says.

“Our brand differentiator is the people we have working for us. I know lots of people say that, but for us there’s a huge focus on the people and customer service because that’s the main thing that can set us apart,” she says.

As all but the most seasoned gym-goers will tell you, there is very little to choose between the major operators as the standard equipment is largely the same or at least comparable.

This is where HR can play a major role because customers will choose their gym on the experience they have with the personal trainers and other staff, especially at the top end of the market.

Getting the right people and keeping them in place has become one of the fundamental targets of the business, especially in a sector that has traditionally suffered high attrition rates and attracted a transient workforce.

Although retention has been difficult in the past, particularly as many staff only plan to work in the sector for a limited time, a targeted programme of measures to connect with employees and potential recruits is starting to bear fruit.

The scheme has been so successful that staff retention has dropped from 60 per cent six months ago, to around 25 per cent today.

“People do tend to come and go and a lot of the workforce only stay in the sector for a limited time,” says Cotton. “In London especially, many of the workers are from the southern hemisphere and only here for a short time. But turnover is significantly lower now. There’s been a major focus on the direction of the business and there’s a greater clarity in where we’re going. That really does help because it lets staff see exactly how they fit into the business,” she says.

There has also been a major drive to engage with the staff in the form of a new talent management programme, with increased emphasis on promoting people from within.

As part of this initiative, the HR team has completely re-written the induction process, placing an increased importance on engaging staff and retaining them once they start with the company.

“We now have a very clear career path for people within the organisation. We’ve also changed the way we recruit people and it’s now really based on personality and behaviour traits, rather than technical abilities,” says Cotton.

Cotton’s appointment also coincided with a new top team and a fresh direction for the company. The new leadership team launched a major culture change programme to look at ways of driving the business forward and cascading these ideas throughout the firm.

“There’s a new senior team and they have a very clearly defined vision of where the business should be going. There’s leadership from the very top and we reinforce the vision of where we want to be at every level of the company,” says Cotton.

Customer service is the fulcrum of this new message and HR is the key, because only the frontline staff can deliver this effectively, she says. This means recruiting the right people and ensuring they are developed and motivated, as well as making sure the corporate message filters down to every level of the business.

The culture change programme has mountain climbing as its theme and began with the company leaders defining exactly what the new direction should be and how they could implement it.

An exercise called ‘Base Camp A’ was the starting point and this defined the basic standards of operation for the whole business and what was required from individual roles within the organisation.

The next stage saw 75 managers from around the business involved in a series of events designed to help define the future of the company and look at ways of cascading the corporate message across all the Holmes Place facilities.

Customer service was identified as the critical differentiator and this was promoted and discussed heavily at five one-day events set up for the company’s 280 managers.

The day-long events dubbed ‘reaching the summit’ are described by Cotton as “very high energy” and aim to get the managers thinking of ways to engage with staff and spread the new message consistently and effectively.

Club managers were taken out of their usual teams and put into different groups to try and develop new ideas and ways of working with a greater emphasis on customer service. The events were very interactive and, after feedback from the managers, the slogan ‘energy plus passion equals results’ was born.

According to Cotton, the work completed during these events also helped to grow internal leadership, create advocates within the business, devise ways of delivering superior service and spread the corporate message.

There was also a fun element to the proceedings, which culminated in a presentation dinner that drew the mountain climbing theme to its ultimate conclusion, including the use of artificial snow.

“It’s given us clarity on where we want to go with the business and HR policy,” says Cotton.

After ‘reaching the summit’, the managers went back to their individual areas and tried to cascade the new ideas down through the business. All the clubs were assigned to the various directors who are holding focus groups to get feedback from the frontline staff.

The conclusions formed during the event also led to the development of standards of service guidebooks which act as manuals for all staff and help proliferate the corporate message. The guidebooks cover individual roles, behavioural standards and operational procedures for all staff, but most importantly they are designed to let individuals improve the way they work and deal with customers.

Cotton hopes the manuals will lead to greater consistency in customer services, drive up standards, and help staff add to their skills and recognise gaps in their expertise.

“Every member of staff is currently using the manual, which should ensure we can offer great levels of customer service and improve consistency across the organisation,” says Cotton.

In an industry that is all about energy and well-being, Cotton believes HR can move to the centre of operations and actually be the crucial factor in delivering business success. Other sectors with tight levels of competition, where people are the critical difference between competitors, could find inspiration from the perspiration of gym operators.

“There’s a huge level of competition in the sector and the market has really become saturated in the past few years. I think the crucial aspect is how we’re engaging with our people and the leadership team,” says Cotton.

Lesley Cotton’s CV

2004 HR director for UK and Europe, Holmes Place

2001 HR director, Morgan

2000 Head of HR for children’s wear, design, technical services and procurement, Marks & Spencer

1998 Head of HR Bluewater, Marks & Spencer

Cotton’s top five HR issues for the gym sector

1. Recruiting high-calibre staff with the right behaviour sets

2. Engaging with employees

3. Developing staff

4. Health and safety

5. Corporate reputation and the employer brand

Company profile: Holmes Place

Established in Fulham, London, Holmes Place has been operating a chain of health and fitness clubs since 1980. The company now has more than 60 clubs across London, the South East and Europe and has around 220,000 members. Another 15 clubs are planned for the coming year.

The clubs offer a range of activities including personal training, aqua classes, yoga, pilates and dance classes.The company was floated on the stock exchange in November 1997 and also manages hotel clubs and local authority leisure contracts.

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