HR strategy transformation: Personnel Today interviews Debbie Hewitt, managing director, RAC

After almost two decades at motoring organisation RAC, Debbie Hewitt has been on both sides of HR’s battle in the boardroom. Before she leaves her role as managing director of the company in just a few months’ time, she tells Personnel Today how she has used people strategies to stand out in a competitive market.

It’s not often you’ll find a managing director who paid her dues in the HR department too. But then again, Debbie Hewitt isn’t your run-of-the-mill boss.

Over the past 11 years, she has worked as both managing director and HR director for one of Britain’s largest vehicle rescue services, RAC, which employs 8,000 staff, generates an annual revenue of £700m, and has cornered one-quarter of the market, according to figures released earlier this year.

The company was in the limelight last week, criticising a report by the government’s top medical adviser that suggested a zero alcohol limit for teenage drivers.

Driving a revolution

Hewitt has helped steer the RAC through a revolution in the roadside service and insurance industry. For nearly a century, there had only been two major competitors in the car breakdown sector – The AA and RAC. But the arrival of rescue and recovery company Greenflag in the late 1990s heralded a new order, and dozens of subsequent launches forced RAC to adapt or fall by the wayside.

“A whole load of new competitors with different business models burst into our marketplace, completely changing the rules of the game. We realised our structure wasn’t going to be the model of the future, and knew we had to change,” said Hewitt.

As HR and then managing director, Hewitt drove transformation at RAC. The company restructured its car inspection service, cleared up IT bugs in its record-keeping, and attempted to bring the company into the 21st century with new technology, such as mobile-phone locators to help with vehicle recoveries.

Hewitt encouraged employees to take responsibility for customers’ queries and concerns, even if it wasn’t their responsibility to do so. Staff received additional training for on-the-job skills, as well as on how to use technologies installed in rescue vehicles and call centres.

She now deems the moves a success, citing huge growth in regular and corporate customers, a dramatic increase in multi-car insurance deals with businesses from 25% to 85% in just three years, and improved retention rates and staff satisfaction.

HR escape

Because of her experience in HR, Hewitt has relied on the department throughout her career and will continue to do so.

“I can’t think of any business where people are not vital to success, and that’s almost entirely HR’s realm,” she said. “It’s often an area where you can differentiate yourself from competitors.

“People are fundamental to our business, both in terms of customers and in terms of the staff providing service by the roadside and in call centres.”

But she has still had her run-ins with HR.

“The most frustrating thing is when the basics aren’t done right,” she said. “You only get the right to be at the top table when you get the basics right, because when they’re not, there’s a really negative impact on the business.”

In October, Hewitt will relinquish her role, moving to take up her fifth non-executive role, with the Department of Communities and Local Government, ending nearly 20 years with the company.

Other non-executive roles include director of Luminar, the UK’s largest nightclub operator warranty provider Domestic and General and professional support services group Mouchel.

However, in her remaining months with the RAC, Hewitt will continue her decade-long practice of visiting employees in call centres or repair vans, both to maintain perspective and “to keep her sane”.

“Getting away from bureaucratic policies that don’t add value, and getting back to the front line, really helps you remember what it’s all about,” she said.

Debbie Hewitt’s CV

  • May 2006-present: managing director, RAC
  • 2003-2006: managing director, RAC Rescue
  • 1997-2003: HR director, RAC
  • 1993-1995: general manager, RAC Volvo Bristol
  • 1990-1993: various sales and group personnel and training roles, RAC
  • 1981-1987: various store management roles, Marks & Spencer

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