The name RAC conjures up an image of a motorcyclist in black saving the day for a driver of a broken down car on a rainy night. After all, most people think of the organisation purely as a breakdown service.
That’s exactly what Jill Nealon did when she was approached by a headhunter last year and asked whether she was interested in the role of group HR director – with responsibility for RAC’s vast UK workforce.
“I couldn’t understand how 11,500 people could do breakdown services,” she said. “But when you look at the organisation it’s anything but that.”
In fact, the group is a motoring services organisation consisting of 13 separate businesses, which provide a wealth of other things including driving lessons, windscreens, financial services and vehicle leasing.
It was an attractive proposition for 45-year-old Nealon and also gave her the opportunity to move back to the UK after three years working in Germany.
Speaking from the RAC’s offices at London’s Marble Arch, she said: “I was on secondment from British Midland, working for the Star Alliance airline network based in Frankfurt when I got the call. It was a great experience [working abroad] and I loved it – but, ultimately, I had to make a career choice.”
Eight months into her new role, Nealon is confident she made the right decision. She even draws some comparisons between the two jobs.
“Both have separate businesses which are very strong brands in their own right, and some of the issues affecting the aviation industry are similar to here,” she said.
One of these issues is talent – both how to get it and how to keep it.
“With no disrespect to anyone here, there is a lack of experienced and qualified people available with the right type of skills,” she said. “Going forward, we need to recruit those people and have mechanisms in place to develop them.”
Although the RAC has grown “phenomenally” since it was bought by rival motoring services firm Lex in 1999, there are still opportunities for further growth in certain areas, Nealon said.
The group’s chief executive, Andy Harrison, has pinpointed financial services as a key growth area. After announcing the company’s financial results earlier this month, he described buying out Axa from its joint venture insurance operation, RAC Finan-cial Services, as the group’s “most important strategic step in 2004”.
“The challenge for us in HR is to ensure we are spending the right amount of money in the right place, but also to make sure we don’t drain our management pool too quickly,” Nealon said.
Working “smarter, not harder” is the maxim that drives Nealon on. It could almost be borrowed from Michael Bishop, chairman of British Midland, who she calls her “greatest influence”.
“He was a very astute man and always seemed to have the ability to anticipate when things were changing,” she said. “We’re trying to be proactive. What we’ve done is stop and look at where the business is now, where it needs to be going and the competencies we need from an individual to get there and deliver it.”
The RAC has enjoyed a reputation for excellent people policies, so much so it was one of the case studies featured in Denise Kingsmill’s Accounting for People report. Nealon’s predecessor, Debbie Hewitt, was also a member of the advisory forum.
Nealon admits Hewitt has been a tough act to follow: “I’ve just about stopped having to say: ‘Hello, I’m the new Debbie Hewitt’,” she said. “But Debbie’s move [to managing director of RAC Roadside Services] shows that an HR director’s role does not have to be pigeon-holed. I find that very refreshing.”
Measuring success is all about what Nealon calls her ‘wine bar story’.
“My vision is two people drinking in a wine bar and one says ‘have you heard about RAC and the good things they are doing there?’ Then the other guy replies ‘it’s funny you should say that, I’ve just sent my CV to them’.
“When someone tells me that they’ve overhead a conversation like that – that’s when I’ll know we’ve made it.”
Up close and personnel
Where and when were you born? Nottingham, 1959
Where were you educated? Manchester University
What are your interests? Culture and languages – working in Germany and the US gave me a passion for multi-cultural team building
Why did you get into HR? I began in sales/marketing, recruitment, then training and HR. It’s about marketing people and is fascinating, as it’s always changing
How do you relax? A glass of wine with friends, and if all else fails a jog in Windsor Park
What drives you mad? Packaging. What is it about so much plastic and polythene?
One amazing fact about yourself I suffer from Lupus, quite a serious disease of the immune system but one which, under control, does not restrict a normal life
What’s the last book you read? The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown