Personnel Today Awards 2014 winners: Volkswagen’s Fiona Roberts is HR Director of the Year

Volkswagen Group's Fiona Roberts receives last year's award from Monster MD Andy Sumner

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Fiona Roberts was crowned HR Director of the Year at the Personnel Today Awards 2014 last week. Sponsored by Monster, this coveted award recognises HR leaders who have brought about real transformations across their organisations. Here we look at Roberts’ winning entry and at all our shortlisted candidates. 

HR Director of the Year – the judges

Sarah Trota, former HR director of Circle Housing and CEO at Sarahtrotaalchemy

Noel O’Reilly, editor, Occupational Health

WINNER: Fiona Roberts, Volkswagen Group UK

About the organisation

Global car manufacturer Volkswagen has been operating in the UK since 1952, when it sold its first two Beetles. It centralised its UK operations in 1978 to its headquarters in Blakelands, Milton Keynes and now employs almost 600 people nationwide.

The challenge

Having put the business under scrutiny, it became clear that Volkswagen UK would benefit from a new structure to achieve profit, growth, and increase market share. In 2012, Fiona led a change programme to realign employment structures and bring a higher percentage of its workers under the company umbrella.

What Fiona did

  • Transferred 300 service level agreement staff to Volkswagen UK under TUPE.
  • Held workshops and launched an Employee Forum convincing the board to elect a full-time chairman.
  • Came up with a new Labour Relations Charter.
  • Introduced recognition scheme so managers can directly reward outstanding contributions from their team.
  • Introduced more frequent business updates, fun days etc so that managers/the Board can communicate with employees.
  • Developed a new Employee Value Proposition and linked the employer brand to the company’s five core values.

Benefits and achievements

  • Just 12 months after the change programme, Volkswagen UK voted 20th in Great Place to Work awards.
  • Saw record sales in 2013, an increase of 55,000 from the year before to 485,000.
  • Market share at a record high of 19.03%.
  • Restructure is now used as a case study for other national Volkswagen companies globally.
  • Simon Thomas, former MD of Volkswagen Group UK said: “She is, without doubt, the best HR leader I have worked with on such a project in almost four decades in this industry. No praise would be too high.”

Judges’ comments
“Clearly, Fiona has driven huge change and transformed the people agenda in Volkswagen and delivered outstanding results.”


Irene Stark, ATS Euromaster

About the organisation

ATS Euromaster is a nationwide tyre company with 345 centres across the UK. It operates a specialist fast-fit and tyre service to fleet and retail customers.

The challenge
Irene’s no-nonsense, results-orientated approach, has had a major impact on the business, which was making a substantial loss when she first joined the leadership team in December 2007. As group HR director she has been pivotal in turning these losses around, driving a culture change in the company and encouraging managers to take more accountability for producing results.

What Irene did

  • Designed and implemented a bespoke programme (called SMILE) to improve customer care.
  • Eliminated silo working culture so separate parts of HR now work better together.
  • Rolled out tailored management development programme to high-potential staff identified as future leaders.
  • Got involved in shaping HR agenda for 16 additional countries.
  • Instrumental in appointing senior leaders from inside and outside the organisation.

Benefits and achievements

  • Mystery shopper survey revealed a 37% improvement in how employees interact with customers.
  • Sales in service, maintenance and repair up by more than 50%, while brake sales are up 50% and retail sales are up 28%.
  • Company’s net promoter score increased by 17% over six months.
  • Five of Irene’s direct reports promoted to join the senior HR team.
  • Marian McLoughlin group payroll and benefits manager said: “I have never worked for an organisation where HR has been so commercially focused and well respected.”

Judges’ comments

“I think Irene has made outstanding progress for her organisation, and has demonstrated real business savvy and excellent measurable outcomes.”

Jane Pateman, Biffa

About the organisation
Biffa is a leading integrated waste management business, providing collection, treatment, recycling and energy generation services. Its mission is to become the UK’s undisputed leading solutions provider of creative sustainable waste management services.

The challenge
Jane Pateman joined Biffa at a difficult time – staff morale was at an all-time low and employees had little understanding of the business or the industry in which it operated. A new CEO in 2010 wanted to tackle low morale and recruited Jane to drive cultural change and improve the prospects of the company.

What Jane did

  • Worked with the CEO to develop five pillars that would underpin Biffa’s business plan.
  • Pillars included “Building Pride in Biffa”, an entirely employee-focused goal to help staff understand business challenges and develop their capabilities.
  • Increased level of internal communication through one-to-one briefings.
  • Introduced concept of engagement champions, who deliver consistent messages about the shared priorities of the business.
  • Introduced performance management framework – People Plan – Biffa previously had not had anything like this.
  • Despite limited L&D budget, Biffa now has own set of qualifications, many of them certified externally.

Benefits and achievements

  • HR team engagement score has risen 250% (or total of 31 percentage points).
  • Response to employee engagement survey up by 62%.
  • Business performing to plan across all divisions.
  • Ian Wakelin, Biffa CEO said: “I’m amazed at the difference in Biffa today, from when I joined in 2010.”

Judges’ comments
“She is clearly an outstanding leader.”

Kay Harriman, Hilton UK & Ireland

About the organisation

Hilton Hotels operates more than 550 hotels and resorts across six continents, and has 140 new locations in development. One in five hotel rooms under construction in Europe is associated with a Hilton Worldwide brand. Its European headquarters are in London.

The challenge
At the start of 2013, team member engagement at Hilton UK was showing a two-year downward trend, and was at the lowest level for all European regions. The HR function, led by Kay, needed to drive up performance in the division and refocus its leadership and management.

What Kay did

  • Worked with leadership team to redefine mission and objectives, before developing the “Success Formula”.
  • Introduced PULSE, a regular survey designed to give a short, sharp, real-time assessment of employee experience.
  • Every manager receives a copy of PULSE (which has the employee’s name on it) so they can have constructive conversations and improve how they work as a team.
  • Drew up new organisational chart of Executive Management Team so staff have greater clarity of who does what.
  • Worked with external partner to create divisional purpose statements for colleagues so they could better see their role in the business.
  • Created Select Leadership Certificate programme to raise capability of leaders in the company.

Benefits and achievements

  • Increase in engagement of 6%, compared to 2012.
  • Increase in trust of 7%.
  • Proportion of staff who feel their opinions matter has gone up by 10%.
  • All 1,000 leaders have completed the leadership programme.
  • PULSE score from Kay’s own direct reports is 83, and engagement and trust ratings in her team are the highest in the UK and Ireland.

Judges’ comments

“The PULSE survey is an innovative approach and has driven a big increase in engagement.”

Mike Williams, Village Urban Resorts and De Vere Hotels

About the organisation
Village Urban Resorts and De Vere Hotels operates across 33 locations, with 25 Village Urban Resorts and eight De Vere Hotels. The group has an annual turnover of £220 million converting to £60 million profit. It employs a total of 5,000 people.

The challenge
Previously there had not been a HR strategy and therefore much of what had been done was transactional and disjointed. In 2012, a management team was tasked with improving business performance and creating enhanced sale value for its shareholders, as the company is due to be sold.

What Mike did

  • Spearheaded creation of new people development team: four regional PD managers, plus one onsite manager, as well as a group L&D manager and HR administrator.
  • Led the remit for creation of new employer brand: V Happy People Plan, to turn around low levels of engagement.
  • Delivered launch sessions for new brand to hotel managers, as well as new customer service initiative: “Going the extra inch”.
  • Introduced new employee communication forum (VIP = Very Informed Person).
  • Designed national competitions to test individuals in delivery of exceptional service and brand standards.
  • Introduced performance reviews against newly created performance behaviours, with new online system.
  • Built trust with managers and other senior executives in new people development strategy.

Benefits and achievements

  • Engagement has increased to 86% from 71%.
  • Guest rate service measure increased by 20%
  • Almost all employees (96%) have now received a performance review since the introduction of V Happy People Plan.
  • Eighty-eight percent of employees would recommend the company as a great place to work.
  • Half of “up and coming stars” have been promoted or moved to other roles internally.
  • Spend on recruitment decreased by 80%, saving £400,000.
  • Labour turnover has gone down to 24%.

Judges’ comments
“An energetic change progamme, introducing innovative communications and employee engagement programmes such as the VIP initiative.”

Anita Walton-Tilly, Vaultex

About the organisation
Established in 2007 from a joint venture between Barclays Bank and HSBC, Vaultex is the UK’s leading cash processor. Vaultex supplies, collects and credits cash for customers such as high street retailers, supermarkets, financial institutions and ATM deployers.

The challenge

Everyone in Vaultex must work in a confidential environment, which in the past had led to a culture of secrecy. When Anita joined the executive committee at Vaultex in September 2012, she was tasked with improving this environment and enhancing employee wellbeing.

What Anita did

  • Set out strategy to achieve improved engagement, starting with an employee survey.
  • Introduced focus groups to discuss concerns raised in the survey; plans could be iterated before going live.
  • Launched new set of values for the company.
  • Launched a series of roadshows where staff could meet with executive committee and CEO to find out more about the business.
  • Opened up a family day to all Vaultex staff, totalling 1,300 people from all Vaultex sites.
  • Rolled out programme of charitable activity; staff are given a day’s paid leave for voluntary work.
  • Established four new departments in HR, with performance indicators set for each one.
  • Revamped internal communications to include new company magazine.
  • Relaxed uniform policy and improved pension and bonus schemes so staff feel trusted and recognised.

Benefits and achievements

  • Company pension has 96% membership.
  • Online training system has saved £100,000 in the past year.
  • New company values have inspired 98% of all employees.
  • Employee turnover is below national average, at 7%.
  • Sickness absence levels at 3%, down from 15%.
  • Anita says: “Success for me is defined by helping others realise their potential and develop into all they are meant to be.”

Judges’ comments

“Walton-Tilly introduced a new vision and set of values together with a new service-led HR model.”

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