In his days in the Merchant Navy, Nigel Epps learned that the secret of good management was to be participative, with the ability to instruct and direct when the need arose.
The former master mariner is now head of personnel and training at the 118-year-old tyres and tourist guides company Michelin UK, and often uses these techniques in his work.
Michelin has only just emerged from a period of major restructuring, triggered by a successful battle to keep its three UK tyre manufacturing plants afloat. Over the past six years, the 90% male UK workforce has slumped from more than 6,500 to 3,200 as the cutbacks and closures have left their mark. There were 2,300 compulsory redundancies in the same period, 2,150 of them at the company’s flagship headquarters in Stoke-on-Trent.
Epps and his HR team of 14 have been at pains to ease the transition for staff into other jobs, and only 10 or 20 of the Stoke personnel have failed to find alternative jobs, he says. But this hasn’t been easy for him personally or professionally. The self-described ‘family man’ has been with the firm for 33 years, and rates treating people fairly as a prerequisite for good HR.
“If we feel that we’re right about something, we’ve got to be strong enough to say so,” he says. “In business, it’s all about judgement and living with the decisions you make, even if people get upset.
“It’s important to remember that whatever the dispute with the workforce is today, one day it will be solved and you’ll have to work with these people again. If you listen to your staff and keep talking, relationships can remain intact.”
Despite the rounds of redundancies local families have endured, Epps has worked hard to maintain positive industrial relations with line managers and the unions.
“I’ve encouraged managers to smile and to say ‘hello’ to the workforce in the morning and to seek co-operation wherever possible, which hasn’t come naturally to some of them,” he explains.
Despite the bad times, relations with the two shopfloor unions represented at the firm – the Transport and General Workers’ Union and Amicus – remain good.
Although Michelin is one of a shrinking band of manufacturers that still regard the UK as viable, Epps believes that with union co-operation, the firm can buck the trend in manufacturing to switch production to Eastern Europe or the Far East.
The company’s Ballymena plant in Ireland has recorded double-digit productivity gains over the past year because of a new shift system that has the full agreement of the unions.
This spirit of openness in its industrial relations is now poised to extend to its external image. In the past, this paternalistic family firm has been reticent about exposing how it works (former chief executive François Michelin was once dubbed ‘the most secretive boss in Europe’), but is now poised to throw open its shutters.
Despite this, Epps is an ‘interview virgin’, who has never been asked to put his media training into practice. Refreshingly, he doesn’t produce a well-thumbed CV when requested because he has simply never needed one.
Epps’ entry into Michelin was almost accidental. After being turned down by “literally dozens of companies” because he had no transferable skills from the Navy, Epps joined Michelin in 1974 as an industrial engineer after responding to an ad asking for applications from the services.
“It was around the time of the three-day week,” he says. “And my introduction to industrial relations and industrial action was a baptism of fire.”
His long service is matched by that of his colleagues. Staff turnover is just 6% and blue-collar absenteeism and sickness is below 3% per annum. An employee share scheme has already been taken up by about half its UK workforce and, backed by a commitment to spend 3% of the worldwide turnover on training, 70% of the UK workforce received training during 2006.
There is currently no graduate trainee programme in place at Michelin UK, but Epps says he wants to establish a “proper talent pipeline”, before wincing and promising not to use any other HR ‘buzzwords’.
Diversity, too, is high on the agenda. Epps is proud of the growing number of female graduates coming into the firm. However, he concedes that when it comes to flexible working or perks such as paternity leave for the male workforce, there is still a long way to go. Introducing working from home or job-sharing to staff who need to be on hand to oversee the physical work of tyre manufacture could prove a challenge, after all.
However, HR at Michelin UK can boast a diverse background. A large number of Epps’ personnel team have come from other parts of the firm, such as engineering or administration.
Modernising staff programmes and policies is a key part of the HR strategy at Michelin UK, but that’s not to say it plans to neglect its paternalistic past.
“Respect for our people, respect for our shareholders, respect for the facts and respect for our customers are among our guiding principles, and they have served us very well,” says Epps.
In early 20th-century France, when a cradle-to-grave corporate paternalism held sway, workers in Michelin’s home town of Clermont-Ferrand lived in Michelin houses, sent their children to Michelin schools, worshipped in a Michelin-built church, and were despatched to the tyre maker in the sky with the help of a Michelin funerals service.
Even in its Stoke-on-Trent headquarters there are families who have been working for the firm since the 1920s. “It’s important to remember that when you talk to them, you are talking to their families, and when you make them redundant, the whole family is affected,” he says.
That said, the Michelin family itself, which is understood to control about one-third of the company’s shares, still retains a “strong central direction” over the company, according to Epps.
“Many global companies like Michelin have features that are designed to work throughout the whole company, including appraisal and remuneration procedures, and this makes them easier to manage.
“Every year I talk with Clermont about pay increases, as does my counterpart in Spain or China, and while there is a clear structure and protocol, my job is to manage the framework in my own country, taking full account of local conditions,” he says.
Epps turns 60 later this year and will retire from Michelin to pursue his interests in aviation and travel. He will be replaced by his number two, James Alderman.
After more than three decades with the firm, will Epps be tempted to answer the call if Michelin needs him?
“I began work when I was 16 and from then until now, I’ve never been out of work,” he says, with a broad smile. “I’ve done my stint and I want a rest. And no, I won’t be leaving them my number.”
Nigel Epps’ CV
1964: Deck apprentice, Merchant Navy
1974: Leaves with Master Mariners Certificate
1974: Industrial engineer, Michelin (Burnley)
1976: Industrial engineer, Michelin (expatriated to Port Harcourt, Nigeria)
1979: Sector personnel manager, Michelin (Burnley)
1987: Transfers to Stoke-on-Trent HQ on personnel projects
1991: Personnel manager, Group Services
1996: Personnel manager, Stoke-on-Trent
1997: Completes Masters in industrial relations
2002: Head of personnel and training, Michelin UK
Michelin employs 25,000 people worldwide and its net profit was e16.4bn (£11bn) in 2006. Its corporate headquarters are in Clermont-Ferrand in the Auvergne region of France.
Michelin Man or ‘Monsieur Bibendum’ – the rotund figure who offers friendly advice to drivers – is one of the world’s most recognised trademarks.
Monsieur Bibendum was introduced in 1898 by the French artist Marius Rossillon after the company’s co-founders André and Édouard Michelin noticed that a display of stacked tyres looked eerily human. The character also gained a reputation for liking good wine and fat cigars.
In recent years though, he has given way to a more toned Michelin Man in tune with changing social attitudes. Due to return to UK TV screens this month, the new Bibendum – now well over 100 years old – is energy-conscious, environmentally friendly and abstemious.