Profile: Therese Procter, Tesco HR director for retail services

Asked whether Tesco offers a job for life, Therese Procter laughs and seems a little surprised at the question – despite having been at the supermarket chain for more than 24 years. “What is a job for life?” she asks. “You have to provide staff with a ladder of opportunity where they can get on, otherwise they’ll leave you.”

But Procter (pictured left) is under pressure to prove this philosophy can be applied to the firm’s latest business venture: Tesco Bank. With two huge customer sales and services centres opening up later this year, Procter must not only help attract the right staff, but assimilate them into the wider Tesco culture.

“We can’t just take retail staff and train them to be bankers,” she says. “The recruitment challenge from that point of view is unique.”

Tesco is no stranger to diversification – it is the biggest non-food retailer in the UK. Some £9bn of sales in the year-end to February came from sectors other than groceries. The firm now sells one in six microwaves, and expects to sell 300,000 TVs in the run up to the World Cup this summer.

The challenge for Procter will be whether she can maintain Tesco’s high-profile employer brand in a separate banking environment, one that could not be further removed from the supermarket aisles.

Arriving at Welwyn Garden City, the home of Tesco HQ, it is clear that the company is a dominant presence in the area. In the short time it took to drive from the station to Procter’s building, the taxi driver explains the set-up of the Tesco ‘campus’ – from the dotcom building to the Clubcard office. 

Quick-fire round…

What is HR’s number-one priority?

HR has got to be, and be seen as, a progressive function in the business.

How can HR add value?

Through insight: measuring how the business is driven, what the customers are telling us and how we can respond to their needs.

You have three other colleagues at your level in HR. Who is the ultimate HR director?

Chief executive Terry Leahy.

But HR doesn’t sit on the board?

It doesn’t worry me at all. What’s important is that we have an engaged board when it comes to the people agenda.

What will HR be called in 10 years’ time?

Personnel. At Tesco, we’ve never been called HR. We’re personnel – it’s something that staff and customers understand.

Active recruitment

Over the next two to three years, Tesco Bank will employ up to 3,000 staff at its contact centres in Newcastle and Glasgow. The bank, originally called Tesco Personal Finance, was set up as a partnership between Tesco and the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS). When Tesco bought out the bank’s 50% stake in 2008, 175 RBS employees joined the retailer. In 2009, some bank branches were opened in store, and last October, the Tesco Bank brand name was born.

“We were building up something completely from scratch,” Procter says. “The challenge was to build a bank quite quickly on our own infrastructure and platforms.”

But as the bank’s entire senior team and most employees have so far been recruited externally, including a chief executive who had previously headed up HBOS (Halifax Bank of Scotland)’s retail business, HR has the difficult task of ensuring the financial arm of Tesco looks and feels like any other business within the retailer.

“There is a huge amount of work required in our contact centres, not only to attract the right people, but to induct them and train them and actually put the Tesco values and culture in place,” Procter says.

“Most of the time you’re bringing a few new people into a mass of people that have already formed a culture – now we’re creating a brand new culture, and in a bank it’s very difficult.”

Procter quotes Tesco’s four promises to its people: to be treated with respect; to have a manager who helps them; to be given opportunities to get on; and to have an interesting job.

Her attempts to make these promises a reality are evident in the interactive touch-screen pads asking workers whether they’ve had a good day, and canteens complete with ‘idea trees’, where staff can list what should be done at Tesco to help the environment. Initiatives such as these will also be displayed in the bank as part of the firm’s engagement and retention strategy.

Economic downturn

The challenge to recruit and retain the right people for the bank comes against the backdrop of the UK recession, where unemployment has reached 8%. The retailer has already been swamped with applications: the queue for Newcastle’s Tesco Bank recruitment centre was so large that people asked if it was the line for auditions for the X-Factor talent show. Procter claims the appeal of working for Tesco stems from it being a “brand people can trust”.

The retailer has also worked hard with Jobcentre Plus to hire people from disadvantaged groups. And at Christmas, Tesco announced it would give recruitment priority to employees’ relatives and friends who had lost their jobs during the economic crisis.

Procter, who defines the Tesco employer brand as “everyone is welcome”, is working to ensure the bank is as dedicated to nurturing its own people as the retail side of the business has been.

Travelling to the bank’s head office in Edinburgh at least once a week, she has overseen the development of Tesco Bank’s values, aligned to the broader group’s values. Each Tesco Bank member receives a full Tesco induction, as part of an orientation into a retail business.

Measuring success

The bank will measure success in the same way as the rest of Tesco, through an annual staff survey and quarterly pulse surveys. A series of customer-centric productivity measures has also been outlined to steer bank employees in the right direction, and they will be subject to the same bonus and reward policies as every other employee.

“Personnel has played a key role in defining and implementing the right environment, where the right culture can be established to ensure our success for future growth,” Procter says.

She applies the same principles to any aspect of the business. Procter believes giving staff the opportunity to learn and grow – supported by established people policies such as flexible working or succession planning – will lead to enhanced productivity and engagement.

She has an open mind when it comes to what Tesco’s chief executive Sir Terry Leahy described as “woefully low” standards in the education system, resulting in school leavers who lack basic numeracy and literacy skills.

“It’s about having the right attitude as well – academia is one thing, but what kind of attitude do you want when people join?” she says. “All you can do in a work environment is give people the skills they need to get them through, and if that is maths or English, to bridge the education they didn’t get at school, then I think it’s a good thing.”

She recalls a moment when she was younger and taught her next-door neighbour’s daughter to read. “I got great satisfaction in being quite bossy and getting someone to do something they didn’t think they could do.”

Those skills were clearly transferable.

Tesco: Builer of communities

Tesco’s head office sits in a purpose-built garden town, created in the early 20th century to house self-contained communities surrounded by greenbelts.

Moving there may have been a sign of things to come, as Tesco is planning to build four ‘mini villages’, complete with homes, leisure centres, libraries and schools in some cases – and of course, a Tesco store.

The ‘mixed-use living and leisure’ schemes, as Tesco prefers to call them, are due to be built in Bromley-by-Bow, east London; Dartford, Kent; Streatham, south London; and Woolwich, south-east London.

They will create hundreds of new homes, and up to a thousand new construction jobs, likely to help the company overcome objections to new stores.

But could the plans, which have attracted controversy in the press alongside fierce opposition from lobbying groups, dent Tesco’s image and employer brand?

Tesco thinks not, arguing the projects will create sustainable development in areas that would otherwise not receive a penny of investment.

Procter says: “The press will report, that’s their job, but we don’t allow ourselves to get distracted because the focus stays on delivering the best place for people to work.

“We take the corporate social responsibility agenda very seriously,” she adds. “What Tesco has set out to do to support the environment – through things such as carbon footprints, better packaging and labelling of products and raising awareness – all of those initiatives prove to the customer that Tesco is responsible, regardless of size and scale, and that goes through to the employer brand.”



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