Setting up from scratch gave HR director Nicky Blatch of online grocer Ocado
the chance to develop a model HR operation
"Our aim is to constantly surprise and delight our employees, just as
we like to surprise and delight our customers," says Nicky Blatch, head of
HR at internet grocer Ocado. "We’re incredibly customer-focused and
believe in the ‘every touch counts’ philosophy. We want the same for our
employees because if they’re happy and enjoy coming to work, then our customers
will be happy, too."
The element of ‘surprise and delight’ so far includes Bupa healthcare cover
for every employee and an innovative online flexible benefits system for
everything from providing childcare to buying a PC for home use to paying
summer school fees.
Having been given a blank sheet of paper by her board, Blatch is developing
what she believes is "HR policy as it should be".
"It’s every HR person’s dream and I’ve had so much support from the
board," says the 34-year-old former head of HR at Majestic Wine, where she
worked her way up from shopfloor trainee.
Ocado, launched earlier this year, operates a dedicated e-grocery service
from www.ocado.com and targets areas with high population density across the
It was formerly known as LM Solutions and was founded in January 2000 by
three ex-Goldman Sachs bankers: Jonathan Faiman, Jason Gissing and Tim Steiner.
They were joined in April of that year by Roger Whiteside and Nigel Robertson,
former directors of the Marks & Spencer food division and Robert Gorrie, former
director of logistics company TDG. John Lewis Partnership has a 40 per cent
equity share in the business.
The company is hoping its sophisticated logistics and delivery model (it has
a partnership with logistics company Gist) will enable it to take on major
players including Sainsbury’s and Tesco. Delivery has long been the bugbear for
online shoppers, who have had the choice of either waiting at home for delivery
or having goods delivered to work.
Companies such as Tesco and Sainsbury’s have been able to put in place a
more customer-friendly delivery infrastructure than most online shops and Ocado
is hoping that its system will even go as far as being able to offer delivery
windows within one hour of ordering.
Blatch’s first challenge was to set up and staff its first operation in
Hemel Hempstead, where there is less than 1 per cent unemployment. In such a
competitive recruitment area, Blatch had to ensure from the outset that the
company became an employer of choice, and so it looked at untapped employment
resources such as mothers returning to work and fit retired people.
She describes Ocado’s e-HR set-up as a "framework to freedom" that
helps it achieve many of its HR aims. "We found that people were very open
about the idea of taking control and were confident about the idea of managing
themselves. The flexible benefits system has been an enormous success and we’ve
achieved almost 100 per cent buy-in," she says. "Flexible benefits
have had a bad press so we tried to find a way of making them fun and different.
The childcare vouchers from Busy Bee, a national network, were an obvious way
to get mothers back to work"
As well as core benefits, every employee gets 500 points, about £500, to
spend on benefits in the Pick Your Own range. Alternatively, they can take a
£250 lump sum in cash. Benefits are chosen twice a year and there’s a real buzz
in the office when staff have been choosing, says Blatch.
"We’re trying to encourage people to use methods of transport other
than their car to get to work, so we’re thinking about offering bike vouchers.
We’ve also asked staff for ideas for what they’d like and giving to charity was
The e-HR system has been provided by HR software supplier Missing Link,
which was used to create a flexible benefits system to Ocado’s specifications.
Now the infrastructure is in place, other features will be bolted on. In
future, holiday entitlement will be booked online and lots of triggers are
being put in place to help line managers handle personnel data without all the
Ocado has 260 staff, most of them customer-facing, but Blatch is gearing up
for rapid expansion. But the focus as far as staff is concerned will always be
on the individual. "Retailing may not be glamorous, but I want people to
look forward to going to work like I did at Majestic – even when I had to take
apart a case of 500 bottles of wine," she said.