Reach for the sky

At lifting gear specialists Nim, Colin Midson has won praise, and an IIP award, for his refreshing approach to people development. The bottom line has benefited too. Stephanie Sparrow reports

The IIP assessor’s comments on Colin Midson’s achievements read like the stuff of many a training professional’s wishlist.

"The senior management team has championed a change in culture to make the organisation more commercially aware and to create an environment in which people feel happy to come to work," writes the assessor Gary Inman.

Impressive, but what makes Midson’s achievements interesting is that he is not a trainer and did not set out to win IIP.

From an early career in the sales and hire of lifting equipment he progressed to become operations director of Nim, the products division of worldwide lifting gear and winch specialist LGH Group.

Nim focuses on the sale and service of such equipment (which can range from a small hand winch to a large-scale marine installation) spread over four business units nationwide. The LGH Group bought the NIM businesses six years ago. Midson, with two commercial directors, took control of the loss-making division two years later and found the classic combination of high staff turnover and low morale. It was apparent that if it was to become profitable the culture had to change. But it wasn’t going to be easy. "There was a lot of bad feeling between LGH and Nim," he admits.

He could call on Brian Osbiston, then LGH group training and development manager, to draw up a prospectus to provide opportunities for employees’ development.

Midson was upfront about job losses and the need for multi-skilling. He stressed the positives, but staff still had to buy in. "Basically talk is cheap, so we had to prove what we were saying was true," he says.

He acknowledges the input of Osbiston, who now works in consultancy, but his own common-sense approach must have had a major role in winning people over. He knew that if training and opportunities were not immediately attractive, the prospect of earning more money would be.

"We said we are going to do this not because we are just being nice people, but because we think its going to be good for them and good for the business."

He realised that the profit-related pay scheme would be an ace card. "There was a scheme in place. But because the business wasn’t making any money they had never seen it. Their first bonus, which was a quarterly, was £70. Eventually it’s increased until last year they got £2,000 each."

Midson claims to be an "enthusiastic amateur" in terms of handling people, but had the nous to realise that finding a new culture and making it stick meant that he would have to champion it and he took a very hands-on approach.

Osbiston recommended picking the brains of other companies, so Midson went to Kerry Foods and Virgin Atlantic.

"Kerry Foods said that if you are going to have a cultural survey done, prepare to take on board the results." This was an important point because in the past LGH had undertaken surveys but junked them if the results were unfavourable.

Virgin Atlantic impressed Midson with its mission statement. "I stole from them the phrase, ‘We will strive to ensure that our customers will become our fans’," he says.

Midson has introduced all the formal instruments of culture change, such as appraisals and newsletters, but the simplicity and evolution of some of his other ideas is dazzling.

During his frequent visits to Nim’s Derbyshire office he didn’t want to be "stuck in a hotel room every night", so he asked staff to show him the surrounding area. This has grown into a routine of country walks and fun days for all employees.

He also asked them to nominate a subject for learning, and Spanish classes were the result. "I said, ‘I’ll run these for everybody, and give up an hour of my time, but the moment one of you drops out they are cancelled’," he says. The classes are run at late afternoon periods for all employees together.

"The best thing of that kind of course is that the manager, storeman and director are on one level. Or the storeman could be better than the director," he says.

"The classes are brilliant team-builders and ice-breakers, and now staff are asking for more opportunities for learning."

This culture change has taken place over three years. It has seen staff turnover drop from "very high, running out of the door" levels to barely 2 per cent and a profit of £600,000 net on a turnover of approximately £4m. Expenditure on training and development for the 53 staff has notched a relatively high £70,000.

The initiatives were in full swing when IIP came knocking on the door. Midson’s first reaction was that he was not interested. "I was happy with the concept of the continuous cycle of improvement but I didn’t want to get involved in case the words ‘pass or fail’ were used with my staff," he says.

"However, the new standards are very much more in proving what you’ve done. We fitted in nicely with their new standards, which I think are harder to attain but much more friendly. Everyone understands how they can get there," he says.


Style suits new IIP standards


Nim chose to be assessed under the new IIP standards, which were introduced in April this year, and was one of the first organisations to take up this option in its local Tec area, London East.

"The new standards are very much about outcomes," says Letec HR adviser Julie Corbett, who worked with Midson at Nim’s Beckton offices over a nine-month period.

"And for some companies this makes IIP more difficult because its about whether people can actually feel the commitment – not think that it is something that is just said. The senior managers have to turn words into actions.

"When I went into Nim first of all I found the attitude very refreshing," she says.

"Colin is all about enjoying work. He believes that people should work hard but not be stressed or unhappy. He is very much focused on commitment and this fits in perfectly with IIP," says Corbett, who has short-listed Nim for a special award in outstanding and innovative practice.

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