Far from standing still, Ewan McCulloch, HR director at stationery giant Staples, believes HR has a central role in driving business success. Karen Dempsey met him.
It’s not often you meet an HR director who skateboards in his spare time, and is part of a group of 40-somethings who call themselves the ‘middle-aged shredders’. But the irony of this skateboarding term is not lost on Ewan McCulloch, who also deals with the less exhilarating kind of shredder in his job as UK HR director at the office supplies company, Staples.
His new role may not put him at risk of the kind of bruises and broken bones that come from “doing mad things on a little plank of wood with wheels”, but he still has a mighty challenge ahead of him.
McCulloch was headhunted to Staples UK Retail at the beginning of the year to help lay the foundations for the organisation’s ambitious growth plans. With major brands such as Nationwide and Comet on his CV, McCulloch’s first reaction when he got the call was: “I’m not sure that Post-Its and pens will really do it for me.” But the scale of the task ahead tempted him to “have a crack at it”.
Staples has been through a couple of years of “planned turmoil” following the £32.5m acquisition of rival office goods retailer Office World – a purchase that gave the UK arm of the $16bn US business 137 stores and 3,600 employees.
McCulloch’s job is to bring stability to the newly merged business, to rev up its customer service drive, and help the organisation double in size in three years.
This would be no mean feat when you consider that the retail sector suffers such high staff turnover – the churn at Staples is 26% – and achieving those growth targets will depend on being able to attract and retain the right quality and quantity of talented people.
But, as someone used to doing axle-grinds up steep curves of concrete, McCulloch takes this in his stride.
During an hour’s conversation, McCulloch – who is a member of the board at Staples, and reports to the managing director Dick Neff – talks more about building a profitable business than he does about what it means to be head of HR.
“I know a lot of people who are in business to make money and who happen to head up the discipline called HR, but who could easily step into the managing director’s shoes,” he explains.
McCulloch is scathing about HR practitioners who ensconce themselves in their silos, and who worry about how they are perceived as opposed to just getting on with it. And he says he refuses to work with people who don’t “get it” – “it” being the connection between “the people thing in business and the commercial reality”.
“HR can be academically robust, but sometimes it isn’t frank, pragmatic or ballsy enough to challenge its business partners,” argues McCulloch. “HR is not seen as a player because it’s trying to be important, trying to be busy, and trying to protect people from the business,” he adds.
“When people say HR is all about tea and sympathy, terms and conditions, and employment law, I say ‘rubbish’. Of course, that’s all part of it, but it’s about how you translate that to help the business operate even more quickly.”
The customer is always right
The fact that McCulloch has had about as many roles outside HR as he has had in it goes some way to explaining why he believes HR is the chief protagonist in the success of any business. He has seen it from all angles, and knows that HR really can make a difference – as long as it does not blinker itself.
He did not come up through the typical HR route. He didn’t go to university and he has not done the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development qualification.
Kicking off his career in financial services, it was his job as a branch manager with Nationwide Building Society that prompted his interest in HR and people development.
“I knew if I had a dream team who were highly motivated, they would break all our targets and give great customer service,” recalls McCulloch. “This made common sense as far as driving profitable business is concerned.”
Creating the link between staff satisfaction, customer service and bottom-line profitability has driven his subsequent career development, leading to roles in management development and strategic planning, as well as HR at Nationwide – which is where he met “friend and inspiration” Mike Cutt (now HR director at high street retailer Boots).
McCulloch was national retail personnel manager at Nationwide when he got a call from Cutt – who had moved to Kingfisher Group – asking him if he was interested in a major new HR opportunity at electrical retailer Comet.
McCulloch’s “brand snob” reaction was: “No chance. Why would I want to work at what I perceived to be a grubby retailer when I was working at a company like Nationwide?” But he decided to take the job because of the “huge challenge in a market that had little differentiation and poor customer service”.
In his six-year stint at Comet – first as general manager, HR operations, and then as general manager, customer experience – he embarked on a major initiative that put customer experience at the heart of everything the company did. Working closely with the operational side of the business, he helped to create a customer service mission statement based on customer feedback, revamped the way Comet recruited, and improved employee engagement by raising standards and helping to instil a sense of pride among Comet staff.
Of course, there is no point having a customer service statement if there is no-one to deliver those promises, which is why McCulloch says he puts so much focus on the store managers.
“If I was down to my last £10, that’s where I would invest it, as they are the key leaders in the business and they make it happen with customers.”
McCulloch had a taste of what it takes to be a Staples store manager when he first started at the company. He spent several weeks on the shopfloor, meeting staff and customers, to understand the role Staples plays in the lives of small businesses and to comprehend the excitement for some consumers of buying their files and paperclips from this ‘Aladdin’s cave’ of stationery. Apparently, at a dinner party after he first joined Staples, the conversation focused for 40 minutes on the joys of buying stationery. He knows, because he timed it.
He then catches himself in a particularly zealous moment to point out that he’s not being evangelical about Staples or stationery he’s just passionate about the potential of the business.
He is currently aiming to make it easier for customers to buy and staff – or ‘associates’, as they are called – to sell. He is driving the service ethic across the business, and he is ramping up employee product knowledge, thereby freeing staff to focus on serving customers between the core hours of 10am and 4pm. His efforts are producing results. In November 2005, for every compliment from customers, they received two complaints, and now the ratio stands at 18 compliments for every one complaint.
“People have said to me this [customer experience] has got nothing to do with HR,” says McCulloch. “My response is always that this has got everything to do with HR. The customer experience is not just an operations thing or a retail thing it’s actually a people thing, both in terms of customer and employee.”
Not that he sees himself as an HR director, anyway. If you cut him in half, he says, he would not have ‘HR director’ written inside. Uncharacteristically coy when asked to define what is there instead, when pressed he concedes that his motto is “looking at the business from the outside in”. He expands on this: “Rather than look at a company from the inside out, you should build the company with the customer in mind rather than put in a lot of bureaucracy and internal processes to protect the organisation at the expense of the customer.”
But with his blatant ambition, fearlessness in the face of a challenge, and admission that he “grabs opportunities along the way”, you can’t help suspecting that the inscription inside reads ‘aspiring managing director’.
CV: Ewan McCulloch
- 2006 – Staples UK – UK HR director
- 1999-2005 – Comet Group General manager, HR operations – general manager, customer experience
- 1987-1999 – Nationwide Building Society – Retail branch manager, management development, Southern HR manager, distribution planning, strategic planning manager, corporate planning manager, national retail personnel manager
- 1982-1987 – NatWest Bank – Various roles
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