Wyevale’s staff just weren’t retail-focused when Jim Hodkinson arrived after the 2006 buy-out. He tells Katie Kilgallen how recruitment has been overhauled to get the business in shape

When West Coast Capital took over Wyevale Garden Centres in 2006, the aim was to turn what was essentially a traditional horticultural business into a modern 21st century retailer. And the first priority for chairman Jim Hodkinson and his team was to overhaul the people culture.

Hodkinson explains: “A great deal of change needed to happen to the business in a short space of time. Many of the garden centres needed a huge amount of money spending on them to bring them up to the required standard. But there was no point investing in them significantly if we didn’t have the right staff in place.”

Wyevale head of HR Louisa Hoggarty adds: “It was an opportunity to inject pace, urgency and retail discipline into the garden centre world. But we needed to make some distinctive changes so we could change quite quickly.”

Following the appointment of an entirely new and much more retail-focused board, 80 head office staff and 325 store staff were recruited to help turn the business around. At the same time, many workers unsuited to the culture change left the business.

The new management quickly realised that revising the recruitment process would be the driving force behind any change and help ensure that this change was permanent. The process as it stood was left entirely to store managers. As a result, there was no consistency in approach throughout the business. Some used expensive ads in the local press, others used recruitment agencies or job centres and many simply offered jobs to friends and families of colleagues. Hodkinson says there was no proper interview process in place and the basic criteria was “two arms and two legs”.

He explains: “It was very haphazard because they didn’t have the tools in place to help them recruit the right people. They were more concerned with having the right number of staff in place than having people with the right skills to do the job. In many cases, the managers themselves weren’t up to the job.”

The retailer now has a dedicated recruitment team, the Wyevale Resourcing Centre, with five full-time employees. It is operated by recruitment agency Resource Bank. As well as organising job ads and head-hunting, the team conducts telephone interviews, shortlists candidates, checks references and compiles job offers and contracts. However, Hodkinson and Hoggarty agree that Resource Bank’s most significant role has been to set up an online recruitment process.

The online talent screener has proved to be particularly valuable. The questionnaire focuses on values and attitudes rather than qualifications. Management saw flexibility and a can-do attitude as key to the new culture they wanted to establish at Wyevale when they began their recruitment drive in 2006. Only candidates who scored the same level as the retailer’s best employees on these criteria were put through to the interview stage. Of the 11,775 online applications for retail roles, 6,500 passed the talent screener, with 1,500 then going on to reach interview stage. From this, more than 400 were employed. “For the first time, Wyevale had a benchmark standard to recruit to and this helped us improve the calibre of our retail employees,” says Hodkinson.

Hoggarty says they were also pleased by the growth of activity on the web site. “We are pleasantly surprised by the amount of direct hits we have. A lot of customers are our future colleagues, but we weren’t giving them the right channel,” she says.

Hoggarty adds that, whether candidates are successful or not, their experience of the recruitment process is very important. “Anybody who wants to come and work for you has to be treated with respect and dignity. We encourage them to come back and apply again,” she explains.

More time to manage
Outsourcing such a big recruitment exercise to an external agency also has its benefits, freeing up the store managers’ time to make sure the much-needed culture change is being implemented on the ground. “It gives store managers more time on the shopfloor to do their day job,” says Hoggarty. The ultimate recruitment decision, however, still rests with the store manager. They will conduct the final-stage interviews and decide who will be the best fit in their store.

Improving the calibre of store managers was another major focus of the recruitment overhaul. When senior management first announced the changes, there was a great deal of initial upheaval. Hoggarty explains: “Some store managers didn’t like that change – they were more traditional.” New store managers came in who had blue-chip retail experience and not necessarily a garden centre background. Hoggarty says they came in with a fresh approach, established strong standards and took the stores from strength to strength. She explains: “Having the right leaders in place can deliver a strong performance. The team is so enthused from leadership that a more commercial manager can give.”

Wyevale says the results speak for themselves. Of the 325 staff recruited through Resource Bank, just 3 per cent have left. During the same period, a few Wyevale managers continued with their own ad-hoc recruitment and, among those, turnover was 13 per cent.

However, the culture-change process is far from over. “We’ve got a much more customer-focused team than we had, but we can still improve that,” says Hoggarty. Hodkinson agrees: “We are always trying to fine-tune and improve it.”

A store manager’s perspective

An experienced retail manager, with Morrisons and Matalan on his CV, Simon Martin joined Wyevale in March 2006 as manager for Northampton, just two months before the takeover by West Coast Capital. “The business didn’t really have strength of management,” he explains. “When Jim took over with that team, that’s when the changes began.”

There has been a large turnover of store managers since Martin joined. “Management wanted an improved shopping experience; that led to a lot more challenges for store managers and that’s probably why we had a fairly large percentage of people leave,” he says.

Martin viewed it as an opportunity to make a big impact. Upon joining Wyevale, he discovered the business did not have an eye for retail detail. He says: “They had lots of staff, but didn’t have them in the right place at the right time. No staff rota and a huge amount of resource, but we weren’t using it in the right way. Standards across the board were behind the rest of the retail industry.”

One of the key improvements was the introduction of a flexible working contract. The majority of people worked Monday to Friday, nine to five, with a minimum of staff working at the weekend. There was also no proper induction programme, interview process or training programme in place. Over the past 18 months, this has all been remedied.

Martin says: “The changing curve has been immense. The past two years have been a challenging time for the business. We now have a motivated business and people and the atmosphere is a lot more positive.”