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How Greene King is brewing up company culture

 

Greene King’s Director of People & Culture on how the firm’s cultural values helped them through the pandemic...

Words by Liam Soutar

 

Vickie Elsey

Director of People & Culture

Employers and employees alike know the importance of carving out a strong company culture. This chimes with statistics from Deloitte’s 'Core Beliefs and Culture Survey', which found that 88% believe a strong company culture is key to a business’s success. The same report found that 94% of company leaders felt the same way – perhaps a sign that they understand the impact that a great workplace culture can have on a company's bottom line.

So, when Nick Mackenzie became the CEO of pub chain Greene King in 2019, it was no surprise that he set about finding out where the company was getting things right with its approach to culture, but also where there might be room for improvement. The company, which has its headquarters in Bury St Edmunds, has around 40,000 employees and 2,700 pubs. As such, maintaining a strong culture that considers the lifestyle and personalities of a diverse range of staff is always going to be a tough task.

In this exclusive interview with myGrapevine magazine, Greene King’s Director of People & Culture, Vickie Elsey, explained how the firm re-evaluated its approach to culture, and how this ensured that every decision made during the pandemic was rooted in the company’s purpose and values, and put employee feedback at the heart of every move.

A deep dive on culture

“With Nick coming on board and looking at the organisation, one of the first things he looked into was a deep dive into what’s really good about the current culture, and what we could do differently, and how might we want to transform that,” said Elsey.

“Off the back of that what we did, alongside the senior management team, was engage with staff to build our purpose, and think about what that would be, and to start thinking about what our values would be that underpinned this.”

The plan was to ‘pour happiness into lives’, an idea which Elsey said came from a group of people in the business coming together to consider what was great about the company’s existing culture, and what they could do better.

She continued: “We thought ‘what is it we actually want to do?' (in regards to improving the Greene King culture). What is it we want to strive for, and how do we make that aspirational enough that when we look at it, we can say ‘oh yes, that’s what we do in HR’. We then went on to think about the things we wanted to hang our hat on, from a values perspective, that really lends itself to what it means to work at Greene King, how we make decisions and how we want to be on a daily basis. We came up with a set of values that we worked really hard on.”

 

Vickie Elsey

Director of People & Culture

 
 

Those values included:

Customer First –

Customers at the heart of Greene King

We Care –

Embracing individuality and care for each other, our pubs, our environment and the community

Freedom To Succeed –

We are trusted to unleash our potential by thinking differently and doing the right thing

We Take Ownership –

We make great things happen and we own the outcome

Win, Learn, Celebrate Together –

We love winning and celebrating success. We are humble enough to learn from mistakes. We are in it together.

 

The cultural shift project was coming along nicely for Elsey and her team, and the firm was excited to introduce its new approach to staff. The month was February 2020. Weeks later, the UK’s first ever lockdown was announced, shuttering businesses around the world. Greene King, just like its rivals in the hospitality and leisure sectors, suddenly faced an uncertain future.

“We all stopped, took a deep breath and thought ‘what is this going to do to us? How is this going to affect our cultural transformation?’” Elsey said, adding: “We had a roadmap in place for the things we’d been planning to do, and we'd planned a big conference (to announce them). On reflection, what it did was enable us to make great decisions during that early pandemic period. We set ourselves up for the next year and a half, whereby we anchored ourselves in making decisions based on our values.”

It was those cultural values that came into practice in the summer of 2020, when the UK Government announced that pubs in England would be allowed to reopen for the first time since the start of the lockdown. The date, July 4, was quickly dubbed ‘Super Saturday’ by the national media. Not surprisingly, Greene King’s leadership began preparing for what would be an important day for the business. But reopening thousands of locations couldn’t possibly be done without discussing a plan of action with their pub runners. Ultimately, they made a huge decision; one which came as a surprise to many, after taking onboard their feedback.

 

“We went out to our teams and talked to them about how they could set themselves up and be ready,” said Elsey. “The feedback that we got was essentially ‘we are really scared, we are worried about what this could mean for us, we are worried about how our customers are going to respond. We haven’t been working for a long period of time etc’. Because we had these values and were really anchoring ourselves back to thinking about things before making a decision, we chose not to open on that day. That was one of many decisions that we made based on our culture values, and what it means to work at Greene King and what we wanted to be known for – which was listening to our teams and making decisions based on that.”

The initial reaction to the decision, according to Elsey, was a mix of surprise, delight, and shock. “Maybe the expectation was that we’d say we were taking action, but in reality, that our bottom line was king,” she explained. “If I think about what it did for us long term, it’s opened the door for staff to talk more openly with us. It’s allowed our people to realise that when they talk, they are listened to. I’m not sure that’s necessarily how people felt before.”

And according to recruitment company Michael Page, engaging with staff, and actually acting on their feedback, is of huge importance. On its website, the firm said: “Communication in the workplace is important because it boosts employee morale, engagement, productivity, and satisfaction. Communication is also key for better team collaboration and cooperation. Ultimately, effective workplace communication helps drive better results for individuals, teams, and organisations.”

The move was also a prime example of Greene King living up to one of its core cultural aims, ‘We Care’, by caring for its staff, its pubs and the community.

Elsey said that, despite there being an obvious financial hit to not reopening on the day, “we did the right thing by our people.” She explained: “I’m very proud that, at a time when we’d been closed for a long time, we made a decision based on our values and purpose. For me that was a moment when you thought ‘we are truly transforming the way that we do business’. From a cultural perspective, it was about how we make decisions and how we treat each other. Having those values and that overarching purpose allowed us to think about things differently.”

 

Fun fact:

In a rarely visited part of Green King’s vast cellars, workers once a discovered a 75-year-old ale which never went on sale. The firm had brewed the beer to celebrate the coronation of Edward VIII – the king who was never crowned. The company held it back, of course, when Edward abdicated to marry Wallis Simpson.

 
 

Sticking to the roadmap

Given how quickly things were changing for businesses during the pandemic, HR leaders would have easily been forgiven for letting certain aspects of their workplace – a focus on culture among them – falling by the wayside. At Greene King, it was quite the contrary, as Elsey explained: “I don’t feel like we ever waned from our roadmap. We were all sitting around trying to figure out what furlough meant and how we were meant to use it. It is difficult when you’re trying to make decisions based on things that you don’t really understand well, and the unknown, we’d never been in a situation like this where so much was unknown. We had to make some choices based on a hunch, because that was all we had.

“There was so much going on at that time, but I think because we’d done this plan so close to the pandemic that it was really fresh in our minds and we could remember how we felt on the days we were talking to staff about it. It was a good reminder of how, if we were going to make a decision, had we thought about it in regards to our culture and values? We were lucky, I guess, to be able to have that bringing us back.”

We’ve opened the door for staff to talk more openly with us

 

The cultural change continues, post-lockdown

A focus on these values appeared to influence much of Greene King’s decision-making in the peak of the pandemic. But the firm is not resting on its laurels.

Last October, Greene King finally had the opportunity to bring its management population together, around 2,000 people at the NEC. Elsey said that the congregation was “one of those moments where, having come through the pandemic and being on the other end, having all those people together and talking about the future of Greene King, was really exciting.”

The company also launched new performance metrics, known informally within the company as ‘the dartboard’. The aim was to bring about a culture shift among management, shifting their focus from basing good performance on a small subset of criteria (such as financial results) and looking at a more rounded range of KPIs. There are five segments of the board looking at the business in a really rounded way - people, pride, customer, finance and ops excellence.

“Those are really now the anchor of our business performance. We don’t look at any of them individually, we look at them as a whole. We’ve shifted people from thinking all about the bottom line, and I think that helped us in creating the right environment for our people and our customers - the end result being therefore a great financial performance,” said Elsey.

This year the company has taken about 2,500 people through a leadership development programme, a scheme which Elsey revealed has a focus on helping the participants with the tools they need to embed and underline the culture. The firm also recently expressed a commitment to taking on 5,000 new apprentices by 2025, building on the 15,000 it has already supported since 2011.

Even now, more than a year after England ended its Covid-19 restrictions which had crippled the hospitality sector, many firms in this industry are still suffering from talent shortages. According to the Office for National Statistics, there were 83% more vacancies in this sector between March and May 2022 than there were in the same timeframe of 2019. This war for talent means businesses like Greene King must do whatever they can to showcase themselves as the best place to work. Promoting a positive workplace culture is one of the strongest ways - in fact a Robert Walters’ 'Cultural Fit' whitepaper recently found that 87% of employers offer an induction to new staff on company culture and values. The same report found that over half of Millennials reported that poor company culture was a source of disappointment in a new job – emphasising just how important this issue is to the recruitment process.

Greene King fact file

  • HQ: Bury St Edmunds
  • Founded: 1799 by 19-year-old Benjamin Greene
  • Employees: 40,000
  • Pubs, restaurants & hotels: 3,100
  • Other brands owned by Greene King include: Hungry Horse, Chef & Brewer, Flaming Grill, Wacky Warehouse, Taylor Walker and Good Night Inns
 
 

I’m very proud that, at a time when we’d been closed for a long time, we made a decision based on our values and purpose

 

Setting up for success

By openly reflecting on its own approach to workplace culture, and subsequently implementing changes which remain in place to this day, Greene King has set itself up as a strong case study of how an employer can shift its values to being simultaneously employee and customer-led. Using its newly-created values to guide its decision making, and acting directly on staff feedback in certain situations, has laid the groundwork for the future of Greene King’s company culture, ensuring that these purposes and values will benefit all aspects of the business, from the current workforce to future generations of employees.

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