HR lessons from the Masters wind-down

by HCA30 Mar 2017
Gillian Davie, former general manager of HR for the home improvement division of Woolworths, was a keynote speaker at the National HR Summit in Sydney yesterday.

She told the audience about the announcement in January 2016 that Woolworths would be exiting the home improvement retail sector by either selling or winding up its two businesses in that sector: Home Timber & Hardware and Masters Home Improvement.

In August that year, it was announced that all 82 Masters stores would close before the end of 2016. Moreover, their stock would be liquidated and the properties sold.

With the closures impacting some 6,200 employees, business analysts called the outcome the largest voluntary wind down in Australian corporate history.

The announcement meant Davie was strategising with her senior level colleagues about next steps.

She was asked by one of her consultant partners what the desired outcome would be and what success would look like at the end of what promised to be a challenging and emotional downsizing operation.

“I said that on the final day, when the final store closes, if I’m in the carpark and I meet one of our team who is finishing up that day and ask them how they are feeling and they say to me, ‘It was an awful outcome for the business, but I feel like I was cared for and treated with dignity and respect’ – that is what success looks like.”

The senior leadership team at Woolworths took the unprecedented step of placing a HR manager in every store. Davie’s team expanded from seven to 70.

 The 63 new members, known as Employee Support Advisors (ESAs), were recruited with the help of The Next Step and Hays, and were onboarded in just seven days. In hindsight, Davie says this decision was “genius”. 

“The store managers absolutely cared for our people but we knew they’d have their hands full keeping the stores running. We actually had a spike in sales when the announcement was made – oddly proving the old saying that any publicity is good publicity.

“So the role of the ESAs was to support our people – to have one on one chats, to check on mental wellbeing. That was one of the things that helped alleviate the stress in the stores very quickly.”

Davie added that one of Masters’ strengths had always been its agility. “Our communication really since January changed to face-to-face,” she said.

“We didn’t want people hearing things in a memo or from an email.”

‘Huddles’ or team meetings ensured that staff heard critical news from managers before they heard it from media or other parties.

“We knew it would be newsworthy so it wouldn’t take long,” Davie said.

“We also wanted families to be informed by their loved ones and not hear it on the six o’clock news. We got the news disseminated across the business within half an hour of the annoucement.”

The huddles would eventually play an important secondary role for the HR team themselves: “We started daily huddles. The goal was firstly to check in with each other. What were the hot issues? Was there anything that had come up that no one had expected? It was really about listening to what was happening on the shopfloor.”

Davie offers her number one change management tip:

“My tip for any major change – and this is something I’ll take with me moving forward in my career – would be to walk in the shoes of those impacted and really understand all the touch points that individuals will have with the change.

“There’s absolutely a place for change frameworks, change theories and HR processes but I think sometimes perhaps we get so caught up in that we forget about the people experience.

“For example, the individual experience that someone with a disability might experience in redeployment could be quite daunting and different to someone who has only been with a company for a short period of time with good contacts back to their previous employer.”

The National HR Summit continues at Luna Park today.
 

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