Taking the crown: HR at Crown Casino

by Iain Hopkins28 Jul 2010

Few people are able to successfully channel their passions into careers. Many choose the path of something they have a vague interest in but few can pursue a passion. Peter Coyne is one who has. As executive general manager, human resources at Crown Casino Melbourne, Coyne has been fortunate to take an early passion for education - specifically education for young people - and has forged an enviable career in HR with that passion driving change in his company.

Coyne commenced his career as a secondary school teacher, taking teaching positions in various technical and high schools across Victoria. Towards the end of that career he developed his own business involving the writing of training materials for businesses. At its core, Coyne's consultancy was preparing students to move from the world of school into the world of work.

"It was an interesting time - the secondary school curriculum was changing very quickly in Victoria and Crown was opening a new casino," Coyne explains. "In my consultancy I was asked by Crown to come in and run some school-to-work transition programs for long-term unemployed youth. Fifteen years ago Victoria had very high rates of unemployment and the Kennett government of the time had a huge expectation that the new employers in hospitality would make a significant impact on that figure. However, they really hadn't got their head around how young people would be successful within that new environment."

After helming his own training company for several years, Coyne eventually moved into human resource management and has been with Crown for 15 years. He's also retained that passion for learning.

Crown College
In May 2010 Crown Melbourne opened the Crown College, a $10m standalone learning centre catering to the needs of all Crown employees. Coyne believes it "completes the loop".

Three years in the making, Crown College performs a duel function for the company. As Coyne explains, many of the young people who come to work for Crown have had limited success in secondary school, or they have limited direction in terms of what they want to do in their careers. "They often fall into a job in hospitality. We're trying to shift their mindset from a job in hospitality to a career in hospitality. We believe that careers are built with the basis of having a learning pathway. We are passionate about exploring that career pathway with associated formal training towards and providing formal qualifications within the Australian Qualifications Framework."

Those learning pathways are crucial to employee retention. Hospitality is notorious for high levels of staff turnover, and Coyne notes that Crown is no exception. Average annual staff turnover is around 20% of the workforce. "We're relentlessly looking for new people to come in to the organisation," he says. "That turnover is driven by a range of things. For most young people coming into a shift environment, one where you principally work when other people are playing - that is, through your weekend - it's enormously challenging. We find if we can get a new employee through their first 12 months of employment they stay much longer within the business."

The overarching aim of Crown College is to replicate the front of house experience. From the moment the employee goes into training they are surrounded by an environment that replicates the environment they will eventually work in.

Crown has partnered with Swinburne University for its management/supervisory training programs. As Swinburne University is a duel sector (TAFE and university) institution, it can provide a wide range of training solutions. "Employees might start down the Certificate pathway and then step into a Diploma of Business, which can be converted into a degree at Swinburne at some point in the future," Coyne explains. "They can re-enter the pathway at any time and at any level they are at. We recognise prior learning and we keep a close record of who's done what training."

Coyne believes workplace training and learning is a business imperative, and he adds that he's fortunate that Crown's CEO understands this and fully supports it. "You must invest in L&D over time. You can't believe in it one year and not the next. You can't cut it as soon as budgets come under pressure or when a new business leader comes in. If you do that your workforce will lose faith. They see this as a partnership - something for them over the longer term - and we must be able to hold the line on that," he says.

'A large country town'
More broadly, Coyne concedes that keeping track of HR initiatives in such a diverse organisation has its challenges. While primarily known as a casino, that workforce only makes up one quarter of the total workforce of 6,500 people. "We have a huge food & beverage division, which ranges from running multiple high end restaurants through to frontline bars and takeaway food; then there's the staff involved in the running of three large hotels. There are 1,600 rooms onsite. Then there's the professional services that operate in a business such as this. We would have around 1,400 people who work in everything from IT to marketing, finance and HR. It's an extensive professional network behind the frontline workforce," he explains.

To further complicate matters, Crown is a seven day a week, 24 hour a day business as well. From the HR perspective the world literally never stops turning. Coyne likens it to a large country town - with all the issues that a large country town might encounter.

HR at Crown
Fortunately, HR's importance in keeping that world turning is acknowledged by its presence at the executive level. Coyne is one of seven executives who run the Crown Melbourne business, alongside the three operational leaders (head of gaming, head of food & beverage, head of hotels), and the head of finance, head of marketing, and the CEO. "HR is seen as a core discipline within the business. The human element is so crucial to our revenues and profitability. Many of our people are in high touch, customer facing roles all the time so they are so important to our successful operation," Coyne notes.

A team of 85 HR professionals work across the property, making for a high ratio of HR specialists and managers to frontline employees.

Recruitment for the company is centralised, and Coyne believes this is critical to keeping the culture consistent throughout the business. "We see ourselves as having one culture around service. To ensure that continues the first thing we'll look for in new recruits is fit to business - that is, can we see that person fitting in with our culture or adapting quickly to it," he says. "A centralised recruitment service that is well disciplined about looking at behavioural types as a match to business is so important."

Coyne adds that the technical skills and competencies can be taught through the college, or informally on the job, but the cultural fit is perhaps the most important element of a successful hire. "Once upon a time the first thing we looked for in a chef was how well they could prepare beautiful food. Now that's a given. If they can't fit to culture first we're not that interested in them," he comments.

The future
Coyne believes the HR profession has changed enormously in the last decade as it's shifted from the traditional notion of personnel management into HRM being a strategic partner within businesses. "It's seen as an influence within the business and a key part of corporate strategy. I don't think there are many successful companies who don't see HR in that way today. People have finally got it: the people are your key resource. CEOs believe that too. For many traditional CEOs the workforce was almost a necessary evil in the way you made money. Smart progressive CEOs see the workforce as fundamental to business success," he says.

Finally, and not surprisingly, Coyne wants to see Crown at the forefront of workforce L&D. He wants to establish a reputation and legacy around learning. "For the college opening we had a range of government and community partners and educational leaders in attendance, and you could see straight away that they got it. They know how serious we are about it, and that shifts our reputation. When most people talk about Crown as an employer now it centres around our investment in people," he concludes.

In his own words...
What do you consider to be your biggest greatest career achievement so far?
I think the position I hold at Crown. After a long career in teaching the corporate world was one that was so foreign to me. While 15 years is a fair amount of time the learning opportunity for me has been wonderful. To lead a business like this from the executive table is quite a privilege. It's challenging but rewarding and I love every minute of it.

What has been the biggest challenge you have faced in your career?
The greatest challenges have been around the need to occasionally rebuild teams. I firmly believe that the team that I lead is the group that delivers the success of the HR function. My role is to ensure they are well supported but also that they work with real purpose and harmony. I'm always casting my mind forward over 1-3 years and looking at the capacity of the team I have today to deliver that strategy three years out. Who can go that extra mile now? What talent do I have to bring in to deliver? Who's performing well today? Who needs encouragement? Who needs the tough word to say you're not delivering what we need? It's continual vigilance around the HR team.