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A different approach to people management at Howarth Timber Group

Businesses do not always reach out to us because there is a problem – sometimes they just want to be the best that they can possibly be.

With some significant organisational changes ahead and a recently departed Head of HR, the time was right to bring in some fresh thinking and develop a new people strategy across the Howarth Timber Group.

Howarth Timber Group is the largest privately owned family timber business in the UK, with a workforce of around 900 people across the UK and a turnover of more than £230 million. Run by Howarth brothers Nicholas and Andrew, the group has just celebrated 180 years in business.

The Group was already running successfully with great working relationships both internally and externally, however the directors were keen to build on its good reputation and continue to make it a really great place to work.

Why bring in a Portfolio People Director?

Rather than employ a full-time HR Director, the directors saw that bringing in a part-time experienced People Director would be a more cost-effective way to achieve its objectives. So, in March 2019, June Kelly from People Puzzles was brought in for four days a month.

People Puzzles helped Howarth in the following areas:

  • Growing capability in the business to build bespoke people strategies across the business’s different divisions
  • Supporting the business through significant change and challenges brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic
  • Building leadership capacity with management training funded by the apprenticeship levy
  • Increasing staff retention, saving around a projected £40k in annual recruitment costs

Building bespoke people strategies                                                                                                        

June quickly recruited three additional ‘HR business partners’ to manage the people side of each division of the business. She then supported the new four-strong team to develop bespoke people strategies for each area to enable the business to deliver its overarching business plan. ‘June coordinated our HR business partners so they now work collaboratively to gain synergy and avoid unnecessary duplication,’ comments business owner Nick Howarth.

June also helped the team introduce people processes to increase staff engagement and performance, such as development reviews, performance management training and staff engagement surveys. She also helped the team optimize its HR and payroll systems for greater efficiency and reviewed recruitment channels to bring down costs.

Managing change and challenges

Last year, June supported the business, working closely with the HR Business partner through a significant reorganisation, which included the closure of a division. It was important that teams felt supported during this difficult time and this was achieved with no issues. In addition, the development of expertise and confidence of the HR team through working collaboratively meant that the business was in good shape to deal with the next challenge – the Covid-19 pandemic. June helped the company respond quickly, from furloughing staff to dealing with health and safety concerns of those coming back to work after lockdown. ‘June’s experience and knowledge helped the business overcome employment relations issues and law, plus coronavirus issues,’ says Nick Howarth.

Building leadership capacity

Howarth Timber was already well known for developing its employees through an industry-specific management course, which was costing the business a significant amount of money. The company were persuaded to switch training provider to use its apprenticeship levy fund. As a result, 16 employees are booked onto a new Level 3 ILM Diploma in Management marketed internally as “Leaderpro”, there are a number of supervisors and engineers working through various vocational qualifications, several managers and sales executives are earmarked for the new levy funded Industry led Level 5 Diploma and a rising star within the business is training for an Executive MBA.

Increased staff retention

The increase in staff engagement and training in the business has helped to retain key managers, and this is evident from the figures: Rolling 12 months to June 2020, voluntary labour turnover (LTO) across the Group was 168 leavers compared to 238 the year before – that’s 70 fewer employees needed to be replaced. June estimates a projected saving this year of around £40k in annual recruitment costs.

Recruitment Savings

Getting in a People Puzzles People Director has given the company director-level expertise at a fraction of the cost of employing someone full time. ‘We are saving £30k to £40k pa on cost compared to employing our own HR Director,’ says Nick Howarth.

June is delighted with how the business has responded to her interventions. A determination to be the best, be imaginative and be unique is their overarching approach to all they do,’ she says. ‘It’s been great to work with a company as creative as Howarth and to have the opportunity to work with such a committed team of HR Business partners.’

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