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Employment Today, HR Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Employment Today, HR Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Employment Today Magazine

On the job—Driving positivity

Treat your employees well and that flows on to your customers, Armstrong Motor Group’s Estelle Curd tells Raewyn Court.

Sometimes it’s the little things that count, and in Armstrong Motor Group’s spacious reception area in Auckland’s Grafton, having coffee made with freshly-ground beans is what does it for me.

Getting things right for customers is just the latest role to be added to Estelle Curd’s portfolio of responsibilities. With her obvious energy and passion for also managing the group’s human resources and health and safety, it’s no surprise she was runner-up HRINZ HR Generalist of the Year for 2017 and was a finalist for the 2016 Diversity Works “Walk the Talk” award, being the youngest person ever considered for these awards.

The 13-dealership motor group sells and services 19 different European and volume brands. Of the 550 staff nationwide, 12 are situated in the Grafton head office and they’re about to move upstairs, where a glamorous New York loft-style refit is taking place.

When Curd joined the group nearly three years ago, there was no real HR function for the then 350 staff. She says it was a fantastic opportunity to set HR processes up from scratch and she now has a four-strong HR team.

One of her biggest challenges was to win over the managers, who had always done things a certain way.

“You can imagine it was a bit like the wild west,” she laughs. “So there were a few things I had to manage, but now we have full HR processes for everything and it’s really well managed.”

Curd then inherited health and safety and put a huge focus on the safety aspect as well as adding a wellbeing component. EAP services were introduced, along with health audits, gym memberships, fresh fruit deliveries, and some dealerships having a nutritionist in to speak. The initiatives paid off, with a massive 15 percent increase in one year of positive views on health and safety in the Best Workplaces survey.

When the opportunity of managing customer relations came up six months ago, Curd was up for the challenge of taking on that role too. “I feel if you treat your employees well then that flows on to your customers.”

Digging into the data revealed the need to significantly increase reporting. “We would come up with a great goal, but had little or no data to give a starting point. Once we had a benchmark we could see how a dealership’s service bookings were going by comparing them to average bookings across the group.

“The best way to build loyalty is by making the customer feel really special, from sales to service, and since focusing on this we’ve seen a massive improvement in customer service and retention.”

The Armstrong Accelerate Programme is the first of its kind in New Zealand and is an automotive-based programme created by Curd in conjunction with Deloitte, in which people experience every part of the business—Sales, Service, Parts, and Finance and Insurance.

“The programme is open to every age, race and gender because we want to develop leaders of tomorrow—and they all look different.”

The youngest graduate last year was 22 and has since had two promotions.

Curd wrote her Master’s thesis on the ageing workforce and is keen to encourage older generations into training. “My thesis found we’re just so quick to put older employees in a box and assume they don’t want training and development, but it’s an individual preference and you have to actually ask the question.”

Cultural diversity is one of the group’s biggest strengths, with a 50/50 combination of NZ European staff and a multitude of other cultures, who bring different perspectives and ideas. Curd says the board is completely supportive of her diversity strategy, which includes a goal of women making up half of the accelerate programme this year.

And, in a male-dominated industry (80 percent of AMG staff are male), Curd wants to break down the barriers for women.

“We’re working with some of the schools. We had a lovely young woman who’s at Epsom Girls come in for work experience as a technician last week, and we want to encourage more women into those non-traditional gender roles. We’ve made videos with Sheridan Mitchell, one of the few Level 4 Jaguar and Land Rover technicians in New Zealand, to show it’s not a scary thing for women to work here—it’s not heavy work, it’s more about technical ability and an eye for detail.”

Around 17 apprentices are currently involved in the apprenticeship programme Curd helped create to ensure a pipeline of talent. Her team checks in with the apprentices’ service managers bi-monthly, “and we do have a few rascals that we have to kind of wrangle back in,” she laughs.

AMG gives awards to apprentices, based on votes from across the group. “It’s a collective involvement that puts them front and centre, and it makes them strive that bit harder. When an apprentice qualifies we make a big deal of it with inclusion in the monthly newsletter, champagne and personal congratulations from [managing director] Rick Armstrong.”

Curd also created performance and development reviews for every employee. “Achievement was previously target-based and we were finding people would be overly competitive in order to reach their target of selling a certain number of cars. We showed them there were better ways to achieve their goals, for the team and for our culture.”

The IBM Best Workplaces survey two years ago revealed the group’s weakest areas were recognition and communication. A number of initiatives set up since then have reduced staff turnover by two percent, and Curd is hoping for an even better result this year.

“People weren’t feeling a connection with the group,” she says. “They understood their own dealership, but they didn’t know people in the dealership down the road. So we created some really simple things that have made such a difference.

“A newsletter goes out each month giving a brief on each dealership, and we have an employee of the month for both service and sales and they each get a $500 bonus. We also recognise top salespeople, give HR and H&S updates, and Rick gives an honest account of what’s going on in the group.”

Curd visits all 13 dealerships quarterly and gives around 27 presentations to ensure every employee understands the group’s performance, both generally and financially.

“We rank our dealerships against budget from the top-performing to the bottom, which is useful as a success and encouragement tool. We celebrate people at the top or who’ve worked really hard, but if they’re 13th they know they’ve got to pick it up. One of our dealerships 18 months ago was constantly performing at the bottom and the culture wasn’t great. With a huge commitment from their leaders and support from us, they’ve seen massive growth and now they’re top of the sales board, and it’s all down to the people.”

To inspire these changes, the group has a policy of “no negativity”. “We don’t want people poisoning the well by saying, ‘oh, everything’s crap here’. We want people to understand their potential and know where they’re going, and we do not tolerate negativity,” says Curd.

The emphasis on positivity has resulted in a 5.2 percent increase in the group’s culture score in just a year. “Because we’re dealing with customers every day, we’ve really concentrated on a culture of positivity and I think that score is reflective of understanding where we were and putting plans in place to improve on that.”

As well as making changes at a high level, Curd notes that each dealership has its own sub-culture and specific goals. “Some people wanted 3-ply toilet paper,” she smiles. “It was a little thing, but we made it happen. If you’ve got data, the worst thing you can do is just sit on it.”

Curd believes that if you’ve asked people to spend time giving a response, you need to ensure you’re visibly doing something. “And we found that people didn’t necessarily want a reward, they wanted recognition for doing a great job. We’ll say, ‘you did a fantastic job grooming that car—I love the fact that you did a lot of detail on the wheels’. We really focus on making them feel genuinely appreciated.”

RAEWYN COURT is an Auckland-based freelance journalist.

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