KFC uncovered

06/11/2012 - 11:10
James Watts, vice president of human resources at KFC UK and Ireland, believes the key to success when running any business is to invest in your people. He tells Maria Bracken why training and rewarding staff is crucial.

You have been with Yum! Restaurants since 2004 in a variety of senior roles, but joined KFC as vice president just over six months ago. How are you enjoying your role so far?

It’s been great, honestly it’s the most fun job I have ever had. It is a wonderful organisation to be a HR person in. I love the passion that everyone has for the brands at Yum!, and the role that HR plays within Yum! and the ability for it to really make an impact and make a difference. It’s so fun, friendly, informal and relaxed, yet still so focused on break-through results, growth and really driving the business and growing it.

I also get to be on the cutting edge of the business. I get to sit on the management team and play a role in influencing the whole strategy and direction of the business, beyond HR. That’s what I love.

What does your day to day role involve?

Each day offers a real mix. Every Monday we have our management team meeting where Martin, our general manager and his direct report team will get together to plan our big strategy stuff, debate our marketing approaches and discuss where we are going to invest our capital.  I’ll always be in store at least a day a week, getting feedback from things we are doing. I spend a lot of time with my team. It’s so varied because one day we will be talking about training and development and the next day we will be talking culture and how to drive the recognition culture. Every day is completely different.

What are your main goals?

The stuff that we are doing at the moment is very exciting. In HR we have three key priorities. We want to be the best in the UK for training and development, we want to be famous as ‘the’ great place to work and we want to be Yum!’s biggest source of talent. If we look at all of these things separately, it’s a really exciting strategy which I get really motivated by.

Tell me about your training programmes KFC offers

We’ve always had a good series of training programmes. It’s always been a strength of ours. But over the last couple of years we have really started to get into education in a really big way. If you look at our priorities over the next couple of years, it’s about how can we get to the point that every one of our restaurants across the country is a recognised training centre, where people from the local community can go and have an alternative route into higher education and receive great training and have the opportunity to use those qualifications to build a great career with us. It’s also about teaching people important life skills that they can take elsewhere, which is a really rewarding proposition for someone like me to be part of.

Last year we launched our advanced apprenticeship in hospitality management which we have got 600 people involved in already. We are currently piloting our intermediate apprenticeship in hospitality which will put forward nearly 2000 people next year. We will just continue to grow that.

And last month we announced our plans to launch our first honours degree programme for our restaurant managers, which launches in January.

Regardless of what role you do or at what stage you are at in your career, you have got the chance to come in and receive not only great training but a formally recognised national qualification that you can then use to build a career with us or take elsewhere.

It doesn’t matter who you are or what you do, you can talk to anybody in the business, and anyone can throw in ideas. If you look at our managing director Martin Shuker, he knows every restaurant manager. Whenever he walks into a store, everyone wants to chat to him and he wants to hear everyone’s opinions and he casts that shadow on the rest of the organisation.

How do you reward staff?

We have something called a recognition culture which is something that’s unique to us. It’s just about going out of our way to seek opportunities to say thanks and well done to people, but in a fun and friendly way. Most people in the organisation have their own personal recognition award. My recognition award is called the culture action hero award which is basically a super hero guy on a plinth. It’s my little award. It’s a silly thing and doesn’t cost anything, but it means the world to store managers. I award this to people in the business who I think have done a great job in taking our culture and bringing it to life.

For example, I recognised our restaurant manager in Southampton yesterday. She runs a small espresso store, yet the culture she creates in this store is second to none. There’s a real social connection, energy and fun.

Is there anything KFC could be doing better?

One thing I don’t think we have done as well as we could do is tell the story of what life in our business is like, and why we think it is a great place to work, which is why I like doing things like this interview, because it’s a chance to get our story out there.

I also love being a coach to my team and helping them grow their capabilities and giving them feedback on what I appreciate about them, which is an incredibly rewarding thing to do. Yum!’s is very good at taking people and moving them between roles, functions and between countries.

How is KFC faring in the current economic climate?

We are doing pretty well, we’re doing ok. It’s a tough economic time, but we are faring up well. We’ve had between 25-26 quarters of consecutive sales growth. Since 2004 we have grown every quarter and that’s continued through the recession.

We have done a very good job at continuing to keep our brand relevant. We have enhanced our menu and we are continually adding better options and broadening our appeal. We’re just trying to keep the brand as relevant as possible but at the same time, backing it up with a focus on operations excellence. This is the life and blood of what we do.

What has been the biggest focus for KFC over the last few years?

The biggest focus for us is how do you deliver an exceptional experience every time, in every restaurant? A big part of that is supporting our franchisees, and helping them build their capability and capacity. We play a very active role with our franchisees. It’s important that we help them in shaping the strategy of the brand.

We talk a lot about one system. The customer doesn’t know or care whether it’s a franchise restaurant or company owned restaurant, therefore we should take this same mind-set where you approach things as one system and not two. That’s worked really well for us because anything we invest in, we have to think ‘is it going to work in our franchise system as well as our company system’.

If you ask Martin he will say the biggest thing we have done to drive our sales profit is focus on people. It’s been an enormous non stop investment in the quality and quantity of people we have in this business.

Any expansion plans for KFC?

We will open about 40 restaurants this year. We did this last year and we will do the same again next year and if you’re opening that many restaurants, you need a constant bench of really talented people to run these restaurants.

A lot of people have this perception that takeaway/fast food is unhealthy. How have you tried to overcome this?

It’s just about continuing to keep our brand and menu contemporary and varied. We have options for everybody, whether it’s young males or families. That’s why, if you look at our menu today, there is a range of options; grilled, fried, salads, beverages. It’s all about having the breadth that makes you appeal to everybody.

We were very keen on signing up to the Government’s Responsibility Deal as early as possible and we have invested a lot in moving salt out of our products, getting rid of trans fats and trying to lead as much as we can in the area of nutrition.

Who are your competitors?

The way that I look at this is who are our competitors from a consumer perspective, and from a talent perspective?

From a consumer perspective, I think it’s anybody that competes for people’s disposable income. It’s very easy to say McDonalds, and obviously they are a competitor. They are a very strong business and they do some great stuff, but it’s more than just that. Whether it’s Pret, Subway, casual dining restaurants, it’s anybody that plays in a similar space.

From a talent perspective, we compete with anybody that employs the type of people that we want to employ; smart, passionate, talented people that want to give a great experience to customers, and want to continue to learn. Whether that’s retail hospitality, it doesn’t matter. That’s why we have to be very smart with what we offer from an employment proposition, we have to offer the best training, culture and have to offer the best career opportunities. That is how we are going to tempt these people into our business.

How does KFC stand out from its rivals?

It’s something we have been talking about lot. There’s three main areas; pride, grow and connect.

Pride is having a brand that people can be really proud of, and having jobs that people can be really proud of. The way we get at that particular column is to re-emphasis the skill involved in our jobs. If you look at our food, it’s freshly prepared in store every day. It is breaded by hand by trained cooks across the country. It’s a very skilled job and making people aware of this is important in building pride.

The second column, ‘grow’, is all about helping people build the career that’s right for them and giving them the training and education they’ll need to build the careers that they want. And connect is all about this fun and friendly culture and this social connection that we are pretty proud of.

If you put these three things together, it’s a pretty compelling proposition. So what we are doing is looking at how we can really market that well, how can we brand that, and how can we get smart with the way we use social media to talk to potential recruits to get our message across.

Where would you like to see KFC in five years time?

From a brand perspective, we want to continue our path of growth. We think there is a significant amount of growth left to go in this country. We are at 850 restaurants now and we think we can add several hundred to this in the next few years. We want to go big on things like breakfast, beverages, grilled options and have much more variation, appealing to as many people as possible. We also want our restaurants to look contemporary and fun and the kind of place where families and young people want to hang out.

From a people perspective, it’s about being recognised by being the single best company for training and development in the country, and being the best place to work.

What’s your favourite food offering on the menu?

I love our hot wings, I think they are great. I could eat those every day. I also like our rancher product, which is our new grilled product. I love the BBQ sauce with it. You can get it as a burger, wrap or even in a salad.

What would you say are the top sellers?

Our box meals are very popular and our burger range in general is very popular. We have a very good distinctive lunchtime business, and have a really good dinner business with our buckets, which families buy to share. The challenge for us now is building our breakfast range and investing in snacking, so you have something for everyone at every time of the day.

How important is corporate social responsibility (CSR) to the business?

This is a huge part of what we do. I play a big part on our CSR strategy. Number one, it’s the right thing to do to support CSR. We have an obligation to run the business in the right way. Secondly, it’s really important to our consumers. They value brands that are run in the right way. They are very aware and sensitive of that.

How are you developing the look and feel of the stores?

It’s all about toning down the red, making it less ‘shouty’ but more relaxing. Our new designs have the big kitchen table which gives the impression of being at the chef’s table. It’s also about trying to hero the quality of our food. We have a lot of messaging around, emphasising our fresh products, sourced locally. Over the next three to four years it won’t take us long to get the whole estate looking similar to this design.

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