Unlocking people potential at Premier Foods

Following its successful re-financing in 2014, together with the creation of the Hovis Limited Joint Venture, Premier Foods Human Resources Director, David Wilkinson, takes time to tell Nigel Wright why the business is now a great place for people looking to develop a rewarding career in the food industry.


You’ve been with Premier Foods for almost eight years. How has the organisation changed in that time?

We’ve been through a fairly well documented set of challenges in recent years, really stemming from the acquisition of RHM and Campbell’s in late 2006, early 2007. We spent a number of years integrating these acquisitions and then ultimately making a number of disposals as the business became stretched. Since Gavin Darby, our current CEO, took over two years ago the business has stabilised and is now on a much sounder footing. Significantly, we refinanced and forged a Joint Venture with Gores Group for our Hovis business providing us with a foundation for creating stability. We now have a very clear strategy and a coherent organisation structure. It is a smaller organisation than in the past but one that is much better positioned for success.


You were appointed HR Director in April 2014, what were your immediate priorities?

I think it’s important to note that there has been a significant investment made in the HR department and the People Agenda, since April 2014. We’ve hired great people into key Resourcing, Training, and Talent roles so we now have more capacity and capability to do some really interesting things. Our generalist HR teams are aligned to the new Business Unit structure, as well as the central functions. And we have developed and launched an innovative three year People Strategy, focused around our Five Values and our strategic growth ambitions. 


What are those values?

Aim Higher, Champion Fresh Ideas, Agility, Unity, and Respect and Encourage. We thought carefully about what our Values would be. We wanted them to be meaningful, representative of the entire business, and distinct to Premier Foods. We talked to lots of our people at all levels to arrive at the Five Values, and they have been received really well. The Values embody what it is like to work at Premier Foods, and how we want to behave in the future. It is really important to us that our people feel valued and respected, at all levels. We work quickly, and you don’t have to go through layers to get decisions made; people here are very accountable. Innovation and creativity are important as we look to grow our established brands into new areas, and stretching ourselves is vital if we are to achieve our ambitions. Finally, we’ll not achieve any of this if the business doesn’t work together, so we have to be joined together at all times across all parts of the organisation.


Now that they’re finalised, how have you gone about communicating these Values to the Group?

During the summer, members of the leadership team visited each of our sites to talk to colleagues about the Values and the importance of them to the business. This was a really valuable process, which resulted in us making a number of changes to the messages that we were trying to communicate. It showed we are a business that is prepared to listen to its people and adapt our plans if necessary. We then held a conference in September, where we talked to people about the values, the people strategy and the new organisational structure that is referred to below. We then went out again to communicate all of this to an even wider audience. I’m really proud that we did - this level of engagement is important to us and we want to help people to understand how Premier Foods is changing, and is now a far more transparent and open organisation.  


What are the implications of the most recent organisational restructure at Premier Foods with regards talent attraction and retention? 

As you know, last autumn we announced that the business would be organised into three business units – Grocery, Sweet Treats, and International. Since then we have been busy populating the functions that sit within each business unit. We have some really exciting roles, across all disciplines and at all levels. Ultimately for the right people, there is the opportunity to progress to being part of the Executive team for each of the business units. The benefit of this structure is that you have independence and the chance to really make your mark with a specific area, whilst at the same being part of the wider Group. This obviously gives better career opportunities, and people can move cross functionally as well as between the respective business units.


Would you agree that ‘people’ are very much at the centre of Premier Foods now?

Absolutely – we’ve made a really good start, there is appetite for change, and the leadership of the business is completely behind the people agenda. I am sure there will be bumps in the road, but we will make sure that everyone in the organisation, and not just HR, takes responsibility for driving the people agenda forward. To show this, people will be interested to know of some key activities that we have recently initiated; we have  launched a 360 feedback programme for our senior leaders, with support afterwards to help them develop; we have enhanced our maternity and paternity provision and this new scheme started in January 2015; and we have awarded each permanent employee in the business 500 free shares – a really innovative thing to do – so our people will feel part of and benefit from the future success of Premier Foods.


How challenging do you find it to recruit talented people into Premier Foods?

I think lots of businesses at present are finding it hard to hire and retain the very best people, and we are no different. However in many ways the changes I have talked about earlier – whether that is the new structure, the introduction of Values, or the investment in people – are all designed to make Premier Foods a more attractive place for great people to develop their careers. We are seeing a definite improvement in our retention levels and our ability to attract high calibre individuals. People are starting to understand that they can develop a career here, and that the business rewards and recognises people who deliver results and have the right behaviours. We have a really strong set of brands, good relationships with our key customers, and consumers who really love our products. Our future plans are ambitious, and for people who enjoy broad challenges, are not phased by making big decisions, and can work at pace, I really think this is a great place to be.


In your opinion, what’s the best thing about working for Premier Foods? What’s your favourite Premier Foods brand?

The reason I’ve stayed at Premier Foods for a reasonable length of time, and enjoyed working here is because of the variety of challenges you’re exposed to on a daily basis. The different roles, projects and experiences I’ve had in seven years would take so much longer to gain in other organisations. And I love all of our brands, but I do think the Lloyd Grossman cooking sauces are absolutely fabulous, particularly chilli con carne. All of our cooking sauces are a real family favourite in the Wilkinson household and my daughter, Lucy, who has just gone to university, has a plentiful supply in her student flat.


What keeps you busy outside of work?

Well, I am married with two teenage children. Football is a real passion and I spend my weekends either following West Bromwich Albion, home and away, or watching my son James play in a local Sunday league.  I’m reasonably active too, I do a bit of running and I like to cycle.

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