Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Copyright © 2011, Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Alison Gilbert is HR director for the independent catering group, CH&Co.
Article Type: Practitioner profile From: Strategic HR Review, Volume 10, Issue 5
HR executives share their experience in human resources
A happy, motivated team is essential to any service-based industry but when it comes to the hospitality sector, it means everything. Reputations have been won and lost on the caliber of front of house service alone, and Alison Gilbert should know.
She started her career as a management trainee with Lloyds Bank in Threadneedle Street, London. It was the early 1980s – the heady days of directors’ dining and personal dining rooms – and she had just completed her diploma in Hotel and Catering Management. Following her successful work placement, she was appointed catering manager at the Lloyds St James branch.
She went on to join Mars Catering and, while working there, was approached by Basingstoke College of Higher Education to become a lecturer. She comments:
The prospect of being able to attract and positively influence young people with real interest and passion for the hospitality sector was a dream come true for me. I was able to share my industry experience whilst undertaking my teaching degree. I was also determined not to distance myself or my students and fellow lecturers from the industry as it’s very easy to fall into an academic bubble, so I established work placements for students and secondments for lecturers to give them tangible industry experience.
From academia back to industry
During her five years with the college, Gilbert took regular secondments to keep her finger on the pulse of this fast moving sector, including working with the events company behind The Chelsea Flower Show and The Open Golf Championships. She says:
I really enjoyed the staffing element of these high profile events. With up to 3,000 casual workers to source, manage and train, it certainly kept me on my toes during the summer recesses from college.
The cut and thrust of the hospitality sector proved so fulfilling that Gilbert made the decision to leave academia and return as general manager of a community center. “It was a £2 million operation and drew together all of my experience to date, from event management and conferencing through to training,” says Gilbert. “I was also heavily involved in the voluntary sector and the board of trustees agreed that I could continue my secondments with the Chelsea Flower Show and the Open Golf Championships”.
Bringing HR to the board
It was while working on those events that Gilbert was approached by the event management company, Leiths (which latterly became Sodexho Prestige), to manage HR for the division. The rest, as they say, is history. She went on to work for Compass during which time she completed her CIPD degree. In 2009 she joined Charlton House which rebranded last year under the group name, CH&Co, with five specialist catering brands: Charlton House (staff catering at B&I sites), Lusso (city and fine dining), Chester Boyd (livery halls and private venues), It’s the Agency (venues and events booking agency) and Ampersand (public and event catering at iconic and private venues).
The independent catering group has almost 2,000 staff and annual turnover currently stands at £75 million. Impressed by Gilbert’s strong HR experience at the coal face of the hospitality sector, the co-founders of the company made her a board director just one year after her appointment. She says:
They say that HR should be at the elbow of every chairman and chief executive in order to have true impact. My appointment to the executive further endorsed the value that the co-founders place on their people.
Keeping standards high
Recently awarded IIP Gold Standard – the highest accolade available within the Investors in People program – CH&Co is now in the top 0.88 percent of the 24,000 IIP recognized organizations in the country. “We are nothing without our people,” comments Gilbert. “The IIP Gold rating underlines all of our work to date and shows that we look after our people, nurture them and ensure that they are fit for the future in terms of development. It is a fantastic endorsement of our values.”
In preparation for the company’s major rebranding last year, Gilbert and her team re-visited the values that have always been in place to ensure that the culture of the company was the common thread that pulled all of the new niche brands together and that everyone, from the kitchen floor to the board room, understood those values.
Hot on the heels of IIP Gold, CH&Co has also gained three major ISO accreditations – ISO 9001 (Quality Management), OHSAS 18001 (Occupational Health & Safety) and ISO 14001 (Environmental). Gilbert says:
It is vital that our clients understand and have confidence in our business practices and that we are fulfilling their needs in essential areas such as health and safety and environmental protection. Nothing ever stands still in this business. The saying goes that you are only as good as your last meal and it truly is the people behind those stoves, counters and fine dining operations who make CH&Co what it is today.
About Alison Gilbert
Alison Gilbert is HR director for the independent catering group, CH&Co. She started her career in catering management, followed by a lectureship post for five years and then a return to the hospitality sector, where her interest in people led her to a career in HR. Alison Gilbert can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org