Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Copyright © 2011, Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Tea Colaianni, group HR director
Article Type: Practitioner profile From: Strategic HR Review, Volume 10, Issue 6
HR executives share their experience in human resources
UK company Merlin Entertainments Group (Merlin) is one of the fastest growing and most consistently successful companies in the leisure sector this decade. It is Europe’s number one and the world’s number two visitor attraction operator with over 43 million visitors worldwide. Merlin’s iconic global brands include Madame Tussauds; SEA LIFE – the world’s biggest aquarium brand; Dungeons; LEGOLAND; and, in the UK where it has 24 attractions, the London Eye, Alton Towers and the Blackpool Tower, which it took over this year.
Underlining its aggressive growth, Merlin started 2011 with 64 attractions but will end it with nearly 80, including six acquired in Australia and New Zealand in January. This is in addition to organic growth through the continuing roll-out of its “midway” (short stay, indoor attractions like SEA LIFE) business, and transformation of its theme parks into short break destination resorts with hotels and “second gate” Merlin brands. Also in 2011, Merlin will open the first new theme park it has built from the ground – LEGOLAND Florida – located near Orlando. This will be followed by the opening of LEGOLAND Malaysia in 2012.
With revenue of more than £800 million in 2010, and more than 16,000 employees on four continents and in 17 countries, this speed of growth has posed some interesting challenges for the HR team, both in servicing and developing talent around the world, and in consolidating and building a global central HR function that reflects the size, changing needs and, above all, entrepreneurial culture of the company.
1 HR’s role in supporting global growth
Merlin is “a very sexy and exciting company, which never stands still,” says Tea Colaianni, group HR director, who joined the Merlin Entertainments Group Board in 2010 specifically to build the kind of HR structure that will support the company’s continued global growth. With experience of working in Europe and the hotel business, Colaianni understands Merlin’s growth strategy and the challenges it presents.
For example, the individual global brands are its greatest strength, but as the business grows there is also a need to bind them together under the Merlin banner and to build the global brand. While Alton Towers and Thorpe Park are household names in the UK, and Madame Tussauds is becoming increasingly global, few people would associate them with the London Eye, or SEA LIFE. With such diverse businesses under a single umbrella, uniting staff throughout the company represents a key priority for Colaianni.
She says: “Each of the brands is very strong from an employment perspective. Indeed one of our key sources of future management is students who have enjoyed summer placements with us. What they do not necessarily appreciate however is the broader opportunity Merlin represents, and just how unique the company culture is – we call it ‘The Merlin Way’.”
2 Recruitment a key challenge
However, Merlin is also often the only kid on the block – without any serious rival besides Disney – so it tends to benchmark itself against itself, comparing internal structures between its brands. This not only makes consolidation difficult, but also makes it hard to find experienced managers who do not already work for the company. Colaianni’s priority therefore is retention and progression, and “growing Merlin’s own” future talent. She says: “Merlin is unique. There is no other company exactly like us so our young recruits are a key future resource.”
She continues: “Also, while every time we advertise we receive a very healthy number of applicants, in key areas, like marketing for example, we are competing for talent with much more established companies in other sectors. So it is imperative the best people understand what we can offer – the freedom and responsibility we give to our managers. While other companies have stopped their profile raising and talent development initiatives, we have upped ours, including the recent launch of the online Merlin Academy.”
The reputation of the company’s graduate recruitment scheme is rapidly growing worldwide – including having recently recruited the company’s first three graduate trainees in China, and a launch is also planned into the Japanese market. Merlin is becoming a regular face on campuses and at recruitment fairs. Colaianni has also initiated other changes, including developing new values and working processes that reflect the culture, investing in the company’s career web site and social networking presence, and introducing new reward systems.
She comments: “We have recently launched our CEO Award scheme, rewarding long serving employees and those who have performed exceptionally with a tangible stake in Merlin’s continued success via share ownership; and STAR, a new employee recognition program that encourages every employee to use the online system to send a ‘star’/thank you to colleagues around the world.”
3 HR a genuine priority
Merlin’s swift move into new markets also presents daily HR challenges. Merlin’s objective is to open 7/8 new attractions a year, so the integration program resulting from the recent entry into the Australian market comes at the same time as new LEGOLAND Parks are planned in Florida and Malaysia, and new openings in the USA, Austria, UK, Italy and Bangkok. “We have to adapt to local markets very quickly,” Colaianni explains.
“The Australian acquisition was completed in weeks; and in April we opened three new attractions in three different countries during the same week. So there is not always a great deal of time to plan. Our growth means that our experienced managers are often needed to open new attractions while local staff are recruited and trained, so simple requirements like Visa regulations and work permits can be a hurdle.”
That said, Colaianni loves the role. She says: “Life is never dull. We are still working on eliminating legacy issues and harmonizing terms and conditions, but while many companies chant the mantra of employees being their greatest asset, our executive board live it. They have all highlighted their personal commitment to developing people, to expanding our talent pool, to putting in place development opportunities for people at all levels. HR is a genuine priority for the business.”
Tea ColaianniBased at Merlin Entertainments Group.
About Tea Colaianni
Tea Colaianni joined the Merlin Entertainments Group board in 2010 as Group HR Director. She began her career as a lawyer in Brussels, rising through the ranks in telecommunications companies there and in London in a variety of HR managerial positions, moving from employer relations into a wider HR agenda. Next came GTS-Ebone, and then Hilton Hotels Corporation, the global hotel group, where she was vice-president of HR for Europe.