How Pets at Home’s unique culture helps it through turbulent times

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There are many surprising aspects to pet care giant Pets at Home. But its dedication to its employees’ four-legged friends isn’t one of them. Its group head office, on a quiet industrial estate in the suburbs of south Manchester, boasts a number of canine visitors, who are welcome to come to work along with their human companions. They even have their own ‘pet park’ for running around outside, and a specific pet kitchen. “The dogs mainly sleep under people’s desks. Some of them wander about. We’ve had Great Danes in board meetings before,” says chief people and legal officer Louise Stonier. “But this is just us. It feels perfectly normal to me.”

But what’s perhaps more surprising is that the company – which has around 15,000 staff across 450 retail stores, as well as 440 vet practices and four specialist referral centres around the country – has more than 300 apprentices working towards a range of qualifications, from dog grooming and vet nursing to HR, software development and data analysis. Between 70 and 100 apprentices each year undertake the grooming qualification alone, working to become stylists before taking a subsequent internal training programme to 
become salon managers.

Its sizeable apprenticeship offering means the introduction of the levy in 2015, says Stonier, has mostly been beneficial to the company. Its grooming pathway was the first to be aligned with new legislation, allowing it to be funded by the company’s pot of more than £1.2m, and it also revitalised its ‘Leading People’ programme for new managers, adjusting the course from six months to 12 to qualify for the apprenticeship badge.

The first cohort of 30 is currently undertaking the new course and giving it positive reviews, according to Stonier. A partnership with Manchester Metropolitan University is also in place to allow staff to complete an MBA.

But elsewhere, making effective use of the levy funding hasn’t been as easy. “Our biggest challenge is for our in-store colleagues, because we have a fabulous training programme there already,” says Stonier. She and her team have been looking at how to convert the ‘Steps’ in-store training programme – as well as the subsequent store manager course – into levy-funded qualifications, but admits this is proving trickier.

“The levy doesn’t fund the hours that need to be covered while the individuals are doing their off-the-job training,” she says. “That’s fine in a support office, but in hourly paid areas you’re down a colleague and need to pay extra for backfill.”

The organisation writes off around £400,000 – roughly a third – of its levy pot, but Stonier is relaxed about it. “Of course our aim is to use all of it, but not at the cost of doing things badly,” she says. “It’s a debate we’re having. On the one hand, you want colleagues to get through training, but that’s against a programme that has to be 12 months long. We pride ourselves on having highly trained and engaged colleagues, so we have to do what’s best for them and the business.”

The company is also using its apprenticeship clout to open doors for people who may not otherwise have access to training and qualifications, as well as to improve its own diversity credentials. It works with organisations including IntoUniversity – which sponsors disadvantaged children from primary school all the way up to university – to make sure young people have access to the opportunities the firm offers. “Retail has traditionally been the flagbearer for social mobility, to get into and work your way up. Our group CEO, for example, started out working Saturdays in M&S,” says Stonier. “Retail is full of those amazing stories, and we have so many in our business – just go into our stores and you’ll see that diversity.”

The organisation’s inclusivity is something Stonier has also benefited from, having come on board 15 years earlier, just four months after having her first child. “They were brilliant from day one,” she says. “They’ve been completely flexible since before flexible working was even part of the workplace rhetoric, and allowed me to grow in my role and progress my career while also growing my family and keeping a good work-life balance.”

Allowing people to come to work and “just be themselves”, as Stonier puts it – plus ensuring it takes the time to recruit staff with the right attitude – has always been part of the company’s ethos, but in recent years she and the senior management team have worked with the rest of the organisation to define that in more specific terms to support its existing values. The behaviours it expects from its workforce are summarised with the tagline ‘be more CHRIS’ – courageous, honest, respectful, inspiring and supportive. (Much to the amusement of the staff members called Chris, she adds.)

And it seems the people who are CHRIS – in nature rather than name – are looked after in return. “We recently increased the number of holidays our colleagues can take, and three years ago we introduced a free share ownership plan,” says Stonier. The firm has also banned eating at desks, forcing its staff to take a lunch break in its communal area or outside, which Stonier says has made a “huge difference to wellbeing”.

But despite the challenges on the horizon – chiefly a significant long-term project to transform the organisation and ensure it is future-proof, more data-driven and digitally enabled – Stonier is confident the culture will prevail. “Change is a challenge facing all businesses, but we win with this wonderful environment,” she says. “People don’t get Sunday night blues working here. We’ve shown them the vision, and they want to be part of the journey.”

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