Jennifer Lee tells Mel Flaherty why HR is at the centre of Amaris Hospitality’s growth plans
Jennifer Lee has a favourite cartoon that she keeps framed on her desk. In it a senior manager says: “What happens if we train employees and they leave?” to which a HR Manager replies: “What happens if we don’t and they stay?!”
As chief people officer at Amaris Hospitality, the hotel ownership and management company set up by former Jurys Inn CEO John Brennan earlier this year, Lee is in the fortunate position of working with a CEO and board of directors who think more like the respondent in her humorous picture.
Lone Star appointed Amaris as an integral part of their plans to bring under one umbrella the 89 independent hotels they bought from four separate portfolios for £680 million in 2015.
The combined business is already one of the largest hotel owners and mangers in the UK, with annual sales in excess of £450 million and plans to invest £100m in refurbishing and rebranding the estate, growing the value of the business to around £2 billion in the foreseeable future. Lee has quite a big task ahead in developing the culture across such a changing, diverse and growing portfolio. The importance of this is recognised by both Brennan, with whom Lee has worked alongside as HR Director for a number of years, and Grant Hearn, the former Travelodge boss who is now chairman of Amaris. Hearn is also a keen advocate of people management, having worked as an HR director himself at Forte Hotels.
“It’s a mixed blessing working with people who know so much about HR, as it can be quite challenging!” Lee jokes. “But, having the support of John as CEO is critical – he has a clear vision for Amaris Hospitality and my role is to help shape it and deliver across our businesses to ensure we create value for all our stakeholders.”
She would, of course, rather it was like that. Lee admits that the human resources function in the hospitality sector generally is still not given as much credence compared to other industries.
Lee is appreciative of the investment in her and her HR team, particularly since her appointment as HR Director in Jurys Inn in 2010. “Despite the recession, John Brennan our CEO invested in our HR team ensuring we continued to focus on people development.
“In 2011 Jurys Inn became the first hotel company to achieve Gold accreditation by Investors in People International. In 2012 we created our award winning Grow Online, a platform which enables us to deliver a wide range of learning and development and communication initiatives to all our employees 24/7.”
In fact, Lee comments on the consistent market outperformance of the Jurys Inn business, and its recognition of the value of good human resources strategies and the importance of HR as a commercial partner in the business.
It is with justifiable pride that she says that over 90 per cent of Jurys Inn General Managers have been developed within the company, and half of those started at shop floor level. Jurys Inn offers both a wide range of career development programmes, including a Trainee Manager programme (Insights), a Graduate Manager programme, a High Potential Group and its Leadership Academy.
Lee is hoping to expand a number of these initiatives across the Amaris estate in time.
“It can sound trite now as it is said so much, but we really believe in recruiting the right person regardless of their background,” Lee says. “Learning and development is a core part of our commitment to employees. We acknowledge a lot of people might not have the skills we need, but if they have the right attitude we can teach them.”
In the early 1990s, Jurys was mainly operating in its, and Lee’s, native Ireland, where the recession bit more sharply than in mainland UK and unemployment was high at 18 per cent.
Jurys Inn was established in 1992, when Lee first joined its parent company the Jurys Hotel Group, and it was something of a trailblazer in its sector. Rather than trying to poach employees from competitors, it took the decision to work with local communities and the Irish government to provide 12 weeks of pre-employment training for unemployed candidates guaranteeing interviews to those who completed it. The programme was a huge success and in 1997 when the first Jurys Inn opened in mainland UK, in Islington, over 30 people were recruited from the live register. Lee was subsequently invited to speak at Downing Street by Gordon Brown and four ministers to discuss the Jurys Inn approach, which coincided with the Government’s own New Deal policy at the time.
To this day, Lee encourages hotels to work with local colleges and councils on recruitment and the company has excellent relationships with organisations like Job Centre Plus and Believe in Young People.
Developing people and giving back to the community are subjects Lee is deeply passionate about. She remembers interviewing a man many years ago on a pre employment programme who said he would earn more on state benefits than he would starting at the bottom of the hotel career ladder. What he said was true, but she convinced him that the situation could change rapidly if he was prepared to work hard, and that long term prospects were excellent. Today it gives her great personal satisfaction to note that he is the General Manager of a five-star property in Ireland.
Lee’s favourite time in her working year usually involves sitting in a meeting room with a panel of colleagues and, invariably, crying.
Thankfully there are no cruel and unusual work practices involved, just some very emotive stories of employees going above and beyond the call of duty and so being nominated for an outstanding service award. Lee remembers the employee who went after his shift every day to help a sick guest confined to his room; and the receptionist who made sure there was a Christmas tree and presents in the room of a family who had to stay at one of the hotels over the festive period as there had been a fire at their house; or the employee who noticed a guest with Parkinson’s struggling to eat and so just went over and helped him, catching the attention of another guest who was so impressed at this act of kindness and respect for the ill man’s dignity that he wrote to head office.
“Our annual Employee Awards recognise the amazing work our ‘exceptional’ employees deliver. Winners are chosen from every hotel and we honour them and their guests at a gala dinner each year. It is without doubt an amazing and humbling experience – we all love going to it but it is so hard to pick an overall winner,” Lee says.
Once the current phase of rebranding completes in mid-2016, Amaris Hospitality will be responsible for three divisions:
Jurys Inn (growing to 36 hotels); Franchised Hotels (hotels under the Hilton and other leading international brands), and Accor Hotels (31 hotels trading as Mercure Hotels).
Understandably, Lee’s priority since the Summer has been getting the teams on board through all of the above transitions – the next stage in Amaris will focus on supporting the hotels in their new divisions and about developing and realising the businesses potential. There are many sets of brand standards to work with and Lee is keeping an open mind on how to incorporate the best practices throughout the business, from an HR point of view, to create Amaris’ own culture.
All this and she has been developing her own skills, working on a Post Graduate Diploma at University College Dublin in organisation transformation & renewal. Ideal timing in terms of subject matter, but perhaps less ideal when it comes to her workload at the moment. Having said that, Lee says learning is a pleasure for her: “I’m really enjoying networking with great people from different industries and sharing our thoughts around change and its impact on people”.
Even though she has worked with Jurys for the bulk of her career, Lee initially qualified with a Bachelor of Commerce degree, but after a brief period working in financial services, she was drawn to hospitality.
Working in such a dynamic industry has afforded Lee a wide range of experience in her career – working for various ownership structures (including a plc, family owned, and private equity), supporting the business during periods of growth (organic and acquisition-led), assisting in the resizing and restructuring efforts during recessionary times (including the sale of and closure of hotels).
Lee is looking forward to expanding her skill sets further:
“Our vision for Amaris from a people perspective is centred on talent – recognising, rewarding and developing the best people for our business. We will be putting in place programmes and structures which are heavily focused on delivering a superior performance in our markets, and to do that we need the best people.
“That’s what is so exciting about my role and I’m really looking forward to working with our senior leadership team and our General Managers to realise that vision in the coming years.”