The Colaianni Way. Merlin Entertainments’ Group Human Resources Director is not afraid of taking on challenges, she tells Mel Flaherty.
Being female has not affected Tea Colaianni’s career development at all – in fact she can recall just one time when sexism reared its ugly head. She was a trainee lawyer in Brussels and in a business meeting with some Japanese clients, when, to her mortification, Colaianni’s boss asked her to make a cup of tea for everyone:
“I told him to get up and make it himself,” she laughs. “The Japanese clients were surprised to have a woman in the meeting in the first place and then when I refused to do what my boss asked, they were really shocked.”
Colaianni is now Group HR Director on the Executive Board of Merlin Entertainments, Europe’s number one and the world’s number two global leisure attractions operator. With more than 90 attractions in 21 countries, including the world’s leading aquarium brand, SEA LIFE; LEGOLAND Parks and Discovery Centres; the EDF Energy London Eye; Alton Towers; Gardaland in Italy and Heide Park in Germany – her early decision to let no-one talk down to her has obviously paid off.
Colaianni describes herself as ambitious, driven and independent, traits that she admits have been easier to exercise thanks to the fact that her husband runs his own business and has the flexibility to share some of the childcare duties for their now seven and six year old sons (who, unsurprisingly, think their mum has the best job in the world).
Colaianni feels a responsibility to make it easier for other women to progress in their working lives too. She is on the Leadership Council for Women 1st, the initiative run by People 1st (the sector skills council for hospitality, passenger transport, travel and tourism in the UK on whose council of members Colaianni also sits) to increase the number of female board-level executives in the sector to 10% by 2015 and 20% by 2025.
She has just joined the Prince’s Trust Women’s Leadership Group whose mission is to raise funds to help young women to transform their lives through education and enterprise. She has also just received approval from Merlin’s CEO, Nick Varney, to organise the first ‘Merlin Women’ virtual conference at the end of this year to look at ways of enabling female employees to fulfil their potential.
“We do have work to do on this area ourselves,” she explains. “I am the only woman on the Board here at Merlin and of our grade two executives, 18% are women and in grade three, which includes general managers, it is 39%.”
Having said that, she believes the company culture at Merlin is incredibly supportive to employees across the board and is justifiably proud that the organisation recently won an HR Distinction Award for employee engagement. For a business that employs more than 20,000 staff worldwide, 13,000 of whom are seasonal (numbers that have swollen this year with the opening of the new hotel at LEGOLAND Windsor; a new LEGOLAND park in Malaysia; the integration of the 10 attractions in Asia Pacific added through the acquisition earlier this year of Living and Leisure Australia; the openings of three new LEGOLAND Discovery Centres plus the new Weymouth Tower), staff turnover is impressively low. The figure is currently just over 22.5% which compares very favourably against the People 1st benchmark of 29% for leisure attractions. Colaianni says the target is to get Merlin’s figure down to 20% by 2015 and she is confident this can be achieved. You would not want to bet against her. Colaianni has a proven track record for reaching her goals and is not afraid of challenging the status quo if she feels there is a better way.
Colaianni’s first task when she joined Merlin in 2010 was to rethink the company’s core values and use them to create a clear strategy that could be embraced by all employees and underpin every aspect of the group’s work.
As the company, which is owned by private equity groups Blackstone and CVC Capital Partners plus LEGO’s owner Kirkbi, was already very successful (Merlin achieved nine consecutive years of double-digit growth in earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation), her ideas were seriously challenged.
Yet with so many brands operating in so many territories, Colaianni recognised that Merlin’s previous set of values were way too many, too confusing and had evolved from site level upwards, dating back to when the original Merlin acquired the larger Tussauds Group. This, she saw, led to inconsistencies that hindered the business’ ongoing desire to strengthen the overall Merlin brand from an employee’s perspective, which she admits many still do not appreciate encompasses around 94 outdoor and indoor operations and is second only to Disney in the leisure attractions market.
Now there are seven principles at the heart of the company, ranging from ‘we love what we do, to make it fun’. All of this comes under the umbrella of ‘The Merlin Way’ and while the cynical may think it all sounds a bit like touchy-feely PR speak, Colaianni has plenty of examples to show the positive impact it has had in all aspects of the business. It certainly has done no harm – in the year to 31 December 2011, Merlin’s total operating profit increased by 12.4% to £222.5m and visitor numbers at its attractions were up 13.2% to 46.4million people. Internally, too, performance is strong – this year the company surveyed all its employees during peak season. Not only did a massive 95% actually complete the survey, 96% said they “enjoyed working here”.
The Merlin Way is complemented by a number of other recruitment, staff training and reward initiatives instigated by Colaianni and all designed to work together to strengthen the Merlin brand around the world. These include the STAR scheme under which colleagues can recognise each other online; and the CEO Award Plan, which annually grants company shares to employees for long service or outstanding performance.
Colaianni says while Merlin encourages all of its operations to adopt its group wide strategies, it is also very entrepreneurial, giving some operational flexibility and autonomy so that the initiatives can be adapted to the local market or, in some instances, it is more a case of allowing them to get used to the idea of doing things differently. In Denmark, for example, the attractions were not initially so keen on the STAR scheme, saying culturally it was not in their nature to go online to recognise each other for good work and that they would rather stick to the old fashion method of pen and paper. However, after a year, they wanted to join in with what everyone else in the group was doing.
Dealing with HR issues across Europe is something Colaianni gained experience of during her time at Hilton, immediately prior to joining Merlin.
Despite now having more territories to deal with than in her hotel industry days, she travels outside the UK less than she did at Hilton – on average once a month instead of once or twice a week. She spends the rest of her working time either based at the office in Poole, which is 15 minutes from where she lives, or visiting the UK attractions to see how her initiatives are implemented and received at a local level.
She speaks fluent French, having worked at the start of her career as a lawyer in Brussels. Although a native Italian, Colaianni has never actually worked in Italy and says her best language for business is English. Doing business for Merlin in the US, Australia and Asia has, she says, been a massive learning curve for her personally and, for the whole company, trying to set up in Japan has been especially challenging, for the opening this year of a LEGOLAND Discovery Centre and next year a Madame Tussauds attraction in the Land of the Rising Sun.
From a recruitment point of view, finding seasonal staff in Germany has also been tricky as unemployment is so low and, Colaianni acknowledges, because
the industry does not pay as well as others.
Generally, however, Merlin is usually spoilt for choice when it comes to recruiting for senior roles and does not usually struggle at site level either – indeed when the company opened LEGOLAND in Florida last year it was overwhelmed with applications for jobs at the new theme park. Surely being spoilt for choice when it comes to recruiting and having such a high proportion of people wanting to stay with the company makes for a pretty easy job for an HR Director, especially now so many of her staff development and engagement strategies are becoming well established and producing good results? Colaianni says, however, that the uniqueness of the organisation and its ongoing expansion provide constant challenges. In 2013 alone, she will open a hotel in LEGOLAND California, LEGOLAND Discovery Centre in Toronto and Westchester – New York, a SEA LIFE centre in Manchester and a Dungeon in Berlin to name a few. She is looking forward to fulfilling her professional ambition of being Group HR Director for a publicly-listed company, something she intends to do at Merlin. The volatility in the financial markets that led the group to put plans for flotation on hold two years ago have not gone away, and an IPO is still very much the ultimate goal for the company so, yet again, Colaianni looks likely to achieve what she set out to do.