Feedback: the breakfast of champions at Authentic Food

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Feedback: the breakfast of champions at Authentic Food
Foot massages, cash prizes and a packed social calendar to inspire the troops? They are not a substitute for decent pay and career development, but part of a package of measures that makes The Authentic Food Company one of the best small companies to work for in the UK, says Elaine Watson

I have worked in companies where the staff turnover was 167%, says Adrian Harding, group factory operations manager at The Authentic Food Company. "Here, it's 8%."

While more cynical observers may raise an eyebrow at the 'Feedback is the breakfast of champions' sign hanging up in Harding's office, you can't argue with his retention figures -- people just don't want to leave.

You can't argue with his staff either.

Thanks to their anonymous feedback, ethnic foods specialist Authentic was one of just four food and drink suppliers that made it on to the Sunday Times list of the 100 Best Small Companies to Work For this year, and the enthusiasm of its staff is infectious.

"It sounds clichéd", says HR manager Nathan Lloyd, who joined the company last August, "but what I love about this place is that you don't have to set up a meeting in order to set up another meeting before you can actually do anything here."

The family-owned business has doubled in size to 130 employees across two sites over the past five years, but has still managed to maintain its small company ethos, says executive manager and shareholder Parminder Basran. "We could have 200 staff in five years' time, but I don't want to lose that flexibility or take the fun out of it."

Fun is a word you hear bandied around a lot at AFC, and it begins at the recruitment stage, says Harding, who took some of the company's Indian snacks into the local job centre in Wythenshawe in a bid to generate some excitement when recruiting for the new Sharston factory in February 2002.

Quite apart from appealing to the senses of prospective employees, it was also a means of enthusing managers at the jobcentre, he says. "We wanted them to answer applicants' questions more effectively."

As a relatively small company turning over about £16m, AFC is also highly unusual in offering a graduate training scheme, designed by Basran, who put himself and his brother through it as guinea pigs in 2002.

"Follow a graduate scheme at a large manufacturer and you might work on a marketing programme for one brand. Here, you'll work in NPD, manufacturing, sales, IT and finance."

In at the deep end

You'll also be thrown in at the deep end and expected to lead projects that influence the strategic direction of the business, he adds.

"When I started I was given a CD with some new accounting software on it and told to implement it across the business in six months. It was daunting, but I did it. That's the beauty of working for a smaller company."

Carly Windsor, who is going through AFC's graduate training scheme, has been tasked with implementing SAP across the business, Basran says. "Not bad for your first project."

When most students graduate, he contends, they might run into blue chip brand manufacturers like Mars or Cadbury at the recruitment fairs, but they won't see many own-label manufacturers or smaller food companies, and most remain completely in the dark about the wealth of opportunities in the industry.

"Manufacturers have to work more closely with schools and universities as well as job centres," he says. "We are talking to Manchester Metropolitan University and MSc food science students at the University of Leeds in a bid to build links that way."

Having recruited for Sharston successfully, the biggest challenge was staff communication given that English was not the first language for up to 60% of employees, says production manager Evelyn Dunn: "In my last job everyone spoke English, so it was a bit of a shock when I arrived here. I had to get into the habit of showing them instead of just telling them."

Colour coding for different days of the week and pictures as well as text on signs were also introduced to make things as clear as possible.

Weekly English language classes from South Trafford College have also made a huge difference for many staff, including Nadeem Ahmed, who spoke virtually no English when he arrived three years ago and within 18 months was promoted to high care supervisor.

When it comes to pay structures and job titles, flexibility is key, says Harding. A defined career ladder isn't much use if the only way for you to climb it is to wait for people to leave: "If someone is performing well, we promote them, with a new title, increased reponsibilities and up to 40% of their salary as a bonus."

Training and development is the number one priority at AFC, which is sponsoring one employee through a City & Guilds electrical engineering qualification, and another for an NVQ level 2 in catering and hospitality.

Staff are also given basic training on food hygiene, manual handling, Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points (HACCP) training and health and safety.

Positive action

One of the most successful initiatives has been the positive action team, a group of employees given £10,000 a year to organise social activities. There are also schemes such as employee of the year with cash prizes and holidays and free foot massages.

"Cynics abound in every business, and of course not everyone is going to be 100% enthusiastic about a staff competition," says Harding. "But these things are only gimmicks if companies offer them as substitutes for decent pay, conditions and career development. For us, they are just part of a package of measures designed to make this company a fantastic place to work."FM

Related topics: People & Skills

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