We need the right approach

We need the right approach

MetroMail’s Alan Purvis cares deeply about apprenticeships but also about attitude and culture, as Peter Jackson discovers.

Full service mailing house MetroMail is creating at least 10 jobs this year, including at least two apprentices, as the business continues to grow. The company, owned by over 50s provider Saga, which already employs 200 people at its Seaham site, will create the positions early in 2015 with further recruitment planned throughout the year.

Managing director Alan Purvis says the business is committed to its talent attraction programme, where it seeks to attract young people with real talent into the business, who it can then invest in and train. He also says he is passionate about being able to recruit apprentices – he did, after all, start out as an apprentice himself.

University was never an option in his family. He recalls: “It was always going to be a trade, learn a trade, it was a generational thing and a cultural thing. University would never have been discussed in our house.’’

He left school in Sunderland in 1985 and started on a YTS scheme.  He says: “I did that for a couple of years but I was always excited by ships, I used to live near the river and an opportunity came to get an apprenticeship with North East Shipbuilders when I was 17.

“It was tremendous, it was one of those periods in life when you look back and it was just amazing. It was an apprenticeship somewhere where you would build huge things. You would start off with a small components and watch them all come together to create something huge and then something bigger and bigger and the next thing you know is that it has turned into a ship.

“Being an apprentice at college was great as well because we actually had money. Other people at college were catching a bus and we used to turn up in our cars. All in all, it was a really worthwhile thing and I learned a lot.’’

Sadly the Wear’s shipbuilding days were coming to an end. He qualified as an engineer and from there he moved to Grove Cranes where he worked for nine months before the business started its closure plans in 1990, at which point the young Purvis decided heavy engineering was not an area with a healthy future and he went into IT and got a job as a computer programmer with a print company.

He worked there for five years before joining MetroMail as IT manager. He took over as managing director in 2005 and the following year the company reported its best financial year in its 20-year history with profits up 60% on an increase in turnover of just over 5%.

This was achieved partly by ploughing more than 5,000 hours and £30,000 into productivity training. Significantly, there were leaps in attendance, with 35% of the workforce achieving 100% - a 50% improvement on 2004.

“I pushed the people side of the business,’’ says Purvis. “To make this business successful I needed two things, I needed really good people and really good technology, rather than just having the technology. With my team I always use the analogy of the Batmobile, the most technologically advanced crime-fighting tool available on the planet but it doesn’t catch any criminals. Batmobile’s useless without Batman.

“It’s getting the best people, training them well, motivate, lead and then give them some really good technology and they’ll achieve great things.’’ How does that work in practice? “We try to differentiate how we look after our people. I don’t think there are many factory environments that have a masseur who comes in or a podiatrist to look after people’s feet.

We do free fruit on certain days, free teas and coffees, little things I would expect most places to do but find most places don’t. It’s stuff we don’t need to do but we do do it to make people’s life at work better.

“It’s also a question of recognising and rewarding people when they do good jobs and saying thank you to people.’’ But his background was in traditional heavy engineering. There cannot have been much free fruit or podiatry in the shipyards. So where did he learn such a management style?

“There were a couple of things I learned which have been invaluable lessons. I learned how to spot efficiencies because it was an environment that wasn’t terribly efficient and I also got the feeling that a very hierarchical business wasn’t the way to go forward.

Alan Purvis 02

He recalls the distinctions between the various staff levels at the shipyard. “I wore white overalls and yellow hat, if you were what was classed as shopfloor manual you had blue overalls, yellow hat, if you were a supervisor, it was white overalls, green hat and if you were a manager it was white overalls, white hat and all with different canteens.

“To me, that isn’t the way to do it, so, we have a very flat structure here and we are very efficient. You need to be close to your people.’’ Purvis explains that there are only three levels in the business and most people are only two promotions away from his job, with himself and another director, a head of every operation and then the rest of the staff.

“People feel part of something, they understand what the business is trying to do because it’s really easy to communicate your vision and strategy when you haven’t got lots of people in the way,’’ he says.

Training has also been crucial in the development of MetroMail. “It has to be high on the agenda. We’ve got technology and processes here that a lot of our competitors don’t have. We try to innovate on technology as best we can but if the person isn’t trained and motivated and inspired and led, then the machinery is just useless. Some bits of equipment we have, my competitors will also have and I need to run mine better than they do or I’m going to be the same as them, so can we train our people better? We do manufacturer training, we do in-house training and we constantly improve.’’

MetroMail’s new engineering apprentice has recently started with the company and Purvis is still looking for his admin apprentice. “I would have liked three because I would also have liked an IT apprentice but it’s about what the business can realistically give back to that person. I didn’t want an apprentice that was going to just go to college and come in here and do menial stuff and my IT department was too stretched, so I wasn’t prepared to allow it to have an apprentice.’’

Speaking of the new engineering apprentice, Purvis says: “We are going to give him the traditional type of apprenticeship that an engineer would have had.’’ He adds that MetroMail pay their apprentices at the full salary and not at any reduced apprenticeship rate.

The last engineering apprentice, Phil Cockroft, was taken on four years ago and is now head of engineering.

Does MetroMail feel the effects of a skills gap? Does it have a problem in recruiting the right people? Purvis says: “We have a culture and it’s that culture that attracts people to want to work for us, it’s a combination of the benefits, the way we look after people and the culture that this business has. We’ve never not found anybody, though you sometimes have to look a little bit harder and a little bit longer.’’

It is, however, clear that he is having to look harder and longer for his admin apprentice.

Alan Purvis 03He explains: “Skills shortage is one thing but attitude shortage is the biggest problem for me, finding people with the right attitude because you can always enhance what skills they’ve got, but the people coming in have to have the right desire, passion and attitude and want to work.

The culture of this business is important to us, so we have to have someone who is coming with the drive and a lot of the young people we’ve seen for the admin apprenticeship haven’t had that desire.’’

Does he put that down to the schooling? “I don’t know what it’s down to. I don’t know whether it’s lack of aspiration or schooling but I just find there’s something we are not seeing enough of. When you do see it, it’s brilliant.

The engineering apprentice we took on sat opposite me – and it can’t be an easy thing to have to be interviewed by the md – and I instantly knew he had to be the right one for it because he was hungry, he was passionate and he really wanted to work here. He was a breath of fresh air after some of the others.’’

Having started as an apprentice himself, this is something Purvis feels strongly about. He says: “I had to fight for my apprenticeship. I had to do tests, I had to go through various interviews and selection days, it was a tough process to try to get in.’’