As the pandemic began to unfold in the first half of 2020, Peter Waller-Flynn was as anxious as any other company owner at that time and was asking himself the question: “Will our business survive?”
Peter is co-founder and managing director of Knowsley-based Privilege HR which he set up with Mary Ball five years ago. Both brought with them decades of experience in human resources. Peter himself has worked at a senior level within HR and worked for companies such as retail giant M&S and had been instrumental in the setting up of its French operation, as well as M&S Simply Food.
“When the pandemic hit I couldn’t help but wonder what impact it would have on our business and whether or not we would be able to get through it and there are times we thought ‘have we gone mad?” he said. “But I needn’t have worried. Not only did we survive but over the past couple of years our business has tripled.
“First Brexit, and then COVID, had a massive impact on businesses large and small and we found they were turning to us for help. The way the whole world worked suddenly changed quite dramatically and many firms were struggling to manage that change
“Businesses were suddenly having to find new ways of working. They were having to invest in new technology as large sections of their workforce were having to work remotely from home.
“Managers found themselves managing people from afar and that is a big change in culture from what they were used to. Employees were being taken on and, to this day, there are some who have still to meet any of their work colleagues. Others were taking Zoom calls from their bed.
“The pandemic has brought about massive cultural and technological change and the transition to this whole new dynamic has to be managed carefully. And that has really driven demand for our services.”
Luckily, this was aligned with Peter’s skillset. He adds: “I love change and that was one of the reasons I wanted to set up the business. I had got to the grand old age of 45 and realised that I had been setting up businesses for other people so why don’t I do it for myself?
“Of course when you are an employee you have that benefit of a degree of job security and you know you are going to get paid each month. But I also felt I needed more variety in my job, rather than just working for a single organisation. I also looked around and realised how many organisations needed help with their HR.
Mary Ball has since semi-retired but still does work for the business. Peter now runs a business that has more than 100 clients, from large corporates to smaller SMEs. Privilege HR employs five people in the UK and gets further support from skilled workers in Greece, India and even Australia.
He explained: “It is important to recognise that we are a global economy and there is a raft of skilled people around the world that we can all benefit from.”
Privilege can be divided into two distinct divisions. There is the outsourced HR division which offers HR services to companies on a retained basis. It can help across all areas of HR, managing absence, disciplinary and grievance matters, maternity and parental leave, employment law and policies and procedures.
However, Peter found outsourced HR wasn’t bringing in as much revenue as hoped so he branched the company out to start taking on project and consultancy work. It took on nursing recruitment projects for the NHS, undertook complex investigations. They will manage recruitment programmes and also when a business needs to restructure and make redundancies.
What is critical, said Peter, is that organisations view HR as more than just an abstract service. HR is about the people and the culture in a business. He explained: “You cannot do this job if you don’t understand the culture on the ground. When I was at M&S, I would spend 80% of my time on the shop floor. HR must add value to the bottom line and support businesses to grow.
“It is crucial that I understand the business, get to know the people at all levels and get our heads around the culture of the organisation and where it is heading. If we do our jobs correctly we can make an enormous difference to a client.
“I dealt with one business where there was a high turnover of staff. We looked into things a bit further and it became clear that there was a lack of communication from managers to the team. People were feeling isolated and eventually they would just leave.
“Another thing that motivated me to set up Privilege HR was the number of SMEs, particularly in areas such as Knowsley, would benefit from our expertise.
“There are more rules and regulations than there were a few years ago. For example, since last April offering all employers are legally obligated to provide contracts of employment. Employees are now more clued up than they ever have been about employment law due to the amount of information that is now online.”
Privilege works across multiple sectors including education, health and social care, third sector, retail, professional services, facilities management, government and manufacturing. And the one big challenge they all face at the moment is recruitment.
Peter said: “There are currently more vacancies in the UK than there have been for decades. For the first time every one of our clients has vacancies they need to fill. Both the pandemic and Brexit have dramatically changed the landscape.
“During COVID many people have left their jobs and taken the opportunity to look for new careers. Companies looking to hire are having to offer better salaries and prospective employees are looking more carefully at the culture of an organisation and, more and more, are looking for flexible/hybrid working.
“And Brexit, and the ending of freedom of movement, means it has become more difficult just to hire people when you need staff. We can manage that recruitment process in the short-term but in the medium to long-term businesses need to change. They need to start investing in the skills of their existing teams and developing young people.
“Hiring people is so often a balance between identifying the right skills and also ensuring individuals will fit in with the culture of an organisation. I have amassed a lot of experience in hiring over the past 30 years. It is equally important that businesses retain their people through more proactive engagement of staff.
“One of the key things I have learned is that you have to have structure in the hiring process. Otherwise, managers may hire in their own image and there is a risk your team will lack diversity and not have a good mix of talents and viewpoints.
“On the other hand, I think that the human element is important, too. There has to be a judgment as to whether an individual will fit in with the rest of the team. I’ve seen candidates look perfect on paper with all the correct skills, but six months in they are a disaster.”
Peter may have been worried about the future of Privilege HR at the start of the pandemic but he is full of optimism today. He has diversified the business so that it now offers a one-stop shop for employers in all aspects of managing employees by providing services such as occupational health and payroll.
“I want to get to a point where we are not having to go outside to find expertise – I want us to be able to offer a wider range of services for our clients,” he said. “We are also looking at franchising across the UK over the next couple of years.
“Although most of our clients are UK-based we are also looking to expand our offer overseas. I have lived and worked in France and we now have a couple of clients over there that I am managing. We are looking to expand into countries such as Spain and Australia.
“I am optimistic for the future of Privilege HR. The past couple of years have seen so much change and that has given us huge opportunities. There are so many businesses that can benefit from what we offer. Good people management is so important to any organisation and there is a real sense of satisfaction in helping clients achieve that.”