Having recently joined burger chain Byron, Mike Williams is faced with a unique challenge – keeping the culture that makes it great while it grows into a truly national organisation.

If the name Mike Williams is familiar, it’s probably as the HR director for De Vere Hotels; a post in which he believes his legacy was to develop a more people-oriented culture in a sector that has traditionally suffered from high levels of staff turnover.

Now, though, he can be found at the rapidly expanding Byron; a national restaurant chain that currently has 50 outlets and is growing at a rate of around 10 a year. “I’m the first people director they’ve had so it’s an opportunity is to develop a high-performing team and to really align what the people function delivers with the needs of the operators, so that we can get great buy-in,” he says.

The business itself has set out to be something a bit different, capitalising on the growing demand for quality food and differentiating itself from the fast-food operators. “Byron sets itself apart by doing things properly, and that’s our cultural ethos,” says Williams. “It’s still led by the founder, Tom Byng, and there’s a real aspiration to be iconic and to do things in the best way without compromising.”

Keeping the culture

Working in a relatively new and owner-managed business also means there is less bureaucracy or processes that need to be followed, he adds, and the day-to-day environment is one of “relaxed rigour”, where people enjoy their jobs and coming to work, but pay attention to detail and focus on customers.

The big challenge, though, is to retain that culture while accommodating rapid growth, which could see as many as 300 people a year join the chain, in addition to its current workforce of 1,500. “One of the really big priorities is how we go from this sized business to our aspirational-sized business and maintain the cultural intensity, so that we’re not just trading on stories from the early days,” says Williams.

There are a number of ways in which he intends to go about this, with the freedom of being able to design processes from scratch. His starting point has been to run a number of focus groups at each level of the organisation, with the aim of identifying the “Byron culture” and what type of people work there, as well as listening to suggestions around what could be done differently. “Just listening to people in itself creates a positive buzz of expectation,” he says.

This is also filtering through into tangible measures around specific priorities. Recruitment is a particular focus, given the ambitious growth plans. “We’re going to follow the same principles in how we market ourselves to our prospective employees as we do with our customers,” says Williams. Already this has seen an informal “speed-dating” event held in Hoxton, London, where potential employees could come along and talk to senior management about working for the chain, over a burger and a beer. “It worked really well; it helps us look to recruit passive candidates, but it’s very much about getting the Byron experience,” he says, adding that the business now intends to run the event every quarter.

Full on training

New managerial recruits – and others coming into central office posts – receive the standard three-day “brainwashing” each employee gets during which they learn about the business, and managers then go through a six-week induction process where they are formally trained by a general manager before taking on their own restaurant. “We’ve looked at the behaviours of the best performers, and we’re mapping out those behaviours so that we can apply it to the interview process,” says Williams. “We’ve got to hire over 200 managers over the next two years.” Developing a consistent employer brand, and pushing this out to potential recruits, is also underway.

Existing employees are also a potential source of managers. “We’re running an assessment day to identify the best-performing people at assistant manager level, and those that are successful will go on a talent programme where the board and the management team will be responsible for mentoring them,” says Williams.

Retention is also a priority, and there are potential dangers here for an expanding business. “As you get bigger there’s a real temptation as an organisation to start measuring and controlling, because you’re further away from what’s happening,” says Williams. “The challenge for me is to change my assumptions I’ve had about how people should be managed and businesses should be run, to create a really compelling organisational culture that helps us retain fantastic people and align them with our business goals.” There are also plans to introduce an annual awards ceremony to recognise particular staff, such as waiters, chefs and managers, he adds, as well as less formal and more frequent competitions.

For now, though, it is the people development piece that is the main focus. “I think my success in the past has come from creating a people culture but it’s even more important here,” says Williams. “This is a chance to be really innovative and to un-think everything. I’m really stimulated by the prospect of being creative.”

This article originally appeared in inspire, the Institute of Leadership & Management’s L&D title. www.i-l-m.com and Mike Williams was talking to Nick Martindale.