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Greggs' People Director, Roisin Currie, reveals the mystery cultural ingredients no one else can copy.

"You can’t copy a culture" - the elements that combine to make up the company’s corporate ethos are elusive and intangible

Relentless Dissatisfaction, Corporate Espionage, and Wonderful Wednesdays. Human Capital talks to Greggs’ People Director Roisin Currie about its recent £7,000,000 staff bonus.

If an unscrupulous competitor was predisposed to break into Greggs and spin the tumblers on their safe they might be able to clone their purchasing strategy or beat them to market on a lucrative property deal. That much is easy to understand. But, when I recently talked to the Greggs’ Retail Operations and People Director, Roisin Currie, she made a subtle point – ‘You can’t copy a culture’ - the elements that combine to make up the company’s corporate ethos are elusive and intangible. Like Currie’s upbeat and authentic Glasgow accent, impossible to fake. With Greggs enjoying record sales, a share price that has almost doubled in the last year, and generously giving a £7,000,000 bonus to its employees in January, it seems like the perfect time to investigate what CEO Roger Whiteside calls their “secret sauce.”

As Currie, herself, says, ‘It was Roger who came up with that phrase. When you distil it down it's all about the magic here, the sparkle in the business. That's why, in the last few years, we've invested in lots of focus groups – listening, taking the temperature of our culture. Really thinking about how we do things. What comes through is the character of our people. They’re friendly, hard-working, and appreciative. Respectful. Those are some of the ingredients, I suppose, that make up our secret sauce. One of the things we are particularly proud of, here at Greggs, is that as businesses rapidly expand they often lose the cultural things that made them successful in the first place. We've really tried hard to hang on to them. And, I think, succeeded.’ Currie was fifteen when she entered the food industry – working a couple of nights a week at ASDA. ‘Straight away the thing I liked was the buzz, the energy, the fun you could have while you were working. I stayed there all the way through university. I was there when Archie Norman and Allan Leighton took over the management. They started a new role, Customer Service Manager. I soon became a Deputy Customer Service Manager and loved it. It taught me a lot about the key factors that play a part in influencing teams.’ Her studies included a Business and Law Degree at the University of Strathclyde. ‘I started the course and I wasn't certain what I wanted to do, but working at ASDA took me in the right direction – towards business.’

When asked what she liked about ASDA’s culture, she immediately brings up the importance of making people feel “Valued.”

‘Alan Leighton and Archie Norman used to talk about “relentless dissatisfaction.” Always trying that little bit harder. Don't just throw eight balls – eight ideas – against the wall throw a hundred and some will stick. Wow! I really discovered that will work. They also spent a lot of time “Catching people doing things right.” Just saying those little things like “Thank you.”’

As Greggs have recently shared an unexpected seven-million-pound bonus with their staff, it’s reasonable to assume their 25,000 employees are all feeling valued right now. ‘10% of Greggs’ profits each year go to everyone, all staff. But, we have just had such a good year that we also decided on a special one-off payment. Just to say thanks. That's why it was £7 million shared out equally for everyone, regardless of your position in the company. The board had a strong feeling that we shouldn't differentiate.’

That instinctive sense of corporate fairness really seems to have worked. ‘We got some great responses from all around the national team – little social media gifs sent in with people dancing in shops, that kind of thing. January can be depressing. People talk about Blue Monday but – when we made the announcement – for our employees it turned into a Wonderful Wednesday.’

Currie lives in Harrogate, driving the eighty miles to Newcastle and back every day. She starts the morning listening to Radio 4 in the car and usually has a Greggs’ porridge for breakfast when she gets to work. The long journey gives her the opportunity to mentally prepare for the day ahead. Maybe it was on this daily pilgrimage up the A1 when she came up with her subtle insight into the essential uniqueness of corporate culture. ‘A lot of what we do is about analysing our competitors; trying to understand the things that they're doing right. But the thing about a culture is you can't really see it, and so it can’t be copied. Culture is intangible, so many little things go to make it up.’

An elusive “secret sauce” then, just as Whiteside describes it. Something impossible to replicate. ‘You can't put a price on it. But, I think part of what makes Greggs’ culture so special is that we don't really dictate the What and the How of the day at work. We let people be themselves; use their own personality to really connect with our customers.’

So, there it is. The bad news for the competition. Even, in the unlikely event, you manage to get your hands on the recipe for Greggs’ – now legendary – vegan sausage roll, you will still fail to clone their culture.

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