Purolator adapts to e-commerce by focusing on collective bargaining, recruitment, manager development (National HR Awards)

Winner: Benchmark Benefit Solutions HR Team of the Year

Purolator adapts to e-commerce by focusing on collective bargaining, recruitment, manager development (National HR Awards)
Purolator's HR team managed a major transformation last year, according to Ken Johnston, the company's senior vice-president and CHRO in Toronto. Courtesy: Purolator

There are a lot of unknowns for HR when a company’s executive changes. Fortunately for Purolator’s HR team of 133 employees, the arrival of a new CEO in 2016 quickly became a promising and exciting time.

“We were a 60-year-old organization with a B2B delivery style. It’s a declining market and we were facing an identity crisis,” says Ken Johnston, senior vice-president and CHRO at Purolator in Toronto.

“(Our new CEO) John Ferguson recognized e-commerce was a significant growth area and very quickly put a stake in the ground that we were going to be Canada’s e-commerce courier company. It was a major change-of-business mode for HR.”

To manage the transformation, executives came to HR with a number of pivotal business needs, says Johnston. Among those was the need to tackle change management among 12,000 employees, and undertake a massive recruitment campaign to handle new customers such as Amazon.

They rose to the challenge and, over the past 12 to 18 months, the HR team has successfully ushered in 12 new initiatives and programs ranging from a lean continuous recruitment strategy to a frontline e-learning deployment, while turnover rates dropped from 9.31 per cent in 2017 to 3.63 per cent so far this year — which is a big reason why Purolator won the Benchmark Benefit Solutions HR Team of the Year award.

“I’m tremendously proud of how our team quickly met the business challenges,” says Johnston.

Purolator has undergone three particularly critical and massive initiatives:

Collective bargaining

One of the HR team’s most important undertakings was working with the Teamsters Union to protect and advance the working conditions of employees while creating new terms and conditions that would allow the organization to shift to an e-commerce model, he says.

Couriers were working a 9-to-5 business model, many with the same customers day in and out on familiar routes, says Johnston. “All of a sudden, you’ve got a customer like Amazon, whose customers are often not home for delivery in the day. We needed to increase delivery to evenings and weekends, and we needed a visible and flexible workforce that we can move around as required.”

Purolator’s HR team successfully negotiated a five-year collective agreement, allowing it to launch evening and weekend delivery service.

Johnston attributes this feat to a culture of respect and trust. “We really do work within a two-dialogue approach versus a traditional bargaining approach where each group makes a number of demands.”

New manager development program

Knowing the evolving company would need strong leaders, the company set about developing a program that would build leaders from the ground up, says Tennyson Devoe, director of organizational development and learning at Purolator.

The first thing the HR team did was investigate what makes a strong-performing Purolator manager. They then incorporated those findings into a custom program divided into three phases over six months.

The first 10-day program focuses on leveraging an individual’s managerial strengths; the second on how to apply strengths to manage a team; the third on managing a team to achieve organizational goals.

Each phase is spread out over time to allow for the absorption of material, and for practice under the guidance and mentorship of managers, he says.

“At the end, program participants are assigned a real business problem, and they are required to come back and present a solution to the team that drives ROI,” says Devoe.

“We’re already seeing results, like people coming up with new ways to manage conflict, and stronger communication skills.”

Peak recruiting strategy

After the transition to e-commerce, Purolator leaders faced the peak season that starts with the Black Friday shopping holiday.

“We knew we were going to have come up with creative ways to recruit thousands of additional people for an eight- to 10-week period,” says Johnston.

“We had to find them for seasonal work, and make sure they were effective, and train them in customer service and safety to meet our objective of zero injury. It was — and still is — our most significant HR challenge.”

Nevertheless, the HR team managed to hire, onboard and train more than 1,000 employees in just 12 weeks — and is currently doing so again with nearly 2,000 employees.

HR examined existing hiring processes for improvement, then layered in alternate ways to attract and retain candidates, says Ann Manrique, director of HR at Purolator. Those included using social media channels for job postings and partnering with organizations where they could recruit talent, such as Autism Canada.

“We also looked at our internal referral program, and hosted local events,” she says.

Another avenue of recruitment was an extensive alumni network of retirees, says Johnston.

“Many are interested in part-time work, especially at that time of year, and they are already experienced and knowledgeable in our customer service and safety policies.”

But the HR team couldn’t have done it all without the partnership of operations, says Manrique.

One technique they developed was a train-the-trainer program, where experienced couriers and air operations managers trained new staff.

Having a diverse HR team with different cultural backgrounds and experiences really encouraged debate and problem-solving to inspire innovative solutions to the organization’s business challenges, says Manrique.

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