Employer profile: Chrysalis

Employers are increasingly looking at new measures to recruit quality staff. We look at media firm Chrysalis, having revamped its flexible benefit packages to jazz up remuneration packages. By Debbie Lovewell

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When I set off to interview Chrysalis’ HR director, I never imagined that by the end of the morning, I’d find myself sitting in a radio studio with former children’s TV front man turned radio presenter Toby Anstis as he broadcast his Heart 106.2 morning show live on air.

Given my love of all things celebrity and tendency to get just a little overexcited when star-spotting, I was in heaven. And my excitement only increased when TV presenter Jamie Theakston wandered into the studio next door. For employees at media firm Chrysalis, however, such occurrences and celebrity sightings are an everyday event. From the moment you enter its London-based headquarters on the site of an old brewery, the company more than lives up to the trendy image so often expected of the industry.

Craig Warden, Chrysalis’ HR director, explains: "I’ve never worked for a company with such a unique culture. You can be sitting in reception next to Katie Price, and Elton John could come swanning in. It’s great fun." To the thousands of students packing out media studies and journalism courses across the country, such firms are regarded as something of a Mecca, only to be entered by a privileged few.

So, with so many hopefuls supposedly waiting in the wings, it may come as a surprise to discover that Chrysalis faces issues with recruiting and retaining staff. The media industry frequently experiences stiff competition for top performers, particularly at more senior levels where talent pools are smaller. In order to secure the best, employers have traditionally relied on hefty salary packages, however, many are now looking to other measures in order to help them stand out from the crowd. Chrysalis looked to completely overhaul its previously disparate benefits package to give itself an edge over its rivals.

"In the marketplace that we operate in, there is fierce competition for talent and unfortunately at times, we do get into a salary bidding war. We tended to be very paternalistic in the benefits that we offered and I recognised that as a creative business, we value individualism.

"But in terms of the benefits, there was just no flexibility there. It was very much [offering] traditional benefits and if you look at the demographic of our workforce, 71% are under 35 so things like pensions, life insurance, [and income protection] are just not sexy, they’re not attractive. When I joined the group, each company in each division tended to have different benefits as well. The bigger challenge was to pull that altogether and have some kind of standard across [the company]," explains Warden.

The result was the company’s flexible benefits package Flex , which was launched in January this year. This move to flex was the latest in a long line of challenges for Warden.

When he joined Chrysalis six years ago, it didn’t even have an HR department. Building one was his first assignment and, perhaps unsurprisingly, he didn’t face a smooth ride. "There were large pockets of resistance to HR within the business and a hostility to HR, particularly on the highly creative sides of the business, which just saw HR as being an administrative burden and meddling in their management affairs. We’ve worked incredibly hard to turn that perception around. I remember the first six to eight weeks with not a day going by when I didn’t think, ‘I’ve made the biggest mistake of my career, this just isn’t going to work’."

To overcome such suspicions, Warden endeavoured to work alongside employees rather than simply exerting power over them. "Chrysalis is all about relationship building and given that we’ve got such a diverse background of people, you’ve got to be able to adapt your personalities to them, you’ve got to be able to talk their language and fundamentally understand what their business issues are. Their issues are not HR issues so if we’re going to drive through an HR project, it really has to hit the bottom line. I came in with the philosophy that I wasn’t there to tell managers what to do, I was there to advise, to guide and to coach.

We very much want to be seen as a business partner and not as a kind of necessary evil." It was this strategy of working with and listening to employees that contributed to Warden’s decision to revamp the firm’s benefits package. Last year’s annual staff survey, for example, produced some less than desirable results, which prompted Warden to take the plunge into flex. He continued to involve staff throughout the design process, holding focus groups to gauge employee opinion on which benefits they wanted in the scheme. Designing a plan that met employees’ needs was not his only criteria. Cost was also an issue. "With a lot of our insurance benefits the costs were going through the roof and became incredibly expensive benefits to offer. I wanted to give them benefits that were more relevant to them but at the same time [brought] cost savings," says Warden. By itself, this is no easy task. But Warden’s ambitions went even further.

Alongside the flex scheme, he also launched a voluntary benefits plan and introduced some options to be offered to staff through salary sacrifice. And if this wasn’t enough, he wanted the whole thing finished in less than a year. Typically when employers successfully complete a project of this scale, they are keen to bask in their achievements. Warden, however, while undeniably proud of his accomplishments, is not fazed about talking about the challenges that Chrysalis faced along the way.

His hindsight could serve as valuable lessons for others looking to undertake similar projects, not least when it comes to setting realistic goals and expectations. "If I’m offering advice to anyone, it was an incredibly steep learning curve for us and I think I over-estimated my project management skills. The project didn’t run as smoothly as we’d hoped but with this type of project there are always going to be problems. In hindsight, I’d change a lot of things about the way that we actually ran the flex project. "The timescale that we had for the project just wasn’t realistic, but we were adamant that we wanted to launch on 4 January.

I found myself in [the office] between Christmas and New Year working 11-12 hour days to ensure the system was ready by 4 January. That shouldn’t have happened. Things like testing the system and testing the data integrity, we left far too late." Maintaining regular communication between everyone involved with the project was also a challenge, particularly with external organisations such as consultants PricewaterhouseCoopers and technology provider 4th Contact. "In terms of regular check ins, we’d have a quarterly catch up, which in hindsight simply was not enough.

There has to be someone really controlling that. There needs to be one overall person dedicated to help bring the businesses together." After implementing so many changes in such a short space of time, Warden could be forgiven for taking a bit of a breather. But plans are already in the pipeline to revamp next year’s flex scheme, along with other projects such as the possibility of creating a formal flexible working policy. But change seems to be a common theme within the company. As Warden concludes: "I’ve noticed a big change in the culture at Chrysalis.

We’re still an incredibly dynamic and highly creative business but if you look internally at the business, the way it’s run now is far more professional than it’s ever been because we have to be."

Career profile

Craig Warden has been Chrysalis’ HR director for the past six years. He initially entered the world of HR after a stint in retail helped him to realise where his strengths lay. "I worked in retail for a while and hated selling, but I very much enjoyed managing people. I do generally love helping people to develop, coaching them and helping them to overcome difficulties," he says. He joined the media firm after working in the oil and gas industry.

On the surface, there may appear to be no obvious link between the two, but Warden explains that the sectors have very similar HR issues. "You’d think the industries couldn’t be more diverse, but they do tend to be very ego-driven. Media tends to be that way and oil and gas is the same. The one thing I found with Chrysalis when I joined was that they had very similar people issues. [We] were dealing with incredibly strong personalities and very creative people who needed to be managed in a different way than your everyday Joe Bloggs on the street."

And he cites his achievements at Chrysalis as his career highlights. He is particularly proud to be working for the only broadcast media company to be included in the Sunday Times100 Best Companies to Work For list for the past two years.

Employee case study

Sandra Agostinho is Heart 106.2’s office manager and PA to the station’s managing director. She has worked for Chrysalis for six years and is responsible for the smooth running of the station’s offices and studios.She particularly values some of the company’s core benefits such as private medical insurance and is currently thinking about which benefits to flex next year. "A lot of people have bought and sold holiday. I haven’t actually done that but I think it’s a great idea and probably will do so in the next year. Buying as opposed to selling," she explains.

But Agostinho is particularly enthusiastic about the staff incentive trips, which she organises to reward staff in the radio division for meeting set targets. "We started it three years ago and went to Brighton the first year. The next year we did Paris and then last year we did Barcelona. This year we are taking all of our stations away together. It’s only for one night so there’s only so much you can squeeze in but the staff trips are fantastic for boosting morale. Everybody is really interested and everyone comes to them."

Chrysalis at a glance

Chrysalis began life as the Ellis Wright Agency founded by Chris Wright and Terry Ellis in 1967 as a music management firm. A year later, they signed a licensing deal with Island Records, which stated that if they achieved an agreed number of hits they would be awarded their own label. The resulting label was Chrysalis, which was to operate in the UK and US. In 1985, Ellis sold his share of the business to Wright and later that year, Chrysalis became a public company listed on the London Stock Exchange.

Four years later, the record label was sold to Thorn EMI, although Wright retained its music publishing rights. He then moved into radio broadcasting and TV production, the latter of which was sold in 2003. The radio division now includes brands such as Heart, Galaxy and LBC, and is the UK’s fourth largest radio group. In 1998, Chrysalis formed its book publishing division and in March last year launched Chrysalis Mobile, which offers digital downloads and ringtones for mobile phones.

Benefits box

Pension Closed defined benefit scheme. Non-contributory defined contribution plan offered flexibly for all employees.

Holiday 25 days as standard. Staff can buy or sell up to a maximum of five days a year.

Company car Choice of car, or car allowance for senior management and those with business needs. Staff that choose a lower grade of car than they are entitled to can take the remainder in cash through flex.

Social activities Organised locally in departments and divisions. Team social events used to reward staff.

Healthcare Private medical insurance, personal accident insurance and eye care for all employees. Dental plan available through flex. Income protection for all pension scheme members.

Catering On-site subsidised canteen in London and Birmingham offices.