Employer Profile – Neal’s Yard

Jenny Keefe discovers in the wake of a recent relocation from London to Dorset, the firm has built its green philosophy into its new environment, and it did not forget its ethical roots in the consideration of the staff it left behind

It’s an unusually hot spring day. I’m in sitting in a sun-dappled courtyard, tucking into homemade spinach and ricotta pasta. There are vases of wild flowers on every table and hills slope off into the distance. Not quite what you expect from a factory canteen.

But, then again, this isn’t any old factory. Just over two months ago, organic beauty company Neal’s Yard Remedies relocated its headquarters from London to Dorset, swapping the traffic and concrete of Battersea for the fields and meadows of Gillingham.

It’s the end of a winding road for the firm, explains Elizabeth Smith, HR director. "Although we announced the move to staff in 2003, it was already on the agenda when I joined five years ago. It’s been an incredibly long-term project."

The company, which makes homeopathic remedies and organic beauty products, had a very specific list of requirements. "The building is not just an off-the-shelf warehouse that you would get on an industrial estate," adds Smith. Neal’s Yard wanted premises that would help it to tread more lightly on the earth. Designed by green architects Feilden Clegg Bradley, the building saves energy by using natural ventilation and controlled daylight.

But it has been built with the workforce, as well as the planet, in mind. "Some of the warehouses in Battersea had no natural light and when we asked staff for their views, that was one of the things that they all really wanted." says Smith. Now staff have a space with a view; huge windows look out onto the surrounding countryside.

The structure is also designed to have a social heart: a communal space which includes treatment rooms, a courtyard garden with picnic tables, a staff kitchen and a subsidised staff restaurant.

After Neal’s Yard announced the move, it managed to persuade 35 of its 70 London employees to up sticks to Dorset for a six-month trial. Smith puts this largely down to offering them a package of perks that they couldn’t refuse – the real dealbreaker being that staff who relocate and stay for two years will be eligible for a three-month paid sabbatical. The canteen is subsidised and, for one pound, employees can sample organic dishes made from local produce. The firm has also laid on on-site complimentary therapies and each member of staff is entitled to one treatment a month at a heavily subsidised rate.

Smith adds that flexible hours make life easier for people on the six-month trial, especially those who have left families back in the capital. "Some people might start at Monday lunchtime which enables them to take their kids to school in London on a Monday morning. Then we are squeezing their hours into four days so they get an extra day in London. Also we are looking at home-working for some people." As an organisation concerned with social responsibility, cutting pollution is high on the agenda. "We are trying to develop a green transport plan so that we can start getting people car sharing."

The company has bought two mountain bikes for staff to use at lunchtime. "People can whiz into town at lunchtime if they have a spare fifteen minutes or just have a cycle ride to get some fresh air," says Smith.

It has also stumped up the cash for its city dweller staff to learn to drive. "We funded driving lessons because a lot of people in London did not have a car, but down here, unfortunately, it comes in quite handy."

One hurdle that the company has had to overcome is accommodation. Many local estate agents were weary of letting properties to large groups of single men, who make up a large part of Neal’s Yard’s demographic. "We found ourselves having to get into company lets and, as a small firm, we haven’t got a big HR department and it’s created quite a lot of extra admin."

Consequently, the company has had to enter into tenancy contracts with the agencies to ensure that workers had somewhere to stay.

Employees who decided to stay in London and take redundancy were not left out of the benefits package. "We’ve got an employee assistance programme and we started that because we thought that if people were facing career choices and possible redundancy, obviously we wanted to keep up morale around the big change that we were going through," adds Smith. Staff took part in a series of workshops, which encouraged them to look at the changes as an opportunity rather than a threat. "We wanted to have people take stock and think of this as a chance to do ‘that thing that I’ve always wanted to do’. So we started off doing workshops to help people look at alternative career paths and we also got mini biographies for people and sent them out to other ethical companies in London, asking if they had any jobs."

For staff who decided to leave, the company paid for them to retrain. "One person, who did unfortunately leave us, trained to be a Pilate’s teacher. Another person wanted to be a chef so we funded her food hygiene training, even though it wasn’t relevant to her current job."

Everyone also got special leave of up to five days, which they could either use to hunt for another job or scope out accommodation in Dorset.

When Smith joined the business five years ago, she set about transforming its HR policies. "The staff turnover has actually decreased significantly since I started. We tried to put quite a focus on increasing wages from the bottom end and I think having a more coherent benefits package is definitely part of it. We are taking a more systematic approach to benefits, recognising that we have a series of themes. Wellness, health and sustainability are some of the ones that are a little bit different."

In keeping with the company’s values, staff can access an ethical defined contribution pension scheme. "The bank sets a series of criteria and they basically score companies against them. One of them is whether the product itself is a worthwhile product and the other is, whatever they are doing, whether they doing it in an ethical way," explains Smith.

Employees can choose between a light green sustainable development fund, or a dark green ethical fund, which has an extra level of screening.

There is also a profit share scheme: 10% of profits are put into a pool, which is divided up among all staff twice a year. "The amount staff get paid is proportionate to their salary. And, for example, if someone joins as a Christmas temp and they still haven’t got much annual salary because they have only been working there a few weeks, they will still get a pay out. I’ve got feedback that they really like that even though they’ve only worked a few weeks we don’t exclude them."

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the firm also does its fair share of voluntary work. "It’s a message about how we want to be involved in the community. One employee was involved in a project where she went out to schools and worked with a group of kids in year five, teaching them how to make their own toiletries. It was very educational about the plants and encouraged people to think about looking after themselves," says Smith.

Behind all these benefits is a philosophy that treating people fairly brings out the best in them. "You can’t really separate the integrity of our products, from the integrity of how we treat our people. When I joined I was excited but even so I didn’t realise how much potential there was and what a challenge it was. But we can challenge the old rules, we don’t have to do what the book says. We can do something that fits in with our culture and create an organisation that’s a great place to work and that’s really what my vision is."

Career profile

"In my very first year of business I was labelled as a Guardian-reading, bicycle-riding, sandal-wearing, vegetarian – and that was about 25 years ago," says Elizabeth Smith, Neal’s Yard’s HR director. While she admits she’s "always had leanings in that direction", she has an MBA from Kingston Business School and worked in the City for several years. "I’ve worked for different companies including a large plc and [in] the public sector."

Before taking on the role of HR director at Neal’s Yard, Smith worked as a business adviser for Business Link, a government-funded business advisory service. "I had a case load of clients and advised them how to run their businesses."

Her role at Neal’s Yard was an opportunity to foster a different type of company culture. "I’m a student of organisations. I just love how organisations interact. A couple of people I worked for really were role models and from them I really learned a lot about how you can bring out the best in people by having an inclusive culture and helping people develop to wherever their potential could take them."

Neal’s Yard at a glance

Alternative medicine and beauty firm Neal’s Yard Remedies was founded back in 1981 by current chair Romy Fraser. "The company started as a shop. But they just started mixing creams out the back and then the idea started to actually make natural remedies and cosmetics," says HR director Elizabeth Smith.

From its first store in Covent Garden, the business now has 40 shops in the UK, five in Japan and a mail order and online arm. As well as making remedies, the firm has therapy rooms and runs courses on natural medicine. Still, it has to keep on its toes. "It is increasingly competitive. When we started out, we were really the only people doing natural products and now everybody’s into it. Some people are small niche players who are strictly organic. Other people just use the word organic and aren’t…certified by the Soil Association, which we are."

Yoga perks add to flexibility

For sales support co-ordinator Tamsin Wick, the three-month paid sabbatical is the cherry on the top of her benefits package.

She followed the firm down from London and will be eligible for the leave after she has been in Dorset for two years.

"I’d like to use the time to do volunteer work, maybe combine volunteer work and travel, put something back and not just sit on a beach," she says.

She adds the firm’s social committee has been invaluable for staff settling into a strange town. "The committee’s become more important and, since we’ve been down here, we’ve already had a pub quiz and a skittles night."

She raves about her 50% staff discount and is looking forward to on-site yoga classes beginning later in the year.

"The benefits are really tangible: you could ask any member of staff and they will be able to reel off all these things. People are using the products all the time, they get lunch everyday and they are going to be using the training room for yoga," she says.

Benefits Box

Pension: Defined contribution scheme open to all employees. Employer contributions of 5%.
Social Activities: Range of subsidised events for staff, including pub quizzes and barbecues.
Healthcare: Staff can access an employee assistance programme and subsidised on-site complimentary therapies. Discounts: 50% discount on Neal’s Yard products.
Catering: Subsidised on-site facilities at the head office in Dorset.
Work-life balance: Range of flexible working options available to all staff.