First 100 days: Putting the bite into HR

Written by
Sarah Clark

12 Nov 2015

12 Nov 2015 • by Sarah Clark

Setting the scene

Steve Rockey began his HR career as an on-site personnel officer at London’s Millennium Dome, before moving to Pizza Express as HR manager and later Byron Hamburgers as head of people. Here, he created an HR strategy from scratch (including tearing up the staff handbook) and supported employees through exponential growth, going from 18 to 46 restaurants in just over two years. 

“It was nothing like I’d experienced before,” he recalls. “Once, we opened three restaurants in four weeks. When you’re recruiting at that rate, it’s hard not to decimate your management level. I’ve learnt a lot from that.” 

Now, he’s getting his teeth stuck into a new challenge at American barbecue-inspired restaurant chain, Big Easy. Having joined in May, Rockey has made significant progress. “It’s been a whirlwind. Learning about a new business, trying to get under its skin, plus doubling in size in the first six months makes for a great ride.”


Ready for a big bite

It is Rockey’s infectious passion for growing brands that has led him to Big Easy. Established in 1991, the chain now has two restaurants across London employing about 250 people. 

Reporting into MD Noel Darcy, Rockey is the fourth person to take on the people director role – but he’s not fazed by the challenge. “When I arrived there was no induction plan in place for me,” he says. “So Noel and I agreed to separately write down five key things we needed to work on from a people perspective. Amazingly, our lists matched.” Company culture was identified by both as the organisation’s top challenge, and getting under the skin of it is what motivates Rockey.

“The ability to create and impact an organisation and getting people to believe in what you believe in – that is getting to the real core of the business,” he enthuses. The other areas of focus the pair identified were: recruitment, induction, payroll and career development. 

First on Rockey’s to-do list was getting to know everyone. “People were surprised I was talking to them. It wasn’t something that had happened before – people worked in silo. Just saying ‘hello’ and ‘good morning’ can make the world of difference. A head waiter told me he felt more engaged in the business because everyone seemed friendlier.”

From that moment, Rockey was on a mission to change perceptions and mindsets, starting with giving people the opportunity to feed back. He’s implemented a monthly forum called ‘Speak Easy’, where employees can openly share their views on the organisation. “Generosity is one of our values, not just in portion size, but also to give people time to talk,” he reveals. 

Recruitment is now done centrally, empowering staff to choose their own talent for new roles. Rockey says: “If the head chef needs a new chef, they are much more qualified than me to choose the right person. We [HR] are here to provide support.” 

Retention is up too. “In the past six months, we’ve seen a 42% reduction in turnover and a good consistency in our mystery diner scores too. Plus adding a few record-breaking sales days, it feels like things are really starting to change.”

What's on the menu right now?

Rockey is gearing up for the imminent opening of a restaurant in London’s Canary Wharf that will see the staff population almost double to 425. 

Ensuring the brand stands out to potential talent in a city full of restaurants could be tricky, but Rockey likes to do things differently. “If our competitors write really long [job] adverts, we write short ones. If they use pictures of food, we use pictures of people. It sets us apart from the competition and attracts the talent we want,” he says. 

This strategy has proved hugely successful – Big Easy received 4,000 applications for 175 jobs at the new site. 

As well as creating new innovations in the business, Rockey wants to ensure the organisation learns from the past and this informs his people strategy. “When we opened our last restaurant it was a bit haphazard. People were unsure what they were supposed to be doing so we’re giving employees two-and-a-half weeks’ training, three-day inductions and four days of dry runs – covering everything on the menu.”

Connecting the brand & culture

As someone with experience of small and large businesses, Rockey’s passion clearly lies with the entrepreneurial start-up, and he is keen to foster this mindset in the workforce. “We want to make people masters of their own destiny – as the business grows, more opportunities will emerge,” he says. 

He is keen to connect the HR and marketing strategies, and to do this he is in dialogue with the company’s head of marketing, who educates him on what the brand is trying to portray. “I love this brand because it’s authentic.
New wood is brought in every day and they smoke the meat for 20 hours. 

“The culture is key to the organisation. To keep it authentic, we must stick to our values and always ensure the employer and consumer brands match, in their look and feel. That’ll drive business success.”

Steve under the spotlight

What are the essential skills for a HR leader?


What's the most important thing to accomplish in a new role?