HR Director Profile: Ann-Marie Murphy, Group HR Director, New Look
Ann-Marie Murphy looks back at her career and, explains the importance of HR not being one step removed from the business but part of it. See how her two passions – people and retail are now joined together in her new role as HR Director at fashion retailer, New Look.
When a management trainee position came up at luxury store, Harrods, Ann-Marie Murphy couldn’t believe her luck. “When I was at school, I decided I wanted to be a buyer for fashion. I was brought up in the East Sussex village of Crowborough but I loved fashion and London, so getting the chance to work for Harrods was fantastic. It came about because I heard two girls at college talking about the trainee scheme so I just decided to apply myself and told my mum that was what I was going to do.” Murphy’s one-application gamble paid off and she quickly realised that she had a natural affinity for people.
“I realised that I didn’t actually want to buy products for Harrods but what I did like doing was working with people and I spent a lot of time in people related areas. I found I was good at talking to people and applying a lot of pragmatism and common sense. This seemed to work. I also really enjoyed inducting people into the business and I loved the buzz of fashion and retail.”
After two and a half years and, having gained invaluable experience, Murphy felt it was time to move on. “There were two types of people at Harrods. Those that joined and stayed for their whole career and those that gained the experience, got the training and moved on. I was the latter.”
She joined British Home Stores (BHS) as their HR and Administration Manager, originally hoping to land the Crawley store but being allocated Putney after a reshuffle of management. “Having Harrods on my CV definitely helped and when I didn’t get the job at Crawley they decided they wanted to accommodate me so they offered me the Putney role and I got my first actual management role,” says Murphy.
It was a tough role and very hands on, Murphy recalls the daily challenge of reconciling the tills. “As well as the operational side, I also had to manage the staff and that meant having difficult conversations with people who were sometimes twice my age. I remember one particular lady who had terrible body odour! I was in my twenties, she was in her fifties and I had to sit down with her and explain it had been noticed. It was about getting those conversations right, so I said to her that if it was me, I’d want to know about it!” laughs Murphy.
After a couple of years at the retailer, the business underwent a re-structure and Murphy felt that the positions on offer, which included regional HR management didn’t suit her at that stage. “I was sent on a secondment to the Head Office in Marylebone to stretch me. It was great but the business was starting to struggle and one lunchtime I went into a Manpower recruitment office to see what roles were on offer and I started talking to one of the consultants. They ended up asking me if I’d like to work as a recruitment consultant.”
Murphy took the leap and it wasn’t long before she was identified as a key talent and was put on the fast track management succession plan. So when a role came up pretty quickly, Murphy filled it, taking on the role of Branch Manager in Redhill, Surrey.
“It was the first moment that I thought, ‘what have I done!’ It was completely different to what I had done before but I had a few clients including Toyota and Lombard and I was good at building relationships and got a buzz out of it. I did the role for about eighteen months but whilst I was good at nurturing the clients I had, I didn’t enjoy finding new ones,” admits Murphy.
When a role for an outsourced Manpower Contract Manager at IBM, the technology giant, came up she applied for it. She started the job in 1992 and over the following six and a half years, she was responsible for a UK wide contract supplying an HR outsourced service for the secretarial and administrative contract workforce within IBM.
Murphy was based at Southbank but says that the outsourced service was in a state and the contract was in jeopardy. “IBM were the customer and I had access to lots of senior people but the contract was on its knees. We had to re-tender against some competitors and we won and I was appointed to take over the UK contract. My role became to manage the contract through a team of five HR/Contract Managers and three trainers providing a complete outsourced HR and management service across the business,” Murphy explains.
It was, Murphy says: “One of the happiest points in my career. I just loved it. There were lots of challenges and it was completely different to what I had done before but I just thrived on it.”
Manpower discussed other broader operational roles but Murphy was clear about her direction, “It was not what I set out to do and it was a hard decision. I wanted to do HR so needed to get experience in HR from a Head Office perspective and I wanted to do my CIPD qualification. I spoke to my manager who thought I was mad to walk away! But they agreed to sponsor me to do the qualification on a part-time basis.”
With new accreditation under her belt, Murphy decided to see where her new HR credentials could take her and was offered a job at First Choice Holidays (now part of TUI Travel) and, in 2002 became their HR Manager. My boss was a great support and mentor and she helped me to grow in the role and throughout my career at TUI.”
Four to five years into the role at TUI, the market shifted and the business began to merge. “This was really exciting because we were going to experience everything that a merger brings. During this time, I held roles such as Head of HR for Retail and Overseas Operations and Head of Organisational Design and Change. I loved the OD role and it has shaped the way I see HR now as an HR Director, at that time I had started to become quite specialist and I wanted to go back to a generalist role,” says Murphy.
Murphy became responsible for HR in the Specialist and Activity Sector (SAS) within TUI as well as the Group corporate group functions, totalling approximately 8000 employees globally. Murphy helped to set the strategic direction of the business providing guidance on all people and organisational matters relating to the five-year strategic plan.
“The SAS part of the business, which I was responsible for was very complicated because there were circa 90 brands or individual travel companies many that had been acquired by TUI over the years. They included brands such as Crystal Ski and Sovereign. The businesses really did come in all shapes and sizes and it was quite a difficult role because they were all very different but I did enjoy it and it was very varied work,” recalls Murphy.
After a great run time at the business, totalling thirteen years, Murphy had to make a big decision to leave TUI, or as she explains, she would never leave, "So it was time to move on but I loved my time at TUI and learnt so much along the way," says Murphy.
In 2015, Murphy was appointed as Group HR Director for New Look. “For me it has brought the circle together. Fashion and HR have been joined again! It is very different to TUI which was often about cutting back and making efficiency savings. New Look is growing rapidly – we are a global business and have over 20,000 people globally and 600 stores alone in the UK. It is also incredibly entrepreneurial and it has a different feel because it is privately owned.”
Murphy is relishing in the fast-pace of her new environment and says she loves to go out to the stores and talk to people serving our customers but explains she has a big job to do: “The business is moving from being a UK female, fashion retailer to becoming a global brand. It’s a shift in mind-set that is required globally. The HR challenges are similar to other businesses though. My role here is to really build the HR team and put a clear strategy in place to continue to help the business to grow. There’s never a dull moment!”
Top tips for HR Retail candidates:
Looking back at her career, Murphy says that she didn’t really set out with a particular career path in mind, “It was more crazy paving! You have to be prepared to go with the flow and take the opportunities as they come your way and make the roles your own. I suppose I have taken the non-traditional HR route but I don’t think there is any harm in doing that,” she says.
Murphy says that having a good understanding of what it’s like to work in a store is really a great advantage for anyone who wants to work in retail HR, “You really have to understand the business and your customers and you only get that from spending a lot of time in store and chatting to people. HR is not one step removed from the business, it really is part of it.”
The retail industry is very fast-paced and consumer and people led and, Murphy says that anyone wanting to work in it, really needs to understand that. “I don’t think there is any co-incidence in the fact that when you have a good Store Manager in place, the store seems to do very well. I would say it's our role in HR to support the Store Manager to excel.”
The next chapter:
Murphy is family orientated and with two children, aged eight and six they are a key priority. When she is not spending her weekends taking them to sporting activities or friends’ birthday parties she likes to relax with Bikram Yoga or by going for a run or a swim. Murphy, who commutes to Oxford Circus from Kent daily, is excited about the future at New Look and is keen to grab the opportunities as they arise. A keen attitude to ‘get stuck in’ and ‘welcome the new’ has been the abiding pillars of her career that has seen a young girl straight out of school excited to join Harrods and never look back.
Taking the opportunities as they arose and, being prepared to step in and out of different industries has given Murphy a breadth of experience and, her natural ability to build good relations with those around her has played a huge part in pushing her career forwards. Today she is excited about her new job but you get the feeling that Murphy will continue to challenge herself and take some more steps forward on that crazy paving.