The "people business" ~ Sounds + Food 'n' Retail

The "people business"

people business.jpgWhen I started this blog, and my general thoughts about the area of food & retail, it was all about the people. A quality staff and happy customers, what more do you want? And I have to say, from past experiences, that I don't really like businesses that don't place people first.

For instance, one individual I worked with, suggested using handicapped people to put together a product manually. I instantly disliked him. Not that I don't want handicapped people to be productive, but it was the thought behind it; to find a "stupid" workforce, which you can save tons of money on. It was just distasteful.

Another company I worked for was very process-orientated.
There's nothing wrong with that of course, but it was a big company with a reputation for innovation and that is why I joined. And you expect such a company to at least push forward a solid project. Well, as it turned out, the organisation's core-strategy was to start a large number of risky projects and have them compete with each-other. Those that would fail would simply be abandoned, and their staff was expected to fall on their swords… metaphorically. The effect was an incredibly high turn-over of employees, all three projects I worked on no longer exist, and it deeply soured my feelings about this company.

Both these examples, to me, represent a lack of respect for the human element. I realise that business is a hard world, but if projects were designed to be solid in the first place, there would be less of a need for these kinds of practices. Just my 2 cents.

Part 2 - the challenges that people businesses face
HBR (Again! I'm sorry, but I read a lot of HBR-articles!) published an article about people businesses some time ago, which I enjoyed. Following are some notes + thoughts about it.

  • People businesses are defined as: "operations which are characterised by 1. high overal employee costs, 2. a high ratio of employee costs to capital costs, and 3. limited spending on activities, such as R&D, aimed at generating future revenue."

  • In a top-40 list of people-businesses, published in that same article, only a few qualify as food and/or retail related. These are the Hospital Corporation of America, Tenet Healthcare, Marriott hotels, and Accor hotels.

  • For instance, a business like McDonalds does not classify as a people business; it has substantial assets in terms of brand & real-estate, and relatively low people-cost.

  • People-businesses face a number of challenges, related to performance measurement, people-management, compensation, and business models.

  • Measuring productivity is more important in these businesses, then other economic performance indicators, like return on assets or investment. The challenge is finding the right indicators (employee productivity & profitability), as well as benchmarking it against other companies (employee figures do not always need to be made public).

  • To manage people, you need to align employees' interests with business objectives & execution. And you need to find ways to measure performance (see above) continuously and see where your weak spots are.

  • Compensation is key, as productivity is very sensitive to it, and is a primary determinant of shareholder risks & returns. Other factors to consider are variability—productivity varies across the workforce and how do you get the most out of a diverse workforce—and reach—sometimes the lowest on the ladder are as, if not more important to a firm's performance, and how do you motivate these people to do their jobs as good as possible?

  • There are a number of business models are used in these types of businesses: pricing per hour is a safe method, but does not account for extra performance; a fixed price per output allows companies to shave costs off the inputs and thus increase their profit-margins. It is very susceptible to a high-skilled workforce; a success-fee or commission offers the best returns, but also the greatest risks; some companies use a hybrid of these three.

  • The strategic weakness with these types of businesses is that your assets are mobile and can walk out the door. By creating value above and beyond your employees, you can diversify some of that risk away. Of course, you could also try to keep your employees ;).
In other words, I am no longer sure if e.g. a retailer qualifies as a people-business. Looking at other large chains however—Starbucks, Ahold, Ikea—you see that considerable expenditure is geared towards training these people and the secondary conditions—healthcare, etc.—are extensive. But, I guess it depends on the ratio of physical assets & brand vs. employee-value. If the first two far outweigh the second, I guess that makes the difference.

I guess it's up to individual businesses how they want to measure their firm's performance. The most straightforward is certainly return on assets or investment. But even that leads to some question-marks, particularly in today's highly software-based economy, where assets are no longer as necessary, or pricey, as they once were.

For my part, I still think that people are a key-asset to a business, and it's interesting to look at how exactly you motivate a workforce and get the most out of them, as well as how to overcome the challenges related to a people-based business.

Equally interesting is how to align the business-model to match the needs of your assets—the people. Since people are motivated by (financial & non-financial) compensation, do you keep the pay-rate aligned with time-spent; fixed; aligned with performance; or a hybrid of the three? I think the hybrid is always the best choice, but even then some combinations work better than others.

And retaining employees is also an interesting problem; though much less so in countries like France, where getting rid of them is a problem, and differently in places like Silicon Valley, where inter-firm mobility is a key-requirement for many employees. I think the solution is completely personal and cultural, and everybody's answer will be different on this.

The picture is courtesy of


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