How Rush Hair used a new central HR function to reconnect with its employees

The nationwide chain of hairdressers built its people function from the ground up to dramatically improve recruitment, retention and its employer brand

How Rush Hair used a new central HR function to reconnect with its employees

Two decades is a long time in business. And when childhood friends Andy Phouli and Stelios Andrew, co-founders of Rush Hair and Beauty, opened the doors to their first salon in 2004, they could scarcely have imagined how exponentially their business would grow. 

Today, the chain has opened its 100th location, spreading from its London base as far afield as Merseyside and Yorkshire with a unique proposition: Rush is committed to hiring full-time employees while rivals rely largely on self-employed stylists. It’s a model that ought to lead to a more engaged and committed workforce. 

As people director Lisa Wheatcroft shows People Management around the business’s central London academy site – with stylists snipping happily away on willing volunteers in the background – she is convinced the community culture persists to this day. “The business started out with a family-focused feel. The founders have grown the business by growing their people.”

It means that no matter how pumped up the salons’ aesthetic, core values remain. But those ideals have come under considerable pressure as Rush has navigated a familiar quandary: how to centralise the way it manages, and in particular recruits, its people while retaining its unique values, all set against what amounted to a retention crisis. 

It is a salutary lesson in how HR can be built from the ground up, even in relatively mature organisations, and immediately begin to produce impressive results.

When Wheatcroft started working at the company in October 2017, she found a definite disconnect between an increasing number of disparate branches and the corporate brand. “As the business grew, the value and culture that Rush wanted to create was getting lost. People would say they were connected to the salon, but not to the brand,” she says.

The problems extended to recruitment, which was taking place in a “piecemeal, clunky and costly” manner: “They weren’t demonstrating the brand in the right way. We weren’t giving our candidates a great experience and while we were getting people in, they just flushed back out again.”

Last year, almost every new stylist that was hired left the business, making it clear something had to change. Rush had never had a dedicated, permanent central HR function and Wheatcroft laughs as she remembers Phouli telling her: “Out of one to 10, HR is at zero.” “I actually think it was minus 10,” she says.

The senior team was initially unsure how HR would add value, she says. “They’d never worked anywhere else. They didn’t know what HR was. They hadn’t had to deal with people leaving.” But faced with a clean slate and a recruitment crisis, Wheatcroft got stuck in. Coming from a corporate role at Heathrow Airport, she was looking for a challenge: “I wanted to be more of a commercial HR partner, really adding value in a much more entrepreneurial, fast-paced business where I could make change happen faster.”

Over the course of three frenetic months, she worked with different contractors and partners to identify problem areas. A head of talent and careers was hired, along with careers advisers who began working with the marketing team to reposition the employer brand. Internal communications between teams were streamlined and the operations team was asked to focus on recruitment.

Instead of posting jobs online in a haphazard manner, the business began to think long term. Consistency was key, alongside a focus on social media, after having identified potential targets were far more likely to be on Instagram than jobs boards. “We’ve got away from how it was when people were just writing their own job adverts,” says Wheatcroft. 

The new recruitment focus has been supplemented by an internal social network – “like Facebook, but more fun” – where stylists can tap into a community no matter where they are, sharing news, showcasing their work and building bonds with the business. And a new centralised HR and applicant tracking system from supplier CIPHR is helping the team professionalise the way people are managed.

Wheatcroft acknowledges it has only been a year, but already there are definite green shoots of recovery. Overall staff turnover across the business has reduced by 14 per cent despite a greater number of stylists joining, and a new engagement survey is showcasing fresh areas to focus on.

Exit surveys will help the HR team drill down into the remaining problems, while Wheatcroft’s next project is to think about development opportunities. “I can’t say we’ve given someone a promotion or a two-month training programme, but we will be doing that this time next year,” she says. “Already, we can say that candidates come in, get a good induction, are supported by their manager and have the opportunity to grow. 

“I want employees to be able to say they’ve got a career with us, not just a job. Some of the people here joined the first salon and have been with us for 18 years. We want people to feel they’ve got that career pathway. We’re not there yet, but it’s an exciting time.”