“There were no formal inductions when I joined; I was given a desk and a set of Ikea drawers and politely encouraged to build it myself. Having zero DIY expertise, I thought: ‘Priority number one is to find someone to help us do this.’”
Although most HR professionals at small companies can expect to get stuck into things that might not have been in the job advert, Laura Shipperlee’s first day as head of people and culture at Rapha Cycling – a high-end cycle wear company with its HQ on the outskirts of Camden in north London – was probably more hands-on than most. When she joined the business in 2013, it had grown to 75 employees, was braced for global expansion – and had no concrete HR support or processes in place.
“When I asked how many staff we had, no one seemed to know exactly because there was no central tracking system,” she says. “Booking leave was done via some awful paper folder that I was given on my first day, and I thought: ‘I need to sort that out quickly.’”
Shipperlee started at Rapha after spending time travelling following a five-year stint at Shell, which she joined fresh out of university. Although she was offered the opportunity to return to the multinational oil giant, “I knew I wanted to go somewhere smaller”, she says. “But I didn’t realise how much support I’d had there until I came here and realised I had nothing. The buck stopped with me; it was pretty daunting but also really exciting.”
Four years into the role, Shipperlee can now laugh at the initial scale of her ambition: “I thought I’d have the world sorted in six months. But it took me about a year to get the basics right – such as inductions, holidays and payroll – and it’s only been in the past 12 months that I’ve been able to focus on the broader organisational challenges.”
And it’s just as well that she has – Rapha’s growth is accelerating rapidly. It’s expected to have more than 500 employees in 16 countries by the end of 2017, and for the first time employ slightly more in its 17 clubhouses (as its retail stores-slash-coffee bars are known) than in HQ roles. “We have a very dispersed workforce, so engagement and communication are top priorities,” says Shipperlee, whose HR team now numbers four and will be joined by an L&D manager later this year.
Part of the solution is doing things as they’ve always been done. One of Shipperlee’s first innovations was an employee welcome box, which has evolved over the years. “To really embed a culture, you have to give people the right experience from day one,” she says. The welcome box for HQ employees includes their staff number (which corresponds with their bike storage hook and appears on their coffee mug), the company’s classic cycling jersey, a brand book (co-created by HR and the brand team), cycling memoir The Rider by Tim Krabbé, guidelines for cycling safely and the employee handbook.
Every two years, the company hosts a week-long ‘global gathering’ in the UK to help emphasise to regional staff that they are part of the family. “The gathering has been quite momentous in embedding our strategy and making sure everyone knows what’s going on and feels connected,” says Shipperlee. “It’s one of those things we’ve pondered: could that money be spent elsewhere? But how can we expect our staff, some of whom are working independently in their spare rooms, to understand what we are about and be engaged if we don’t invest a bit of money to bring them together regularly?
“I’m passionate about making sure our culture stays as we grow, and that size doesn’t get in the way. But we have to be realistic too; we go on big bike rides three times a year, so with 170 UK employees now that’s turning into a whole sportive in itself. But these are the sorts of things we have to do, regardless of the numbers.”
Rapha’s global expansion has enabled it to create career opportunities for many staff, but planning progression for employees outside the UK can be tricky. “We’ve done a handful of global moves, but not a huge amount,” says Shipperlee. “Visas and the cost of moving people abroad provides an extra challenge.”
And the company has launched it’s first future leader programme, the ‘white jersey’ scheme, open to both clubhouse managers and head office staff. During this pilot, 10 people are spending 12 months on a team project, as well as undertaking personal development training. “We are really proud, as a small company, to have invested in this type of programme,” says Shipperlee. “Managers are completely behind it; it’s a sign of our professionalism, and that we’re investing in our future.”
Has working at Rapha changed Shipperlee as an HR professional? “I’ve learned so much. I was a bit naïve when I came here. It’s made me more resourceful, creative and resilient. And it’s given me the opportunity to flourish. There’s no such thing as an average day or year; I think some HR jobs have the potential to be a bit monotonous but there’s always something new to work on here. If you’re up for the challenge, I’d definitely recommend working for an SME.”