Beating the staff poachers

Shona Grundy
Shona Grundy

What do you do when you employ people your competitors would also quite like on their staff? And what if those competitors have very deep pockets?

It's a challenge Auckland-based clinical trials specialist Pharmaceutical Solutions deals with daily. Founder Linda Hill says despite the firm's best efforts to offer an attractive working environment it struggles to compete with the large salaries being offered by multinational companies now operating in New Zealand.

The firm provides clinical research, trial management and regulatory services to the pharmaceutical, biotechnology and medical devices industries, and the 16 clinical research associates (CRAs) it employs are in hot demand.

''What happens is, we train people up and they get poached by being offered ridiculous amounts of money,'' she says.

''At the end of the day, when you're 26 and someone comes and offers you $40,000 more, what are you going to do?''

Pharmaceutical Solutions does all sorts of things to build a good culture, Hill says - it invests in extra education for staff; they get their birthday off, plus days to do charity work; they get five weeks' leave after they've been with the company three years; and the firm pays bonuses where it can.

''We're trying at the moment to work out how we can do things better, and what is the answer to retaining staff, because it's difficult.

''If we get really advanced clinical trials the companies prefer to have senior staff working on them and they're really, really difficult to obtain, because we just can't pay the money that they're getting from these other companies.''

The situation is an impediment to growth, because when the company loses a key staff member it can also lose the client as well, she says.

Hill would like to see more government help in promoting the industry offshore and in smoothing the way to hire overseas talent.

''We're doing a $6 million study at the moment - that's $6 million coming into New Zealand. We don't get any assistance,'' Hill says.

A streamlined process for bringing in workers from offshore is clearly possible, as content creation software company Trigger Happy has found.

When it completed a successful investment round 18 months ago and needed to hire a dozen engineers pronto, it found Immigration New Zealand helpful, CEO Shona Grundy says.

''They understood our challenges. We could get visas, oh, it was very fast.''

Trigger Happy has retained those staff, and has worked hard on creating the kind of culture they want to work in, she says.

It spent a lot of time early on establishing its values, ''so it didn't just feel like an empty shell. You can't just have a brand with a logo on it.''

It ran numerous sessions with its creative software engineering staff to establish those values, which include qualities such as purpose and the ability to express personality.

''I'm not suggesting what we've tried to do is right for every type of employee, but this is the type of person we wanted it to work with.''

As a startup of 18 staff, Trigger Happy can't afford to pay the big dollars, Grundy says.

''If their value was getting paid a lot of money, then my company was never going to be right for them.''

Her ultimate aim is to be able to provide more luxurious benefits, but in the meantime initiatives such as lunchtime darts competitions and no dress code help build the culture.

''People walk in wearing hobbit socks and wrestling masks, and they just think it's funny.''

The firm also capitalises on that creativity. To celebrate its first Christmas, staff made their own tree and decorations, with external companies invited in to judge the best.

''Honestly, those Christmas tree decorations, (people) were like, 'are you serious, did someone make that?'.''

Jackie Smith, co-founder of FAB Group, is in a completely different industry from Hill and Grundy, but faces the same issues of holding on to good staff.

FAB Group is the franchisor of the Caci skincare and appearance medicine clinics, and has recently taken on the Toni & Guy hairdressing franchise.

Skilled staff can be hard to come by generally, but finding and retaining the really good ones is the eternal challenge for employers, Smith says.

Caci trains its beauty therapists and nurses well, and thus they get targeted by competitors.

''Sometimes you just have to live with it. There's not much you can do. If you feel like you've got all the right things in place, people have the right to move on, I guess.''

One way to tackle it is to build a strong culture, she says. Caci invests a lot in training and upskilling of its staff, and offers them access to beauty products at wholesale prices.

It has also just built a new interactive intranet, which is regularly updated with relevant news and offers people the opportunity to comment. Staff are still getting used to the new system, but Smith thinks it will be popular.

The company's big piece is its annual conference, which all 150 staff attend.

 ''Once a year everybody comes for two days of seminars, there's a social aspect to it, we have an awards dinner so there's performance prizes," she says.

''It's a fantastic tool for building engagement. Everyone wants to feel like they're part of something bigger than themselves, and that really reinforces that.''