Australian born Keith Edwards is chief people and development officer at Soho House Group where he supports the operator of private members’ clubs, restaurants, cinemas, workspaces, spas and hotels in London, North America and Europe, in the recruitment and development of its staff. After moving to London in 1997, Keith worked as a floor manager for a restaurant for three years before moving into people and development at Ian Schrager Hotels. He worked with Marco Pierre White’s former restaurant group White Star Line Restaurants for a year before landing a job at the Mandarin Oriental Group, where he stayed for 10 years and completed the company’s MBA programme. He joined Soho House Group five years’ ago from Rocco Forte Hotels, where he worked as group director of human resources for two years.
Can you tell us a little bit about your current role at Soho House Group?
I oversee the people and development function for the group, which includes recruitment, menu development, employee relations and benefits, as well as just taking care of the teams. We have teams here in the UK, North America, Europe and have just started putting together teams in Asia, so we just give support to those guys.
The role has got a lot bigger in the last five years. We have doubled the amount of people we had five years ago, so that has doubled the number of issues to deal with. We’ve gone into new cities and regions which makes the role slightly more complicated and challenging, but also more interesting. It’s a never-ending journey.
Hospitality recruitment is challenging, yet Soho House managed to find 800 members of staff for The Ned before it opened last year, how did you manage that?
One of the things that gave us an advantage was that, at that point, Soho House had about 2,000 employees in the UK, so there was a pool of people that we could take from and back-fill roles. We moved a good 150 employees to the Ned, three quarters of whom were managers and just did a lot of planning as well. We started work on The Ned five years ago and every year, as we got closer, we’d do more and more work. When it got to a year before we thought about where we’d want to recruit people from.
A big challenge in London is everyone is fishing from the same pool, so we decided to go to Spain and Italy to recruit our chefs. There are 150 chefs at the Ned, so we knew that trying to get that many chefs in one go was going to be quite challenging. A quarter of those were bought from Spain and Italy which gave us a base of chefs.
We have a great brand and people are interested in us, so we never have the issue about attracting lots of people though, it’s about finding the right ones. The Ned is a great product in a great location and if you pay people well and look after them they come and that’s what happened.
It was, without a doubt, one of the most intense, stressful moments of my life, though, because we had to assemble about 700 people in three months. Just think about the number of CVs you need to screen and number of interviews that need to happen to find 700 people – it’s thousands! so it was a huge piece of work. And of course we weren’t sure how it was going to go, to be honest, because no-one had ever done it before. We had a good team to do it though, it was a huge team effort.
Is there a type of person you believe succeeds well in hospitality? If so, what skill and attributes do they need?
I think the people who do well in our business I describe as people that, if you were in a supermarket pushing a shopping trolley and bumped into someone they say ,’Oh, I’m really sorry’. The are people who have empathy and generally care about people. That’s their natural instinct. They are the people who do well, certainly at Soho House. When you interview people you get a sense of whether they are right or not. In our business you also need quite a lot of drive, especially at Soho House, which is a volume business, so it’s busy. It can be quite intense, so you have to be able to deal with pressured situations. If you enjoy looking after people and are warm, you’ll do well as that’s the essence of what we do.
The industry talks a lot about retaining staff, what do you think is the best way?
To me the secret to retention is giving somebody a future: Creating career paths and developing people is a huge driver of retention. Also, having the right management. People will stay if there’s good management and leadership.
Being able to acknowledge great work and having a fun working environment also helps, but obviously you need to position yourself in the market for pay and be competitive too.
Here at Soho House Group we try and create a family feel on a global scale and our staff feel connected to the brand and their manager. We do lots of training and do things like team events every month. Things like learning to be a DJ, or photography, which are all complimentary. It makes people feel like they are part of the community that we’ve built for the members as well. That connection is super-important.
People say in our industry it’s about high staff turnover, but I don’t actually believe people want to leave jobs, people don’t want to move about, so if you look after them they will stay. Once you’re in an environment were you’re happy, looked-after and respected you’ll stay.
What are you most proud of achieving in your career?
The Ned (laughs). I go there once a week and catch up with the team. I’m hugely proud. Whenever you walk in there I think it’s just an incredible hotel, with an incredible atmosphere. I’m so proud to be a part of it.
You don’t always have time to look back and say ‘I’m proud of this’ but if I look back over the last five years I think ‘wow, it’s great to be part of this dynamic company’. Lots of companies describe themselves as dynamic, but they’re not. Soho House is genuinely a very innovative, dynamic company. It’s grown and has great people, great members in great locations and just to be part of that has been amazing.
Who, or what is your biggest inspiration?
I’ve been really lucky here, and in previous jobs to have people look after me. I’ve had people who’ve taken an active interest in my development and that’s helped me grow. Here I’ve got Nick (Jones – founder and chief executive) and Martin (Kuczmarski, chief operations officer), and in previous jobs at Rocco Forte and Mandarin Oriental, people have always looked after me. My parents inspire me too. I know that is a bit of a cliché, but they are inspiring people. They have their own trucking business in Australia and at the age of 71 are still working really hard. They are amazing.
What change in terms of people, would you like to see most across the industry?
I’d like to see more people who are passionate about looking after people coming into the industry. Hospitality still suffers from perceptions that it’s not a career option in the same way that being a lawyer or a doctor is. People under-estimate how dynamic our business is and how great and fun it is and I’d like to see more of them opting to work in hospitality.
It’s my belief that if you’re passionate about something you’ll become an expert at it and if you’re an expert at something you’ll make money from it. I’d love to see more passionate people come into the industry and flourish in that way.
What’s next for you?
The opening of Soho House Amsterdam, then Soho House Barcelona, then a holiday! I’m fortunate that I do a great job, it’s in a great environment and still feel challenged. I’m grateful to be here.
Hospitality & Catering News, Interviews Editor