Sam Davidson, Group Human Resources Director, Principal Connections’ HR Leader of the Month for March 2019
Q. THE CAREER & THE PERSON Describe your career journey and tell us about Sam Davidson the person?
My journey: After graduating from Queen’s University, Belfast in 1985, I’ve spent my entire career working within the HR field. I’ve been very fortunate to have worked in fantastic, progressive organisations over this time.
Starting in Northern Ireland Electricity, I spent five years learning the ropes of what was then ‘personnel management’ as a graduate and during this time helped to set up the first Equal Opportunities unit in the organisation. I left NIE to join Nortel Networks, and spent most of the following fourteen years working within a fast-moving and exciting environment at a time when the internet and mobile telephony opportunities really exploded onto the scene. I was HR Business Partner for a number of international business units, which gave me great perspective on global markets and talent strategies.
I also spent some time in PwC as Managing Consultant within the HR practice, working across the UK and Ireland with a wide variety of clients on change programmes. I joined Henderson group in 2004, as their first Group HR Director, and am still thoroughly enjoying the journey as we continue to grow and become a truly leading organisation within the food sector on the island of Ireland and indeed Great Britain.
Q. THE COMPANY Describe your current company?
Henderson Group is one of the largest private companies in Northern Ireland, employing more than 3,700 colleagues and comprising of operating companies which are sector-leading across convenience retailing, through our development of the SPAR and EUROSPAR brands in NI, as well as supplying thousands of foodservice customers across the island of Ireland.
Since our inception in 1897, we have been a family-owned and family-run business, currently led by the fourth generation in our joint-MDs, Martin and Geoffrey Agnew. We have enjoyed strong and consistent growth across all our business over the past 15 years, and our annual group sales are well in excess of £800m.
Q. THE CHALLENGES What do you see as the most important challenges facing HR Leaders today?
It may sound a little complacent, but over my career I don’t believe that the fundamental challenges for HR Leaders have really changed. It’s always been about making sure that our business can attract, retain and develop the best possible people. Those challenges have manifested themselves in different ways over the decades, and in today’s environment they have particular hurdles in the uncertainty over the outcome of the Brexit process, as well as the impact of technology on our business, which has driven both an upskilling in our talent base as well as requiring a lot of our colleagues to adapt to new ways of working.
There is of course a developing focus on wellbeing, and for a sector such as ours, when retail hours require early starts and late finishes, we work hard to ensure that our teams have access to the best possible support. I would also point to the impact of social media platforms in challenging the perceived cultures and leadership styles of organisations, with the advent of such sites as Glassdoor and Indeed allowing staff to make their various and often critical views known. Never before have leaders been scrutinised so publicly!
Q. THE ADVANCES What do you believe the biggest advances in human resources will be over the next five years?
I think that the concept of HR as a purely ‘human capital’ construct has had it’s day, and that over the coming decade or so we will see a much greater focus on the treatment of colleagues both from a wellbeing and also rewards perspective. National Living Wage and other employment cost increases in the UK and a greater focus from government on flexible working will require much more creative thinking from HR and business leaders, so that they can try to develop individual propositions for their team members.
Q. THE ADVICE What’s the best piece of career advice you’ve ever received?
I was very influenced by a previous HR VP who I hugely enjoyed working for, and his mantra was that no team would ever be effective if they didn’t have fun together. I’ve tried to make sure that the teams I have led have all been given opportunities to socialise together, whether at conferences or team events, and for me this really helps us to stay together in times when we have different opinions. It’s really important for me to know my colleagues as people, not just as workers.
Q. THE MOTIVATION What keeps you motivated day to day?
It’s all about the great people who I work with every day, and the positive long-term investment culture which we have in our business. Success does really breed success!
Q. THE ACHIEVEMENT What has been your proudest career achievement to date?
I’ve been really fortunate to have had a fulfilling career, and look forward to some great times ahead as well. My proudest moment came in 2018 when CIPD Northern Ireland presented me with a Special Achievement Award for my contribution to the profession. It’s very humbling to get an accolade like this from your peers.
Q. THE INSPIRATION Who inspires you professionally?
I’ve worked with some great colleagues over the years, and attended many great conferences, so it’s honestly very hard to pinpoint any one source of inspiration in my working life. Those who have inspired me most have been people who have been open, honest and fair in leading their organisations, even in challenging situations when it may have been easier to say less or be vague.
Q. THE STAYING CURRENT How do you stay up to date?
There’s so much going on in both my business and the field of HRM that it’s really difficult to be on top of everything. I do however try my best to get reading my regular CIPD magazine each month, and attend conferences, both within the HR area but also more general events.
Q. THE DOWNTIME Tell us about your interests and how you relax?
I’ve been happily married to Beverley for almost thirty years, and my family takes up the vast majority of my time outside of work. My four children are at various stages in their own education and career journeys, and I try to use my work skills to give them decent advice – although as a Dad I’m not sure I have the same kudos with them as when I’m HRD!
I’ve always loved music, and have recently joined a band, where I sing and play keyboards. Never thought I’d be doing that 10 years ago!
Thank you to Sam Davidson for his participation in our HR Leaders Series.
ABOUT THE HENDERSON GROUP
The Henderson Group is a family owned, progressive business consisting of four companies under the Henderson name – Henderson Wholesale, Henderson Retail, Henderson Group Property and Henderson Foodservice.
ABOUT PRINCIPAL CONNECTIONS
Principal Connections is Ireland’s leading retained executive search and leadership consulting and assessment firm. We are also part of Agilium Worldwide Executive Search Group, one the world’s largest, oldest and premier global executive search and headhunting firms. Together with our colleagues across 55 Offices in 30 Countries, each year we complete in excess of 1300 Assignments within most Major Industries and Functional Areas.
For many years, Principal Connections has advised on the most influential assignments that have emerged within Irish business. Organisations of all shapes and sizes from all over Ireland (Dublin, Cork, Galway, Limerick, Belfast etc.) refer to us when it matters most, to solve their most important executive search and leadership consulting and assessment challenges.