Lead Interview: Carole Burman & Charlotte Bate

Our lead interview in the CULTURE issue of Suffolk Director is Carole Burman and Charlotte Bate, Directors of MAD-HR.
Published in Suffolk Director Magazine, Spring 2021
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Culture: Values, Ethos, and Integrity

“Being a good HR professional is a bit like being a chameleon – you adapt the mantle that best suits the people you are with. We have learnt how to fit whilst remaining authentic and comfortable with who we are.”

Interview: Sue Wilcock
Pictures: Warren Page

MAD-HR co-directors, Carole Burman and Charlotte Bate talk to Suffolk Director. 

MAD-HR co-directors, Carole Burman and Charlotte Bate talk to Suffolk Director. 

Even though as people, Carole Burman and Charlotte Bate are very different, the journey they have taken to get to where they are is astonishingly similar.

Together, they run HR consultancy MAD-HR, a business which was originally started by Carole in 2014, with a very simple aim to ‘make a difference’ to the clients it worked for.

Carole and Charlotte’s paths first crossed when Carole was HR Director at Marshall Motor Group, and she recruited Charlotte to join the business as an HR Business Partner based in Essex.

Coming from similar backgrounds

However, it wasn’t until they were working together at MAD-HR, and they started to do joint presentations and talked about their backgrounds, that they realised they were singing from similar hymn sheets.

“Quite early on, we were both at a meeting and someone asked the question, “tell us a bit about yourselves?” As Charlotte spoke, I was thinking to myself “that’s just like me”. Carole explained.

“Yes, it was quite uncanny.” Charlotte added. “Both our parents ran their own businesses and we both have one brother. We both did business degrees, taking the option of studying personnel management and our first ‘proper’ HR jobs after leaving university were in retail.”

Carole Burman’s story

Carole was born in 1970 in East Ham. Her dad, Dave, who originated from Suffolk worked for the Metropolitan Police. He met Carole’s mum, Bren, who worked in banking, at a police dance; they married six months later and were together for over 40 years.

“Dad was committed to his career but chose to leave the force as his working pattern didn’t enable him to spend time with us as a family. So, my parents decided to go into the Licensed Trade and took on their first public house in Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire in 1979.

“The two of them were grafters, working hard to make a success in what was a very different industry for them. They were proud of what they achieved; the customers loved them, and they loved the customers.”

After a couple of years, the opportunity came up to take on a larger pub and the family moved to West Sussex. They continued to work hard and created another successful business, but after several years, they decided to leave the industry. Choosing to re-enter careers that enabled them to use their skills, Mum became a credit controller and Dad trained airline crews in aviation security.

“From the age of 14, I had always had a part-time job; initially at the local newsagents, then serving ice creams on the seafront. While I was at university, I worked at Tesco’s on the customer service desk.

“These jobs offered great experience in dealing with people and taught me important life skills.

“I didn’t have a clear idea of what I wanted to do as a career, so took A ‘Levels in English, French and Business Studies. I remember thinking “how will what I do move me forward?”. As Mum had always done accounting, I knew that was important, so I decided to take a Business and Finance Degree which included a module on Personnel Management.

“When I finished my degree in 1991, I moved back home, and Tesco transferred my job to West Sussex. So, there I was with a degree working on the checkout at Tesco. I hated it, but because there was a recession, there were no opportunities.

“Dad, who was working at Gatwick Airport, told me about a job fair being held for a new shopping centre opening in Crawley.

“I went along, dressed very smartly as if I was attending an interview. I attracted the eye of Wendy Davis, the Personnel Manager for the store, who asked me to sit down and talk to her about my aspirations.

“She was looking for her deputy and after being interviewed, I was offered the job as Personnel Supervisor at Owen Owen in Crawley.”

As part of her induction training, Carole went to Liverpool for a couple of weeks with other department managers joining the company. She ended up house sharing with two of them when she returned to Crawley.

“We all worked long days and weekends, but I loved it.

“Yet, this is when I learnt a tough lesson. As it was the recession, I had to deal with my first round of redundancies and one of the people I had to make redundant was a housemate.”

“I realised the impact of what I do and how the actions I take
can affect peoples’ lives.”

In 1993, Carole was asked to step in as maternity cover for the Personnel Manager at the Owen Owen store in Ipswich.

“I moved to Suffolk and worked with lots of great people. I was really enjoying my job.

“Then, Sir Philip Green purchased all the Owen Owen stores. He asset stripped the business, took out the functions he saw as non-profit generating, and I was made redundant.

“It wasn’t long before I was headhunted by House of Fraser for an HR project role based in London for DH Evans in Oxford Street and Dickens & Jones on Regent Street. I was in the role for four months when I was asked to move to Maidstone, where House of Fraser were looking to relocate their existing store into a new shopping centre.

“So, I moved from Suffolk to Kent. I was working in the old store for about a year, when it was decided to cut costs, hold off opening the new store and regionalise the HR function.

“As I was ambitious, I wanted to broaden my experience. It was clear to me that working in retail offered little autonomy. So, I decided to go into the manufacturing sector and joined ACCO UK on the Isle of Sheppey as Head of HR. One of my tasks was to manage a two-stage factory closure affecting generations of families who worked there.

“This was a tough time and ironically the last person I made redundant was me.

“Again, I was approached by a head-hunter for a challenging role at a distribution centre in Dartford run by Christian Salvesen. The regional HR manager, who was married to the Site Director of the distribution centre, was about to go on maternity leave, so the clock was ticking to make the appointment. She made it very clear to me the pitfalls of the job; dealing with around 800 warehouse workers and drivers, who had a distrust of management.

“I realised quite quickly that this distrust stemmed from the culture. The management weren’t empowered, so they didn’t like making decisions. Therefore, the trade unions were thought of as the only people that could be trusted.

“As it was his wife’s profession, the Site Director, Brian McCarthy, understood the value of HR. We set about changing the culture of the business and getting things done. Our main client was Asda, and if we couldn’t turn the site around then Salvesen were in danger of losing the contract.

“Everything was going well, and Asda were delighted with the site improvements, so much so that Brian was approached to work directly for them. As a result, Salvesen lost the contract, and it was transferred to Wincanton plc.

“While I was at Dartford, I had purchased my first season ticket for Ipswich Town Football Club. As Dad came from Suffolk, this was his team, so I had always been a fan. I was going to all the matches, but because of the distance I had to travel from Kent, and the hours I worked, I was often late for kick-off. I continually had to go past the same man to get to my seat, and I was always apologising to him. I would take my seat next to his daughter, and over the weeks we got talking. Eventually, she introduced me to her dad, Ben, and the upshot was, that we started going out together in 2001.

“With Wincanton taking over, it was clear I was seen as part of the old guard, so I moved on to work at Safeway at their distribution centre. I was there two and a half years when my boss got approval for a national training and development manager role, and I was offered the position. Operating throughout the UK, I loved this job, as I was helping to make a real difference to a sector that is often overlooked. We helped people to get a qualification and enhance themselves professionally.

“In 2004, Morrisons purchased Safeway and I had a feeling that the area they would make cuts first would be training and development. It was at this time that Ben and I were looking to make a home together, and if I was to move to Suffolk, I needed to get a job first.

“A position as HR Director at Marshall Motor Group came up. It was a longstanding family business based in Cambridge, but with 500 staff at the time it had a purely administrative HR function.  As I was commercially minded, there was a better acceptance of what I could bring to the table and I was offered the job.

“It was an interesting role as the family were keen for me to challenge the status quo. However, the directors in the Motor Group were less so!”

That culture changed entirely when Daksh Gupta was brought in as CEO in 2008, to replace the previous CEO who had retired.

“Daksh was all about employee engagement and customer satisfaction. As a result, and to drive the cultural change through the business, I was given a mandate to grow the HR team to help support the changes that we needed to make and our plans for growth. Charlotte Bate was one of the people taken on as part of this.”

MAD-HR co-directors, Carole Burman and Charlotte Bate talk to Suffolk Director. 

Charlotte Bate’s story

Charlotte Bate was born in 1981 and grew up in Worcestershire. Her mum, Alice, originated from St Helena in the South Atlantic and had come to the UK when she was 18. She worked at The Swan Hotel in Broadway where she met Charlotte’s dad, Richard, who ran his own plumbing and heating business.

Charlotte was like Carole in that she didn’t know what she wated to do as a career. She had always got on with everyone at school and was voted Head Girl.

“I wasn’t particularly gifted, but I worked hard. I enjoyed PE, especially trampolining, which I had started when I was eight. I did English, PE and Psychology at A ‘Level before going to Staffordshire University to take a Business and Personnel Degree.

“At university, I loved the psychology aspect of the course. In my third year, I did a placement at Polestar, a large printing business, based in Stratford upon Avon.

“One of the first things they did was to send me up to Scarborough, to help the HR Manager close the bindery. This was an early lesson learnt on the impact of HR. What we do affects peoples’ lives. Although I developed close relationships with colleagues, I realised there has to be boundaries and you must remain objective.

“I had an amazing HR Director who could see I was hungry and willing to learn, so he would empower me to do things, to challenge myself.

“An important part of HR is understanding the business and what the key objectives are. Anyone can be a busy HR person, but to be impactful your actions need to be joined up with the strategy.”

“Throughout university, I worked part-time in two or three jobs. I wanted to earn money to pay for tuition fees, and I had a very strong work ethic; something I think I inherited from my dad.”

Charlotte returned to university to complete her final year, but to get her CIPD alongside her degree, she transferred to The University of Hull, gaining both.

“After finishing my degree, I took nine months out and went travelling round the world, with my then boyfriend.

“When we returned, we both moved to Colchester and lived with his parents. I then got an HR Officer job at Austin Reed in London. I was responsible for head office personnel and when my boss went off on maternity leave, I became responsible for the London office reporting directly to the HR Director.

“In this role, I learnt all about a retail operation, and as I got to work with all the head office functions, I saw behind the scenes of business and gained an understanding of how it worked, particularly with Country Casuals being rebranded CC. My commerciality came on in leaps and bounds.

“I learnt an important lesson about human behaviour and how to develop the signals you are giving and how you can influence the power of non-communication tools; 7% is verbal and the rest is body language, tone and gestures.”

“It’s important that people see you as human. HR is an emotionally challenging role, and it can be physically draining, so it’s important that you have people around you that can support you. It’s pivotal that you are genuine.”

It was 2005 when Charlotte went on a skiing holiday and hurt her knee in an accident. As a result, she was on crutches, so couldn’t do the daily commute and chose to leave Austin Reed.

“I got a job as an HR Consultant at Park City in Colchester where I provided HR support to a number of clients. Over the five years I was there, I learnt a lot about employee relations, disciplinaries and grievances, and developed my experience across a range of industries.

“Then I was asked to go into business development. I didn’t want to do this as HR is my passion, not sales.”

Charlotte was hungry for the next challenge and went for a role she saw advertised with Marshall Motor Group. Her second interview was with Carole, who offered her the position of HR Business Partner working with the Franchise Director for Jaguar Land Rover (JLR) and Volvo. Although Charlotte was part of Carole’s team, they worked independently, Charlotte in a regional role and Carole in Cambridge.

“I loved Marshall and honed my commercial HR skills. Quality was very important to us and we wanted to be at the top of the Customer Satisfaction Index for the JLR and Volvo brands.

“Then in 2012, I unexpectedly became pregnant and at the end of my maternity leave, I realised that although I loved my job, it wasn’t something I could do part-time. As I wanted to be there for my daughter, I decided to leave Marshall and went to work part-time for a local HR consultancy.

The birth of MAD-HR

Meanwhile, Carole was still at Marshall working 18-hour days. The company was buying lots of businesses and as a result was experiencing significant growth. In five years, it had become a top 10 UK motor retail group employing 2,200 people over 70 outlets.

However, she wasn’t happy.

Carole explains. “I had married Ben in 2009 and Mum and Dad had retired to Suffolk in 2010. Then, in 2011, Mum became seriously ill with a heart problem and she spent a lot of time at Papworth.

“I wasn’t living a life; just working all week, sleeping at weekends, and visiting Mum.

“This went on for many months and then in 2013, although she was back at home, Mum got worse and the prognosis wasn’t good. As things weren’t getting any better at work, I made the decision to leave Marshall.

“I resigned with the intention of taking a year out of work to spend time with Mum, doing the things she wanted to do. As my contract stated that I had to give six months’ notice, I agreed with Daksh that I would go on garden leave as soon as they found a replacement for my role.

“Unfortunately, four weeks into my garden leave, Mum passed away.

“This was a tough time, as I felt a void – I had given up a job that had consumed all of my time and my reason for leaving, my mum, was no longer there either.”

Carole and Ben decided to spend Christmas in Mauritius to get away from everything, and while they were there, the conversation turned to Carole starting her own company.

“It was something I had been thinking about. I wasn’t afraid of hard work and having my own business as I had grown up with parents who had done it. I also wanted something where I would benefit from the effort I put in. I knew that what I’m all about is making a difference to other people, so that’s why I called the business MAD-HR; MAD an abbreviation of ‘making a difference’.

“I registered the business name in February 2014 and started trading in May. The first year was quite hard going, not from a client perspective but because, as a people person, I was now very much alone. I was working with clients, but there was no connection as being part of a team.

“Then in the summer of 2016, Charlotte contacted me and asked to meet up for a coffee. She had just had her second daughter and told me that she loved what I was doing at MAD and asked whether I would be open to her joining me as my business partner, initially part-time.

“MAD-HR was very much my baby, and I didn’t know whether I was ready to co-parent, so I took some time to think it through. However, I knew we shared the values of passion, accountability, results, integrity and simplicity. So, we set the wheels in motion getting a Shareholder Agreement drawn up, with Charlotte joining MAD HR with a 25% shareholding.”

A baptism of fire

On Charlotte’s first day at MAD, she was well and truly thrown in at the deep end. She had to take over the running of the business while Carole was with Ben at Papworth. He had been taken into hospital a week earlier and diagnosed with a major heart condition that needed an urgent quadruple heart bypass.

“It was a baptism of fire for me.” Charlotte explained. “Carole spent my first day taking me through the business and then trusted me to get on with it. However, I knew if I needed her, she would be on the end of the phone for me.”

Since then, Charlotte and Carole have grown the business together. In 2018, Charlotte’s shareholding increased to 49% and her role became full-time.

“I can’t explain the difference it makes having a partner.” Carole continued. “We trust each other implicitly. Charlotte is my work wife.”

“We do have heated debates, but that’s normally because we think the same. There’s no hidden agenda and it’s not about our egos. Our values are aligned. We complement each other and it just works.”

“We have a five-year plan. We want to grow in the right way, so the quality of what we offer isn’t diluted. We only want to work with businesses where we can make a real difference in how they relate to their people and develop the right culture.”

“Culture is vitally important. It’s what your people say about you when you’re not in the room. They need to buy into what you are trying to achieve, as well as being empowered to feel that they can influence and be part of the solution.”

Charlotte added. “Although used to wearing many different hats, for business owners and directors of SMEs during the pandemic, it has never been more crucial to be able to delegate, so they can focus on steering the ship through turbulent waters.

“The right culture means your people buy into the direction of the business. We want to be there supporting businesses, helping them to develop the capabilities of their team so they can, not only put the right people in place, but also have the trust and confidence that the people they choose will step up to help them drive and deliver results.”

MAD-HR co-directors, Carole Burman and Charlotte Bate talk to Suffolk Director. 

Interview conducted and photos taken in accordance with and adhering to COVID rules and regulations at the time

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