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Personnel politics: how managing marches primed Gemma Tumelty to head up The HR Dept

Written by Josh Russell, Emilie Sandy on Tuesday, 07 November 2017. Posted in Interviews

Having fought rising student debt and austerity, Gemma Tumelty is taking on a whole new challenge: bringing her mother’s franchise The HR Dept to the world

Personnel politics: how managing marches primed Gemma Tumelty to head up The HR Dept

For Gemma Tumelty, the political isn’t just personal: it’s also professional. As well as receiving the reins of The HR Dept, the HR franchise, from her mother Sue Tumelty, she also gained a passion for politics that led her from student welfare officer to working for former Labour party leader Ed Miliband. “When I was eight, she sent me dressed as a suffragette to a fancy dress party,” Tumelty says. “I’m not sure I knew who I was at that point in time but she certainly did.” It’s no coincidence that 22 years later, when mother and daughter were sat around a table trying to pick a logo for the former’s embryonic HR brand they settled on the one that was purple, green and white. “It was the colours of the suffragettes, women’s equality and liberation,” says Tumelty. “That’s very much the ethos that I’ve been brought up with: women can do anything men can do.”

But this isn’t the only value that Sue has imparted to her daughter over the years. Raising her children in Burnham-on-Sea as a single parent, she would commute three hours a day just to ensure that her family could afford to live in their own home. And the young Tumeltys followed her example – sometimes a little too well. “My sister and I got into a bit of trouble one day when my mum came home to find out that we had sold loads of her plants along the side of the road,” says Tumelty. “We were so delighted when we presented her with this pile of pennies; obviously replacing all of those plants in the garden cost her a lot more.” Despite this bumpy start, Tumelty’s career from here yielded much better net profits: from the age of 14, she earned her own money and worked at a care home, a newsagents, Specsavers and a McDonald’s drive-through. “That work ethic was really embedded in me,” she says. “Unless you were at death’s door, you would go to work.”

And this industrious mindset wasn’t reserved just for the workplace: by the time the family had moved to Tring in Buckinghamshire, Tumelty was getting ready to knuckle down to earn her first round of qualifications. “In my household, you didn’t go out on a school night,” says Tumelty. “It was all about your future, getting your exams and then going to university.” While this diligence netted her some excellent results for her GCSEs, when it came to her A-levels she found that the pressure got to her and she didn’t achieve grades as high as she was predicted. “But my wonderful teacher, Mr Barnett, wrote a letter to Liverpool John Moores University and basically said ‘this girl has got so much potential; she’s a real gem and if you polish her she’ll shine,” she says.

Thanks to this glowing recommendation, Tumelty soon found herself attending the university’s freshers week. Having seen several union members provide pastoral care to students, she decided to get involved: before she knew it, she was being offered a spot on the student election slate. “So within literally a couple of weeks of me getting to Liverpool John Moores University, I was standing in an election to be a part-time women’s officer,” she says. Given her background, it will surprise no-one to discover Tumelty proved to have a knack for politics: by the end of her second year, she had decided to take a year out to stand to be the union’s vice-president of welfare. As a result, when Unite Student Housing failed to provide student housing on time for the new cohort of freshers, she took point on helping to rehouse the students. “It was really infuriating to be honest but, because we did a lot of campaigning, we ended up getting those students some compensation,” she says. “So that was my first taste of winning a campaign where somebody had been wronged.”

But it wouldn’t be Tumelty’s last. In 2004, the Higher Education Act announced that tuition fee caps would be tripled for students applying for the academic year beginning in 2006. This provoked strong resistance from the student community: Tumelty was soon involved in organising campaigns and supporting demonstrations in Liverpool and London, something that began to garner a lot of attention. “The national officers of the National Union of Students (NUS) were seeing which student officers were showing potential for leading the union,” she says. “They approached me to run as a part-time member of the national executive committee.”

Thanks to her standing among members of the NUS, Tumelty not only won the election that year but secured the position of national secretary the year after. And while she confesses she never had her eye on the top spot of national president, it was when she was on a political education trip to visit Israel and Palestine that several NUS factions told her she should run and that she would have their support. Sure enough, when the ballots were cast her victory was resounding and thus began two years of amazing experiences speaking for British students. “I represented something like five million students in further education and higher education,” says Tumelty. “I got to change policies. I got to lobby secretaries of state. I got to meet the prime minister and the Dalai Lama. I got to travel around the world. I got to have amazing experiences that really shaped me.”

After her time leading the NUS came to an end, Tumelty had a short stint working for the higher-education think tank million+ before getting a chance to work with the Trades Union Congress (TUC) on a Department-for-International-Development-funded international project. However, this all changed after the sudden death of Keith Faulkner, the organisation’s long-standing campaigns and events officer, which resulted in Tumelty being asked to enter the role. “It was some big shoes to fill: this guy had been around forever and a day, he’d been organising TUC Congress for decades and everybody loved him,” she says. Not only this but Tumelty’s early days in the new position proved to be a trial by fire: the coalition government had been elected just a year before and the UK was being subjected to swingeing cuts, meaning she had to manage the unions’ fightback. “We had over a million people marching in London protesting austerity and the cuts,” she says. “I was heavily involved in arranging that demonstration, which was a logistical nightmare but also a very big learning curve.”

Evidently having gained a reputation for being both a diligent worker and a thorn in the coalition’s side during the two years she worked at the TUC, in 2013 Tumelty’s name was raised at the office of the leader of the opposition Ed Miliband in connection with a vacancy as stakeholder relations manager. “I got offered a job at the office of the leader we were hoping would take out the coalition,” she says. “And to be honest you don’t turn that down.” Tumelty spent the next year helping manage various stakeholders throughout the Labour party as well as organising trips for Miliband to visit his Doncaster constituency. But after a while she felt that something was missing. “Walking into Westminster, looking up at the ceiling and just feeling the history of it was amazing and I learnt an awful lot in that role,” she says. “But really the environment wasn’t for me: it wasn’t somewhere I could thrive.”

However, a new opportunity arose when Tom Doherty, then managing director of The HR Dept, the HR franchise Sue founded, stepped down to move to Bournemouth with his new family and become a franchisee. “My mum had built the business being profoundly deaf and she’d gotten to the point where she wasn’t able to do the job that she wanted,” Tumelty says. “So she decided to go down the route of having a cochlear implant.” As this would leave her unable to take on the day-to-day management of the business, she asked Tumelty whether she fancied moving down to Bristol to take up the mantle. While stepping up to be the managing director of an established franchise network may have intimidated some, having managed the needs of 500 student unions, 68 union bodies and more than 200 MPs meant handling large networks was Tumelty’s bread and butter. “That’s what I was doing before: campaigns, communications, stakeholder management, understanding how to make an impact and get into the media,” she says. “So I was like: ‘this is really exciting and actually I can make quite a bit of an impact.’”

Certainly The HR Dept was primed for real growth. Prior to founding it, Sue had been working in corporate roles: beginning to despair of the culture and the attitudes of some of the HR directors she had been working with, she started to see there might be a better way. “Some of the smaller companies that she had contact with kept ringing her up for one-off bits of advice,” says Tumelty. “So she said ‘I much prefer these people, they’re really grateful for my advice and support, they have some real HR needs: I wonder if there’s a niche in the market here?’” And while her initial intention was only to serve the local market in Bristol and Bath, after launching The HR Dept she began to find herself inundated with enquiries from elsewhere. While it would have been easy to hire staff to pick up these clients, she felt this would risk losing the very thing that made the brand unique. “So she thought ‘maybe we could get other people to invest to use my model and brand in their local areas,’” says Tumelty.

Despite the fact that there were plenty of HR directors looking to go it alone at the time, it was having this localised network that would really give The HR Dept its edge. “HR professionals are people people; they don’t like the idea of being completely on their own,” says Tumelty. “The thing that they value most is having a network, being able to bounce ideas off each other and share resources.” But having a network of franchisees around the country doesn’t just benefit franchisees: it’s also much better for The HR Dept’s clients. “If you ring a call centre, you don’t speak to the same person every time and they’re often quite risk averse,” says Tumelty. “If an SME owner phones one of our franchisees they’re dealing with someone with HR-director-level experience and we can be creative and really bespoke to that customer.”

And so The HR Dept made its debut in the world of franchising, although it’s safe to say that parts of its model still needed rounding out. “The first few franchises were very much the ambassadors and the trailblazers: they very much bought Sue,” Tumelty laughs. “She’ll readily admit that they invested in a logo, some fresh air and my mum’s energy and enthusiasm.” After tweaking and refining things with its first cohort of franchisees, The HR Dept began recruiting franchisees in earnest: although this wasn’t without the odd bump in the road. “When I was working in the NUS, I got a panicked call one day and it was from my mum,” she says. “She said: ‘Gemma, we’re stuck on a train in between Bristol and London, we’re meant to be meeting people to discuss the franchise opportunity and we’re not going to be there. Can you drop everything and go meet and greet?’”

Fortunately, the fact that Tumelty has had this kind of involvement in the business has eased some of the stress that would otherwise come with picking up from someone else’s legacy. “There is a level of pressure: you don’t want to drop your mum’s baby and it would make Christmas rather awkward if I messed it up,” she says. “But she feels really confident in the direction that it’s going.” Beyond just her familiarity with the franchise, however, it’s Tumelty’s proximity to its founder that made her the perfect choice to take on the business and assuage any worries franchisees may have had about change at the top. “I’m very like my mum in terms of manner, energy and drive and that makes franchisees feel reassured because it’s what they bought into in the first place,” she says. “And because I instinctively know the majority of the time what my mum would do in any given situation, I’ve got confidence that when I make decisions I’m doing it the way she would.”

And evidently following her gut is having a transformative effect. The HR Dept has grown to 58 franchisees in the UK and two in Ireland, while in February of this year the business launched in Australia and is on track to have five franchisees there by the end of 2017, making it Britain’s largest HR franchise brand. “Believe me that is my one KPI: stay the market leader,” Tumelty laughs. Leaving nothing to chance, she has recently been conducting working groups and satisfaction surveys with franchisees to help tighten up the business’s model, as well as introducing new products, services and systems. And The HR Dept has some pretty aggressive expansion plans. “Our goal is to reach 200 territories in the next five years,” says Tumelty. “We also want to triple our customer base: we currently serve 6,000 small businesses and we want to be serving at least 18,000.”

However, even with all of this on her plate, Tumelty isn’t completely letting go of her passion for politics and knows she wouldn’t be truly following in her mother’s footsteps unless she tried to shape a better future for businesses and their employees. “Sue has always been a very fair and balanced person: she considers things from the perspective of the employer but also recognises that sometimes we have to be their conscience,” says Tumelty. Not only has the business taken a stand against the low apprentice minimum wage but it has also been called to give evidence to parliamentary select committees and has made submissions to the Taylor review of modern work practices. And Tumelty wants to see this increase in the future. “We’re at the coalface and we have people working on the ground with SMEs,” she says. “So I would really like to see us be the go-to organisation whenever there is an SME employee issue.”

And regardless of whatever lies ahead, it seems inevitable that Tumelty is going to face it with the same energy and passion her mother has always encouraged in her. “My mum and my dad have worked really hard to have built what they have and I just feel so blessed and lucky to have this amazing opportunity the next level,” he says. “I just can’t wait for the next chapter.”

About the Author

Josh Russell

Josh Russell

When he isn’t tooling around on trains in a tux like the Daniel Craig of the Greater Anglia transport system, Russell spends his time living the glamourous life of an enterprise journalist, judging Digital Business of the Year at the National Business Awards and attending conferences like NixonMcInnes’ Meaning 2013. However, like all good secret agents, Russell lives a double life – in his case, as a closet revolutionary. Social enterprise, sustainable business and collaborative practices are his true passions, something that he has had plenty of opportunity to air in his features here at Elite Franchise.

Emilie Sandy

Emilie Sandy

Aside from dashing between the Cotswolds and London to shoot business types for magazines such as EF and TV stars for the Beeb, Sandy is also a visiting lecturer at a college in Stroud – not to mention a proud mother to son Freddie and daughter Fjola. She has photographed our cover stars since our very first edition. You know what they say – if it ain’t broke...



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