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

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.”

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<p>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.”</p>
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<p>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.”</p>
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<p>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.”</p>
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<p>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.'”</p>
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<p>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.</p>
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Josh Russell
Josh Russell
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