Cerys Cook on building small business through people and culture
Mar 13, 2017
Cerys Cook is the Director of People and Culture at The PUR Company, the creators of the #1 selling aspartame-free gum and mints in the world. Not only is PUR kicking aspartame, Cerys is kicking the notion that going to HR is anything like going to the principal’s office. We had the opportunity to interview her to find out how and why she does what she does.
Cerys Cook isn’t afraid to tell it like it is. After nearly two decades in as an HR professional, her take on the industry is as fresh as ever: “I used to walk into the room and people would stop talking,” she says. “There’s a stigma that you can’t say anything politically incorrect around HR—you can’t be who you are because you’re going to get in trouble. I’ve always worked to change that opinion.”
How she’s done so comes down to passion, business acumen, and a self-made career as ‘the builder.’ Her specialty? Going into small, entrepreneurial businesses and growing them into large, healthy organizations, all through the strength of people and culture.
We sat down with Cerys at PUR’s high-energy headquarters in Toronto to find out what it takes to build a company up and create a legacy of pur(e) passion.
Q: How did you begin your career in HR?
I started off as a chef. That’s what I went to school for, and that was my dream…until I started to notice that people working in the restaurant industry were being treated badly. I didn’t have a clue about HR or that it existed as a career, but thought, there has to be something out there that can make life better for these people!
I switched into a small, entrepreneurial company as an administrative assistant and quickly recognized that nobody was taking care of employment issues. I convinced them it was something we needed and they sent me to school for HR. I was at that company for almost 12 years, and helped to grow it into a larger organization.
After that, it became my career: going into organizations when the founder or CEO was at a point of frustration, helping the company to grow, and then moving on to the next project.
Is that point of frustration very common for small business leaders? And how do you convince them it’s time to bring in HR?
There comes a point for every CEO or person running a business where there is just way too much. There are too many people coming at them, too many fires to put out, and they can’t focus on their purpose anymore. I like how my current CEO, Jay Klein, put it to me in my interview: he felt like he was head counselor at a summer camp.
Even then, it was a challenge for him to bring me in because, to him, it was spending money without getting any return. Where’s the ROI? He learned quickly that bringing in the right people at the right time while developing a strong culture and structure are the keys to growth, and that is the value of an HR professional.
What exactly do you do in your role as ‘the builder’?
When I first arrived at PUR [in January 2016], I was astounded by how much amazing work had been accomplished with so few people and not a lot of structure. Still, it was a small team of people running around doing everything. Even though people had their titles, there were no clear roles. So that was really my first order of business: talk to the people, identify the gaps, and assign clear roles.
Only then did I start to think about recruiting. One of the biggest struggles for our CEO was finding and hiring the right people. He would be impressed by a personality without really understanding the depth needed when recruiting, because that’s not his expertise. I think one of my biggest strengths is being able to meet people and to see where they’re going to fit in, and how they’re going to interact with the team.
When I started, there were 12 people, and that includes everybody in the warehouse. Right now, we’re at 35. We’ve doubled our team in the past year and we’ll be more than doubling again this year. In the US alone we have just revisited our recruiting plan to include 35 new team members!
I wasn’t always good at it. It comes down to experience. I’ve met a lot of people. It’s also really immersing myself and understanding the company. I know what every department does, how they fit into the bigger picture, what needs to be done to push goals and what it takes to succeed in them. I am also responsible for culture. If you don’t know any of that, how can you find the right people?
How have you seen the HR industry change over the last 18 years?
What I see in a lot of HR people is that they are looking to become business leaders, and are understanding business more and more. You cannot be a strategic leader if you don’t understand business, and that’s what many HR professionals lack: they understand everything around their department, but outside of that, they don’t know how a company is structured, or what pieces need to be put in place for success.
My father was an entrepreneur, so business is something that’s almost in my blood. But it also comes from working so closely with CEOs and, well, just learning. If you want to learn about business, go sit with the finance department and learn how to do a budget! That would be my advice for HR professionals: Understand business first, understand the business you’re in second. Immerse yourself.
There is also more focus on culture, on fit, on the employee experience being an amazing one. I think that’s the major shift: taking HR away from that transactional, process-driven, and often negative department. Whereas before, you would only go see HR when you were in trouble or needed a form, now, it’s more coaching, development, and really working with people to help them have the best career possible.
Do you think this movement towards employee experience is more fad or philosophy?
I hope it’s not a fad! I think it is a philosophy because it’s been whispered about since the beginning of my career. At the same time, employees themselves are becoming more aware, not only of their rights but also of the fact that they should be in an environment that is going to bring out the best in them.
That’s reflected in your current title, ‘Director of People and Culture.’ Can you tell us how you made the transition from ‘Human Resources Manager,’ and what that signifies for PUR?
It changes the focus of the role. When people engage with me, they aren’t thinking HR, so they aren’t thinking they’re going to the principal’s office, and that’s exactly what I wanted to remove. When Jay and I were discussing my title, we wanted it to be something that not only embraced what I do, but also embraced the culture we’re building.
It’s interesting how a change in language can change the whole role—for better or for worse. There has been a lot of debate around titles such as ‘Chief Happiness Officer’ or ‘VP Engagement.’ Are these useful, or are they becoming empty buzzwords?
I think they have become empty buzzwords in certain organizations, but the meaning or idea behind them is still there. I mean, it’s still work, it’s not like every single moment is happy and lovely and wonderful. But to make that experience rewarding and to give it purpose, for people to really understand why they are here, and how they are helping the company to grow and to become better…that’s how you are actually going to help with employee engagement.
It’s the same with trying to create happiness at work. People cannot be happy all of the time. The objective of the department is not to make people happy; that’s a choice. Even though I absolutely love what I do, I’m not happy 24/7, and it’s not my goal to be happy. My goal is to be great, to create the best organization I possibly can. And happiness isn’t going to bring that. Passion is going to bring that, drive is going to bring that, dedication, being here and pushing—that’s what’s going to bring satisfaction and greatness, which will contribute to my happiness.
You’ve said you’re a builder. Where do you go from here?
In other organizations, because there was a limit to them, there was only so much I could do. When it gets to a point where the company is just steadily running along…that’s great! That’s what they brought me in to do. But then it’s time for me to build something else.
This is, hopefully, my final stop. And not because I’m going to retire anytime soon, but because I love this company so much! I believe in it. I believe in our founder and his principles and his daily inspiration, and because PUR’s growth is really infinite—our mission is to be a global leader in the health food category—I can’t see an end to my own growth. I want PUR to be my legacy, as far as the impact that I have on people’s careers. To make PUR the best company to work for in the world. That is my ultimate goal.
Thank you to Cerys, Jay Klein, and the entire pack at PUR!
Like us, Cerys believes that making work a better experience begins with taking care of your people. Collage helps Canadian businesses by making it easy to provide a beautiful, seamless HR and benefits experience. Check out our free HR solutions at collage.co.