Wal-Mart warms to Asda's shiny, happy 'colleagues'

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The Independent Online

The days when British innovation led the world may seem long gone. But not in Yorkshire.

The days when British innovation led the world may seem long gone. But not in Yorkshire.

Workplace initiatives pioneered at Asda's Leeds headquarters recently prompted the supermarket chain's American owner, Wal-Mart, to send a high-powered team to Britain to examine the "Asda Way". The US giant, the world's largest retailer, now plans to introduce Asda's ideas for motivating staff and improving performance in its stores worldwide.

"We know that making our business the best place to work will also make it the best place to shop," says Asda's people director, David Smith. "Customers expect great products, quality and value for money, but our customer numbers are increasing because people also see friendly faces and feel welcome.

"Unhappy people don't smile and chat with customers. Our staff do because they genuinely enjoy coming to work. We believe many of our ideas for releasing the potential of colleagues and increasing job satisfaction can be used throughout the Wal-Mart family."

It is an intriguing prospect. Wal-Mart is the world's biggest private employer, with 1.3 million staff working inmore than 5,400 stores in Argentina, Brazil, Canada, China, Germany, Japan, Korea, Mexico and Puerto Rico, as well as in the UK and America. The retailer from Bentonville, Arkansas, has been impressed by Asda's performance since it became part of the group in 1999. It has since overtaken J Sainsbury in the UK store wars to take second place behind Tesco, measured by sales.

Wal-Mart has already adopted Asda's pioneering "learning" strategy for its managers. Fifteen Asda supermarkets, from Hamilton in Scotland to London, Canterbury and Taunton, have been designated "stores of learning", with each hosting eight-week courses that combine shop-floor experience and classroom study. These enable new managers "to hit the ground running with instant familiarity with best company practice," says Mr Smith. The idea has been taken up in every country where Wal-Mart operates.

Asda's methods for recruiting managers have also caught Wal-Mart's eye, and will be introduced in the US at its 1,500 Supercenters and in its Sam's Club discount chain. The "Asda Olympics" selection process uses board games to assess teamworking, leadership and problem-solving skills. "When recruiting and developing colleagues, we don't just look at people as they are but at what they can become," says Mr Smith.

This approach seems to be attracting more and more graduates. Around 7,000 applicants chased the 65 places on Asda's most recent training scheme.

There is also a "one big team" ethos. Staff are never mere employees, they are "colleagues" helping each other, and first-name terms are used throughout the chain regardless of an individual's job title. At the same time, Asda ensures that new recruits understand the company culture from day one. Its five-day "Best Welcome" programme outlines the super- market's history and explains its values, and newcomers at each store are introduced to the rest of the staff at all levels - another initiative adopted by Wal-Mart.

While cynics might see all this as a form of brainwashing, the staff seem receptive. A "colleague" suggestion scheme has resulted in 51,000 new ideas and suggested improvements being put forward since 1993 - with 12,000 of them implemented. "Colleagues doing a job are often best placed to identify ways of improving the way it's done," says Mr Smith. "Seeing an idea implemented is hugely satisfying - and there are prizes and personal recognition for the best ones."

Asda also believes in the "experience and commitment" of older staff - another philosophy that could be adopted by the Wal-Mart family. The supermarket has taken on more than 20,000 staff aged between 50 and 59, a further 5,600 in the 60 to 69 bracket, and around 550 aged 70 years and over. The oldest colleague is 83.

After spending a week visiting their British colleagues, Wal-Mart senior executives returned to Bentonville full of enthusiasm. Bryan Miller, the people director for Wal-Mart International, believes that Asda has "set the benchmark".

"Being the best place to work is not just about financials, it's about being a respected part of a team," he says.

"Asda provides a balanced work environment that's interactive, flexible and fun. This formula translates into exceptional service to our customers."