Antique and modern

Roger Trapp reports on an old saleroom's innovative approach to staff training

As one might expect, even as the sale business becomes increasingly commercial, training for a career in an auction house can be somewhat haphazard. Phillips, which claims to be the world's largest privately owned auction house, says that its staff have always received a lot of training in the technical area, through an apprentice system, under which trainees start as porters and move through such departments as furniture, ceramics and jewellery, and "osmosis". But, perhaps mindful of the scandals that periodically dog this sector and reared their head again earlier this year, its management thinks that is no longer enough.

Roger Hollest, who became managing director of the organisation, based in New Bond Street, London, earlier this decade after nearly 20 years with it, instigated a strategic review which made him and his colleagues realise that if Phillips was to expand it needed to introduce a forward- thinking human resources programme as well as set up a support structure that would ensure all its 20-odd salerooms around the country could deliver the same high standards.

After considering various options, the company decided to seek accreditation under Investors in People, a government-backed national standard for training and development which aims to spread best practice throughout business and other organisations. Among other organisations that have recently successfully gone through the two-year programme are NatWest bank and the Labour Party.

Yola Melnik, the human resources manager, was put in charge, but Mr Hollest played a clear part in demonstrating to staff the importance attached to the project.

Consultants helping implement the programme said that the company, which last year celebrated its centenary, used more on-the-job training than they had ever seen. But Mr Hollest acknowledged that there were still gaps in the more general business skills area. With the company enjoying a turnover of more than pounds 110m and operating two overseas offices as well as preparing to move into France, this could not continue.

As an organisation where most of the 450 UK employees have a lot of contact with the public - whether they are clients or buyers - a focus on service was clearly important.

Mr Hollest added: "Our core business has relatively little capital asset or wealth creation capacity. It made sense to us that nearly all the added value required to meet our ambitious business goals and profit targets had to come from the quality of service we provided, that is, from a trained, informed and client-conscious staff."

After clearing a great many hurdles of the sort described in Developing Your Business Through Investors in People, by Norrie Gilliland published today, the company received the sought-after accreditation just before the end of its bicentenary year.

Managers lost no time after receiving the award last December in telling the staff that it was "just a stepping stone" and that they could not relax. "We'd be mad to let the lessons learned slip back," he saidn

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