Literary ambition

At Waterstone's stores, a new initiative aims to retain graduates and help staff become the best sellers.

Waterstone's, the book lovers' book shop, has established a reputation as a book seller staffed by a well-educated, literate workforce. Buy a book in one of its 105 UK stores and chances are you'll be served by a graduate who, as often as not, has read the book you're buying along with a number of other titles by the same author.

Keeping this well-educated and articulate workforce loyal to the company and persuading them to stay longer than those on other retailers' shop floors, however, is a significant challenge. Which is the reason behind the introduction by Waterstone's of a new career development initiative: Personal Portfolio.

"A lot of people drift into Waterstone's through their love of books," Waterstone's human resources director Simon Jacobs explains. "That's fine, but we want to catch those people and change their expectations and motivations. We have a wide variety of strategic areas in which we hope to expand. We need managers. And we want to promote from within."

Waterstone's was launched in the Eighties with an aim to make book-buying simpler and more pleasurable. The shops aimed to offer the widest selection of titles in the most comfortable surroundings. Although a national chain, the idea was for a network of local specialists able to stock the titles each branch's immediate customers would want. An informed and authoritative staff were regarded as an integral part of this.

Today, the chain employs around 2,100 staff although as a number of these work on a part-time basis, this is equivalent to 1,500 full-time positions. Nine hundred of these work at book-seller level, 400 at senior book-seller level, 98 are assistant store managers and around the same number are store managers. The rest work in departmental management, administration and stock control.

Personal Portfolio's aim is to focus career development within the organisation and encourage more book-sellers - those working on the shop floor - to move up the ranks, eventually to assistant and brand manager level. The initiative coincides with a streamlining of Waterstone's employment hierarchy, removing interim levels such as departmental manager.

Participants will be encouraged to work through a five-stage training and career development process at the end of which they will be well-positioned to apply for assistant store manager positions, Mr Jacobs explains. The Portfolio provides a modular structure, allowing staff to log details of training and skills acquired. "The message is: `There is a career here, if you want it'," he says. "We have a policy of promoting from within."

Personal Portfolio offers participants a career plan for developing the management and personnel skills needed to move up within the organisation. Clear signposts direct them towards different training opportunities and log their progress. By Stage Five, Preparation for Management, an employee should be ready to move around the country and apply for an assistant management post.

At the same time, Waterstone's has also completed a review of its salary grades, which from the autumn will range from a basic starting rate of pounds 8,000 for a book-seller up to pounds 30,000 for a store manager running one of the chain's larger branches. Assistant managers' positions range from pounds 12,999 to pounds 19,000. All posts offer a pounds 2,300 up-weight for London and the South-east.

The scheme is welcomed by Aly Barr, 26, a senior book-seller in Edinburgh's East End branch of Waterstone's. "It will introduce a better structure to training. There's been a tendency towards learning by looking over people's shoulders and there are a lot of skills people have - like sign language or foreign language skills - others in the organisation don't know."

It should also be flexible enough to work according to individuals' needs, he adds. "One of the great things about working for Waterstone's is their emphasis on treating you like an individual. The work's interesting, the pay's OK and you get a lot of autonomy. In this branch, each member buys for their own sections and is responsible for promotion as well as, obviously, dealing with customer inquiries and taking sales."

The Personal Portfolio initiative, which goes live in October, is also an attempt to offer more competitive career opportunities than its rivals, Mr Jacobs adds. The chain had slipped behind a number of its competitors in terms of salaries, he concedes. "This is an attempt to re-establish more competitive rates and prospects to attract and keep the best candidates."

And with Waterstone's recently announced plans for further expansion - new Waterstone's superstores roll out in large British cities starting with Glasgow later this year - prospects for those considering a career with the company look brightn

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