Case Study: DP World

DP World’s Human Capital leader on the challenges of making one of the Emirates’ most successful private businesses into a global player

If Robin Windley is overawed by the sense of responsibility that comes with being senior vice president of human capital for a business that generates 20 per cent of the United Arab Emirates’ GDP, his general air of affability hides it well.

From his corner office, the British executive has a spectacular view of Jebel Ali Free Zone, the vast business centre fringed by one of the largest ports in the world, Jebel Ali Port. It is a conurbation, it has been said, that is visible from space. Hyperbole or not, Jebel Ali is one of the 10 busiest container ports in the world, and DP World’s 36,000-strong workforce is responsible for managing it. By 2030, expansion plans should make it the largest port anywhere.

DP World manages even more besides. The business – part-owned by the Dubai government (and formerly called Dubai Ports) – is now a major logistics player operating on every continent with an enviable growth record, despite a relatively low corporate profile.

The business, says Windley, is a national asset. But its footprint brings challenges, including the centralisation of Human Capital (HC). “It’s impossible to micro-manage,” he says. “There’s no single template. We can set the [global] standard, but there have to be local variations, such as adhering to the quirks of employment law. We have a central system but allow regions some freedom as to what’s appropriate for them.”

Having worked in Oman, Singapore and the Netherlands before he came to Dubai, Windley has seen HC in a variety of situations. In the Middle East, he feels the function has huge opportunities but is still finding its way.

“Some organisations are very progressive, seeing HC as a partner,” he says. “Others see it as transactional, where it’s more personnel – dealing with annual leave, flights and contractual issues rather than manpower.”

Windley is very clear which model he prefers, with HC team members empowered to take individual responsibility for specific areas. “There’s a 50-50 split between function and cross-function activity, and I see my role as trying to reinforce what my team is working on,” he says. “I can’t close my door… there are a lot of meetings.”

HC, believes Windley, should take the lead in customer-centricity. Just as DP World aims to maintain a culture of service in its ports across the globe, so HC must be responsive to the needs of employees. “We are here to facilitate employees to be able to function properly in their jobs,” he says. “We want to make their lives as smooth as possible. But one of our challenges is being seen as a partner, not just a service. It works very well, but at more junior levels we are re-emphasising our role.

“When I joined, my priority was to get the fundamentals right. At that point, HC was more like a policing function than a co-operative one. We had to tighten up and improve on that.”

As an Emirati company operating globally, DP World has an opportunity to export local cultures and working practices across the globe. But not all businesses associated with one location choose to adopt its culture internationally: while McDonald’s could probably call its culture American no matter where it operates, Nestlé, for example, would argue it has a more international culture that facilitates global mobility. Others prefer to treat each local entity as its own micro-culture.

Windley says that in many locations, having the Dubai name is a distinct advantage. “Dubai is a global success story, and an asset. But while having Dubai in the company name is an asset, DP World is an asset to Dubai – we are better known outside Dubai than inside. We are a major employer, partnering with ministries, authorities and governments. In many port towns, we are the largest employer, a responsibility we take very seriously – we make sure we engage with society beyond the gate,” he says.

“In business, you don’t just import labour. You employ and develop the locals. That’s the value we are bringing to the countries we operate in. We offer training across our global network, so someone from Dhaka might receive training and development from working in Singapore. There are lessons to be learned everywhere.”

Many of DP World’s most prominent locations are particularly youthful, and Windley says engaging younger workers is “always challenging… The drivers for the millennial generation are different. They are more concerned with ethics than job security. We have to make sure we present a proposition that meets their expectations. Technology levels must appeal. They want information immediately, and they want to know how their career paths look.”

Emiratisation, however, is less of an issue. As a global headquarters, DP World does not have to fulfil a quota of locals. “As a high performing company and major employer, it’s our responsibility to ensure the right person does the right role,” says Windley, while pointing out the business has a specific training and development programme for nationals wishing to work at head office.

The Jebel Ali Port operation, with 7,000 employees, has a much greater responsibility to integrate nationals into the business. Windley oversees a graduate management development programme to ease local employees into management. But it isn’t all about the top jobs: not so long ago, he says, a crane operator had to deal with huge amounts of noise while operating cumbersome equipment. Today, DP World counts young Emirati females among its crane crew. “Cranes are operated remotely from clean, quiet offices,” says Windley. “Those who grew up on PlayStations and Xboxes have the requisite skills to operate cranes, as they are controlled by joystick.”

The ports industry is traditionally skewed towards a male workforce, a situation Windley is acutely aware of. “We are not only addressing the issue, but leading it. We have just started an initiative, supported by the CEO, to encourage greater gender diversity across the global workforce, as well as encouraging those with disabilities to work with DP World. Cultural diversity is a given for us. In terms of this side of the business, HC itself is more than 50 per cent female, while the communications department only employs two men.”

Convincing a broader cohort to consider a career with what remains a largely blue-collar business is one of Windley’s foremost preoccupations. “To anyone who is aware of DP World, it’s a company they would like to work for,” he says. “But as an industry, we are not ‘sexy’. We are not B2C [business-to-consumer] so we don’t have the same visibility. There’s a need for us to show people the advantages of working for us.

“It’s fine to sell the organisation, but we have to make sure people get the right induction. We have to offer growth opportunities for them to remain part of the family. All our employees are ambassadors.”

At present, he says, attrition rates are “too low”. It’s a fine balance, he concedes, between making people feel wanted and encouraging an adequate turnover of staff: “We certainly won’t push people out of the door… it’s a nice problem to have.”

Windley is also addressing the company’s L&D initiatives, and the challenge of staff finding time to undergo development programmes. “The problem has never been availability and funding,” he says. “Even when the recession hit, we never removed funding. We have a strong programme to ensure we are developing the right level of performance and consistency. Globally, the DP World Institute [which offers online training] helps guarantee this. We work with London Business School, Cranfield University and Harvard Business School.”

A forthcoming ‘smart’ app will help encourage a culture of continuous improvement, says Windley. Experts from other industries are getting involved in his training efforts, and HC’s own performance levels are being probed to ensure the function exceeds industry standards.

It sounds exhausting. Fittingly, wellness is the final piece of the HC jigsaw. “We want to create a work environment that enhances wellbeing. We have a programme of ergonomic assessment, a subsidised canteen and a gymnasium,” says Windley. A nursery will follow in 2016. And in the meantime, he points to the fitness wearable attached to his wrist. Everyone in the business has been offered one. But you suspect nobody else is putting theirs through its paces to quite the same degree.