When Stonegate Pub Company came into existence, it was 2010, and the licensed trade was still feeling the effects of the financial crash. Fast-forward to 2017, Stonegate is now the fourth largest managed pub company in the UK, with an estate just shy of 700 sites.

The diverse nature of Stonegate’s brands, which vary from nightclubs to traditional pubs, has been key to its success. But behind the scenes, it’s not the only area where the company has excelled. Stonegate is a trailblazer of learning and development, building its philosophy on one simple but inspiring notion.

“We believe that if you have the drive, then there’s every chance of you progressing from the bar to boardroom,” said Lee Woolley, Stonegate’s head of learning and development. “Our chairman and CEO both started behind the bar, and they both strongly believe in this philosophy.”

To fully understand Stonegate’s approach, you have to go back six years to the conception of its L&D programme, ‘Albert’s Theory of Progression’, or ‘ATOP’ as it’s commonly known. Woolley said: “It’s no secret we came up with the idea of Albert about six years ago. I’ve always strongly believed that a theme around L&D is very important. It’s given our training an identity, to the point where everyone knows that it’s Stonegate.”

In an industry that has long struggled with staff retention, it’s never been more important to deploy innovative and dynamic ways of learning. Many companies are guilty of deploying information overload, and all too often, it results in employees shying away from learning new skills and developing their knowledge. In an attempt to help individuals realise the rewarding career prospects of a life in hospitality, Stonegate has a core focus on incorporating fun into L&D.

“There’s an old saying: ‘work made fun gets done’. If we can’t have fun in the pub industry then I don’t know who can,” said Woolley. “The majority of our people are young – they communicate online, they enjoy working, and at the same time, they enjoy having a laugh. These dynamics form a major part of our strategy.

“We don’t overload everything with words, as most of the time, it makes people lose focus. There’s a term we’re using more of – ‘let’s make sure it’s not ego training’ – which basically means not filling content just for the purpose of making us look good. This is quite common in L&D, perhaps because it suits the trainer, but we’ve made a conscious effort not to go down that route.”

From face-to-face workshops to video-based training to career pathways, ATOP is as diverse as Stonegate’s vast estate. The blended programme comprises of three levels – Albert’s Award, Accolade and Accelerator. Each has been developed directly with employees to determine what works, what doesn’t and what is needed to achieve their goals. For over six years, ATOP has been through constant revisions and updates to ensure employees are getting the most out of the programme.

Introduced as an additional level, Albert’s Accelerator is an example of Stonegate’s commitment to L&D. Prior to its introduction, Stonegate realised the gap was too great for staff to jump from Albert’s Accolade to general manager. Where many programmes are skills oriented, the Accelerator aims to prise the best out of individuals by focusing on personal ambition and drive.

“When we first developed the programme, Albert’s Accelerator wasn’t in there,” said Woolley. “We had Albert’s Accolade as a programme, but it was too much of a big step from deputy to general manager. As a result, we developed an additional programme – ‘Albert’s Accelerator’. It truly is a unique approach in helping employees progress to GM. It’s not about technical skills. It’s about themselves, their own personal drive, and ensuring that when they make that step, they make a success out of it. We’re now having huge success with this programme.”

Implementing an L&D strategy doesn’t come without its challenges, especially when you have almost 700 managed sites, which vary from serving breakfast to serving cocktails. As Woolley explained: “To maintain consistency across the varying types of businesses is a key challenge. We employ people who are aged 18 to 80, so it’s critical to think about the end user. We don’t look to turn them off in the first programme. We focus on driving engagement, so they look forward to the next step. They need to want to do more!

“As well as e-learning, face-to-face and shared learning, another way we’re looking to achieve this is by bringing reading back as a skill. If you can source books that capture their imagination and speak to them on a professional level, then that can be massive. Whatever way we try to engage them, our people are passionate about visions, values and personal drive. When you start talking to them about personal development and what you expect from them, they get it.”

To measure the success of ATOP, you don’t have to look far. On each level – from Albert’s Award through to Accelerator – staff turnover halves each time. When employees move onto Albert’s Accelerator, Stonegate boasts single figures in staff turnover. Woolley, who is a big believer when it comes to ROI on L&D, said: “To reduce staff turnover by 50% on each level is massive. If anyone says you can’t prove a return on investment in L&D, well, yes you can, because that’s a clear cut example.

“Our CEO wants 90% of our appointments to come from within. We have a mantra this year of doubling the number of people coming through ATOP and getting them to the next level. Internal appointments now stand at 70%, so yes, it’s a big jump but it’s certainly achievable. It’s a massive statement from a CEO to come out and say this, especially if you consider our growth. For me, it shows how much he believes in the people within the business.”

The new year marked the end of a busy few months for Stonegate Pub Company. In November 2016 the company was recognised for its L&D at the BII’s National Innovation in Training Awards, claiming the ‘Best Managed Company for Training (More than 30 outlets)’ Award. Stonegate also made its last acquisition of the year in December when iNTERTAIN, the parent company of Walkabout, was also welcomed into the family.

When asked about Stonegate’s strategy for L&D in the future, Woolley concluded: “I think it’s important to keep innovating – you can’t stand still. That’s why we get the recognition we do. We’re always reinventing and looking ahead to the future. As a business, we’re continuing to expand and acquire companies. From an L&D perspective, it’s vital for us to keep it fresh and engaging for these companies that are merging into the business. We do have something exciting coming up which is going to be ground-breaking. It’ll be fun, but at the same time, it will get the product knowledge to a level where it’s never been before.”