Big Interview: Louise Stonier, Chief People and Culture Officer, Pets at Home

Louise Stonier first joined Pets at Home in 2004 as head of legal. Now focusing on people and culture, she told Retail Gazette about how the retailer is supporting colleagues' mental health and how a positive team culture can increase productivity in the wake of the pandemic.

Pets at Home
Louise Stonier.

Pets at Home’s Louise Stonier recalled her “first introduction to retail” working at WHSmith, while she was at sixth form in school.

The chief people and culture officer spent a period of her time working as a corporate lawyer after graduating, and found the “fast-paced” environment to be suited to her liking.

The Pets at Home opportunity came about in 2004, when Stonier joined as legal director.

Speaking to Retail Gazette, Stonier said she was looking for ways to enhance her role, and always had the desire to return to retail.

“My role has really grown with Pets at Home,” she said.

“By the time we launched an IPO in 2004, we had over 350 stores and over 200 vet practices, so my role really did grow.

Stonier said she was the retailer’s first head of legal, and was promoted in 2017 to the role of chief people and legal officer, before obtaining her current role in 2019.

“We had really set out our vision to be the best pet care business in the world,” Stonier explained.

“Part of that is really recognising the importance that culture plays, both internally and externally.

“What we do to achieve that vision is really important. We want to build a sustainable future for everyone.

“I’ve always wanted to really drive our better world pledge strategy, which is our social purpose strategy.

“I dropped the legal from my title, and changed it to chief people and culture officer to really signal how important that culture is in our organisation.”

Pets at Home
Pets at Home has “done a number of things” to support colleagues’ mental health

Stonier said it is important for retailers to have a positive team culture because it is a direct link to business performance.

“You want to foster that environment where people enjoy working,” she said.

“If people love something, they want to give it their all. That engagement piece is so key.”

She added that Pets at Home has “done a number of things” to support colleagues’ mental health.

“It’s been a real focus of ours, not just during the pandemic, but also before that,” she said.

“We’ve just trained a number of colleagues on mental health first aid.

“Around 500 colleagues have just completed that course and we’ve got the intention to roll that out more extensively.

“Throughout the business, we have in place a colleague hardship fund, which supports colleagues who are in hardship and financial hardship.

“During the pandemic, we really boosted that fund and put in an extra million pounds. We continue to fund that as we go forward.

“We also gave our colleagues wellbeing days off just to have some time out.”

Giving its workers days off was a company initiative, according to Stonier.

“It was just to make colleagues feel like they can take some time out to think ‘it’s okay for you to rest’.

“We have a whole raft of different resources on a colleague portal that we’ve just launched, which colleagues are finding really convenient as they can get access on their phones via an app.

“It covers a whole realm of different situations, from financial to physical. Whatever they need, they can actually tap into.”

Pets at Home
The pandemic has led to a “pet baby boom”

Covid-19 led to Pets at Home going “above and beyond” to ensure that its customers got what they needed.

“Our colleagues really enjoyed being able to interact with more customers after the lockdowns,” Stonier said.

“Our stores have been at the heart of the community. We saw what the response was like.”

The pandemic also led to a “pet baby boom” according to Stonier.

“The UK’s pet population grew by an estimated eight per cent in the first year following the first lockdown,” she told Retail Gazette.

“What we’ve seen is a resetting of the base of the number of pet owners.

“We’ve seen that continued growth across all of that pet ecosystem. We’ve seen the number of our active loyalty programme holders increasing 17 per cent year on year, and the number of our puppy and kitten club members increasing by 167 per cent year on year.

“New client registrations across our practices remain stronger, we’re averaging on 10,000 a week.

“We’ve seen all of these different metrics increase as a result of the pandemic.”

Pets at Home’s “VIP Club” is a loyalty programme which has over six million members, according to Stonier.

“It is a fantastic way to communicate with our customers,” she said.

Pets at Home uses the service to communicate via email, and various customer panels, as well as surveys and social media platforms.

The pets goods retailer launched a PETitquette service last month to help companies welcome dogs into the workplace.

The programme sets out guidelines to ensure that the animals are kept healthy and safe and to help employees feel comfortable around them.

The retailer said it made the move in a response to more people buying pets during the Covid-19 pandemic, with many now adjusting to a return to the office and the introduction of hybrid working practices.

“It’s really interesting because for us, it’s second nature to work with our pets,” Stonier laughed.

“We’ve always had dogs in the office. It’s great that other companies are adopting this because it really creates a fantastic environment in the office.

“It’s generally quite difficult to grow an organisation, you’ve got so many new people starting, so this is a great way to get the conversation started.”

Stonier said the current challenge for the retailer is the continuous uncertainty plaguing the retail industry.

“Things are moving very fast as we saw during the pandemic, and our colleagues need reassurance that we are here,” she said.

“We might not necessarily get the answers, but it’s just that continuous communication to make sure that we’re connecting them back to our purpose and our business.

“We’ve picked up some really good practices during the pandemic. We started daily video comms, although we’re doing them weekly now.

“We’re forever moving forward as a business.”

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