The personnel manager - Nigel Mayes, group HR director, PFIL

Hey, ho! It’s time for another of Nigel’s initiatives.

No-one's quite sure what the substance of this particular programme is, although it has been exhaustively documented in a beautiful Technicolor presentation pack twice the weight of the annual report. This former forest is full of flashy graphics and phrases like 'dual-track self actualisation' and 'auto-empowered teams'. It's rumoured that a wag in systems scrambled all the words on the electronic version and no-one noticed. This might be true, as the only things people read from HR are holiday entitlement, pay advice and the results of the ongoing parking space lottery.

No matter. Here at PFIL 'people are our greatest asset' and 'we never forget that our capital can walk out of the door'. Which is why, on an autumnal Tuesday afternoon, the board is sitting through interminable PowerPoint slides on how PFIL is every inch a 'people business', staffed with 'brand ambassadors' and 'value missionaries'. The finance director is itching to point out to the stores director that PFIL operates at the non-aspirational end of the grocery sector, and that an acne-encrusted 17-year-old on the minimum wage is not a natural choice for 'corporate diplomat'. Luckily, he has just scored a personal best at 'Snake' on his mobile phone and keeps his thoughts to himself.

At the end of the presentation, everyone claps politely, including the marketing director, who woke up when the lights came back on. A handful of questions are asked – the most penetrating by Marianne Slaughter, the attractive and ambitious newbie on the board. The spa to which Mayes suggested they retreat next week for their 'executive visioning session' is not quite up to her usual standards. She suggests her venue of choice might be more reflective of PFIL's people-focused values. The FD and MD agree because they a) like annoying Mayes, and b) fancy Slaughter. Mayes caves in when she points out that her spa contributes to Tibetan charities and offsets its emissions by planting native hardwoods in Laos.

Poor Nigel. Six years ago he was happily counting out his days as deputy personnel manager deep in the bowels of HR. Once a year, he'd have to appear at the side of his boss, the terrifying Marjorie Phillips, while she presented to the board; the rest of his time was spent in a small but pleasant office making small but pleasant decisions. Then Majorie left to use her 'people skills' to better the lives of a tribe in the cloud forests of Nicaragua. Nigel was more or less forced to replace her. One savage paradigm shift followed another. A New Labour new CEO arrived and decided that PFIL would be a 'people business' (at least, until robots got cheaper or chimps got smarter). In recognition of this startling aperçu, the staff reward system was competitively restructured (mostly downwards) and Nigel became director of HR.

The New Labour CEO lasted about as long as New Labour's idealism, and suddenly Mayes lost his sponsor (who went on to head up an aggressively pointless Blairite think tank) and waited for summary ejection. It never happened. Instead, the more Machiavellian – and more honest and competent – replacement took him out for a slap-up lunch at Gordon Ramsay, told him to keep up the good work and that his door was always open.

Five years on and he's still there – one of the handful of board-level HR directors in the FTSE-100. For ages he just didn't get it. The admin side of things was outsourced to India before such things were even an issue; the rest pretty much runs itself. Management are sourced from within the industry and shop-floor staff are sourced from the ranks of the unambitious. So why pay someone to come up with waffly soft-issue initiatives that employees neither understand nor care about?

He got his answer at last year's retreat – a vineyard in Bordeaux. There he developed an ephemeral bond with the FD via several bottles of the 2000 vintage. Emboldened by booze, he asked that existential question 'Why am I here?'. Without missing a beat, the FD replied: 'Nigel, look at this business. We're the cheapest, dirtiest company in a cut-throat sector. We pay our staff peanuts, we shaft our suppliers. We're the unacceptable face of capitalism. No-one likes to feel like that, except perhaps Dick Cheney. You're here as a sort of corporate conscience.'

The life of Mayes

Born 12 December. Educated at CofE Grammer School, Stoke on Trent, and Nottingham University

1971 Teaches at Nottingham school

1975 Moves into training staff at the LEA, part-time psychology degree

1980 Joins Tesco as manager in the personnel department

1984 Deputy group manager, personnel, the Co-Op

1989 Group manager, personnel, the Co-Op 1992 Deputy personnel director, PFIL Plc

1998 Group personnel director PFIL Plc

1999 HR director, PFIL Plc.

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