Interview with Derren Young at UMG

July 22, 2014

With its buyout of EMI, hiring of merchandising staff for the Olympics and the ongoing rise of digital business, HR at Universal Music Group has faced big challenges in recent years. Derren Young reveals details in an interview with Darren Wentworth, partner at Frazer Jones.  

How did you get to where you are now? 

I began my career in sales at Eagle Star Insurance and was approached to do a project in head office focusing on management assessment and development centres to support a major change programme.  

Since then, I’ve worked across various specialisms in many sectors including chemicals, industrial gases and financial media. I moved into the music industry with Universal Music Group, where my first role was in compensation and benefits. Over the past few years I’ve been lucky to work on many big acquisitions and ambitious start-ups. The most challenging aspect of my role is to support our digital business and help introduce innovative new business teams. 

How many locations does UMG operate in, how many employees are there and what is the annual turnover? 

UMG is the market leader in the industry and after acquiring EMI’s recorded music business in November 2011 our position has strengthened globally. We employ more than 7,000 people in 60 countries. Last year’s profits reached €525m from sales of €4.5bn, with an increasing proportion of those sales coming from digital rather than physical products.  

What are your current responsibilities? 

My team provides HR support to our music publishing, merchandising and artist management businesses. The focus is on finding the right people and, as the business changes so rapidly, bringing in new skills and ideas. There is also an ongoing employee relations agenda, whether we’re handling a new initiative in the business or supporting managers during difficult times with staff. I also support head office employees based overseas as well as projects and smaller territories. 

The HR team is regionally or locally focused, with small generalist teams in each of our major markets while smaller territories receive support from the centre. We’re now also creating global centres of expertise based in our major offices in Los Angeles and London, these being talent acquisition, comp & bens and learning & OD. 

What is your next big HR project? 

UMG is in the talent business and now we’re starting to focus even more on developing our internal talent – employees and leaders.  

In the UK we’re increasing the number and quality of management and key skills sessions. We find that delivering training sessions in quick bursts of up to two hours works well with our busy employees and leaders. 

Globally, we are working to strengthen our succession planning process to identify and support our future label bosses and executives. We’re in the process of enhancing our key talent development programme to give it a stronger global feel and improve our abilities to develop the skills needed to manage a music company in today’s digital age. 

What change initiatives are you most proud of within the business? 

The HR function has been heavily involved with the planning and integration of EMI. Like any large-scale change initiative, there is always a a mix of strategic planning and firefighting . It’s been a time-intensive project because of the regulatory process we’ve been through. HR has worked in partnership with other functions to help plan and implement changes. We’ve integrated artists and employees from EMI which we have managed with good communication and planning. 

In 2012, our merchandising business, Bravado, won the contract to manage programme sales at the Olympic and Paralympic Games. We needed to hire about 800 people and ensure they all passed LOCOG’s tough accreditation diversity standards. To do this, we advertised our vacancies online and via LOCOG’s partners, which generated more than 4,000 applications. We screened, interview and tested 250 candidates per day at weekend assessment centres and held sessions to hand out uniforms, complete accreditation and train each vendor to deal with spectators at each Olympic event. Once the games started, we discovered that the flow of people could be different compared to what we expected, so each day required some on-your-feet problem solving to get the right numbers of vendors at the busy events. 

What makes a good HR person? 

The ability to deliver, whether that be good advice, efficient solutions or bad news. You also need to understand and have an affinity with the business and its people. Everyone here loves what we do; the fact that we can talk about artists or new digital services makes HR credible and integral to the company. 

What are the current challenges facing the HR profession? 

The obsession to be strategic can be dangerous as we can miss what’s really happening. While there’s a time and place for this the profession shouldn’t be embarrassed to be reactive sometimes. We’re here to enable and support our companies or organisations. My company moves so fast it’s not always easy to keep up. There are opportunities to plan and create a vision for the future, but we add the most value by helping the business reach its immediate goals. 

What questions should an HR director not be afraid to ask? 

We must always ask: ‘why?’ and question the logic of our  plans and actions. 

Where do you see the future of HR? 

I see a bright future. Senior people I work with are always very appreciative of the work we do and they realise its importance, especially as you start working beyond your immediate borders and in places where legislation and practice varies.

What’s your advice to aspiring HR directors? 

My three top tips are: