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When you enter the human resource department of most large corporations, the first person to greet you typically isn't the department head. But Ann Ashley, SPHR, senior vice president of HR for The Biltmore Co., greets me warmly at her door and quickly proves that she isn't your typical HR executive. Ashley's career path isn't typical either. She climbed Biltmore's corporate ladder after starting as a food server. Yet she points out that her career path isn't so surprising once you understand the company culture.
Biltmore has always promoted from within, she says. Its managers "recognize leadership potential and nurture that talent."
Biltmore owns and operates the largest private home in the United States. The 250-room chateau and surrounding 8,000 acres attract more than 1 million visitors per year -- more than Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia. The Asheville, N.C., estate is the fulcrum for Western North Carolina's multibillion-dollar tourism industry, bringing $350 million to the area annually.
Biltmore depends on tourism, and the estate appeals to regional and national audiences. During economic downturns, the number of visits to the estate actually increases as people take shorter and less expensive vacations.
With self-guided and guided tours of the house and gardens, fine dining, a winery, a four-star hotel and meeting facilities, Biltmore has amenities you don't expect in a small city in the Blue Ridge Mountains. The estate features an equestrian center, bicycle trails, carriage rides, raft trips, fly-fishing classes and even an off-road driving school.
Such diverse facilities require Biltmore's nearly 2,000 employees to have diverse skill sets. Positions range from food service to historic presentation to landscaping.
While Ashley finds working with such a multifaceted staff fascinating, she admits she wasn't prepared in 1999 when William Cecil Jr., Biltmore's president and chief executive officer, asked her to head the HR function. At the time, Ashley was winery manager, supervising nearly 100 people. She had been with the winery when it opened in 1985, first as supervisor of the visitors' center. "My first response … was, 'Who, me?' But he understood that I knew how to grow a business," Ashley says. "He was taking a big risk."
Ashley's "Biltmore experience prior to joining the HR department enhances her ability to excel," insists Cecil. She understands "the ins and outs of our many business units but also what it's like to actually work in those roles. That kind of knowledge can't be bought or trained."
Cecil's great-grandfather George W. Vanderbilt built Biltmore House. He dreamed of an estate based on agriculture and logging. For years, the estate survived off revenue from a dairy and plant nursery.
In the early 1960s, the Cecils struggled to pay taxes and keep the estate off the auction block. Vanderbilt's grandson, William Cecil Sr., a Wall Street banker, had a vision to turn the estate into a profitable tourist center. It took more than 20 years, but by the early 1980s tourism was generating a tidy profit for the organization. The Cecils opened restaurants and the winery while preserving the magnificent mansion.
Ashley says the business skills and acumen of the Vanderbilts still thrive in the Cecil family. "Once you realize what they have done with the estate … it's really amazing," she says.
"We don't preserve Biltmore to make a profit," the elder Cecil frequently says. "We make a profit to preserve Biltmore."
Many at Biltmore point to Ashley as key to the organization's success. Under her leadership, the winery became profitable, spread distribution throughout the United States and won major tasting awards.
With that operation as a model, the younger Cecil's choice made sense. And his gamble on Ashley paid off.
Learning by Doing
"While I did know a lot about recruiting and training," Ashley recalls, "I didn't know much about labor law or about compensation or benefits, so I had to depend on the knowledge of others, and I began seeking out all the information and knowledge that I could get my hands on."
After attending Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) conferences, Ashley enlisted consultant Bob Greene, a SHRM seminar instructor, to redesign Biltmore's compensation and benefits programs.
According to Greene, Ashley possesses leadership qualities and an innate talent for HR management. "She had a great feel for what needed to be done," he says. "The benefits and compensation that Biltmore offers are excellent, and if you benchmark it against other tourist-based organizations, Biltmore is definitely an industry leader."
Ashley's peers echo Greene's comments. Plus, Ashley loves her work; she nearly trembles with excitement when talking about ideas for improving employees' work and lives.
"We have a lengthy hiring process called 'Selecting Achievers,' " explains Ashley. "It requires multiple interviews -- individual and team interviews -- and lots of reference checking. We interview for commitment, for interpersonal skills and for technical skills. Interpersonal skills are the most important factor, and we interview for this by asking applicants to tell us stories" about their first jobs, for example.
Ashley wants to develop an intern program that will provide education and career alternatives for high-school students at risk of dropping out -- and a way to help Biltmore recruiters cultivate talent. The local high schools and community college would, in turn, develop courses to train students for Biltmore's jobs. Her idea has received an enthusiastic response from educators.
Ashley developed a passion for education early in her career when she worked as a high-school art teacher. That background helps her recognize talent and potential.
She also has been instrumental in creating a leadership development program. Biltmore now offers the program to outside organizations, which generates revenue.
"It's exciting when you see how this has all come together," she reflects.
Leaders of area nonprofits can take the strategic planning component of the leadership training program for free. "It's all part of our commitment to giving back to the community, and that's something we want to instill in every employee," she adds.
And with Ann Ashley guiding the direction of Biltmore's human resources, it's sure to be done with a touch of elegance and grace.
The author is senior writer for HR Magazine.
Web site: Biltmore
Ann Knight Ashley
Education: 1992 to present, post-graduate courses in business and management, Wake Forest University, Winston-Salem, N.C.; University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; University of Phoenix, online. 1975, bachelor's degree in fine arts, University of North Carolina at Greensboro.
Current Job: 2007-present, senior vice president, human resources, The Biltmore Co., Asheville, N.C.
Career: 1999-2007, vice president of human resources, The Biltmore Co. 1985-99, manager and visitor center supervisor, The Biltmore Wine Co. 1984, server, Deer Park Inn, Biltmore Estate. 1982-84, independent training consultant for the food and beverage and lodging industries, Black Mountain, N.C. 1979-82, district supervisor of training, Steak and Ale Inc., Asheville, N.C. 1976-79, art teacher and department head, T.C. Owens High School, Swannanoa, N.C.
Personal: Age 54, born in Asheville, N.C.; married to husband, Matt; has one daughter.
Diversions: Cooking, reading, hiking and scrapbooking.
Connections: www.biltmore.com, (828) 225-1333.
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