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Avi Robinson knew he wanted a career in human resources even before he attended college. Now vice president of HR for privately held Keter Plastic Ltd., he has spent nearly 20 years in HR, including more than a decade at global giant Teva Pharmaceutical Industries. Robinson, a son of Holocaust survivors, has built Keter’s HR department from the ground up in the seven years since he joined the multinational company.
Keter Plastic, based in Herzliya, Israel, is part of the Keter Group, which has 29 plants in Israel, Europe and the United States, and annual sales of $1 billion.
Keter Plastic makes a variety of products, from toolsheds and playhouses to garden products and outdoor furniture. Its products have won a number of design awards. Keter subsidiary Home Design Products recently announced plans to invest in and expand its plant in Anderson, Ind.
During his tenure at Keter Plastic, Robinson has made HR an integral part of the company’s business planning strategy and execution. He implemented corporate HR functions such as organizational development, training initiatives, and compensation and benefits programs. And Keter today has HR business partners in each division and an HR manager at every plant. Robinson recently talked to HR Magazine about what it took to build an HR infrastructure.
Your bachelor’s degree is in social work. Was that your planned career path?
No. My plan was always to go into HR. Even before I went to college, I went to see an HR director at one of the high-tech companies here in Israel and asked him what he recommended I study in college. He told me to take some courses in economics and employee relations in addition to learning about how to deal with people.
You went on to get your master’s in behavioral science and management. How has that helped?
Part of my job is to listen well in order to learn how best to develop people. It is something I’ve done my whole career. I’ve stressed it to my HR team: “Don’t lose the human touch.” Even in management, the human touch is very important. I know this is a business, and in business we talk about profits and about being better this quarter than last quarter—but without good people and motivated people working for the company, that can’t be done. There are studies that show that emotional intelligence is now more important for managers than regular intelligence. I believe it. You can get more from your staff if you treat them as human beings.
How did you end up at Keter, a company that had no HR function at the time?
I knew I could make a difference here. This is a privately owned company. Keter is 66 years old. It was started when Israel was established in 1948. So the CEO was effectively the HR manager and personnel manager. But the company had grown so much that the CEO came to me and said, “I don’t have time for this.
Education: 1991, Master of Science in behavioral science and management, The Technion–Israel Institute of Technology, Haifa, Israel. 1985, bachelor’s degree in social work, University of Haifa, Haifa, Israel.
Current job: 2007-present, vice president for HR, Keter Plastic Ltd., Herzliya, Israel.
Career: 2003-2007, senior director, Israeli HR Shared Service Center, Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd., Petach Tikva, Israel. 2003-2006, vice president/Global HR, Teva International Group, Petach Tikva, Israel. 1995-2003, HR director, Teva Israel Division, Netanya, Israel. 1993-95, HR manager, Kelet Afikim, Kibbutz Afikim, Israel. 1985-1993, recruitment and training manager, Fibronics Ltd., Haifa, Israel.
Personal: Age 54. Married. Four children, ages 16 to 26.
Diversions: Walking and having fun with the family.
What Keter product can you not live without? My outdoor furniture set.
My managers are coming to me with different challenges and pressures, and I don’t know the answers.” He also wanted to develop the company’s managers and give them tools to improve their business. These were the reasons he decided he needed HR.
Did the managers welcome you?
There was resistance. People don’t like change. I had to build trust and help people understand the value that HR could bring.
How did you do that?
I had to look at the long term and the short term. There was no performance evaluation process, no talent management program, no HR DNA in the organization. I had to go process by process to build an HR infrastructure. But at the same time, I had to show results. So I focused on two managerial philosophies. First, being a business partner. I had to make it clear that I came to support the managers and to bring them tools that will support business growth. Second, I explained that HR is a service position and my role is to give you service, whether that’s helping managers to hire, fire, develop or train employees. By having better processes to support the business, you don’t threaten anybody. It’s very important to leave your ego at home. Not everybody can do it.
What were your early successes?
My first month, I met with 10 top executives to get to know them. Eight or nine of them raised the same issue: aging company cars. It wasn’t the main issue, but one I thought the CEO needed to hear and do something about. I told the CEO, “If you change the cars and make these people happier, they will feel better in the organization, and company results will be better.” In a few weeks, all the executives had new cars. You can imagine that this was a good opening for me.
How do you conduct hiring to keep pace with the robust growth that your company is experiencing?
Innovation is a very central area of the organization. We are not increasing the number of employees but we put a lot of effort into hiring and developing quality people.
Each division hires its own employees, and corporate gives managers the tools to improve the recruitment processes. We want people who know the global marketplace. Employees must know English to a very high standard, and we put a priority on hiring employees who know other languages, too, such as French, Spanish and German.
Product development is important to Keter’s success. How do you find designers and engineers who are able to keep your company ahead of the competition?
In recent years, the company has raised its own engineers and designers through unique development programs called d-Vision for designers and e-Vision for engineers.
The selection process for these programs is very strict. The new interns are all plastics, mechanical or industrial engineers who have completed their bachelor’s degrees at public colleges and universities. The main goal of the programs is to foster the next generation of outstanding industrial designers.
Sami Sagol, owner and chairman of the Keter Group, created the programs to strengthen the competitive edge of the Israeli industry in the international arena by setting new standards of excellence for product development and design. The program’s strategic premise is that success in the global markets requires talented product designers who have been exposed to both valuable hands-on experience and state-of-the-art professional know-how. At the end of the programs—two years for designers and one year for engineers—most of the participants are hired.
How do you manage the influx of younger workers at Keter?
The most important thing is giving managers tools to understand the younger generation. Younger workers have different ideas about what they have to do and when they have to do it. They don’t think about the job the same way as workers who have been here for 25 or 30 years. To young people, staying at a company one, three or even five years is a long time.
What other kinds of professional training does Keter provide?
The company provides management training and professional courses. In management, we have an executive workshop every year consisting of 15 daily sessions covering different management areas. Recently, the company entered the world of talent management and is investing heavily in identifying the talents in the organization, identifying managerial needs, and providing individual and group guidance to improve employees’ managerial capabilities.
With such a big job, it must be tough to balance family and work.
When I joined Keter, employees worked six days a week. Here in Israel, only police, doctors and hospitals work six days. Most people work five days a week. I was confident it was one of the first changes I had to make at Keter. I am Orthodox Jewish, and on Saturdays we go to synagogue. Afterward, the whole family spends the day together. I talked to the CEO about switching to a five-day workweek. I explained that people were coming in on Fridays but not really doing much work. It wasn’t easy to convince him, but finally he agreed.
What are some of the perks that Keter offers its employees?
The company offers pension plans, health insurance for employees and their families, holiday gifts, seminars, and an annual weekend at a hotel for employees and their families. To encourage excellence, each year we recognize outstanding employees in each division in a special ceremony and give them a nice present. In addition, we keep employees engaged and connected through a company magazine and an intranet site.
Geri Tucker is a freelance writer in the Washington, D.C., area.
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