Incentive programmes and an open-door policy help to make it one of the best places to work WITH ALL THE whooping and high-fives among contestants at the Pret A Manger sandwich chain's recent Coffee Olympics competition for staff, you might have imagined a genuine gold medal and international acclaim were at stake. In reality, the 15 'barista' coffeemaker finalists from Pret's eight Hong Kong outlets were competing for a first prize of $3,000. But the Coffee Olympics was only one example of the chain's novel approach to human resources - promoting a competitive spirit and introducing a reward system to nurture a sense of pride in company products and the way they serve them. The logical end result is that staff are happier, making customers happier, with the company's bottom line ultimately benefiting. Besides the coffee competition, Pret's staff compete for four other major awards each quarter. A Planters and Growers award worth $5,000 is for outstanding team development; a Sparkly Shop award worth $5,000 goes to the outlet with the top quality survey and financial audit score; the $8,000 Priceless award rewards the shop receiving the highest score from a 'mystery shopper'; and the Harry Potter award of $10,000 recognises all-round excellence and the top performing shop in terms of sales. An additional innovative incentive programme, conducted weekly, also rewards staff with a bonus for achieving a 'mystery shopper' score of nine out of 10. Cash rewards are even given to staff when they are promoted - and are traditionally shared among colleagues. Pret's progress aptly demonstrates why its 'Passionate about People' policy works. Since being founded in London 20 years ago by two college friends, Sinclair Beecham and Julian Metcalfe, who hit upon the idea of 'proper' sandwiches using natural, preservative-free ingredients, the chain has become an international success with 150 outlets employing more than 2,200 staff in three countries - including Hong Kong, where it has grown from strength to strength since 2002. Fortune magazine named it one of the 10 best companies to work for in Europe. The Sunday Times ranks it among the 50 best companies to work for in Britain. 'As in Britain, we are passionate about every individual who works at the company,' said Winne Lau, Pret's managing director in Hong Kong. 'Their motivation is critical to providing customers with the great service that exists today. 'Competition generates great hype among the shop teams. Everybody wants their shop to be the best and to that end they support each other tremendously, helping improve teamwork. With such close-knit and supportive teams, staff are also happier and less likely to contemplate leaving. Happy, well-rewarded staff are more ambitious and more likely to consider a long-term career with the company.' Pret's approach distinctly differs from other companies, even in its reluctance to adopt the term 'human resources'. 'For starters, we don't call it a human resource department, but a people department,' said Sabine Ernst, who heads it with the unusual title of people manager. 'We like to treat our people as individuals and not just numbers on a payroll. We have an open-door policy where every staff member has regular contact with the managing director and everybody can express their opinions freely. Everybody's input and ideas are valued.' This even includes a Buddy Day system where teams have a 'say' in new hires, assessing potential recruits and deciding if they will fit in. 'There is a distinct lack of hierarchy,' said Ms Ernst. 'We are passionate about our people and want them to do well. We encourage ambition and actively promote from within.' About 60 per cent of all managers are promoted through the ranks and staff are familiarised with a 'clear career path' leading all the way to the top, said Paul Jones, the chain's coffee expert from London who hosted the Coffee Olympics. 'A kitchen porter hired more than 16 years ago is still with the company today, only now running a busy London branch as general manager. That is the best proof as to how the philosophy of looking after and developing individuals from within pays off - and we have adopted the same approach in Hong Kong.' Pret is also unusual in that it recruits staff on the basis of 'individuals with personality rather than with experience in our field'. 'If they have both, it is even better, but we strongly believe that a person with the right attitude and personality can be taught everything,' said Mr Jones. 'Having a degree doesn't mean you're a great person.' AT A GLANCE Pret A Manger hosts competitions between outlets and has a reward system to attract and retain staff. 'Passionate about People' policy for happier staff means happier customers and benefits the bottom-line. Cash rewards to staff when promoted. Fortune magazine and The Sunday Times rank the chain among best companies to work for. Reluctant to adopt term 'human resources' - uses people department and people manager instead. Sixty per cent of managers rise through the ranks. Recruits 'individuals with personality' ahead of experience, explaining: 'Having a degree doesn't mean you're a great person.'