The Quintessential Business Partner

This article accompanies The Fixers.

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Last year, Esther Ni, HR director at Acuity Brands, a global electronics manufacturer in Conyers, Ga., flew weekly between August and October to the company’s manufacturing facility in Mexico to spearhead significant changes involving its HR processes.

“Because of the influx of production that we sent to Mexico, [the plant] was in constant need of talent,” she says, adding that Acuity would require approximately 500 workers each day to assemble lighting components. “The labor market is so competitive and fast-moving in Mexico that we had to get competitive.”

Under Ni’s direction, HR implemented an employee referral program for hourly employees, remodeled the cafeteria and issued free meal passes for two weeks to new employees. Since many of them didn’t own a car, new hires also received two weeks’ worth of bus tickets to minimize transportation problems to and from work.

Considering the bus was the most prevalent form of transportation for workers in the area, members of the HR staff recruited people at the bus station during the morning commute and again when they returned from work. They also distributed flyers outside of manufacturing plants to employees at the end of their shift.

“Poaching has become the norm in Mexico, because of the competitive labor market,” Ni says, adding that the biggest recruiting drive occurred in August, when 500 people were hired during the company’s job fair.

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Meanwhile, HR implemented new hourly career paths, selection and assessment processes and employee-engagement practices. She says turnover among hourly workers has since plunged by 55 percent.

Change Agent

Since Ni joined Acuity in 2014, she has steadily added to her skills set.

Her first job at the company was as an HR manager serving four of the company’s manufacturing facilities on the East Coast. For one year, she handled everything from employee relations and skill development to establishing communication lines between leaders and workers.

“The skills I learned when I took on this role were around how to manage multiple sites in multiple locations,” she says, explaining that she became adept at balancing her time between the four manufacturing facilities that employed about 400 workers. “My partners and employees who worked in the facilities really leaned on me as a trusted confidant and advisor … .”

In 2015, she was promoted to a new HR position where she supported Acuity’s corporate function, specifically the CFO and those in functions such as legal, HR, IT and finance. She helped change the operational structure to better support the business’ growth, and focused on succession planning as well as building a talent pipeline.

Recognizing her innate talent, the company’s leadership also gave her stretch assignments. She served on four acquisitions teams as the HR leader. She was responsible for integrating talent, compensation and recruiting processes in order to enhance the bench strength of the organization and leverage the capabilities of newly acquired employees.

The acquired “companies were further along the high-tech curve than we were,” Ni says. “They looked at Acuity as just a metal bending fixture manufacturer. A lot of work I did was around communicating our vision to these employees in a way that was exciting, and showing them how they fit into that vision.”

In 2016, she was promoted to her current position, HR director.

“Her smarts allow her to be a far better strategic partner with her business partners than just about anybody I’ve seen do this job,” says Dan Goldblatt, Ni’s boss and Acuity’s senior vice president of HR. “Being as humble as she is, one of the things she doesn’t realize about herself is the absolute level of respect that she possesses inside the organization. Her ability to quietly communicate where others need to pound a drum, and yet still drive results, creates such a respect from all in the business.”

In her current capacity, Ni leads the HR team responsible for the company’s 12,000 employees at 12 global facilities. She says this role has really challenged her as a leader.

“I developed a much broader awareness of global operations,” she says. “The experience in Mexico really opened my eyes to differences in how we need to operate in Mexico versus the U.S. – what matters to employees in Mexico, what drives them to stay at a company, and the values they look for in an organization. This role has really afforded me the opportunity to learn and implement processes that are influenced by those learnings.”

A naturally curious person, Ni says she is passionate about self-improvement. She continually pushes herself to learn all the ins and outs of the business – how the company goes to market, produces products, its customer base, and how the market perceives and receives the company.

That’s key to building credibility as an HR partner and influencing critical business decisions, she says.

“I haven’t ever approached my career from the standpoint of ‘I need to be X someday’ when it comes to a certain title or role,” Ni says. “It was always more about how much I can learn about the businesses that I’m involved in … . Then I can really continue to build my credibility as an HR partner.”

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Carol Patton
Carol Patton is a contributing editor for HRE who also writes HR articles and columns for business and education magazines. She can be reached at [email protected].