Opening the Door

JOEY Restaurant Group’s Andrew Martin discusses his path to HR and how he’s rethinking its function in the culinary industry

Photo by Victor Yuen.
Photo by Victor Yuen.

Not many people can say they’ve landed their dream job. Fewer still would, after earning said job, choose to abandon it for an opportunity in an industry in which they held no experience. Andrew Martin is that rare individual. After finding himself as vice president of human resources at the Vancouver Aquarium, a position that married a lifelong passion for marine biology with his HR expertise, Martin jumped ship for a position with JOEY Restaurant Group as its vice president of human resources. “I wasn’t looking to move when JOEY came knocking on my door,” he says. “I never worked in restaurants, and I’m not a foodie, but they convinced me that this was a place where I could make a difference, so I made the leap.” Here, Advantage talks to Martin about the opportunity, kick-starting JOEY’s HR function, and knowing when to throw HR out the window.

Advantage: You have degrees in both psychology and international relations. How did you end up in HR?
Andrew Martin: I went to the British Columbia Institute of Technology (BCIT) and took a course in human resources management. Halfway through the course, the instructor, Eileen Stewart, came to me and said, “Have you ever thought of HR as a career?” She said I’d be perfect for the field. I was flattered. She told me that BCIT has a one-year program. There was only one problem: they only take 25 students, and there’s a 250-person waiting list to get in. I was like, “Oh great, thanks for telling me.” But then she said, “This year we’ll take 26—I’m the program head.”

Here was a person who saw something in me and opened a door that I [got] to walk through. That’s ultimately what started my career in HR. If it hadn’t been for her, I might not have done it.

You ended up working for the Vancouver Aquarium. What was that experience like?
At university, I initially wanted to be a marine biologist and was studying science. I realized that although Jacques Cousteau’s lifestyle seemed pretty exciting, I wanted something more traditional. So here was an opportunity as the vice president of HR at the aquarium. I was there for two years and had an unbelievable experience. What a challenge. It’s a not-for-profit, but you’re working hard to earn revenue to cover your costs and stay independent. Unexpected things happen. How many workers’ compensation board reports do you put down stating, “Was pinched on the buttocks by a snapping turtle,” or, “Bitten by a white-sided dolphin”?

How did JOEY pry you away from this role of a lifetime?
Honestly, I went into the interview thinking, “I’ve never heard of these guys.” I wasn’t interested in leaving. Why would I go from a world-renowned institution to take on an HR role with a restaurant company? But in the interview process with the president, Jeff Fuller, and the COO, Al Jessa, I changed my mind. Jeff said, “You might think that our business is to make food and drink, but we’re actually in the people-development business.” That was interesting. Their philosophy was that when people leave our organization, they leave more capable, more skilled, and more confident than when they came. The connections felt right.

Andrew Martin’s
Career Milestones

Is hired by the Canadian Red Cross to oversee its first-aid programs for the Vancouver Lower Mainland

Completes the one-year HR program at BCIT

Begins work as a junior consultant with a small HR-consulting firm

Is promoted to senior manager of HR with Hain Celestial Group

Is hired on as VP of HR with the Vancouver Aquarium

Begins working at JOEY Restaurant Group

You’ve run HR at three separate organizations. How do they compare with your role today?
These last three, apart from a few things, you’d be hard pressed to know that it was the same kind of role. One of the things that I think makes me successful is that I’ve entered every job thinking the people that went before me were smart, so I needed to figure out what they did and why. Training and development is a key area here. When I came in, there were no policies. The only written contract was mine because I wrote it. There were little to no electronic communication tools.

What are the biggest challenges of working at JOEY?
It’s our growth. It’s making sure that we have talented people to run our restaurants. We do not hire general managers or chefs from outside the organization. We always promote from within. Everything is about supporting the operations team in training, development, differentiation, compensation, and creating amazing work environments so that people want to stick around. How do we go from 30 restaurants and four concepts to 100 restaurants in a way that brings structure yet retains what makes us, us?

How do you think your approach to HR differs from the norm?
I look to see how little HR-ing I can do. Policies, processes, documents, red tape—I don’t like that stuff. I’d rather understand the business and focus on areas that are going to allow the organization to perform better.

You’re a member of the Leaders of Tomorrow—why is that important to you?
It’s a group through the Vancouver Board of Trade involving students who are finishing up at university. I look back to those people who made a difference for me and opened up doors for me. My passion is helping people unleash their potential and perform the best they can. Nothing gets me more excited than seeing somebody achieve something that they didn’t think was possible.

Why do you think you are successful?
Your weaknesses are just overdone strengths. Mine is an inability to sit still. I have to change things. I have to make things work a little better, look a little better, perform a little better. I get bored easily. That’s a strength and a weakness.