Bernadine Symonds aims to spearhead HR transformation at International Facilities Services


Bernadine Symonds is looking forward to assisting IFS to consolidate, standardise, optimise and build a scalable and robust HR function.

“I was drawn to the cross- border experience operating in multiple African countries and the diversity of facilities management. IFS is growing and with it comes the challenges of scale. My biggest challenge and hopefully achievement will be to assist the chief people and culture officer to build a scalable and robust HR function that delivers business value,” says Bernadine Symonds, incoming head of HR at International Facilities Services (IFS).

“This is a combination of creatively building HR capacity cross border (not only within the HR teams but within the operations teams as well) as well as marrying credible systems with a positive employee experience: progressive yet weighty HR practice.”

Grassroots level beginnings

Bernadine’s journey in HR started when she was a personal assistant to the factory manager in a manufacturing concern in Pinetown, Durban. She explains that her daily tasks included walking the factory floor, where having numerous team engagements and observing multiple HR and payroll players led her to become keenly aware of the need for a consolidated HR function across the business. “I motivated for it and began working over an eight-year period building a group HR function that grew with the business from R240 million turnover to R1 billion rand in the same period.”

She believes the grassroots experience built in her not only cross-,spectrum HR experience but instilled in her the belief that knowing the business, its operations, its teams, its leadership and its objectives was essential to true HR business partnering. “I went in as a pioneer, opposed to paper shuffling and convoluted HR policy. HR needed to be robust, relevant, brave, agile and understand that the core power in effective people management is connection. Connection is the highest form of contribution. You wrap all your compliance and processes around the ability to connect people to their leaders and leaders to their people – building talent, driving performance and forming tribes that fight for the cause.”

Spreading her HR wings

After 11 years in the HR game, she moved to Johannesburg and started her own HR and recruitment consultancy, Human Accent, which still operates today under the watchful eye of her husband, who also runs Urban Accent, a facilities, corporate real estate and workplace consultancy business.

With fledgling businesses and not wanting all their eggs in one basket, she rejoined the formal job market as group head of people at the Meridian group in 2021.

“This was an executive role looking after people, brand and transformation for a sales and merchandising business with 5,000 employees across the country. It was my first stint in retail and could only be described as intense! Arching the three roles allowed me to work intentionally with the marriage between the employee value proposition and Meridian’s external market proposition.”

She describes the growth curve as having some real gradient, but says she was able to quickly grasp what it meant to lead instead of manage and fully grasp the business implications in an HR strategy.

“I also wrestled with the balance between structuring a portfolio in detail while keeping relationships with the team front and centre. My CEO taught me the rhythms of strong, consistent governance, which proved invaluable.”

Proud moments

Looking back, Bernadine highlights three proud moments in her journey.

Firstly, she says, it has to be taking her first opportunity and against all odds building a fully integrated group HR function inclusive of HR information system (HRIS). “To achieve this, I studied at night as a single mom with three kids, navigated politics, tapped innate strategic and conceptual prowess, overcame resistance and prayed a lot!”

Her second feather on her cap is starting her own business, which has held the course and is now eight years old.

Last but not least, she notes, has to be embracing the steep branding and executive learning curve at Meridian and accomplishing major strides in two years. “This includes rebranding two of the businesses, integrating one of those, migrating from Cobal to Sequel HRIS, securing five million rands in SETA funding, introducing talent mapping and analytics, first ever learnership partnership in the industry with Proctor and Gamble, improved Level 3 to Level 2 B-BEEE, launched a bursary programme and consolidated five sites into three.”

Looking ahead

Optimistic about the future of HR, Bernadine perceives two major trends: “Building agile, creative, and human-centric leaders who can navigate and leverage change – this naturally speaks to a continued focus on progressive talent management both from re-engineering our baselines and assessments to technological enablement. The surge in data, analytics, AI will not dissipate – it will continue to evolve at a rapid rate and HR needs to keep up.” Her advice is that any CEO with their eye on both the future and the now should have a task team representing all disciplines and manned by futurists, ideators, strategists and design thinkers who can research, collaborate, and bring future solutions undergirded by business case, in expectation of motivating investment as they future-proof the business.

“For the rest of the future, we continue to grow and learn. We continue to push through challenges and remain committed to leaving a legacy. What I believe is key is keeping the tension between serving and driving a business, and building a long and healthy life. One needs to show up for both.”


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