2018 HR Excellence Awards: Executive of the Year, Large Organization

Jeff Bell
John Kelley III

A lot goes into being the top human resources officer at a restaurant company with 10,500 employees, locations in 14 states and China, and a food products division, but John Kelley III never loses sight of one key component that helps White Castle System Inc. continue to succeed.

“Our mission is to create memorable moments for our customers,” he says, “and we need the right people to do that. It's not just taking an order for four sliders, fries and a drink.”

With that in mind, White Castle carefully screens applicants for its restaurant openings, takes the time to train them on every job in the restaurant, pays them fairly, provides opportunities for advancement and offers benefits that include health insurance and retirement plans.

Some of that is rooted in how the 97-year-old company's patriarchs— including Kelley's great-grandfather Edgar W. “Billy” Ingram—treated their employees, or “team members” in the White Castle vernacular. And some of it is about keeping pace with changes in the workplace, such as using technology to develop pay structures based on industry benchmarks or creating a 401(k) retirement savings plan more in tune with the preferences of newer team members.

As chief people officer and vice president of training and human resources, Kelley strives to mesh White Castle's traditions with innovation in a corporate culture marked by loyalty and putting people first. That has translated to White Castle garnering a number of best-places-to-work awards in Columbus, as well as recognition for best-in-class employment and people practices from TDn2K, a company that provides workforce, financial and guest satisfaction benchmarks for the restaurant industry.

Kelley's natural affinity for people has helped him become a driving force for cultural inclusion and fairness throughout White Castle, says Mac Joseph, a Paul Werth Associates senior vice president who has gotten to know Kelley as a business colleague over the past few years.

“John's heart and soul are in this company,” Joseph says. “His work is rooted in serving team members to inspire them to serve their customers.”

Kelley worked as an elementary school teacher before starting his White Castle career in 1992 as a coordinator in the company's international division. He moved to the Human Resources Department in 1997 and began a steady climb to his current position in which he oversees training, organizational development, employee relations, compensation and corporate services.

Kelley is big on the importance of listening to White Castle team members—so much so that he visited all 385 of the company's restaurants between Memorial Day and Labor Day in 2016 when White Castle celebrated its 95th anniversary.

“HR is a lot of times looked at as the voice of the team member at the table, whether that's in the board room or with [corporate] leadership,” he says. “We are the ones they look to whether its team members' concerns, pay, benefits, training or leadership opportunities. There is a multidimensional piece to all that, and it's interesting when it all fits together.”

A current challenge is helpingteam members at White Castle's home office off Goodale Boulevard prepare for the transition to a new corporate headquarters under construction at the site. Kelley says the project will help White Castle's recruitment efforts for corporate jobs and improve its ability to better serve team members and customers in the restaurants. But he is also sensitive to the feelings some longtime team members have about moving to a new building dominated by open work spaces instead of the current layout in which about 80 percent of the staff works in an office with a door.

“There is a fear of the unknown and what it's going to be like,” Kelley says, recognizing the personal ties many White Castle team members have to the circa-1930s home office building. “We've got to understand that from an HR standpoint and take everybody along with us.”

Jeff Bell is a freelance writer.