Handfield orients personnel, practices with Collette’s objectives

TEAMING UP: Rachelle Handfield, executive vice president of human resources at Collette, has redesigned the company’s approach to compensation and professional development.  / PBN PHOTO/RUPERT WHITELEY
TEAMING UP: Rachelle Handfield, executive vice president of human resources at Collette, has redesigned the company’s approach to compensation and professional development. / PBN PHOTO/RUPERT WHITELEY

CHIEF HUMAN RESOURCES OFFICER, LARGE PRIVATE COMPANY | Rachelle Handfield, Collette Travel Service Inc.


Rachelle Handfield, executive vice president of human resources at Pawtucket-based Collette Travel Service Inc., has developed her department into a team-building enterprise synced to the company’s mission. But you would be hard-pressed to put a label on her work.

“I’ve been in the industry for 27 years and I don’t even think my husband could tell you what I do,” said Handfield.

Human resources is only part of it.

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“I don’t just think about HR. I think about strategies, opportunities, risk. … I have to know enough about what’s happening in the business environment. I do that as much as I pay attention to what’s happening in the HR space,” she said.

Her nearly four years at Collette have been a time of great change for the company, as well as for Handfield herself. Her industry switch from banking to guided travel has offered her and Collette a more wide-open perspective in remaining relevant, competitive and forward-thinking.

She’s instituted changes in how Collette handles professional development, compensation, communication and accountability, for example. Though company organizational needs are different between banking and travel, Handfield noted that some things are not so different.

“[In both cases], we need to understand … our customer and how we make money. We need to understand strategy, understand the needs of the organization and build a business strategy through people,” she said.

“We are a tour operator, a tour guide, and act as stewards going with you to a foreign land. … What we want for our customers is the same thing as we do in banking: for you to know that you are safe doing business with us.”

Elizabeth Simmons, senior vice president of global sales at Collette, is a fan of Handfield’s work. “She’s challenged all of us to think and behave differently,” Simmons said.

Collette is a family business that began 100 years ago, around the time the Boston Red Sox won its first World Series. The bulk of its 650-or-so global employees are based in Pawtucket. But it also has offices in Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom.

CEO Dan Sullivan Jr. recognized something was missing in the team, said Handfield, and looked for a senior HR person. “I give him tremendous credit. He realized that we could elevate the HR leader role,” she said. In the former, more-siloed system, for example, training was separate from the HR function. Before Handfield came onboard, the HR leader reported to the chief financial officer.

Now, as an equal member of the company’s Strategic Leadership Team, dramatic changes have happened in the time Handfield has been at Collette.

But she is quick to point out that changes, such as revamping the compensation process and adding professional-development opportunities, didn’t happen all at once.

In fact, Handfield suspects some team members may not have thought she was doing much at all in her first six months or so on the job. She took her time learning about the company, observing its processes, asking questions and building relationships. But by the time changes in compensation, professional development, HR team alignment and other improvements were implemented, she said, those items did not come across as brand-new.

“I started talking about it two years before I brought a compensation person on,” said Handfield. She believes in leaders changing the language around issues and creating an environment in which areas of improvement become evident in time to rally cooperative solutions. With the compensation changes, job descriptions were “beefed up,” better standards of accountability were established and team members were more incentivized, she said.

The old human resources team of eight is now a better-aligned team of 13 thanks to Sullivan’s backing of a more comprehensive and strategic HR effort and Handfield’s hard work.

“We showed our value. We have to deliver to very, very high expectations,” said Handfield, “but I’m up for it.”

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