Building a brighter future for all
IoD Scotland Director of the Year Martin Armstrong, Group Chief Executive Officer of the Wheatley Group, talks to Rob Beswick about his holistic view of the role good quality housing can have in peoples’ lives, and how this has driven the transformation of a struggling housing association with an uncertain future into one of Europe’s largest and best-performing social housing organisations.
Martin Armstrong – the IoD Scotland Director of the Year for Large Businesses – is proud of the many awards displayed on the walls of the Wheatley Group’s headquarters.
There are dozens. They range from small local accolades to ones that reflect global recognition of its work as one of the UK’s leading housing, care and property management organisations.
They tell the story of how communities have been revitalised by the group’s work, how lives have been transformed and how people have been empowered to take control of their own destinies – all starting with a decent house they could call a home. It’s a remarkable haul and a very public way of celebrating Wheatley’s success. But, as the old saying goes, it wasn’t always like this…
Wheatley Group, the parent company overseeing, among others, Glasgow Housing Association (GHA) (see panel on page 16), can arguably trace its direct heritage back to 2008 when Martin arrived to try to make sense of Glasgow’s social housing goliath.
GHA had left the city council’s direct control five years earlier, and since that day had had a deeply troubled relationship with its stakeholders and partners, such as Scottish Government and Glasgow City Council.
Also, the CEO’s chair was more of an ejector seat – Martin was the fifth to occupy it since 2003 – and it seemed unlikely that the fragmented morass of 63 organisations which had emerged from the council’s housing operation could ever become a coherent, customer-focused collective that could make real improvements in people’s lives.
Despite the challenges, however, Martin was prepared to try. His background showed a proven track record of success in a number of high-profile local authority roles, including that of director of housing at West Lothian Council. More importantly, he had a real grasp of the role good housing could play. “From my earliest days, I had a holistic sense of what good housing meant to people. It’s more than just a roof over your head; your home was hugely important to other aspects of your life – your education, whether you could access training or get a job or not. It influenced the community around you. I knew that GHA had a vital role to play in the lives of its tenants.”
However, he admitted that the challenge was daunting. “GHA’s reputation among its stakeholders was on the floor,” he recalls. “Staff were demoralised and disconnected. GHA itself was not a permanent organisation and its planned break-up into 63 separate bodies was confusing to everyone. There was no clear management structure, no clear narrative. Everything about it was unravelling and the GHA brand was seen by many as being toxic.”
When a senior business figure enters a large organisation they normally inherit something, Martin pointed out, you can work with – processes, policies, structures. But with GHA “there was none of that. We had to start building the organisation up from the base and lay new foundations.”
In many ways, this was wholly appropriate, for an organisation in the housing sector!
The initial goal for Martin was to establish some credibility for the organisation. “I set out to establish a set of values and an overarching vision staff could relate to and get behind. We also had to create a sense of legitimacy and to make GHA an organisation its staff were proud to work for.”
How did he achieve it? “Through trust,” he said. “Trust in me, the Executive Team, the Board and the things we were setting out. We had to get employees to believe in us. We couldn’t just say ‘we have trust and confidence in our people’ and then continue with a central command philosophy that ignored them. We had to delegate decision making, allow housing officers to take control locally and make decisions – and then back them.
“Our vision was to regain our remit as a social enterprise with a social purpose, with a leadership style that was nurturing and coaching, not by diktat and telling people want to do.”
With such a disparate organisation, it is no surprise there was no over-arching aim with which staff could identify. Martin changed that. “At the heart of the new organisation would be our ‘One GHA’ philosophy, to bring everyone together under one banner.”
This was all happening against a challenging back drop involving a re-profiling of a 2,500-strong workforce to match a reducing housing stock through what was known as Second Stage Transfer. This involved the ownership and management of 20,000-plus GHA homes being transferred to other community-based housing associations in the city.
“Back at GHA, this necessitated obviously a significant reduction in our head count. But it also gave us the opportunity to re-shape and re-think our service delivery, with a clear and vital focus on strengthening the frontline and to flatten our management structures. The end result was an unprecedented and immediate uplift in customer satisfaction levels.
“This proved we got the balance and the focus right. By increasing our army of housing officers and giving them patch sizes of just 200 houses – among the lowest anywhere in Europe – we were able to transform the way GHA operated and to bring about a transformational impact on tenants’ lives.”
That goal was summed up in the new philosophy, ‘Better homes, better lives, better Glasgow’ - with an emphasis on the word homes, not houses. “We build homes, not houses,” stresses Martin. “A home is personal to you. It is an important distinction; we wanted to give all our tenants a real base from which they could build their lives.”
The strategy immediately gained traction among employees and tenants: “We were quickly at a point where staff were proud to be part of this great GHA adventure, and our customer satisfaction levels hit 90 per cent plus.”
Staff were empowered to deliver improvements to the way GHA operated and to respond more quickly and more readily to tenants’ requests. But despite this sea change, Martin wanted more. “We’d seen a vast improvement in both public perception of GHA and its service levels, but I wanted to push the concept of empowering staff and tenants still further.” That push ushered in a remarkable customer offer.
“I called in the staff from four of our housing offices and asked them to run a pilot programme called ‘Think Yes’. “The idea was that no matter what came through the door, no matter what the request was from tenants, they were to ‘think yes, we’ll do that’.”
It was a huge shock, but one the housing officers embraced. “They were delighted and went away happy, but after a month, nothing had changed. I called them back and asked what was going on and they were honest; they said: ‘We didn’t think you were serious… we didn’t think you’d follow it through’.
“I told them to trust me, and if it went wrong, on my head be it. They agreed to really engage with the idea, but asked only one thing – would I guarantee it would stay in place for at least six months? I agreed… and they put Think Yes into practice.”
A very brave move; the default position to tenants’ requests would be ‘Yes’. “Rather than saying to tenants ‘set out your case, convince me it’s a good idea’, if tenants came in with an idea or request we were going to assume it was possible unless told otherwise. The housing teams were encouraged to see the individual in front of them, not just a problem to deal with.
“It transformed the way the four teams worked. We had a follow-up meeting where we heard dozens of really good stories of it in practice. Our tenants had worked with our officers to really make a difference, whether in their own lives or across their communities.
“One story stood out. A housing officer told me he had reduced a recently widowed lady to tears because he had simply arranged for her home to be decorated. The officer told me it was the first time he’d gone home and talked about his work in 20 years… he was that proud of the impact his actions had had on that old lady.”
The Think Yes culture was transforming lives – and garnering the plaudits. “By 2011-2012 – just three years after we had the worst reputation you could ever hope to have – we earned a major business accreditation from the European Foundation for Quality Management (EFQM).” Remarkably, that was bettered late last year when GHA was one of only three companies to win the EFQM’s ultimate Global Business Excellence (the multinational manufacturing giant Bosch and the Dubai Electricity and Water Authority were the others).
To many that would be a fitting point at which to end a remarkable transformation, but it still wasn’t enough. To Martin, “housing is at the heart of our communities. Good housing – good homes – offer the stable base from which people can really flourish. But we could do more.
“We could use that base and help people build better lives for themselves, giving them the opportunities that had previously been closed off to them. We placed an even greater focus on supporting tenants to access employment, training and education opportunities.”
This included GHA and all of the partner organisations within Wheatley to increase their apprenticeship programme four-fold, working closely with local schools and colleges to identify, for example, potential apprentices within its communities, as well as offering bursaries for students to go on to college and university.
This latter programme wasn’t without difficulties to begin with, however. “We had a big drop-out rate early on. So, we sat down with the universities and colleges and students and tried to find out why. It was simple: the students came from backgrounds where going to university wasn’t the done thing, it wasn’t what they were expected to do. There were no peers to help them settle down in a new environment and they felt out of place.
“We worked with the universities to help smooth out some of the problems and immediately started to see a difference. Our bursary students now have among the lowest of drop-out rates.”
Named after John Wheatley, the ‘father of social housing’ and a Health Minister under Ramsey MacDonald whose 1924 Housing Act fostered the growth of municipal housing in the UK, Wheatley Group was formed with the express intention of delivering GHA’s award-winning standards of housing and service delivery across Scotland. It was a transformational decision: “All 11 Wheatley subsidiaries have adopted the ‘Think Yes’ philosophy, coming together as a commercial social enterprise driven by a commitment to excellence in all we do.”
The model was tested to the max in 2014 when Wheatley Group approached the bond market for the first time, looking for eye-watering sums of capital from private investors to fund a major building programme. “We were looking to raise £300 million to build thousands of badly-needed new homes across Scotland. The offer was over-subscribed by £145 million and we hit our target in just 90 minutes.”
Since then Wheatley has attracted an additional £315 million of private investment and is well on its way to achieving its £1 billion target, enabling it to cement its position as the UK’s largest builder of social rented homes.
What Wheatley Group has proved beyond all doubt is that high-performing social enterprises make good business sense. “These investors don’t become involved because they want to look good by investing in social housing. They want and demand a financial return. They are hard-nosed investors and are reassured our business plan and model made strong commercial sense to go with the acute social purpose”
The journey from that initial foray into the London capital markets continues. However, as Martin says, “it is a journey and a story that will never end. We’ll keep on improving our services and our homes, getting even closer to our customers, engaging with them and involving them in the way we go about our business, their business.
“We are always looking over the horizon and have begun the process of devising our strategy and setting ambitious new goals that will take us through from 2020 until 2025.”
And there’ll be more homes. “We have over 1,800 houses at the moment at some point of construction. We’ll keep on offering more, while all the time putting the Wheatley Group at the heart of our tenants’ lives.”
Current plans will see the number of apprentices and trainees increase even further and continuing support for the charity Social Bite and its efforts to tackle Scotland’s rough sleeping problem.
Martin is keen to stress the IoD’s Director of the Year award was a triumph for everyone at Wheatley. He was surprised and quietly delighted to learn he was the first winner from outside the private sector. “It’s not my award, it’s ours. We’ve a real energy and power in this organisation to take it to the next level. We’re going to keep on building a better future for our tenants and supporting their ambitions, whether it’s to have a real home, to learn skills and get a job, or to build a better community in which to live.”
“We’ll keep moving and keep evolving in the way we operate. Nothing ever stands still at Wheatley.”