Inspiring leader grew a business from £9m to £1bn
Inspiring Leaders – Bob Holt OBE – Executive Chairman – Sureserve Group Plc
Linda Walmsley is a professional interviewer and business owner of UK executive and management recruitment firm, Walmsley Wilkinson Associates. During 2020 she continues a series of interviews with Business Leaders who have innovated within their field of expertise and have warranted the description of being an inspiring leader.
Bob's career, which began in 1970, has spanned almost five decades. Since then his roles have reflected one of his most profound quotes "The first rung of a ladder to success is to work harder than the next person. Keep your values; if you feel you are undervalued, then you are, so move on". Bob's career path has placed him, as business leader, in senior positions within some of this country's most important companies. With a flawless history of leadership success, Bob is one of the UK's most acclaimed businessmen.
He is most famously known for his pivotal role in the high rise of Mears Group PLC. Since taking control in 1996, he led the business onto the stock market, building an order book value of £3billion and steered the company to its market leading position. Bob is currently holding executive and non-executive roles in a number of companies where he continues to be instrumental in guiding businesses to make beneficial changes that will not only improve the business itself but will aid communities and have a positive impact on the lives and welfare of others.
This very much extends to Bob's philanthropic work where his philosophy 'Improving Lives' is particularly evident. So far, he has supported more than 65 charitable organisations and individuals and continues to support many of them. Bob is the founder of The Mears Foundation, The Footprints Foundation and The Holt Trust where he produces teams of volunteers to work on projects that have a life changing impact for tens of thousands of individuals both in the UK and overseas.
What was your first job?
My first job was unpaid work in my mother’s grocers shops as she had a couple in the north of England. If you know anything about that life, it's very much a case of the bell rings and you have to get up. I did that for a number of years, but my first paid job was as an office boy. I think you would probably call it a Management Trainee these days. I remember having to sharpen the pencils in one of those large machines. Times and technology have changed a lot since then!
What were your career aspirations when you were younger?
I thought I wanted to be a footballer; I had a couple of trials, but it was rather obvious that I wasn’t good enough. The only thing I was lacking was ability, but I had a lot of heart, thought, desire and passion. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. When you’re in your teens do you really know what you want to do with your life? I didn’t go to university, but I went to work in an office, and I think that’s what really suited me. I’m not particularly skilled with my hands, so working in an office environment was for me, clearly and I am still doing that today, fifty years on.
Who or what, inspired you to embark on your business career?
I was very lucky because my mother, who really came from abject poverty (probably one step away from having to beg for a living) wanted to make something of her life. She ended up buying a grocers shop and then another one. She gave me a great work ethic. Even now, in my sixties, I still work harder than most if I choose to. I’m glad to say I choose not to, on lots of occasions. It was always the case that if you work hard you get the rewards and if you don’t work hard you don’t deserve them.
My first boss was great in that respect; He interviewed me and said, “so what have you been doing?” I said, “I’ve been going for football trials” to which he replied, "well you start tomorrow lad”. He was excellent. I remember him saying at some point, in week two or three, that I needed to come in the next day wearing old clothes and when I asked, “why is that, Norman?” he told me I was going to paint some old filing cabinets as business was quiet. As I said before, times were different, but it did me no harm painting filing cabinets, sharpening pencils, collecting or delivering mail during the great national postal strike in the early seventies. I’ve always been motivated; I’ve always worked hard, and I think that has got me where I am today.
What five words best describe you?
Fundamentally, I'm honest which I think is a great place to start. Those who work with me know I’m trustworthy. If we agree something, then we get on with it, we do it together without having to broadcast it to the world. I think I’ve become a natural leader; people want to follow me which in turn then sees me as a motivator. I'm also inherently hands-on. It's much more about me being hands-on in a progressive way, rather than needing to know 'every turn of the dial' - in other words it's a case of 'I will support you, what do you need? Come on let’s work together'. I know the bigger picture, I know how the story ends, so I like to encourage a 'just get on with it' attitude.
Do you have a favourite saying or quote?
If someone asked what expression would you attribute to Bob? it would be “let’s get on with it” but with the occasional expletive also thrown in [sic.]
What technology are you passionate about?
I’m not passionate about any particular technology if I’m being honest but I’m passionate about technology per se. It’s fantastic the way technology can help and support businesses. I will say that I embrace all technology and have an iPhone, iPad, laptop as well as being very active on most social media.
I’m certainly no technocrat though; I need help from the kids to turn the TV on. I’m not passionate about anything specifically. However, I am in awe of young people who develop technology, that is superb in taking us forward. Conversely, technology can also be abused; you see it used to con people out of their money and some of the terrible things that happen to kids. Overall, though, I’m a big supporter of technology.
What is your approach to interviewing and hiring?
I tend to be very open to interview people. If somebody writes to me or I get offered someone who is in the industry I work in, then I tend to see them. It’s amazing how much you can find out about your competition. People are willing to tell you things - both good and bad about their employers - which I find very useful. However, these days I tend to do less interviewing as I have many others that manage that role.
Do you have a favourite interview question?
I’ve always said "tell me what you think are the good parts about you, things those who work for you would say i.e. the people who you lead? Be mindful when you answer that, as I may have spoken to or will speak to those people".
I then direct the same question focussed on what their boss would say about them. It tends to make people think truthfully about whether they should really say “I’m bossy” or I’m bombastic” and so on. It really cuts through the veneer to get to the crux of someone.
Fundamentally, in an interview scenario, I’m always looking to understand whether I can look this person in the eye and have a difficult conversation with them, because something may not go right in the future of the business in which they are involved. It might not be their fault. It might be regulation, competition, government change but it's all about whether we can have a difficult conversation and move on e.g. "I know you said you would make a million and you’ve only made a hundred grand. I know that but I don’t blame you for that, as things happen".
So, can I have that conversation with them and move on? Because if I can’t, I don’t really want them defending the planet, let’s move on. I think it comes from a somewhat impatient management style; we know the situation so let’s now move forward. I don’t bear grudges and I don’t look back. I tend to classify the situation as 'are we together yet or is this going to be a problem?' There is an impatience about it. I suppose those people who have done what I’ve done and do what I do, tend to consider it as let’s move on together or not at all.
How should the Human Resources function operate within an organisation?
I think they should be an integral part of the DNA of the business. It certainly is when looking at my principal business I’m involved in. Without HR support, we would not have coped with Covid on any level like we have.
The fact that we, as a group, have had significant successes during lockdown and this is a business with 2,500 employees, a lot of that is down to HR. I’ve been the voice piece, I’ve been directing the webinars, I’ve been the voice of the daily and weekly updates, but I've been fed the information from Maria and my HR Director. They say "Bob, these are the stats, here is the latest news, this is the air bridge, this is the number of people on furlough etc."
I’m just the voice box; the actor working to scripts in the nicest way. We all know that there are HR functions and HR professionals who flex their muscles for the wrong reasons. However, we want the highest levels of protocols on hiring and firing, the highest levels on probity and the 'do’s and don’ts'. Anybody that cuts across those, goes.
Has workplace diversity now become embedded or is there still much more to do?
There is a massive amount to do. My two businesses work for the public sector, both a similar size, about 2,500 employees, both listed companies. When you operate in any sector but principally in the public sector - in a people touching environment, you need a workforce that mirrors the environment that you are working in. We’re still miles away from there, but we continue to monitor it, we continue to focus on diversity.
Although miles away, we are ahead of others. There are some businesses that can’t even spell diversity yet. I am a massive fan of the benefits of a diverse workforce. One of my businesses, of which I am Chairman, has a female executive board. it’s a listed company with female Chief Executive, Finance Director and Clinical Director. Diversity is going to get better and we all just need to keep working at it.
What legislation would you amend or implement to support businesses given the current climate?
I spoke with a friend of mine who is in the Cabinet the other day about this very subject. I reminded him firstly that I am “A-political”. You have to be, to operate within the sectors that I’ve operated in. Principally with Mears Group and latterly with Sureserve, where we are supporting and working to local authorities nationally. Irrespective of what the national politics are, you are working to every colour. You are working to Labour controlled, Lib Dem controlled, and Tory controlled authorities. You can’t put a flag up that says we are blue or red or yellow and nor should you. You’ve got to be A-political.
However, I do think that this Government has been great. They have been good at supporting where we are with Covid by introducing the furlough scheme which has been a great help. Without being critical, I am conscious of people abusing it, now that we get towards the end. I said to my friend," it’s incumbent on Leaders like me and you, to make sure that we don’t abuse it". It's important that we thank the UK for its support but now it’s down to us to bring these people back or make them redundant, depending on the business but don’t sit there abusing the system.
So, what would I implement? I’m a big believer that people like me, should do something public facing. I have a Foundation, so I do my bit and I would encourage more people to do their bit but I’m not standing on a soapbox about it. I choose to help and support communities both here at home and overseas. Other people don’t and that’s up to them.
In your opinion, what are the key elements of being a successful Chairman?
In the eighties, I was headhunted by what were then the two biggest entrepreneurs of the 1980’s. People who went out and built significant public companies; high profile guys who were polar opposites. One of them is now a Lord of the Realm, multi-billionaire and I wouldn’t choose to necessarily go and have lunch with him. The other one fell from grace because he was too nice and got trampled on. He’s not skint, but he probably hasn’t done as financially well as others.
So, there were two polar opposite people who didn’t share the same traits, who were Chairmen of public listed companies. My view is surround yourself with good people, always bring in people that are better than you in many areas. I’ve always done that. Although I am an accountant by background, I’ve always had a first-class Finance Director. You need that. Pick the right people, make yourself available, support your team.
During my leadership talks, I have discussed how I played a fairly good standard of football and cricket and although I was, without any doubt, the worst footballer of the eleven and probably the worst cricketer of the eleven, I was more often than not, the Captain. I suppose I must have shown some leadership qualities that people related to. I knew that when you needed a kick, you got a kick and when you needed a cuddle you got a cuddle; although not literally. It’s so important to understand and recognise that, in a work environment.
I think my sport taught me lots of great things about knowing how to manage and build a team. If you don’t know how to get on with people, then don’t try to be a leader. You’ve got to be out there, you’ve got to make yourself available, you’ve got to have empathy towards people but at the end of the day, you’ve also got to be able to make tough decisions, because there’s often a lot of people depending on you to get it right. I don’t think it’s a surprise that my two listed companies have done rather well. They will probably have record years during this last 12 months so there’s probably some relevance to what I’ve just described.
How would you describe your leadership style?
I make myself available. I’m best known for having taken Mears Group from £9M to £1Bn but people who don’t know me, have made comments like “I’m not sure I’d like to work for you Bob, I bet you’re a real taskmaster”. For me that’s fine, they can move on as there is also a long line of people who do want to work for me.
My leadership style is collegiate, sometimes laddish and certainly embracing, bringing in diverse workforces that mirror the communities we are in. I have an open management style. I’m certainly not the typical Chairman of a public company. I often say it as I see it. Sometimes that offends people, although I never mean to offend. I’m bloody busy, my style is “come on, are we going to do this, are we together or not, yes or no, if its yes then forget what happened, let’s move on, come on, let’s get it done.”
How should a leader support their team in good and difficult trading times?
Make yourself available. From the moment, Covid broke, I took the decision to host a daily webinar to the business. We have c 2,500 employees and up to 400 would join in each day. People in the business who may not have met me previously, had the opportunity to talk with me. I often get criticized for putting my mobile phone and contact details on the website, but the message is clear; "if you want to speak with me, then speak with me. If you are wasting my time, then I’ll tell you not to bloody waste my time. If you feel you need to speak to me, then just pick up the phone. I’d rather that, than hear any frustrations via other sources, just tell me what the problem is, and we will sort it out. My advice to leaders is to make yourself available and be visible.
What is your biggest career highlight or achievement to date?
Although I was proud to receive the OBE for my charity work in Africa, my biggest career achievement was buying control of Mears and sixteen years later taking it from £9M to £1Bn revenues. I bought control of Mears for £50,000 and at its peak it’s made £50M a year profit. It’s gone from 100 people to, at its peak, 15,000 people. Clearly that was a massive achievement and in turn it made me a very wealthy man. More importantly it wasn’t just me - a team of people did that.
I think, however, that what I’ve done more recently at Sureserve, is more relevant now. I was helicoptered in there four years ago by the shareholders, to sort out a business that had been recently floated and was immediately going under. Within 15 months it owed the bank £37M. I went in there and did some very heavy lifting to sort it out. Today that business is very profitable and the amount it owes the bank is £zero. I am particularly proud of what we have done there.
What’s next for you and the Sureserve Group?
We really need to get the share price up. We have done very well during Covid. Our year end is September and we are very excited about our outturn year to September. I’ve been on Zoom calls in budget meetings over the last two days with the eight trading subsidiaries. Those are looking healthy. What’s most important is that all our people are working to the same strategy and platform. There’s no bull, backbiting or politics because I won’t have it.
What’s next for us is to consolidate where we are, take the business on to the next stage, sustainable growth and get more of the opportunities. I am always in businesses where, without sounding idiotic, everything we do already exists out there. It doesn’t have to be re-invented; you don’t have to be technologically recreating, it already exists. If we’re not going for it, some other bastard is.
As I always say to my bid teams, you’re turning over £50M, £70M, £80M, what can you go out there and put a 20% or 15% drop on, in a sustainable and controlled way? I’m not saying go for it at any cost, that’s not the message but you need to go and look at the tallest building, go and look at the largest collection of chimney pots, whatever you're working on and make it happen. The business is out there.
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