Jeremy Hartley: The Wright approach

By Ged Henderson

17 Nov 2022

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In one short sentence Jeremy Hartley neatly sums up the ‘Wright’ way of doing business. It is, he explains, all about creating “profit with a purpose”.

Long before CSR and ESG came onto the corporate world’s radar, the Lancashire company he heads had taken the view that the role of business in society was not to create wealth for the few but rather to help in building a strong community.

The Eric Wright group of companies, which today spans construction, civil engineering, property development and facilities management, has been working to do just that.

In 2016 it became wholly owned by the Eric Wright Charitable Trust, with 100 per cent of profits either reinvested in the company or passed back into the community through its and the group’s charitable works and donations.

The “profit with a purpose” phrase captures founder and chairman Eric Wright’s vision for a sustainable business model which plays a wider part in the community. His philosophy provides the strong foundation on which the Bamber Bridge headquartered group has been built.

Group managing director Jeremy, who has been with the business for a quarter of a century, says: “If you break down what Eric says, it is not just about the business making money, it is about how we approach our day-to-day business activities and ultimately what we do with that money.

“We have to make money. We face the same challenges as any other business, and we have wages to pay. The charity couldn’t do what it does without us being a successful business. That is an integral part of Eric’s sustainable model.

“The way we operate means investing the money we make in order to secure people’s futures and to improve the lives of people in the communities around the business. It is about having a positive and lasting impact.

“The trust was created to capture Eric’s vision for a sustainable business, because he felt it was the right way to connect with our communities, the places we live and work in.

“He didn’t shout too loudly about it. Eric has never been one to publicise his actions, he likes them to speak louder than his words.

“In recent times the business community has begun to realise companies should or could pay a much bigger part in society. The future is around people and social value.

“The developing ESG agenda means lot of businesses are just starting out on that journey, we have been out there doing it for a long time.”

While the trust receives funding from the business, it has its own board of trustees and is own independent giving strategy.

The Eric Wright Learning Foundation has sponsored the vocational training of more than 5,000 Preston College students since 2005. Its residential outdoor adventure centre on Coniston Water in the Lake District works with young people from communities across the North West facing social and economic challenges.

And its grant schemes have delivered millions of pounds of support to charities across the region, working in fields ranging from mental health to family and child support.

On the business side, the group’s 2021 financial results showed a profit before tax of £15.1m, up £5.6m from the previous year. Its investment property portfolio grew in value year on year to £84.1m, up from £75.9m in 2020, including acquisitions in the year of £3.2m.

Jeremy, 56, who is from Rossendale, joined the group from one of the big four accountancy firms as financial controller.

He believes its diversity, made up of eight businesses employing just over 800 people, is a major strength, giving it resilience, which has been much needed in recent times. “We have evolved our model around long-term sustainable growth, building on our core strengths and staying true to Eric’s vision and values.” he explains.

Many people in Lancashire may think of Eric Wright as a builder but its water division, working for three of the big utility groups, is the biggest employer in the group and has a £50m turnover.

The group is involved in partnerships with local authorities across Lancashire, delivering major regeneration schemes in Burnley and Preston.

Pioneer Place, a £23m scheme in Burnley, is set to open next summer and Jeremy talks about the work “reshaping and defining” town centres.

The business is also working towards a strategy to develop and operate care homes. Jeremy says: “We want to create a care offering in the North West that embraces Eric’s values. That will take time.”

Jeremy stresses that a commitment to those social values must be more than box ticking. “As much as you talk about it, you have got to demonstrate you do it.”

He talks of the “four Ps” - people, planet, place and performance - and how they are embedded in the business’s day-to-day activities.

The ‘planet’ piece has seen the group move quickly towards an electric vehicle fleet on its net zero journey, it is also trialling solar powered alternatives to diesel generators on its construction sites.

Working towards the circular economy is also an important initiative, with recycling rates up to 88 per cent across all businesses, as is biodiversity.

Jeremy says: “If we can embed biodiversity within schemes wherever  possible it starts to send out some positive messages in terms of what we can do to help the planet.”

When it comes to people he says: “We work hard to value, support and retain our staff. We have a very talented and committed workforce without which we wouldn’t achieve our successes.

“We also work hard to bring people into the industry, developing and supporting them and giving them careers they can build on. We want to make people feel valued and that they have genuine, long-term opportunities.

“Family financial wellbeing is a big issue at the moment. We made hardship payments in the summer to all staff to help them deal with some of the cost-of-living issues they are facing.”

He adds: “I’m very comfortable in where we are heading. We need to secure and retain the talent in the business and a fundamental part of our future strategy will be around people.”

Jeremy says Eric, who is now aged 85, was “incredibly supportive” through Covid, using conference calls to talk with senior management every week.

Post-pandemic he still comes into the office every Monday and goes out to a site on Wednesdays. Jeremy says: “His interest in the business has never diminished, he is here to support and guide us and is ensuring his business philosophy is passed down the generations of staff coming up through the business.

“It is visible leadership and people find him genuinely inspiring.”

Enjoyed this? Read more from Ged Henderson

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