5 Minutes with Neil Evans
2 years on from starting with VEKA UK, Mark catches with Neil Evans to understand how his role and the market has evolved
Having worked with VEKA UK for a number of years, Collingwood consulted with their MD, Dave Jones, about sourcing a newly created Sales Director position, with Dave looking to split the old role of Sales & Marketing Director into two specialist positions. Our Head of Building Products, Mark Goldsmith, managed the role. Having previously worked with the then Sales Director of VELUX, Neil Evans, understanding the strong cultural match and change orientation, Mark highlighted Neil as a strong contender and he was successfully appointed by VEKA. Two years on, Mark sat down with Neil and here’s what they discussed.
Mark: Although we have kept in touch since your introduction to VEKA UK, I am keen to understand how your role and the market has evolved during the past two or so years?
Neil: My role has evolved in a number of ways. As you would expect some of that simply reflects a better understanding of the sector, our customers, our people, our capability and our ambition. My DNA is all about identifying and supporting the need for constructive change and, however well you think you approach that, it can be disruptive. Helping others recognise the need for change and starting the journey to get there needs trust, resilience and a good amount of skill around you. Latterly, the scope of my role has increased further to include our Technical and Commercial Pricing functions. So on one hand they are now also being disrupted and on the other they have a greater sense of the vision and an opportunity to be a part of the change. The functions are logical additions due to their closeness to our customers or support they provide to the field sales team.
Market evolution is perhaps more difficult to be sure about. The industry lacks up to date sector data due to recent changes. You have to be careful to present a “market” view objectively. So I will try! Firstly, it’s a surprisingly complex supply chain, and that has challenges for all involved in purchasing decisions. That’s not an evolution as such but one that can provide challenges where engagement with product options is increasing and, in turn, brings further complexity. That complexity will only increase and I fear those who don’t embrace it just won’t survive. Secondly, window systems are rarely demanded by consumers based on systems company brand which means consumers have little real understanding of what they are getting. We have ambition to change that; hence re-branding our Which Trusted Trader “Independent Network” and increasing investment and coverage. Thirdly, as around 75% of business is “replacement of replacements” the main driver of that activity is now “the look” rather than the “energy performance”. That’s a good development for the industry and should also accelerate future replacement cycles. Finally, you can also see the impact of fewer young people coming into the industry, owners without exit strategies or succession plans and very few people transferring into the industry irrespective of age, which of course is a wider issue across construction. The real impact of that will be seen over the next 10 years.
Mark: At the time of shaping the shortlist for your current role, I debated with Dave about you coming from another recognised leader in VELUX. Clearly there were advantages to VEKA UK recruiting someone who is comfortable holding the reigns for a market leader. What is your take on the sometimes perceived stigma attached to a senior figure coming from an international leader and what advantages do you see in employing someone from this background?
Neil: The stigma is an interesting one in that the potential concern was that I may personally be complacent due to the “ease and comfort” working for a massively dominant market leader. It never occurred to me that could be a concern, mainly because of how I know I am driven, the change I have led and how hard a company like VELUX worked to enhance their market position over all the time I was there. I think the team I worked with at VELUX might have wished for a rest from the change we constantly drove!
The biggest advantage with my background at VELUX (and prior to that AVIVA) is around the experiences, skills investment, strategic influence & interpretation, and the methods to build a high performing, motivated and loyal team in a rewarding culture. I’ve got vast experience behind me and pretty much all of the thinking that creates is transferable. One watch out (that one of my customers likes to remind me of!) is to ensure that I don’t end up too “Corporate” for my environment or the sector. That’s a hint to relax a bit more!
Mark: Your route into becoming the Sales Director at VELUX was somewhat unconventional – via being the Operations Director. Granted, VELUX does not manufacture in the UK, and so with your role at the time encompassing technical, credit control, logistics and customer services, what benefits has this provided you and to both VELUX and latterly VEKA UK?
Neil: My route into VELUX itself was also unconventional with my background in Insurance. I’d shown an ability to work across different disciplines at AVIVA (customer facing, policy/procedures, procurement, project management and finally running a large Claims Operations Centre). I got great outplacement support when being made redundant at AVIVA, as they led the trend of offshoring to India, and this encouraged me to focus on transferable skills and resist the temptation to limit myself to the same industry. That was key. VELUX came along and I had to convince them that the various functions covered by their Operations Director role were areas I could lead rather than be expert in. That said, I did work hard to show them how my hands-on experience could be linked to the role. For example, whilst Logistics may paint a picture of lorries and warehouses I used an example of my time as project manager leading a UK-wide re-brand as a complex Logistics exercise. Once employed, the HR Director said they had been drawn to my personality (they clearly didn’t check with those who know me)!
The role of Sales Director at VELUX was brought to me. The vacancy had been open for 12 months and I had never once considered applying for it. But a fruitless external search made the business re-examine what it was looking for. I was shocked when they started the conversation but immediately they said it made sense due to cultural fit and my proven change orientation. Naturally, the sales team did not immediately agree because what did I know about sales? Knowing nothing about sales was the best thing that could have happened because I had no choice but to ask loads of questions. Again, that was key. I left VELUX proud of what we had achieved together and the team that was in place.
The benefit of all of this for me is that I get variety (which I need) and don’t tend to avoid anything. Whilst there might be some things I prefer doing over others I generally feel confident and capable to either directly learn or influence any disciplines across a business.
Mark: A fair chunk of your early tenure with VEKA UK involved devising a new sales & marketing strategy with Dawn Stockell, the new Marketing Director we recruited at the same time as you. How did and are you working with marketing in shaping and delivering this?
Neil: We landed on the strategy pretty early (within 1st 2 months) and have been totally consistent in pursuing this since. Feedback from the teams was that they wanted consistency and they’ve had that. The business had the desire to change and that has been great for Dawn and myself. We’ve done a lot of work within our teams (both independently and together) to build the vision, strategy and all important detailed activities to deliver. Our teams are located together and there is open dialogue and joint working across the teams. I was used to this way of working (another advantage of my time at VELUX). We communicate as one as appropriate or, if relevant, we may have different views on the same subject which we are comfortable communicating professionally in open groups. It is not about creating some sterile view of total alignment on everything because that is not real; it is about encouraging different views and ideas and from that continuing to improve.
Mark: And in rolling out a new approach amongst a sales team a newly recruited Sales Director is often posed with the challenge of re-positioning the team's thought process and whole approach to the market(s). Not that I’m suggesting that was the case at VEKA UK, but how have you ensured the new requirements have been embedded internally?
Neil: Some of this came from the early setting of strategy and the clear strategic focus areas to deliver that strategy. And there was a lot of time asking questions and listening. What was encouraging was that the vast majority recognised that change was needed. Then we had to focus on what would help form a genuine team, rather than a lot of silos. This needed a reorganisation because without it we could not get there. The reorganisation demanded a whole set of new reporting lines, new skills, responsibilities and “change”. It was a relief for some and concerning for others because it is one thing recognising the need for change and another to then be part of it. We supported it with extensive training and ongoing support, including individual agreements on pace of change, underpinned by a whole new set of standards aimed at making us more efficient and effective individuals and a high performing engaged team. The new structure also enabled line managers to be focused providing support to team members on an ongoing basis. I also added some talent from VELUX into an already talented VEKA team. In a lucky break we were due to introduce a new CRM system (one I was familiar with) and I could see that this could act as an enabler of the bigger change. The growth of individuals has been a real highlight.
Mark: The last couple of years have been fantastic for VEKA UK’s employer branding with numerous accolades coming your way. With the new strategy you have instilled into the sales force how have you managed to keep and even increase engagement amongst the team?
Neil: It’s a product of the areas mentioned earlier; clarity of direction, support for change and a culture that encourages team ahead of individual. We don’t get hung up on short term numbers. We focus on doing the right things well and believing we will then get the results we deserve. Whilst I am not always highly visible to customers I reckon I have an above average sense of what customer experience needs to look like in order to differentiate us from the rest and ensure that VEKA fulfils its ambition to be a clear no.1 in the market on measures that matter to customers and, in turn, supports future investment in our offer.
Mark: Given your position in the market, I have to ask, what is your take on how Brexit has affected our industry and how do you perceive it affecting this year (albeit we don’t know the outcome until the end of March):
Neil: There has undoubtedly been a good amount of navel gazing and hesitation to invest for some in the market. In contrast we ploughed £5m capex investment into our local business, including acquisition of more space to support a stand-alone lamination production plant. The impact of that lack of investment, activity or planning may not be seen now but may well be in 2-3 years.
From a demand perspective consumers are hesitating, especially where purchases are genuinely discretionary and/or dependent on debt. We see it in car sales and this industry lags those trends by around 9-12 months. In the recession of 2008 those who had debt free capital did nothing to change their buying behaviour and, realistically, Brexit uncertainty will still leave them unaffected. But that just leaves too few consumers active. Market forecasts are for small declines in 2019 volumes. Without knowing how Brexit will look it is impossible to say whether those forecasts will play out.
Irrespective this remains a market with huge potential for many years to come.