5 Minutes with Chris Allwood, Managing Director in Building Products

Collingwood partnered with Welsh Slate in assessing and developing their leadership team.  Since the recent acquisition of Welsh Slate by Breedon Group, MD - Chris Allwood has decided it is now time to move into a Non-Executive / Consultancy role within the building products industry.  He met up with Collingwood’s Head of Building Products, Mark Goldsmith and this is what they discussed:

Mark:  Good to meet up again Chris.  So, the time has come to leave Welsh Slate.  Where next for you?

Chris: It had been agreed that I would step down from the role as MD of Welsh Slate prior to the change in ownership and the process involved implementing a succession plan, not only for my own role but also through the senior management team, which was successfully completed.

This period gave me the chance to assess what I really wanted to do.  I have a wide ranging background in the industry and have fulfilled many roles in that time, so a portfolio career had a great deal of appeal, as I could potentially provide my services to those companies and organisations who might need either some short term support or perhaps intermittent help and advice either as consultant or in a non-executive position according to requirements.

Mark: Makes complete sense to me Chris.  For many years your work has been acting as the change agent in a manufacturing environment.  A phrase you’ve said in the past that stuck with me was “Culture eats strategy for breakfast”.  How have you applied this when entering a new business? 

Chris: The one thing that is constant in all businesses is change, whether it be the environment in which that business operates, market conditions, new entrants and so on and each brings its own challenges.  I suppose I’ve always looked to invoke that ongoing search for improvement which sits alongside that ever changing background of markets, customers and competitors.

Change doesn’t happen in a business just because we want it to happen.  Yes, we need a strategy to take us from point A to point B, but unless we bring the whole company with us (or at least that critical mass of people who will make it stick) that change will not happen and the company will steadily drift back to the culture that has prevailed – the status quo – or the “we’ve always done it this way” thinking.

Before any potential change is introduced you need to get to know the people and the context within which they will see the change – i.e. the culture – because when you start to explain “Why” the change is needed you need to see what you’re saying through the eyes of the recipients. This leads to change being a part of the “new” culture and becomes self-sustaining.

I suppose this brings me back to one core theme of mine which relates to why leaders are always “selling”, whether it is a product or a solution, the company itself or more often an idea, the leader should always consider the needs of the customer and ensure they match what they are selling to these requirements.  But first you need to listen and then think before acting.

Mark: Your background is a somewhat unique mix of skills and experience Chris.  Within a non-exec role what strengths do you feel you can add?

Chris: Within the building products / built environment sector I have been fortunate to have a variety of roles and employers that have provided me with the opportunity to develop and learn.

I suppose what I could bring is that broad based background which enables me to ask the questions that are sometimes a little uncomfortable, but which need addressing.  Having worked in companies of varying size from SMEs to multi-nationals I am aware that there are different ways of operating as a business, but that ultimately the role of the director is the same.  I have the benefit of having been able to work in many markets around the world and understand the different ways of doing business; and if I don’t know something I have a network of trusted friends and former colleagues that I can ask to help me find the answers.

What I find most exciting looking forward is that the sector is probably set for a period of significant change with new business models being brought to bear enabled by new technologies and driven by broader economic conditions, but I believe that sustainability is the key and that we should be looking for a solution led built environment rather than one that is product led.

Mark: I see you went down to Futurebuild.  One of my contacts manages the Offsite Hub arena and I know you have an interest in innovation within the sector.  There are clearly SMEs out there who are pushing innovation forward.  What do you consider to be the main challenges for new businesses that are looking to disrupt the more conventional methods of construction?

Chris: Innovation is key in developing sustainable solutions for our built environment.  But innovation isn’t just about new technology, although this is important, it’s also about different thinking, diversity and looking at how other industries are changing.

For example the Amazon model of shopping has transformed how we buy goods – we don’t expect that Amazon ships everything from its own warehouses, we now accept that they will ship direct from source; and if that is so then why not buy direct from source?  Delivery methods of single pallet drops to doorstep are increasingly common and what we as consumers have come to expect.

Furthermore, the SME sector is where we are seeing lots of the new thinking emerging, the key here is how they commercialise their offering and are able to build scale before they are picked off by a major who incorporates them into their supply chain or who suppresses the freedom of thought.

As an industry we need to find a way to bring such ideas together in a more collaborative environment perhaps bringing groups of SMEs together to form a more cohesive “larger” solution rather than a group of systems.  Again, when schemes are conceived design is laid at the door of the architect or engineer, but with collaboration better conceived interfaces between complementary systems could work more effectively.  I suppose this is the modular off-site type of solution, but I feel there is more mileage in such models.

Mark: And what do you see as the role that Trade Associations should be taking in helping such businesses?

Chris: SMEs need a voice and Trade Associations (in my view) have long been viewed as the way for them to play a role in shaping the future of their sector / product group and the industry generally.

But in order for those voices to be heard, those companies need to be able to play a part in the relevant forum. Many SMEs don’t get that opportunity, mainly owing to the fact that they are what they are – Small / Medium Enterprises and just don’t have the resource to attend meetings at distant locations when the day-to-day needs of their businesses must take precedence.

I would like to see Trade Associations reach out to those more distant and smaller members invest more effort in their regional involvement (as some do) and encourage the involvement of representatives from smaller members.  Perhaps this is an area where technology could be applied to greater benefit?

Mark: Much of your early work at Welsh Slate revolved around forging a stronger leadership team.  I am a real advocate for businesses within the Built Environment attracting talent from other industries.  What’s your own experience and view on this?

Chris:  My personal view is that leaders only succeed when their teams are successful and that each team leader needs to develop their own style according to their own values and beliefs; however for this to happen these need to be identified and understood.

The role of leader (at whatever level) in an organisation varies according to the company and need at a particular time.  Whilst it might be an easy choice to appoint the person who is considered best in their field to step up to become leader, this isn’t always an easy transition, since you are then asking that person to do things other than that which has seen them become successful; e.g. manage other people, set targets and so on...

Whether succession planning or recruitment, I think it is more important to keep an open mind and where possible widen the horizons when considering how to develop the leadership team.  If we are prepared to look at adapting new technologies from other industries to help our businesses operate more effectively then why not consider appointments from other industries.  My view is that a salesman who understands the selling process will be able to sell once they understand the product and the service and the context of the market; the same holds firm in leadership positions.

I suppose my perspective is that for you to continue to succeed as a leader then you need to be attracting the best possible talent to your company.  In terms of choice this can only be better served by having a wider net and if this then entails recruitment from outside your own industry there is an opportunity to find new ways forward and to be one step ahead of the competition.