Mark Goldsmith, Collingwood's Building Products and Construction business unit manager, took some time out recently to meet with ex Uponor Managing Director Peter Roberts. They discussed Peter's 30+ year career within this turbulent sector and what lies ahead for him as he looks to share his experiences to help others.
Mark: Having left Uponor after eight years as Vice President for the UK, what does the future hold for you now?
Peter: Uponor was the last stop on a 30+ year journey that was a full-time career, rich in experiences, people and situations. I now want more balance between work and non-work activities. I still want to be involved in business - there is plenty of ‘gas in the tank!’ - and I would hope to use my skills and experiences to help others solve their specific problems, giving a fresh perspective and making a difference, without being hamstrung by the politics that exist in every organisation.
I have essentially worked in blue-chip, manufacturing companies in the building materials sector and benefitted from first-class development programmes covering people, processes and strategy. I now want to apply my learnings to other situations and hopefully, add some real value to organisations by helping them with some of their business issues.
Mark: Much of your latter career with Uponor and Kingspan involved fronting large change management programmes. In general, terms, when starting such a monumental task, where do you start and what are your key focuses?
Peter: Absolutely paramount is to be clear about the reasons and rationale for wanting to undertake a change management programme and what you want to see at the end of it. The prevailing culture of the organisation will have a big impact on the length of time and approach that will need to be taken. People generally understand that change is good and necessary – as long as it doesn’t affect them! It is imperative that there is a clear ‘story to tell’ that explains the need for change and the benefits to be derived from it. That story should be continually reviewed and refined. It is important to find your key advocates and influencers who can help carry the message and prepare the way for change. These are not exclusively management level people. With sufficient bought-in people, process re-engineering can then be a positive reinforcer of change. The three most important things – communicate, communicate, communicate.
Mark: People management is key to delivering change and building a profitable future for a manufacturer. What key skills do you think a leader needs and what actions have you employed to build trust and unity in your vision?
Peter: If I think about my experiences over the years, different skills are required at different times and in different situations. That being said, I would say the recurring themes for me are integrity – being honest with people and true to your word; enthusiasm and keeping a positive energy (even when you don’t feel it); accountability- own what you do; communication – connecting directly with people and say it as it is.
Building trust and unity is a function of time and behaviour. Constant engagement with colleagues at all levels, visibility and a preparedness to listen; testing and retesting of your business thinking; consistency in values and behaviours; admitting mistakes and recognising and addressing issues when they are at odds with the vision all help.
Mark: Upon joining Uponor in 2008, you and your team brought business back to a profitable level. What was the single biggest contributor to the performance improvement and how did you drive this?
Peter: It would be unfair to single out one contributor to returning the business back to profitability. In 2008 the market ‘fell off a cliff’ and cost reduction was an inevitable consequence involving a review of the organisation but as importantly practices and behaviours. At that time, though, more than ever, the need was to have clear customer orientation. That required an organisational design that focused on the customer and positioned the customer as the purpose of all activity. Sales personnel know that – the challenge was to bring support and back office functions to that point. Knowing and staying close to your true customers and servicing the hell out of them retained and ultimately redeveloped volumes. The building industry remains a very people business and relationships developed in the difficult times, if properly maintained, reap benefits later. Being personally involved directly and by supporting and encouraging the sales teams was very important in our situation.
Mark: You have directed large, recognised manufacturers within the building materials space. With budgets and margins continually squeezed during and after the recent recession, what key investments (personnel and technology) have you been keen to employ?
Peter: Technology evolution is constant and having the right people constantly scanning for cost down investment opportunities is essential. My background is more on the commercial side and I would say the development and targeted deployment of CRM systems have been key to refining marketing strategy, identifying a more focused customer and segment approach and driving the effectiveness of sales and marketing activity. The old adage of “what gets measured, gets done” is very true.
Of course, technology and data is nothing without people to use it and the development of people is probably the biggest lever to success – and often the most intangible of investments. Investment in people is not just about training courses. In fact, I believe it’s more important to find individuals who share common beliefs, values and behaviours. Good people can learn hard skills, but need to have the right heart and mindset at the outset to deliver for the business. Leaders are far harder to find than managers, so when you do get them, cultivate and develop them and they will do the same with their people.
Business is fundamentally simple. If you get the right people doing the right processes in the context of a clear strategy, you have a great basis for success.