5 Minutes with Chris Williams, NED at Leading façade distributor VIVALDA Group

Our Head of Building Products & Construction, Mark Goldsmith, has continued speaking with leaders from within his network.  This has led him to sit down with Chris Williams to understand more about his previous, current and potential future positions.

Chris is currently working in a NED capacity for the leading non-combustible Façades fabricator and distributor, VIVALDA Group plc, applying his skills obtained from his broad construction industry experience in Cladding, Façades, Fire protection, Roofing and Plumbing in both manufacturing and distribution. At IBP Conex the plumbing fittings specialist, Chris led the commercial element of this significant turnaround, while more recently, post the 2008 recession, as MD he rescued Steadmans (part of the SIG group) and created the successful and leading SIG Building Solutions Division.

Here’s what they discussed:

Mark:  For those who don’t know VIVALDA Group, can you provide an overview of what the business specialises in, how they have grown over the past few years and what’s in store for the coming years?

Chris: VIVALDA Group plc was originally set up some 25 years ago by the founder and majority shareholder. The Group consists of several successful distribution and manufacturing brands all operating under one governance and operating structure. This ensures the benefits of local autonomy while guaranteeing a consistent and strong ethical approach to servicing and communicating with its customers. Its core strategy success is that it has only ever focussed on the supply of materials and services to the Façades sector. It is clear the business knows what it is good at and hasn’t deviated too far from its core competencies. This strategy has ensured that it has also never lost that clear understanding of its customer’s needs. This stability and financial prudency has also enabled it to grow rapidly over time through both organic growth and acquisitions, to a circa £40m turnover, and has always maintained a strong balance sheet and cash flow. While 2020 has been a difficult year for all, including those in the construction sector, it would also be fair to say we should perhaps remember in our industry we have suffered far less than many others. During this difficult period VIVALDA Group, like many, has continued to trade at every opportunity given to them and as a result expect to see positive year on year progress despite it all. While VIVALDA Group continue to drive their own success, it would be fair to say they are also benefitting from the current high activity in the sector. This has been stimulated, in part, by the Grenfell tragedy. Having said that, future project activity levels still look relatively strong and through the recent acquisition of MSP (Scotland) VIVALDA Group is well placed to benefit.

Mark:  The government has committed £1.6bn of investment to remediate aluminum composite cladding in tower blocks. The select committee’s estimated that £3.4bn is immediately required, with an astonishing figure of £15bn ultimately needed. Clearly, this is a huge hole and commitment to work.  In your work, how have you witnessed the government and industry specialists in this space working together to ensure critical work can be scaled?

Chris: As you imply, the reported numbers and costs vary, somewhat depending on what you read or who you talk to, although whatever the real, expected, or final numbers, it is fair to say there is a significant task at hand. Clearly, some of that task has already been completed, or nears completion, and was supported by the ACM (aluminum composite material) replacement fund. This has now been supplemented by the BSF (Building Safety Fund),this being associated with publicised +£1bn of spend and extends the material types being addressed within the façade. While the availability of funds is undoubtedly extremely important, and can ultimately limit scope, the key and immediate issues when facing these types of projects often lie elsewhere. In this particular case, there is the process of justifying the projects themselves to consider, the industry capacity to carry out the work within the preferred timescale, and of course not forgetting the verification of the work itself and its quality. It would be fair to say though that the relevant government departments are attempting to deal with this process through organised communication and committees containing representatives of the critical elements of the supply chain. While this process is being managed by third-party consultants on behalf of the Government, I have to say my experience is that there is a solid attempt being made to discuss, in open forums, the key issues associated with project delivery and feed these back to the key decision makers. In truth though, it will only be in hindsight that will we be able to judge its true effectiveness.

Mark:  You’ve mentioned that you are part of one of these supply chain committees through your work with Vivalda Group. A lot is made of construction’s “clunkiness” when communicating across the entire supply chain on project work. What’s your view point on this and what measures have you as a committee put in place to combat them?

Chris:  All I can say is that, during the meetings that I have attended, there have been a number of key questions raised surrounding fund administration, labour installation capacity, contractors quoting capacity and technical issues surrounding products and systems, along with the need to record installation quality. On these subjects there has been a good deal of discussion, with every member positively engaging in the process. I have been personally involved in one of the specific issues surrounding industry capacity and the possible impact of Brexit. I helped to model and scale the issue and all I can say here is that training schemes are now in the process of being put in place to support any capacity shortfalls. It is always difficult in our sector to completely get over the ‘clunkiness’, as you put it, partly due to its technical, installation and project management and building ownership complexity but by bringing skilled representatives from a wide range of companies from contracting, consultancy, distribution and manufacturing into committees and specialist subcommittees, much of this has been overcome.

Mark:  I held a conversation with a Marketing Director who I placed three years a go last week. He highlighted his frustration at the industries lack of appetite in promoting marketers into MD roles. I can certainly see the value in considering a strategically leading individual from this discipline and this is the route you’ve taken.  What attributes do you feel senior marketers bring to an MD role?  

Chris: As a Marketing Engineer by training and a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Marketing, I feel well qualified, if nothing else, to answer this question Mark. Firstly though, I feel, rightly or wrongly, that it is always worth verifying what is meant by the term marketing, as often in my view it does not always seem well understood. Often and significantly in the UK, it is a term considered to be used solely for expressing the management of advertising campaigns and/or below the line promotions.  While these specific promotional roles in themselves may have high value, they are not the limit or scope of true marketing. It seems to me we have lost, if we ever truly had it, the real value and essence of marketing and the contribution it can make at strategic level. It is only when you consider the scope of the true requirements of marketing, such as market segmentation analysis, in both scale and trend, detailed customer behaviour, product design and management, price trade of analysis and strategy, channel choice design and management, competitor analysis, together with the previously mentioned promotional management, you begin to relate to the view that they should perhaps play a much more important role in strategy planning on a wider scale. While many might agree to this simple view in principle, in practice we all too often see other disciplines leading the way at MD or CEO level. The reason for this is a little unclear, but in my experience, it is perhaps a function of the fact that business leadership can be in the modern age quite a technical and complex skill, perhaps due to the financial or operational challenges and for some reason marketing skill sets are often not considered in context of these issues.

In addition, at senior leadership level, the value of governance can often be put before the issue of strategy, with the view often being held that business unit strategy somehow bubbles up from the bottom and, provided you look after governance, all will be well. This proposition, in my view, is a dilemma for both the company and marketeer and my personal advice is simple. Marketeers need to engage with the business needs in the same way they would do with their customers. This means supporting the functional marketing scope with operational and financial detail to match. In my personal case, I pride myself in having conceptualised, designed, and launched products, businesses, brands, built factories and led businesses into new markets. All of which clearly could not have been achieved without that all so important strategic wide-eyed view of the market, but it is also important to note that it was also supported by an acknowledged requirement for that multi-functional planning detail as well.

In turn, the business world itself should in my view embrace more closely true strategy planning led by marketeers and try  to avoid the belief that business policy, business processes and financial budgeting with the constant tweaking of operational structures will provide both long term answers as well as the short-term ones. We should probably also keep reminding ourselves that constant financial re-engineering in itself, more often than not, does not deliver positive change for the customer.

Mark:  Business turn around forms a large part of your previous roles with the likes of the SIG Group Chris.  What are some of the common problems you unearth when first inheriting and reviewing a business and, from a cultural aspect, how do you ensure a new approach is ingrained throughout the workforce?

Chris: Issues can be varied Mark, and perhaps too long to list here, but there are some key things to remember in my experience. Firstly, in order, to assess the underlying issues, it is wise in my view to spend a proportional amount of time listening very carefully to all existing employees. This element seems often neglected as you need to work quickly in a turnaround situation. It is very important to know where employees are coming from for you to create a future path that they will follow at speed. Clearing the ground first often makes for quicker progress later. Once the plan has been created you will often hear from managers that the work force’s resistance to change is slowing them down. This may be ultimately right and may of course result in structural change. However, we must remember for many people to change the practices they have been doing for many years, they need to understand why they are doing it. In that regard the communication process is critical, in my view it must be repetitive in nature, led and be visible from the top as a priority action.

In answer to the specific question of culture, it is again vital in my view that the leader establishes some clear ground rules from the start, defining and establishing acceptable boundaries for culture and ethics. These would include the obvious such as H&S but should also include things like attitude to honesty in mistakes, attitude to quality, customers and others. My advice here is do not make any assumptions, what seems straight forward and black and white to you may have been grey and complicated to the previous employers and employees. As an example, we have recently seen some press coverage which seems to allege or imply that some significant industry brands in the construction sector have been less than honest when sending our products to customers, suggesting that the current product formulations do not conform to the tests in association with that which they are being sold. So far there has been a high focus on the individuals immediately responsible for the management of that product, but you could raise the question, what part did business culture play in the actions by the employee?

Within my own manufacturing experience, and while I cannot and do not excuse what is alleged to have happened, I know how easy can be to be tempted to turn that blind eye, accept short cuts, and undermine testing for financial or launch reasons. The pressures and costs of failure are often high, whether that be from an internal business expectations point of view or just the product test itself. The complexity surrounding tests, certification and chemical formulas should also not be underestimated. However, it is in this area where the individual’s standards and business cultural ethics can play their most important role. Leaders need to be visible, clear, and consistent when communicating or establishing boundaries. My personal style in this regard is to keep emphasising these standards and take opportunities to show it. Sometimes leading quality, conformance or customer complaint handling is the only way to define what your standards are and how you expect them to be fulfilled by you team. In addition, showing that you understand failure can happen without encouraging it, takes a personal touch.

Mark:  Appreciating you’re fully committed to your ongoing work with Vivalda, what additional projects are you looking for, to complement this Chris?

Chris: I am thoroughly enjoying my work with the VIVALDA group team and am committed to fulfilling my defined contract. However, I do have some capacity to take on some more NED work within a non-competing sector if that opportunity occurs. I am also open minded regarding short term project work or a more full-time challenge as my main aim at this stage in my career is to help create change, either through providing guidance and advice, delivering turnarounds, or helping with new ventures, so in that regard I remain open minded.