When it comes to looking after its people, the construction industry has not exactly had a great reputation for being progressive. Reward strategies used to mean an extra few quid in a brown envelope and a pat on the back at the end of a hard week’s work, while occupational health amounted to little more than a first-aid box in the site office. Just look at the images posted on YouTube earlier this month of the shocking activities that took place on a building site (Personnel Today, 13 February).
But in an industry crying out for skills – three-quarters of construction and building firms had problems recruiting new staff in 2006, according to the Chartered Institute of Building – one of the UK’s 22 London Stock Exchange-listed construction companies, Rok, is making a brave bid to be not only the most successful domestic builder in the market, but also the best employer in the business. And the man behind this ambitious strategy, chief executive Garvis Snook, was last month named CEO of the Year at the annual Quoted Company Awards.
Snook became CEO in June 2000, when the company was known as EBC. It was already a plc, but had a regional focus, with seven offices based in the South West. He rebranded it as Rok in 2001, with the tag-line ‘the nation’s local builder’. The company has since grown rapidly through acquisition, and now has 40 branches across the UK, annual revenue of £555m and a market capitalisation of more than £300m.
Like many CEOs, Snook proudly attributes this success to the dedication of his people. But beyond the usual glib declarations of staff being the company’s most important asset, there is concrete evidence that Rok is, in fact, a great place to work.
“If the employee experience is great, that will make the customer experience great – it’s not rocket science,” says Snook, who has worked in the construction industry all of his life, starting out helping with his father’s scaffolding business.
To make this experience great, Rok has introduced a host of HR policies that the average management consultant will have been used to for years, but that will be a revelation to the average labourer.
Three or four years ago, for example, the company introduced a flat reward structure, so all staff receive the same benefits, whatever they do in the business. Many companies in construction have two tiers of benefits: one for white-collar staff, and one for blue-collar workers – the latter being paid by the hour, with fewer days’ holiday, and less statutory sick pay. “This says to blue-collar workers: ‘You’re not as valuable as the rest of us’,” says Snook.
But, despite a few teething troubles – with workers getting used to being paid monthly, rather than weekly – the experiment has paid off, he says.
“It was a leap of faith. Our employees cost 10% more than the rest of the market, but they give back 10% more in productivity. Our market share has increased so I feel vindicated.”
Keeping its benefits ahead of competitors also makes Rok an attractive employer in a tight market. Average staff turnover in construction is about 30%, but at Rok it is just 17%. And the company has just hired a reward specialist with a view to introducing a flexible benefits scheme over the coming year.
Snook believes that one of the key differences between Rok and other major companies in the construction market is that it doesn’t subcontract its business. So if a customer commissions Rok to build a restaurant, it will be Rok employees who carry out that work – not a plumber from one company, an electrician from another, and builders from yet another.
When he joined the company in 2000, EBC subcontracted most of its business, and Snook feels this had a negative impact on staff morale. “Most staff worked hard but they weren’t engaged – because they worked for subcontractors they were disconnected from what was going on,” he explains.
Ensuring staff know what’s going on, and where the business is going, is a key part of Rok’s bid to be the best employer in the market. Every office now displays a stock ticker with the company’s latest share price, and staff can take part in a ‘buy as you earn’ scheme if they want to own shares.
“The average net return in construction is only around 1% of turnover,” says Snook. “That’s because people don’t see what the purpose of the business is and where they fit in. We make it clear to our people that we’re in this to make money.”
Communicating Rok’s values starts the minute a new recruit joins the company. Before they are even sent on their first job or meet the rest of their team, all new employees attend a week-long induction session called ‘Taste of Rok’ at the company’s ‘School of Rok’ in Crawley. This encompasses everything from health and safety to groups acting out short plays about each of the company’s values.
This approach doesn’t appeal to everybody, admits Snook. For construction workers used to smaller companies with a more rough-and-ready attitude towards HR, this can be a bit of a culture shock.
“At Taste of Rok we say: ‘You came to us, this is a huge shock, it’s not what you’re used to. Tell someone, go home and we’ll pay you two weeks’ wages’. No-one has ever taken me up on it.”
Once staff have gone through the induction process, there are plenty more opportunities to get involved in shaping the business. Rok runs an elected body of representatives from each office which meets regularly to discuss any issues, and presents to the board two or three times a year.
This group has a budget to run an annual staff engagement survey, which it designs and controls, and publishes an internal newspaper that goes out to staff, customers and investors.
Snook also does a monthly online ‘webchat’ called ‘Ask Garvis’ on the company intranet, where staff can ask any question they want and Snook has to answer it by the following Monday.
With such a people-focused figurehead, it’s difficult to see where HR fits in at Rok.
Rob Ollerenshaw, the company’s people director, does not sit on the board, despite the company’s insistence on acquiring ‘best employer’ status. However, Ollerenshaw reports directly to Gillian Camm, the non-executive director responsible for shaping people strategies, and regularly attends board meetings.
Ollerenshaw is also in charge of integrating any acquisitions Rok makes, and there is a dotted reporting line from all regional managers to him on staffing issues.
The last acquisition – of Scottish construction company Tulloch – involved transferring 950 employees.
“Rob drives and influences strategy at board meetings and will challenge any of the board. I know I’m not the guru of everything,” says Snook, who makes sure he catches up with Ollerenshaw on a monthly basis.
Going forward, Snook will be looking to his people director to drive leadership skills through all levels of the organisation, to ’empower’ employees to make decisions that will affect the business.
“Empowerment is an overused word that’s not well understood,” he says. “Our biggest issues are around the industry’s ‘command-and-control’ profile. People are capable, but companies feel they must make decisions for them.”
To explain his thinking on empowerment, Snook put together 10 golden rules known as ‘The Rok Way’ and posted them on the staff intranet.
“People can work within a ‘golden cage’,” he explains. “They can do whatever they like within that ‘cage’, and they know who they can ask if they want to go outside it.”
Snook reinforces this with the terminology he uses to describe what people do in the organisation, referring to area leaders or team leaders rather than ‘managers’.
Interestingly though, Snook does not have his job title on his business card, and he discourages others to do so as he feels titles are limiting.
“They constrain you, and create a hierarchy. Your role is to help the business achieve what it’s trying to achieve. It’s about developing your personal power rather than your positional power.”
For a man who has just been voted CEO of the year, his staff have a hard act to follow.
Garvis Snook: Biography
Garvis Snook joined Rok in May 2000 when it was known as EBC. Prior to that, he had been managing director of Stansell, a member of the Morgan Sindall group of construction companies, since 1996. During that time, he oversaw a 50% increase in Stansell’s turnover.
Snook rebranded EBC as Rok – ‘the nation’s local builder’ – in March 2001. Since then, the business has expanded from seven offices in the South West to 40 branches across the UK, and now has three business streams: commercial property development, general building, and property maintenance.
In 2006, Rok came 71st in the annual Sunday Times’ Best Companies to Work For list.
In addition to his responsibilities at Rok, Snook is a founding director of Somerset Training and Enterprise Council and Somerset Business Link.
In his spare time, Snook enjoys sailing, hill walking and foreign travel. He is married with five children.
Construction Skills – sector skills council for the construction industry