Best of both worlds

When Glasgow Housing Association (GHA) picked up a trophy for being one of Europe’s best businesses, it proved that social organisations can be as sharp as top global companies while still making the needs of society its core purpose, writes Wheatley Group Chief Executive Martin Armstrong.

Martin Armstrong

When she lifted the European Foundation for Quality Management’s 2017 Global Excellence Award for GHA, GHA chair Bernadette Hewitt spoke of her pride on behalf of the organisation’s 950 staff and thousands of tenants.

The housing association, one of the largest in the UK and the jewel in the crown of Wheatley Group, won alongside world-famous names including Bosch.

It’s amazing to see how far GHA has come, from difficult beginnings in 2003 to being named one of Europe’s best businesses.

Of course, that’s cause for celebration. But it has also given us a moment to reflect on what this kind of recognition means for an organisation like GHA.

GHA is first and foremost a social landlord. We are here to provide warm, safe places for people to call home, strengthen communities, help people lead better lives and, ultimately, make Glasgow a better city for everyone.

Our social responsibility to provide quality affordable homes to those in need, and to support them to sustain their tenancies, is who and what we are.

Corporate social responsibility isn’t an afterthought to our core business – it IS our core business.

But a sharper focus on value for money, a forensic approach to delivering outstanding business results and a culture of continuous improvement does not detract from that central purpose.

In fact, GHA’s example shows a business driven by achieving top results and a drive to contribute to wider society are two sides of the same coin.

Our unrelenting focus on business excellence doesn’t mean we’ve lost sight of our roots. It means we can do more for the people we serve.

Yes, our financial results are impressive. We have attracted more than £500 million of private investment from major players such as the Royal Bank of Scotland and Blackrock in the past three years. They invest in us because they have confidence in our business and its sustainability.

But our results not only impress in the boardroom – they drive real transformation in the communities we serve.

For example, we have a range of employability schemes, such as our Modern Apprenticeships and the ‘community benefit’ clause in our investment and new-build contracts, to help young people from our communities into work and training.

But it would be impossible to create these opportunities if we weren’t a strong, sustainable top-performing business responsible for the UK’s biggest social housing new-build programme.

Digital inclusion is another case in point. Too many of our customers are excluded from all the advantages of being online that most of us take for granted. We want to change that and have set up 38 Click & Connect free computer learning centres across Glasgow to help people build their digital skills.

We’re tackling disadvantage, yes – but getting more customers transacting online also helps us reduce costs and give people more choice.

So it’s about tackling digital exclusion and achieving business results; two sides of the same coin.

At GHA, the drive to go further, try harder and do more is part of our DNA – not just something we dust off and show to external assessors to win prizes.

Like all successful businesses, we listen to our customers, we create great products, we think big and we think bold – but we never lose sight of what we are here to do.

Of course, we face major challenges – seven years of austerity, Brexit, rising inflation – and we are still working against the impact of the 2008 financial crash.

That has meant we, like many others, have had to do more with less.

But I am incredibly proud of GHA’s response to these challenges – to develop better, more flexible services, using cutting edge technology to promote efficiency and a better service for our customers.

And we can measure the difference we make not just by our bottom line, but in the lives of our customers.

Now that’s what I call a healthy balance sheet.

Monday, February 05, 2018