From corner shops to tech startups, the essence of any successful business often begins with a deep connection to its local roots. This is certainly the case for North Devon Homes, a housing association in South West England which seeks to provide affordable homes for people living in the local community.
Co-host of The Interview Max Webber sat down with Martyn Gimber, Chief Executive of North Devon Homes, to discuss the range of issues facing the housing sector today, from the importance of community outreach to the need to promote financial inclusion in a time of economic uncertainty.
I’m the CEO of North Devon Homes. We’re a non-profit community-based landlord which provides 3,500 homes for around 10,000 people in the local area. Around one in ten people in North Devon lives in one of our homes, so we have a huge impact on our community. So we try to run our business with that community in mind, and because of our rural location we try to be self-sustaining in terms of people and skills. Because of the nature of the property business, we are able to have in place a 35-year strategic plan which helps us reinvest all profits back into the community. I’ve been in the Social Housing sector for almost forty years, and I’ve always been driven by the community impact of the business and the more effective the business is the more impact you can ultimately have.
I started as an apprentice in 1984. I chose to leave school and join the workplace rather than go to university. For the first 13 years, I worked for a housing association in Wales, starting as a finance apprentice before climbing my way up to finance manager. Along the way, I’ve done pretty much every job in the industry, which helps me understand the challenges faced by my staff. In the early nineties, I moved to the South East and worked for several stock transfer organisations, raising finances and building businesses around housing purchases, before moving to North Devon. My specialism is delivering affordable homes through a combination of public and private investment. I’m an accountant by profession and that has helped me to have a good insight and understanding of procedures, processes, systems, and risks. Being an accountant though I have always tried to be a “can do”, “let's make it happen” type of finance person which is critical to long term success.
I believe in putting customers at the heart of everything. You need to think about what your customers want out of the business and build your strategy around them. You need to remember that they are the ones who pay your wages. Right now, the housing sector is under a lot of scrutiny, so it’s more important than ever to listen to complaints and drive real change. You can only do that if you operate as an organisation which is open to feedback and authentic when dealing with its customers. So we make sure to reach out to the community, an example of this for us is every summer, we hold a Summer Fair for all our staff and customers, and this year we attracted over 1,000 people. Community and trust in us is at the heart of the culture we are trying to build. To achieve that, we set out a clear set of values and a coherent corporate vision: creating communities where people want to live. That drives everything that we do as a team.
You need to be able to articulate why culture matters. If you want people you buy in, you need to show them how they can make a difference. When things go well, make sure to celebrate that success. We have the potential to make a difference in people’s lives, especially with our low-income residents who can face some real hardships. We’ve had a difficult few years, especially with the pandemic, and that hasn’t made building culture any easier. But if you focus on getting the right people, acting in the right way, and setting out a clear vision, you can overcome that. As Covid brought new patterns of working, we had to work hard to anchor that sense of culture and belonging, introducing new patterns of hybrid and flexible working.
It’s certainly a challenge. We’ve made sure to include a dedicated EDI agenda as part of our corporate plan. We’re employing more women, particularly in the technical trades, where there is traditionally a lack of representation. Because we are quite rural, it can often be difficult to attract a diverse range of candidates. So we try to be outstanding in a few key areas to encourage applicants from underrepresented groups, such as encouraging family-friendly work policies. Some people might think that because North Devon is predominantly white and rural, we don’t need to think about diversity as much. That’s totally wrong. If anything, we need to think about it more and work harder to challenge and change perceptions through the work we do. In particular, we strive to be financially inclusive. We work tirelessly to champion financial education and improve access to support, and we’re proud to say we have one of the lowest rates of arrears of any housing association in the country.
For me, it’s about having a positive approach. You need to be the person who gets out there and does things. It helps you to approach problems differently, come up with innovative solutions, and take people along with you. Once you’ve built trust, you can then foster collaboration and support others in their efforts. You can only do all that once you have clarity of vision, but it’s always a delicate balancing act. Finally, it helps to have a sense of humour, and not take yourself too seriously.
Culture drives performance, not the other way around. So many organisations get that the wrong way around. If you have the right culture in place, you’ll be amazed at what you can achieve.