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“We made a decade’s worth of progress in two weeks”: David Allen, CEO of Wates Group

“We made a decade’s worth of progress in two weeks”

David Allen
CEO of Wates Group

“The way you shape and attend to the development of your culture is the most powerful thing you can do to improve the performance of your organisation,” says David Allen, CEO of privately-owned construction, development and property services company Wates Group.

“When I took over the CEO role in 2018 the very first thing I did was work with my team on what we wanted to stand for and our purpose as an organisation.”

That resulted in a framework based on three goals - to be more progressive, more trusted and more sustainable - which Allen says “guides everything we do”.

A progressive business

Speaking to PwC UK for the 25th Annual CEO Survey, Allen says this approach has “transformed the culture and performance of the organisation”.

Taking stock of the last two years, he says it also put the organisation in a strong position when the pandemic forced rapid progression upon them.

“We made a decade’s worth of progress on flexible working in two weeks in 2020.”

“Construction is not a sector in which flexible working has featured significantly. But we’ve got flexible working guidelines now and family leave policies that are much more accommodating in terms of the obligations and priorities people have outside work. We think that will make us a much more inclusive employer.”

“We’re also spending a lot of time on things like personal resilience training,” he adds.

Allen believes a move to online events and meetings throughout the pandemic has also taught them important lessons about the power of different channels for building trust.

“We used to do an annual roadshow, meeting with 200 to 400 colleagues in big rooms up and down the country. In that setting it can be very challenging to put your hand up and ask a question of the leadership team,” he says. “But we moved our roadshows online and we’ve seen that challenge doesn’t exist online. We’re doing these virtual roadshows twice a year and we’ve had a lot more engagement. Some questions are very direct. They’re very punchy, but they get to the heart of what’s on colleagues’ minds.”

Trusted relationships

At the start of the pandemic, Allen saw the benefits of greater industry-wide transparency which he believes will create long-term value.

“As an industry, we collaborated in ways we hadn’t done before. Build UK, one of our industry bodies, held calls each morning where, along with my peers from other businesses, we would share the challenges we were facing and the solutions we were coming up with. That provides a template for how we must collaborate to deal with other challenges such as climate change and the diversity of our workforces.”

On the subject of climate change, Wates has a commitment to achieve net zero on waste and its scope one carbon emissions (direct emissions from the business) and scope two emissions (indirect emissions from resources used by the business, such as power) by 2025.

He believes it is essential the Group has that bold commitment and shows what it is doing, in order to help customers on their own net zero journeys.

“We really have to show we’re in control of what we do in order to be credible in supporting customers. And it’s vital that we, and our customers, and the whole sector succeeds because of the sheer volume of emissions linked to our industry.”

A focus on sustainability

Wates is working with customers to help them rigorously assess the entire building life cycle, to make better decisions about the relative environmental benefits of creating new buildings, versus refurbishing and refitting existing properties.

“We have a business, called Smartspace, which refitted our own HQ to create more collaboration spaces and more flexible spaces, to better reflect how people will use offices in the future,” he says. “Smartspace has also been working with Lloyds Banking Group to deploy sustainable technologies across their entire branch and office network. Some of it is very simple, such as additives in heating systems to improve efficiency and toilets and taps that use very little water. We’re helping Lloyds take a lot of small, smart steps to move the sustainability of the whole estate forward very significantly.”

Again, Allen believes collaboration and being able to learn and share with others is critical in driving such progress.

In order to accelerate progress on Wates’ own sustainability targets, Allen appointed the Group’s first Environmental Sustainability Director. But he concedes other businesses may not be able to find the right people to bring in-house. The relative recency with which sustainability has moved up the corporate agenda means “there aren’t a lot of people yet with a successful track record of delivering environmental sustainability”.

That makes it all the more important for organisations to share the knowledge, the relationships and the insights they have.

Through another Group business, Wates Sustainable Technology Services (WSTS), Wates is able to play an important convening role, helping customers explore the potential of technologies and innovations to accelerate their journey to net zero.

WSTS has established an innovation network, using a portal which acts as a marketplace of sustainable technology. It also runs ‘Green Dragons’ Den’ events, where companies who have invented sustainability-focused products and technologies can present to Wates’ customers.

“The people who run those businesses come and talk directly to our customers about their innovations and we facilitate their installation in existing buildings and their inclusion in new builds. It’s a simple example of how, as a main contractor, we have a duty and an opportunity to connect the suppliers of sustainable technologies with the people whose buildings they will find a home in.”

It is also an example which encapsulates the complementary nature of Wates’ three goals - a progressive approach to building mutual trust and delivering greater sustainability.

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Marco Amitrano

Marco Amitrano

Head of Clients and Markets, PwC United Kingdom

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