Leader interview: Peter Walls, Chief Executive, Gentoo Group, winner of the 2014 Bupa Workwell Award

January 26, 2015 Ann Kelly

Peter Walls, Chief Executive, Gentoo Group

Gentoo Group is a large social enterprise based in the North East of England.  It was the winner of the Bupa Workwell Award at the 2014 Responsible Business Awards for their Happy, Healthy and Here programme.  We spoke to their Chief Executive, and HRH The Prince of Wales' Ambassador, Peter Walls about the programme, the place of responsible business at Gentoo, and his plans to make Sunderland the new Malmö. 

Tell me a bit about the motivation for the Happy, Healthy and Here programme.

Could your business be the next winner of the Bupa Employee Wellbeing Award?  The Responsible Business Awards are open for entries now.

Our workforce is our biggest and most important asset so I feel it is vital we invest our time and effort to safeguard their wellbeing.  This goes on to significantly benefit our customers.

I want staff to bring the best of their whole personality to work.   If you’ve got some issue in your life which impacts on your own wellbeing, how can you be expected to give 100 percent at work? 

We aim to engage everyone across our business, regardless of roles or titles to enjoy activities and events relating to health which can be shared at home with family and friends.  These benefits have a far reaching impact into the wider community, increasing the sphere of influence of the programme.

Our Happy, Healthy and Here programme aims to raise awareness, educate, demonstrate and signpost staff to a number of health services and programmes to enable individuals to be happier, healthier and more engaged in life at both work and home.

It’s a holistic programme that deals with everything from addressing whether you spend as much time with your family as you should, to doing something about prostate cancer.  Its focus can be anything.  One example is, we feel domestic abuse is unacceptable and tackle it in our community, but we weren’t really providing any great offer to the staff.  So we extended the service and are now supporting a number of staff through difficult situations.  

Has winning the Award made a difference to Gentoo?

Massively so.  I knew the high calibre of organisations we were competing against, and it was inspiring for us to think, “We’ve done it!”

You’re competing with some global companies, and for Gentoo to keep turning up with a BITC Big Tick makes us incredibly proud.  It definitely enhances our reputation as an employer. It’s recognition of our approach to responsible business, and a benchmark for our performance. We want to be judged credibly against the best in the field. 

And for our staff obviously there’s a celebratory feel and sense of great pride in Gentoo. I do believe in staff who go the extra mile and make these positive differences having some recognition. 

What does Gentoo do that inspires responsible business values in its staff?

It’s not difficult as I’ve got an inspired bunch of people working here.  At Gentoo there’s a compelling story and a clear link to our vision – [called] the Art of Living.  This is basically about inspiring and empowering everyone who is touched by Gentoo so they can focus on what is important in their life, and live their lives to the maximum of their own potential.

If staff don’t believe in our vision and values, then there’s every other company in the world to pick from.   Thankfully, there’s a big alignment of values and an element of co-creation in the business that people can easily sign up to.

Take the Stonewall Workplace Equality Index. From a point where we weren’t even having conversations about it we are now number one in the UK.  The people who’ve driven this agenda passionately care about it, and are much more likely to achieve success than me personally.

We recognise and we reward behaviour that fits alongside our value structures and ethical position, and of late, we’re more robustly challenging people who perhaps don’t.  There’s always a chance to develop and change, but if people continue to be out of alignment, then we’re going to have to do something, because it takes away from our ambitious vision that a lot of people are committed to.

Can you tell me about the place of responsible business in Gentoo?

For us responsible business is not a bolt on or an afterthought, it is core to the way we operate.  We set ourselves ambitious targets and measure the social impact our decisions have.

Our business strategy is based around people, planet and property activity.  We are determined to use our resources, talents and energy to find real solutions that help tackle some of society’s most pressing concerns.

Starting with our property offer, we want to create safe, secure and brilliant homes for people so they can get on and live their life in so many other ways.  If you don’t get your housing right, an awful lot else suffers. We see housing as a key part of how people can achieve their life within communities.

We also believe in including our customers in the debate and having them in our governance structure to ensure we are shaping our services around their needs. 

Turning to our planet offer, we build property to a standard beyond that which the sector requires.  The sector has hovered around level three of the Code for Sustainable Homes [an environmental standard for new homes] and it barely owns up to that.  We’re already constructing new homes beyond code five, and that’s not meant to come in until around 2016. 

We’ve done a whole load of experiments on how you treat homes both in terms of retrofitting older properties with environmental measures and with new build, to reduce their carbon impact, provide an efficient energy supply to people and reduce energy bills. We continue to pioneer in that field.

As an overarching principle, we’re trying to get Gentoo to be a company living within the resources of one planet. All parts of my business, whether they’re accountants or architects or housing people or construction workers or admin people or lawyers, have had to come together under our planet smart initiative and create target-based improvements, and they’re doing some amazing stuff. 

I use the one-planet argument with people who I’m trying to influence, because it’s not as technically confusing as a lot of the other environmental arguments. If people tell me about their shareholders not being prepared to participate, my comment would be, “If we’ve only got one planet, what gives your company the right to consume more than one? I don’t understand where you get that authority.”

I think that’s quite a good moral and ethical position to have. We should challenge every company to live within the means of the planet, and if they can’t, I’d like the shareholders to justify to society why.

And ultimately we are here for people, they are at our heart.  A big part of our organisation works almost 100 percent on CSR activity.  It was born out of our original landlord business, but we now spend our time dealing with loneliness, dealing with engaging mature people, or working with young kids who are not prepared to access either education or employment. We have young people saying to us, “You haven’t changed my life, you’ve saved my life,” because we work with some of the most challenged areas.

I think we have responsible business in our DNA. Making a real positive difference to people’s lives is right at the heart of it.

Can you give an example of putting values over profit?

We pride ourselves on our home specification and standards.  We build space into our neighbourhoods and within the homes themselves.

I went on a tour of some neighbourhoods this morning, and I just looked at the homes and at my site guys and my designers there, and said “Well done”.  You don’t generally go on estates and see this kind of space now, it’s a thing of the past.  But we need space, we need places for our children to grow and play and this is in our specification.

Apprenticeships are also important to us.  We support our apprentices throughout, until they’ve got jobs.  We really believe in putting some of the personal elements in people’s lives right, in order that they’ve got a chance at sustaining a job, not just working on a revolving door basis.  Most companies don’t do that, they’ve got a certain amount of money allocated, and you get sheep-dipped through a system and then you go. 

We’ve got young people with us who will remain on a journey with us at Gentoo, and we believe in making that commitment to them. 

Another example, we were appointed on a project to start improving about 80 bungalows in Sunderland, all filled with old people, all with atrocious energy efficiency. 

The client decided to dump the contract but that didn’t sit right with us.  We decided to press on and told them it was too late and we were doing it anyway whether they gave us the money or not.  Now I didn’t have to do that, but my staff said this is the right thing to do. 

Sometimes you’ve got to do what your heart says and follow your values.  And sometimes you don’t get a big profit but that’s not what drives your considerations.

What sort of impacts have you seen?

In terms of energy, there’s a customer whose home we put PV [solar power] onto who we introduced to [then Minister of State for Climate Change] Greg Barker, and he told him that what we had done had changed his life.  Greg was talking about Feed-in Tariffs [payments made by energy companies to people for power generated by solar panels on their property], but our customer talked about the personal impacts. 

He talked about how his daughter can now use the house, go upstairs and do her work, hang out with her friends, because she isn’t freezing cold up there.  Before she couldn’t put the heating on, and they had to all sit in the same room. 

All we’ve done is spent a little bit of resource, and this family’s whole life has transformed. Some people would say that’s a technical achievement, I see it as better lives, massively enhanced.

What do you see as the role of business in society?

We firmly believe that the business sector is the biggest single constituent in society and it’s long overdue that it takes responsibility for the whole of society.  In my view that’s happening very well, with some key companies leading the charge, but there’s a long way to go. 

We can’t have the old capitalist mantra, make millions and then it trickles down and helps society, if somebody’s blocked the trickle down.  We’re making the same amount of money, but it isn’t trickling down.

I think the business sector needs to get more creative about how they can make a significant difference to the application of responsible business practice.  I think that is an obligation for all businesses in the twenty-first century.  I’m pleased to say that’s what BITC are doing and the Awards show that there are some great examples of it happening now.

How has the housing association sector’s attitude towards responsible business changed?

I am sensing a greater appetite to pick up the challenge the public sector is leaving behind.  We are in those neighbourhoods, they are our tenants and customers, and we service some of the people who are struggling most.  Abandoning them is not good for our business.

The more we can help people get into employment, the more secure our income is.  The more we leave children uneducated, the more our neighbourhoods become depleted in skills.  We have a proper, real commercial vested interest, but also a big heart and a willingness to jump in when some might say, it’s not down to you, it’s down to the council.

What challenges are coming up for Gentoo?

Firstly, I would say the impact of generational differences.  We’re going to have people working longer. Our organisation’s gone from having one person over 65 two years ago, and there’s 14 now.  They have great experience, but you’re still introducing young people at the foot and we’re seeing different beliefs as to what constructs a lifestyle.

So, older people say, "I deserve to be respected because I’m old", while perhaps younger people might think, "You can’t be respected just because you’re old".  They don’t mean to be unkind, they’re answering a different question in their mind. That’s a very interesting challenge for all businesses in the twenty-first century.

The other is how I’m now trying to position Gentoo.  Gentoo’s best ability is to maximise its impact within a narrow geographic area, rather than a broader one. 

So, if the Art of Living is something we believe in so passionately, could we make our city, Sunderland, one which is famous for the practice of the Art of Living more successfully?  What’s in my mind is Malmö. 

Malmö was in a very similar economic decline as Sunderland.  Same industries, same decline, same era.  If you look at the two now, Malmo is a world famous city, where people don’t go to see closed industry, they go to a destination of its own where you experience how it has transformed.

I think that would be a cool thing to do with a community and a city, if we were willing to do it.

The Bupa Employee Wellbeing Award 2015 is currently open for entries. Find out more >


Peter Walls, Chief Executive, Gentoo Group

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