It wasn’t deliberately provocative to suggest we meet for a coffee in a London café called The Fleet Street Press. Ever since issuing a profit warning back in December 2016, Bovis Homes has faced a raft of negative national press coverage, fuelled by the ire of a Facebook ‘victims group’ set up by purchasers, as well as other coordinated protests.
The Sun ran the headline ‘Bovis and Butthead,’ prompting new boss Greg Fitzgerald to realise the only way was up. While not on his watch, that tabloid page really should be hanging in the downstairs loo of his Exeter home.
While the company put its hands up to its mistakes and defects of the past, Bovis has become a lightning rod for any criticism of the industry and The Times even managed to find space to have a pop on its front page last month. Clearly Trump hadn’t tweeted nuclear Armageddon and all was peace and love in Brexit land.
There are assuredly bigger housebuilders than Bovis, dealing with defects and complaints, keeping their heads down, while muttering ‘there but for the grace of god go I’.
Our interview did not get off to the most auspicious start when we failed to fix the wobbly table we were sitting at. The irony of shoddy construction hung in the air before laughter all-round. While Fitzgerald could simply dismiss the past as not his fault, with previous chief executive David Ritchie out the door, the industry veteran refuses to sugar-coat anything. What was needed was not lame excuses, but fronting up to the company’s failings and damn well doing something about them.
The City was awash with rumours that Redrow and Fitzgerald’s old company, Galliford Try – actually GT was more than just his old company, it was a huge part of his life – were circling the wounded beast that was Bovis.
Loaded phone calls from investors followed, including one when Fitzgerald was at the dentist; head-hunters sensed a big scalp and in April last year Fitzgerald was installed as Bovis chief executive.
“The job was just in that sweet spot, not too big, not forever and a challenge to relish. I have invested about £3.5m of my own money in Bovis shares.”
A classic case of putting money where your mouth is and Fitzgerald can certainly talk. Crucially, it is ballsy, not bluster and while you can imagine a good-old fashioned bollocking if you do something wrong, you sense it would be followed by an arm round the shoulder and a beer – although such forgiveness does not extend to the TMO who disallowed the Wales try against England at Twickenham in the last Six Nations. An honorary West Countryman, Fitzgerald was however born in Barry to Welsh parents and is passionate about rugby and Manchester United.
“I don’t mind people making mistakes as long as they are not down to not trying,” says Fitzgerald – or a lack of video evidence maybe.
The day Fitzgerald started at Bovis was the day the buck stopped being passed. He got his senior management together and stressed they were in rehab as one and he wanted to take them with him on the journey to full fitness.
While balance sheets are as important as bricks, Fitzgerald says there are now a lot of accountants running housebuilders. It wasn’t so much a veiled reference to Ritchie, but to highlight the importance of “dealing with the guy building the houses; the man in the middle”. In Fitzgerald’s building world it is the site managers, not the bean counters, who are king.
So Fitzgerald, rather than courting the City and the share price, went round all the sites. He didn’t like what he saw with the quality issues evident, but was impressed by the sales teams, working under huge pressure dealing with angry residents and a litany of complaints.
His first task was to recruit the best site managers. Having inherited a 65% churn rate of them across the developments, it was clear there was a causal link between defects and site management.
“The supply chain often follows the site manager, so it is a crucial role in delivering quality and on time,” says Fitzgerald, who started in construction with Midas as an 18-year-old trainee estimator on a YTS scheme.
The Bovis land bank and balance sheet were robust, but it was time to slow growth and put costs under the microscope. “It is important to invest in the right people and boost morale, but also invest in the right commercial systems, some of which were not fit for purpose. Customers expect more and it is up to us to meet those expectations.”
Its two-star rating in the wake of the customer complaints was also an embarrassment, but since last October satisfaction has risen to more than 86%, which translates into four-star.
Fitzgerald says huge emphasis needs to be placed on training and Bovis has opened its own training centre in Reading and is also extending its apprenticeship programme.
Bovis – now building towards 4,000 completions a year – was founded in 1885 and in 1936 opened the Bovis School of Building, with 100 trade apprentices and management trainees and by 1972 was the second largest housebuilder in the UK.
Fitzgerald can mix it with most trades and there is very little he hasn’t seen on a building site or in a boardroom. He says, without arrogance, that leadership comes quite naturally to him, but always learning and evolving. “You need a bit of aura and charisma, as well as ability, to bring people with you.”
He has brought his stepdaughters with him into the industry, with Michelle an affordable housing manager for Baker Estates and Nadine, a firefighter, working with Linden on its Help to Buy schemes.
He co-founded Midas Homes and sold it to Galliford Try; he co-founded Gerald Wood Homes and sold it to Galliford Try. In total, Fitzgerald spend 35 years at Galliford Try, including posts as chief executive and executive chairman.
While it is currently all about the Bovis turnaround – both in fortunes and reputation – Fitzgerald would like to see the industry get its act together collectively to encourage more young people into housebuilding and promote the exciting career opportunities across a variety of skills.
He says the industry also needs to be more open and engaging with customers about what can and probably will go wrong, but also ensuring issues are dealt with before they spiral out of control. “If we get it wrong, we must put it right – quickly.”
Housebuilders for too long, says Fitzgerald, have profited from ‘the only pub in the village’ analogy, pointing out that if people who ate at your pub went down with food poisoning, they would take their business to the next pub down the road.
“A housebuilder might be the only pub for miles around, so despite the problems, new homes still sell in the ‘village’ and for good prices.”
If food poisoning doesn’t damage your business, where is the incentive to clean the kitchen? Well Fitzgerald is scrubbing the worktops with vigour, throwing out food past its sell-by date and investing in new chefs and new appliances – an apt analogy to finish on for a man whose first job was washing dishes in a Dartmouth hotel.