Connecting Business – Growing Opportunities

Meet Martin Armstrong, Causeway’s Inspirational Business Leader of the Year

The Inspirational Business Leader of the Year award is one of the most significant accolades presented at the Causeway Awards. This year’s winner was Martin Armstrong, Chief Executive of Wheatley Group, the UK’s largest builder of social rented homes and one of the best accredited organisations in the country.

Following his win, we sat down with Martin to find out the highlights of his time as Chief Executive, what work the Wheatley Group is doing to help eliminate poverty and why he is inspired to work for the better of society.

Tell us a little about your professional background

“I did a degree in Social Administration and Housing Management at the University of Ulster after leaving school before working in housing in a few different places across the UK. This included roles as an estate officer in Kirklees in Yorkshire, an estate manager in Greater London and later as a senior housing manager in Moray in the north of Scotland.

“The early part of my career was hands-on housing management and it was during this time that I became acutely aware of the link between housing, deprivation and people’s life chances, including their education and health outcomes. Since then it’s been my mission to improve the quality of housing, and alongside that helping break the cycle of poverty by raising people’s ambitions and offering them opportunities to improve their lives.

“That is what has spurred me on during my career and it has underpinned the work I’ve done in the senior positions I’ve been fortunate enough to hold at West Lothian Council, Glasgow Housing Association and now Wheatley Group.”

What, in your opinion, are the strengths of the Scotland/Ireland/Northern Ireland relationship?

“Undoubtedly what unites all three is the people - their warmth and their humour. I feel equally at home with the people of Scotland as I do with people in my native Northern Ireland or in Ireland. Our shared history and culture give us the opportunity for productive relationships.”

What has your career progression been like? Any career highlights?

“As my career has progressed it has become about driving housing, regeneration and care organisations to deliver award-winning business performance and customer service, while maintaining a strong focus on social purpose and responsibility.

“As Chief Executive of Wheatley Group, Scotland’s leading housing, care and property-management group, I have steered the organisation towards become one of the most respected in the UK, and beyond.

“Through my leadership, we have focused on four key areas - empowering staff to deliver the highest quality services for our customers; tackling the affordable housing crisis and disadvantage in communities; strengthening the Group’s financial position; and working with partners to shape national outcomes.

“The culture of top performance and strong social ethos I have inspired at Wheatley has given international investors the confidence to invest over £1 billion, enabling us to build thousands of new affordable homes in our communities.

“Being able to build affordable housing on this scale is in itself a highlight of my career. But equally I regard as a highlight the thousands of opportunities we’ve created through our investment and new-build work which is supporting people from our homes into work and training. That’s the key to breaking out of poverty and ending what is, for some people, generations of unemployment.”

What has been your biggest achievement in your time as Chief Executive so far?

“There have been several achievements I’m really proud of. One of the biggest is setting up, and growing year on year, a Modern Apprenticeship programme which has given, since 2009, over 400 young people from our communities the chance to start a career in housing, business or environmental services.

“It’s also a fantastic achievement to have led staff right across Wheatley Group to achieve top business performance and excellent customer satisfaction day in, day out. We’ve done that through the introduction of a ‘Think Yes’ culture, which empowers our staff to design and deliver tailored services and solutions for customers at the first point of contact.

“The amazing work our teams at Wheatley do was recognised in October this year when the Group became the first organisation in the UK to be awarded seven stars by the European Foundation of Quality Management (EFQM). The award was presented to the Group in Helsinki, where EFQM assessors also singled out Wheatley for the award of Outstanding Contribution to Society. That is a huge achievement and testament to the energy and passion of people at Wheatley.”

What does it mean to have won Inspiration Business Leader of the Year at the 2019 Causeway Awards?

“It’s a huge honour to be recognised with this prestigious business award. But I never forget that awards such as this one are down not just to me, not just to our senior management team and Boards but, above all, to the Think Yes attitude of the staff at Wheatley and the fantastic work they do in making homes and lives better every day.”

What are some of your next goals for the Wheatley Group?

“Next year we will launch our new five-year strategy, entitled ‘Inspiring Ambition, Unleashing Potential’. Among our key objectives are providing more quality, affordable homes for people in our communities through our new-build programme.

“We also have an ambitious vision to engage our customers and communities in fresh ways, encouraging those whose voices go unheard to feel they can influence decisions, shape services and feel connected to what happens in their community. Our journey to provide outstanding services will continue apace and we’ll increasingly use technology to help that while, at the same time, tackling digital exclusion and ensuring none of our customers are left behind.”

Could you describe a day in the life of your role?

“It’s impossible to describe a day in my life as no two days are ever alike. What I can say is that I get up every day knowing there will be challenges ahead but believing all of us who work in housing and care can make a difference.

“We can change people’s lives through the work we do in our communities. I never tire of that mission and I’m proud that every day I work alongside people who share my energy and commitment for that goal. Every day we have the ability to change the course of people’s lives through our mission of ‘making homes and lives better’.”

Tell us more about the Wheatley Foundation?

“The Foundation is our charitable trust and brings together all of Wheatley Group’s ‘Better Lives’ programmes and activities under one roof.

“It was set up in 2016 with the aim of supporting 10,000 people each year, who may be disadvantaged or vulnerable, within Wheatley communities across Scotland. In fact, it has surpassed that every year, offering people support and opportunities to tackle poverty, isolation, employment barriers, digital exclusion and much, much more.

“Our programmes, delivered directly or by working with local and national partners, is another way Wheatley achieves its ambitions of ‘Making Lives Better’. Its activities are funded by the Group and its subsidiaries and from external grants. All the activities are to benefit our customers.

“The Foundation’s five key areas of interest are: poverty - tackling social exclusion and taking people out of poverty; employability - Wheatley Works is creating job, career, training and apprenticeship opportunities; education - providing access to Higher and Further Education; digital inclusion - increasing and expanding digital and online access and capability; sport and art - helping people, old and young, to lead more vibrant, active lives.”

What are the main challenges facing the housing market in Ireland and Scotland today?

“I can tell you what the biggest challenge facing the housing sector is - Universal Credit. It was introduced to replace six means-tested benefits and tax credits. It was the single biggest overhaul of the welfare system in living memory and was billed as an empowering, streamlined revamp that would make work pay. 

“But it has left thousands of vulnerable people and families not just worse off, but confused and distressed as they struggle to cope with the everyday demands of life. It’s not just that the household incomes of many vulnerable people have been cut, but also that the payment of benefits to which they are entitled is at the start unfairly delayed. That’s putting an enormous strain on households and on their ability to pay their rent.

“As an organisation we are working hard to support customers through these challenges and to mitigate its worst impacts on people and our business.

“For both countries the supply of good quality homes in thriving communities is an essential requirement for ensuring future generations have a clear pathway for renting their own home.”

What is the best piece of advice you’ve received in your career?

“Work hard and stay true to yourself.”

What do you enjoy doing outside of work?

“Reading, walking, suffering the pain and agony of supporting Leeds United, and spending time with my family.”

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