· Features

Interview with Jarvis Snook CEO of Rok

Garvis Snook, CEO of building firm Rok, learned people management skills while blowing things up.

Perhaps that explains his views on HR. For a start he doesn't like the term 'HR', he tells Adam Hill.

Garvis Snook does not sound like any builder you have ever met. For a start, he is prone to asking curious philosophical questions such as: "What's the practical interpretation of 'loving a customer'?" And there's no sucking air through his teeth and saying: 'It's going to cost you ... '.

Snook is chief executive of Rok (tagline: 'The nation's local builder') and admits that fellow construction industry chief executives once thought of him as an 'oddball'. But that was before he took Rok from half a dozen offices and an annual turnover of £92 million to more than 5,000 employees in 60 locations nationwide and £1 billion-plus in sales.

This means Snook - the name is relatively common in his native Somerset - is probably just seen as a clever oddball these days. "There's less scepticism now," he agrees with a laugh.

The company's work is, well, workaday: smallish new builds, planned repairs, refurbishment and maintenance. "This is everyday building; it's not about stadia; it's building the local primary school and extending the local shop," Snook says. "The group brings economies of scale."

Rok's selling point has been providing a local service. "There's an old phrase about not crapping on your own doorstep," he smiles. "But being part of that community is central to us. We like our leaders - and the bulk of our staff - to be local."

Recruitment is not a problem, he says, with many hires coming through direct recommendation by existing employees. For all his openness, though, Snook is not above a bit of mild deception. "We have recruited at senior level without letting people know we're in construction," he smiles. "Our current financial director didn't even know what we did until the third meeting."

But don't, whatever you do, make the mistake of calling Rok's HR function 'HR'. "We talk about people," Snook interrupts gently.

Rok's chief operating officer, Rob Olorenshaw, formerly group people director, oversees HR at board level, along with safety, health and environment, customer relations, IT and supply chain. "He leads the team directly," says Snook. "There is not another people director."

Staff work "as part of Rok" and not "for Rok", he continues. "We look after our people, they need to be valued, recognised and rewarded."

So where does all this upbeat good feeling come from? "Various events in my life have impacted my thinking," Snook says. He dropped out of York University after two terms ("I was bored") in the late 1960s. "It was the era of Flower Power, the Beatles were at their height, and you went off travelling to Afghanistan," he recalls dreamily, a smart-suited chief executive wearing long hair and a kaftan in his mind.

Given Snook's enlightened approach to HR management, it would be no surprise to learn that he spent time communing with some maharishi or other. But in fact he did something more prosaic: rather than let it all hang out, he joined his father's small demolition firm.

This was more formative than he could have imagined. Snook developed many of the ideas he has on people while part of a four-man team working with explosives. "You tend to value people by their qualifications," he begins. "But here were guys who couldn't read and write yet contributed hugely to the success of the team. Health and safety in the industry was nothing like it is today." Then he grins: "I loved demolition, absolutely adored it."

Another big influence was the fact that when Snook was a boy, his father was a scaffolder. "If he injured himself he couldn't work and there was no continuity of employment," he said. "That seared itself on my thinking. The people who carry out most building work are self-employed and I've never felt that's right."

A failed business venture of his own saw Snook lose his home and move back from London to Somerset. "I had five kids by then," he says. (He now has three grandchildren, to boot). So he joined Stansell, a seventh-generation family building firm, in 1984 as small works manager. At that time it had a £500,000 turnover and was breaking even, says Snook. "Two years later it was five times that with a really good profit, just through engaging with the guys."

Sounds good, but there must surely have been more to it than this. Snook settles back and explains. "They were paid the minimum the industry could get away with, and no one asked them their view or opinion," he begins. "Their main reason for coming in to work was to have a chat with their mates."

He pauses. "I talked to them about customer service. 'If Mrs Jones wants her back bedroom decorated in time for Christmas, then stay on an hour extra in the evening and we'll pay you the overtime.' The company hadn't done that before; it was steeped in process - the workforce was just a tool."

Stansell put Snook on the board and it was at this point, he says, that "my career started to go forward". "It took me a while to work out what I'd done," he recalls. "But I'd changed the workers' perception of themselves; they became a valued part of the company, not a tool. They were more energised about what they were delivering for the business."

This all sounds like classic empowerment stuff. But - no - don't call it that. "I used to talk about 'empowerment'," says Snook. "But now I think it's the most misunderstood word in the HR lexicon: it's often used as a means of abdicating responsibility to others. People need to know what the boundaries are."

But isn't that quite a restrictive, paternalistic view? "Good challenge!" he laughs. "Alright, in your own life you're free to make decisions but you are constrained by the rule of law: is that paternalistic? As chief executive I have freedom to act - but only within specified boundaries. You've got to be careful about where you draw these lines: we talk about leadership rather than management. Good leaders give people wide boundaries but a lot of coaching."

Snook made his way to Rok in 2000. The company was then called EBC, a hangover from its roots as Exeter Building Contractors, set up to repair bomb damage in 1939. Snook's first important decision was to give all staff the same rights to holidays, sickness pay, contributory pensions and private medical care - effectively ending the distinction between blueand white-collar workers in the company. "I think the board thought: 'We might as well let him have a go'," he says.

"It was a real leap of faith - everyone being paid under the same terms and conditions," Snook continues. It means that Rok's technicians in effect cost up to 15% more than usual to employ, he says. "Yet our profitability from their trade is above the industry average," he points out. "That's a clear demonstration of strategy in action delivering bottom line results."

He and the rest of the senior management team all have a programme of monthly site visits where they hold Q&A sessions. "It ain't lip service, I promise you," he says. "It's about the culture and atmosphere in the organisation." In the first three days of each month, there is also an Ask Garvis slot where staff can email Snook any question and he has to respond. "I get 25 to 40 of these per month."

But to return to his question about the interpretation of 'loving a customer'? You can imagine a few brickies sniggering at that during induction. Snook does not deny this, but says: "We then ask the question: 'What would you do if you worked in your mum's house?' and the connections start to come."

The company issues everyone a wallet-sized pledge card too, carrying mottos like: 'We are one team.' "But we never use our values as a means of promoting the business," he says sternly. "These are in our head and our heart. We promote them internally, extensively. To feel valued and recognised is one of the big reasons people want to work at Rok."

It means the company is well-positioned for an economic upturn, he says. At its peak the UK construction industry was worth £122 billion and Snook estimates it will sit between £95 billion and £100 billion for the next four years. He does the maths: "There are 2.5 million people working within that. The repair, maintenance, improvement and social housing part of that is, we reckon, worth £35 billion a year. The growth potential is absolutely enormous."

Snook lives near Sloane Square in London's ever-fashionable (and therefore ever-expensive) Chelsea. He can walk to the Royal Court Theatre (he frequently does) and could go back home for drinks in the interval if he wanted to (he doesn't). It is the address of someone who has made it in life, yet Snook knows what his success is based on. "Our technicians are tradespeople, the core of what we do," he says simply. "We don't make money unless someone is putting one brick on top of the other or joining two bits of wood together."

When you boil it down there is nothing particularly revolutionary about any of Snook's HR philosophy - it just may be that the building sector generally has been slow to catch on to good ideas about staff engagement. After all, only in an industry where financial success is not valued could someone like Snook be regarded as odd.