Interview with Stephen Martin: Undercover Boss at Clugston Group

Adi: Hi Stephen and welcome to the CMI.  

Stephen: Hi Adi, great to be here.

Adi: How’s the reaction been to your appearance on The Undercover Boss?

Stephen: The reaction has been extremely positive.  It’s easy to put a positive spin on things but the reaction has been amazing.  I’ve had hundreds of emails from clients, competitors and general well wishers.  The feedback has been 100% positive with people glad that we’re an open company.  I've had some great compliments for our staff, and indeed from our staff, people felt that the show captured the essence of Clugston.

Adi: What inspired you to go on the show?Stephen Martin

Stephen: Channel 4 approached us about the show and came to see us here in Scunthorpe to talk over the concept.  Initially we had concerns, from the boardroom all the way to my wife, and mulled over the potential downside to the show with bad practice over emphasized in place of good practice etc. After reflection however we realised it was a once in a lifetime opportunity to work with staff on their terms and gain insight into what they thought and what issues were important to them.  So we decided to do it to learn as much as possible from the experience.

Adi: How powerful has the show been in driving through change?

Stephen: It’s acted as a major catalyst for change.  It’s enabled me to drive through a number of positive improvements in the company.  One of the great things about the show is that it had the boss behind it so it had sponsorship from the very top of the company.  I’ve spoken about the requirements on tv so we had real incentive to make the changes needed.  We have ‘The Clugston Way’, which is our philosophy and we want to actually live that rather than having some fluffy mission statement that looks nice on paper but is ignored in the day to day operations.  We want the internal culture to be as strong as that found in the PR brochures.

Adi: One of the strongest themes to emerge from the show was one of talent management, and specifically getting young people into the company and training them up.  Do you now have a talent management plan in place?

Stephen: Obviously the program is only a snapshot of life at Clugston and so provided a very narrow perspective of the company.  We take talent management very seriously here.  Over 10% of our staff are taken from college at trainee level and go on to degree level.  The construction skills certification scheme gives us a fully qualified workforce.  We have the highest ratio of qualified staff in the industry and it’s something we’re very proud of.  This extends all the way up to board level. 

We fully support Seeing is Believing, a Prince's Trust scheme that takes people out of their comfort zone and into homeless shelters and other disadvantaged parts of the community.  We've done some work recently with the Asian community in Scunthorpe.  They really want to see positive role models in their ethnic groups in the media.  I gave them some examples from Clugston.  We have a project manager from the Asian community in Scunthorpe who joined the company at 16 and has progressed through the ranks and now heads a £50 million project for us.  We’re not resting on our laurels though and are always looking for ways to improve

Adi: Our research has shown that offering training is one of the most effective ways of keeping staff because it makes them feel valued and provides them with marketable skills.  Leon was a fine example of someone that desperately wanted to learn but had no means of doing so.  How has the show changed the companies attitude towards training?

Stephen: As a companion of the Institute I've read that research and completely agree.  Again though, the show highlights a very narrow subset of the workforce.  As the CMI reported earlier in the year, learning new skills is crucial to an employees wellbeing and gives them the skills to progress and benefits both the employees and Clugston.  We have to get behind people and train them up.  Our churn rate is amongst the lowest in the industry and that’s something we’re very proud of.  Our absentee level is also very low and training is a key part of that.  We put our money where our mouth is and hopefully the program will highlight the importance of investing in training, especially in a recession.

Adi: The last few weeks have shown companies like BA and BT offer interesting approaches to avoiding redundancies.  With the tenuous nature of so many contract workers, such as Les, at Clugston have you been inspired to try new things on that front?

Stephen: We have to place things in the context of the economic environment at the moment.  When the show was filmed the economic decline was in full swing and was the biggest in 50 years, with the construction industry alone declining by 6.9%, which was bigger than the general economic malaise so the industry was and is suffering.  Redundancy is a last resort for Clugston though as it is a personal matter.  Our managers live and socialise in the communities with our staff so it’s very real and very personal for us.  The nature of the work however is that project work is temporary.  We have a core of employees but we simply have to have local employees on a contract basis for jobs around the country.

BT and BA are interesting examples but if they don’t work then you often have to employ even more severe cuts than would have been possible before hand.  Innovation is good but it has to be taken in an industry specific context.  You also have to take tough decisions for the long-term health of your company.

Adi: Do you think normal businesses can go undercover?

Stephen: It’s an amazing idea and a concept that I’d thoroughly recommend.  Critics have said that the CEO should be so well known that it should be impossible but that’s a slightly naïve view point.  Going undercover is a great experience that provides you with real insight into what people are thinking.  There was no lying or coercion involved.  We tried to be as honest as humanly possible and were up front with all site managers before going on site with them about what was happening.

Obviously small businesses can’t do this but in larger companies it’s possible.  Someone on the board can go undercover but I think it should be the CEO as they have that executive decision making power.  It’s not a regular measure you can take but as a one off it’s so good for learning and building a sense of pride in the company I can’t really fault it.

Adi: If not, what alternative means of knowing your business would you suggest?

Stephen: Worker Engagement Teams (WET) are a new iniative we’ve launched since the show.  I visited one of our plants recently and was so proud of the WET they had in place.  They’re a mixture of staff from those plants (from all levels) that meet every four weeks and they discuss things openly and provide a bullet point summary of the meetings on the site for all workers to see.  You often see the same gripes from the same people that show up in feedback all the time but we encourage a variety of people to join these teams so we get a true understanding of things.  I’ve even had lunch with several employees recently, what I call brown bag lunches, and they talk openly about their concerns.  Staff wanted to see where I work as well as me seeing where they work so they came in to head office and we had lunch.

The corporate newsletter has gone because no one read it and it’s been replaced with a new internal communication plan that deals with what people want to hear rather than what we want to send out.  It’s sent out more regularly and sent out both by email and stapled to peoples pay slips so we know they get it.  It forces us to talk on their terms at times that suit them rather than filling pages with management jargon.

Adi: Will there be a follow up to show how the process has changed Clugston?

Stephen: No plans by Channel 4 but I’m personally going to follow up on all of the changes that have been made to see what’s working and what isn’t working.  There’s always a risk that they’ll only show the negative things, that’s the nature of the beast, they’re making an entertainment show, but it’s important to show people what it is really like.

We’re working to broadcast the changes we made to the wider world.  Bridge the Gap is a new plan that will be launched in September and will focus on the lack of apprenticeships and the unpredictability of the working environment.  As business leaders we can’t rely on government to do things for us so we’re looking to get other leaders to join me and work together on this because if we don’t act the baby boomers will have retired and the youngsters aren’t coming through to replace them.

Adi: Everyone I’ve spoken to was a big fan of Dick, the site manager, what are your plans for him?

Stephen: Dick’s a star; I hope it came across on the show how passionate for this industry he is.  I was sat with him in the cabin one day and he’d trained every single person in the room.  He’s now working for us as a coach and he has his own van and travels around sites coaching and identifying young people to mentor them.  Dick loves it because he gets to do what he loves and the youngsters love it as they have someone as personable and knowledgeable as Dick to help them out.  He’s vital for the Bridge the Gap iniative as he’s a prime example.  One of the highlights of the show was that it gave people like Dick a voice and it makes me proud because those kinds of people don’t usually get a voice – it’s usually people like me or Alan Sugar.

Adi: Thanks very much for your time Stephen, it's been very interesting and I look forward to hearing more about Clugston in future.

Stephen: Thanks Adi.


Super interview. I really enjoyed the show and it was refreshing to see a company being so open about things. It's great to hear that some really positive changes have come about because of the show too. My hat goes off to Stephen and his team.

It shouldn't have to take a follow up from Channel 4 to make sure things do actually change for the better at Clugston indeed! Change should be immeadiate and sustained!