Thursday, October 9, 2008

How to Build an Empire Without Taking Slaves

Stuart Rigg is CEO of Advance Housing and Support. It sounds like a monolith and, on one level, it is, with a turnover of around £25 million. However, its approach to expansion is anything but monolithic. Rather than grow organically or via take-overs they have instead partnered with smaller organisations, allowed them to keep their name and what made them special in the first place, but brought them clearly in the Advance family of companies.

What's the deal then? And why partner with Advance? Well, take the example of HILT in Hackney. HILT was a successful local charity doing very interesting work with disabled people but which had real problems around its back-office functions and its financial management. Enter Advance. All of these functions are now performed at Advance's business support centre at Witney (Oxon). In addition, HILT can now call on the balance sheet, cashflow facilities and credibility of Advance when dealing with commissioners. No longer is it viewed as a vulnerable local minnow with poor financial control. Commissioners feel much safer.

And for Advance? Stuart's philosophy is the opposite of the standard business advice which is to find your core product and stick to it. His is housing and support, both mature, `sunset' sectors with little to play for. Instead, he advocates diversification. So you see Advance moving into personal budgets, shared ownership, community-based health care and so on. All are bets on the way the future is going but Stuart knows only one or two will come off. Therefore he has placed several.

But rather than setting up his own version of things, as many third sector organisations do, he's gone about things differently. By partnering with the likes of HILT, he's bringing the best of Advance into organisations and approaches that could thrive while, quite hopefully, finding the key to Advance's wider future in the process.

Its a different approach, less imperialistic and one which allows for smaller organisations to keep what is special about them (including their particular identity) while, at the same time, allowing the good things brought by a larger organisation to work their magic.

We ended up talking about the pros and cons of having four children (he was in Cambridge visiting his youngest daughter). He felt very lucky to have `had it all' - career, good standard of living, four great kids. I said I was only just coping with two and that four would mean I would definitely be buying a shed.

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