Kicking off our north special is a man whose controversial approach to housing has earned him a reputation as a maverick. After 14 years as chief executive of Irwell Valley Housing Association, Stuart Macdonald finds livewire Liverpudlian Tom Manion as fired up as ever.
Where do you start with Tom Manion? Author, swimmer, crooner, loner, jet-setter, dancer, talker - the chief executive of Irwell Valley Housing Association is not your average housing boss.
When I arrive at his fifth floor office in a nondescript block in south west Manchester, the spiky-haired Dr Manion is dressed in tight-fitting black jeans and an equally tight, discretely labelled, black Hugo Boss T-shirt and he is having an impromptu dance with his staff.
Is this an act for my benefit? It’s difficult to tell, but then I wouldn’t be the first person to be befuddled by the livewire, ‘early-fifties’ Liverpudlian.
Dr Manion tells a story of when, about a decade ago, he visited the offices of the then English social housing regulator, the Housing Corporation. Its chief executive, Anthony Mayer was out, so he left him a note. ‘It said, “we’re about to revolutionise social housing. Call me if you want to be a part of it”,’ the Irwell Valley chief executive recalls.
Intrigued, Mr Mayer - now chair of the current social housing regulator, the Tenant Services Authority - instructed his team to find out more. When they did, they were so unsure of Dr Manion’s ‘gold service’ approach to incentivising his 8,000 tenants to behave and pay their rent on time, they put together a panel of experts, led by the retailer Julian Richer - the founder of home entertainment chain Richer Sounds and now Dr Manion’s co-author on his upcoming book The Reward Society - to assess just what he was up to.
‘The aim was to ensure what we were doing wasn’t mad - it was something they just didn’t understand,’ says Dr Manion.
The gold service was launched by Dr Manion in October 1998 and aims to incentivise tenants to pay their rent on time and abide by the terms of their tenancy agreements by offering a series of rewards. Tenants who pay their rent on time for at least six weeks qualify for faster repairs, cashback on rent of up to £52 a year and access to education and training grants. Ninety per cent of tenants are gold service members.
The chief executive is sitting in his meeting room, which looks more like a teenage boy’s dream bedroom. It’s packed with musical instruments - there’s a drum kit emblazoned with ‘The Beatles’, a saxophone (‘It was my daughter’s, but she doesn’t play it any more so I thought I’d bring it in here’), bongos and a couple of guitars (more on which later).
‘They did a massive Mori poll of our tenants,’ he continues. ‘They did a report saying ‘yes, this works’ then that was the end of it really.’
Capturing the zeitgeist
Except that it wasn’t. Dr Manion’s message of ‘reinvent social housing and incentivise people to behave’ caught the ear of conference organisers, and he soon became a regular speaker at events.
Newspaper articles followed - Dr Manion’s high-octane, no-nonsense style captured readers’ attention, but the housing profession was not so easily seduced.
‘I was accused by another chief executive in Liverpool of, and I quote, “authoritarian, state terrorism”,’ says Dr Manion. ‘I went to conferences and people were metaphorically hurling potatoes and tomatoes at me.’
‘All I was saying was, “we need to reinvent this and incentivise people to behave”,’ he explains - but housing professionals were hearing, ‘you need to make a fundamental change to the way you do housing management because it’s not good enough’. ‘In a way, they were right,’ he now concedes.
Rob Brown, stakeholder engagement officer at Manchester Council, has known Dr Manion, who holds a PHD in British housing policy, for 25 years. While he thinks his ‘colourful’ friend is a ‘great, forward-thinking leader’ he agrees he can rub people up the wrong way. ‘Tom’s an individual - almost a loner. He doesn’t mingle with the big crowd in Manchester. I think it’s because he doesn’t see the need to engage with other people and possibly doesn’t have the respect for other people he maybe should have’.
Indeed, one senior housing figure recounts the time he ‘sat in a meeting with government officials and Tom began waving a syringe around. He thought we were all too bourgeois and didn’t know what was going on in real life’.
‘He said, “it’s tough out there, people will threaten you with syringes like this”, and he’d brandish this thing filled with red ink, but was obviously meant to be blood. I found it all a bit offensive really.’
But Dr Manion, who used to be a trade union activist and was a political advisor on the 1988 Housing Act, practices what he preaches. If you strip away the showmanship, two claims he makes about Irwell Valley’s performance during our interview stand out.
The first is the organisation’s staff sickness levels, which he says stood at 0.4 per cent last year. The second is its void turnaround times - 62 per cent of the 8,000-home organisation’s empty properties are re-let on the same day they are vacated, he states, and all are re-let within six days.
These figures are yet to be independently verified and this latter claim would represent a dramatic improvement on Irwell Valley’s most recent annual report which shows average void turnaround time of 18 days (down from 23 in 2009/10). But if they are correct, they would make Irwell Valley one of the best performing social landlords, not only in the north west, but across the whole of England.
Whether accurate or not, it is undeniable that Dr Manion’s management philosophy is compelling and his organisation achieves results in one of the most deprived areas of the country - Manchester is listed by the Communities and Local Government department as the fourth most deprived local authority area in England.
In my few hours at Irwell Valley HQ, Dr Manion takes me a on a whistlestop tour of the office, barging into meetings with a cheery wave and a playful comment. Like the graffiti on the wall (the fire exit is marked by a huge fire engine), this is to show what a relaxed and fun place the organisation is.
Investing in staff
We encounter many of the organisation’s 172 staff racing off to its lunchtime circuits club. A manager tells us how she is getting voice coaching lessons to help build her confidence for a big meeting later that week, while another shows off the carrot sandwich he’s having for lunch as part of his healthier living programme.
Source: Asadour Guzelian
This is all part of the ‘solid gold’ incentive plan, the successor to the original gold service, which Dr Manion says applies equally well to building relationships with staff as it does with tenants - he lists failing to realise this ‘until about six years ago when the penny dropped’ as one of his biggest regrets.
‘A lot of people are good at the compelling vision stuff, but the difference here is how you deliver,’ he explains. ‘If a chief executive says “my staff are my greatest asset”, do their staff feel like that?’
‘It’s the same for our approach to customers. If [you’re not delivering] people are not stupid and they won’t buy into it.’
Irwell Valley’s employees can be taken off the solid gold scheme at any time. Not being part of the plan means not benefitting from certain incentives such as use of the organisation’s music room, free healthcare, access to a gym and personal training and coaching sessions.
‘It works for residents or staff and is much simpler and easier than evicting or sacking.’ Dr Manion explains.
Currently just five out of 172 staff members are not on the solid gold programme. Their chief executive hopes these individuals work out at Irwell Valley, but is clear that, if his team is to continue to maintain high levels of performance - 86 per cent of tenants say they are satisfied with Irwell Valley’s service, which the Tenant Services Authority says is well above the national average - he has no time for, what he calls, ‘numpties’.
‘It’s the same with our approach to customers,’ says Dr Manion. ‘[Housing] is the only service in the country where payment is not linked to consumption. You couldn’t get your food at Aldi and say, “I’ll maybe pay you next week, but I might not”,’ he states.
In his early days at Irwell Valley, he took a tough stance with tenants, evicting 51 households in 2007/08. The organisation evicted 16 households in 2009/10.
Dr Manion says he attends every eviction personally to ensure his tenants understand what is happening and why. ‘People say “I’ve got nowhere to go”, but I say “You’ve evicted yourself. We’ve been trying to help you keep your tenancy and this is your own doing”.’
Dr Manion sums up his philosophy on social housing thus: ‘I think housing [management] is dead easy - [but] community development is very difficult. I think you shouldn’t build any more affordable homes - we’ve already got enough. Spend all of your money you can on health and education in your local communities.’
If the key for a social landlord lies in its ability to act as a catalyst for change in a community, why has Dr Manion spent 14 years at Irwell Valley and not sought a role at a larger organisation with greater resources?
‘It’s gotten under my skin,’ he answers. ‘I’ve had other offers and opportunities, but I am very happy here. I’ve got a great group of people who I really enjoy working with. Also, it’s like having a laboratory where you can try new things. Not in a fascist way, but to innovate.’
And what if the mad professor - whose annual salary of £154,425 makes him the top earning housing association boss per million pounds turnover - was ever to move on, would the Irwell Valley experiment continue?
‘Imagine Man United without Sir Alex Ferguson - there’s a certain style and savvy that would change. There is only one Tom Manion, [but] there are a number of people here who could step into my shoes and they would have a different approach,’ he states. ‘If one of the grey-suited guys took over and managed by bureaucracy and fear, there would be a revolt and people would leave.’
Yet some of these ‘grey suits’ seem to be gradually picking up on Dr Manion’s ideas. The man himself, admits that, ‘people were split 80/20 against me, but now it’s the other way’. And Ross Fraser, chief executive of benchmarking consultancy Housemark, says: ‘Tom can legitimately claim to have introduced new ideas which have become embedded in the working practices of other organisations.’
As our meeting draws to a close, Dr Manion sits in the music room to play The Police’s Roxanne on his 12-string guitar, his colleague Lynne providing vocals - they are preparing to perform at an employee’s upcoming birthday.
Manchester Council’s Mr Brown sums up Irwell Valley as ‘an extension of its chief executive’s personality - you either love it or you go, “hey, what’s going on here?”’.
Like a veteran rocker, Dr Manion’s once fresh hits may now hang in the housing hall of fame, but they still sound pretty damn good.
‘Managers have to be a sociologist, a talker, a listener. Some people are frightened of talent or manage through bureaucracy. If that’s the case, I say kick them out.’
‘I hate the term human resources - it sounds like mining for humans.’
‘A local authority should be the best employer to work for, but at present it’s just a mass of bureaucratic barbed wire.’
‘Avoiding the ‘distance decay’ effect is crucial. You go to some chief executive’s offices and they are remote and getting to them is like getting through US airport security.’