Benchmark MD Jeremy Rodway-Smith: Planting the seeds of the success
- Credit: Archant
To Benchmark Managing Director Jeremy Rodway-Smith, his staff are everything. Tanya Gledhill meets the man with a passion for trees, teamwork and Japanese poetry
In 2004, Jeremy Rodway-Smith set aside a weekend with his wife, Bev, and mutual friends to talk about launching a business.
It had been a long-held ambition of Jeremy’s to run his own company, following a career in property management and 12 years as Centre Manager at Merry Hill in Dudley.
By the time Sunday night had arrived, the seed was sown for Benchmark, his grounds maintenance empire.
A surveyor by trade, Jeremy had spent his twenties in London, managing property portfolios from retail parks to shopping centres for various pension funds.
It was this wealth of experience which got him headhunted by Merry Hill’s then owners, Chelsfield Plc, to lead the operational team at what was then one of the UK’s biggest shopping centres.
But a buyout by the Australian group Westfield in 2004 saw him exit the centre fairly abruptly, along with the rest of the senior management team.
Jeremy, however, isn’t a man to rest on his laurels, and so three months later, was offered a job managing shopping centres in Dubai.
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Accepting it would have meant his career would have taken a very different turn.
“It was a really nice job, but I didn’t like Dubai at all,” he says. “I found it incredibly soulless. I wasn’t impressed at all.
“I came back, and knew I wanted to start my own business. It was a desire I’d always harboured and I had this passion for gardening and I loved trees and woods.
“And while I saw a lot of companies which were mature in cleaning and security and machinery and equipment, but there were less landscaping companies, that were of a similar maturity, dealing with the corporate sector. And I thought, ‘why don’t we have a go?’.”
And that’s exactly what he did, under the umbrella of his partner’s company, to which gave Benchmark a crucial, initial sales push.
Jeremy is disarmingly articulate. Measured with everything he says.
He’s careful to make a distinction between the corporate and the public sector, and this is reflected entirely in Benchmark’s customer demographic.
“I wanted to keep away from large-scale council contracts,” he says.
“Because the margins weren’t there, because the type of organisational structure you’re dealing with is really heavy. You spend a lot of time in meetings.
“And we wouldn’t have been able to produce the quality of work I wanted to produce. Whereas in the corporate sector, it’s way more fragmented because the lot sizes you’re picking up tend to be much smaller, but actually the quality of work that you’re asked to produce is higher, and you have the margins.”
Quality is everything to Benchmark, to Jeremy, to the management team at HQ in Stratford-upon-Avon he proudly describes as “incredibly tight knit”.
“It’s very important, because if you’re not in a position to be able to charge reasonable prices, you’re not then in a position to pay your colleagues reasonable wages and purchase reasonable tools and vans and so forth,” he adds.
“We want to be our clients’ best supplier and a great place to work. It’s as simple as that. The most important thing I’ve put in place is that vision, with the support of my colleagues, because it sets the tone. And we hold on to that really, really hard and fast.”
Several of his staff have been with him since day one. Shaun Cross, his Commercial Director, worked with him at Merry Hill.
There’s a truly family feel to the company, which has a staff of 200 working on diverse projects from the maintenance of blue chip company headquarters to schools, hospitals and the installation of gardens for show homes built by major housing developers.
“One of the sayings that I grew up with in the Seventies and Eighties, is that business is all about bottom line,” says Jeremy.
“Frankly, I think that’s absolute b*****s. Business has to be all about its people.”
I laugh, he laughs. And he drops his guard a little.
“I hate the phrase ‘human resources’. It’s so disappointing that these personnel people have come up with this new-fangled way of describing themselves.
“It’s ridiculous. The reality is that work is incredibly important to us as human beings. It’s absolutely essential that we enjoy our work.
“The moment that we become a human resource, well, it’s not a good moment, is it?
“If you’re delivering a place of work where people enjoy what they do, and they’re passionate about it, then the profits will flow through naturally.”
Turnover is currently sitting around the £6m mark, but there are robust plans to grow it to £10m by 2020.
How will he achieve this? Not by insisting on a culture of long hours, that is clear.
Benchmark’s management team is fairly autonomous, trusted to get on with the job.
Jeremy regularly takes them out to his favourite pub for lunch. Every July, there’s a family fun day at his home. It’s about mutual respect, he says, and then pauses, thinking carefully about what he’s about to say.
He can’t put his finger on what’s changed since the days of the 2am finishes in the Eighties, but attributes it partly to the media’s focus on work-life balance.
The workforce is asking for it, he says, and he insists he’s flexible, allowing staff to cut their hours where appropriate. While the company already has the Gold Investors In People Award, it’s in the throes of going for the new Platinum standard and cites a recent staff survey where more than 95% said they were proud to work for Benchmark.
“When I started this business 12 years ago, I recognised the necessity for work-life balance then,” he says. “Perhaps I was slightly ahead of the curve.
“As soon as you put a spotlight on something, whether it’s in business or in your personal life, you can effect change. And we’ve got a constant spotlight on work-life balance.
“I don’t want it to sound like I’ve got an angle. It’s not been done because it breeds loyalty. It’s been done because it’s the right thing to do.
“We’re not human resources: we’re people. And people need flexibility in their lives.”
So how does he ensure this close-knit team stays close-knit?
Good people, he says, without hesitation. His team leaders, he says, are trustworthy, hardworking and exercise good judgement. “Very good people”.
“If you’ve got people at the coal face with those sorts of qualities, that massively reduces potential problems,” he says.
That, and having the right systems in place and dealing with any issues immediately.
“Here, head office, this is not an ivory tower. We’re here to serve the guys out in the field. Tomorrow is not good enough. Problems need to be dealth with immediately and effectively.”
This year, the company will work with facilities managers, property managers, blue chip companies, companies which own their own buildings, house builders… the list goes on.
But the majority of work on the order books is maintenance; Benchmark provides the full gamut of landscaping services.
Jeremy is insistent on doing quality work at the right price, and it’s this that’s driven double-digit growth, year-on-year, in what he describes as a “horrendously competitive” marketplace.
Benchmark is growing in an orderly fashion, he jokes. And that suits him just fine.
“What wins out? Quality of service,” he says.
“It’s the only chance you’ve got is to be better than everyone else. And having a great workforce is absolutely critical.
“We’re making a reasonable profit, but we’ve got really happy staff and clients, and that’s where we want to be.”
When he’s not in the office, Jeremy skis and does karate. He cycles. He loves walking. He travels with Bev, his wife, a lot.
He’s planted a lot of trees and hedges in his garden, which give him great pleasure. And an Irish guy once got him into Japanese poetry.
And when he needs to top up his spirituality levels, he heads to Westonbirt Arboretum in Gloucestershire. What does he love about it, I ask him?
“It’s the trees. The colours, the species, the sheer scale, the overall feel...
“There should be many more places like that.”
And then we have a conversation about the Northern Forest and the late Felix Dennis and the Forest of Arden.
“Culturally, there is this massive turn towards the environment,” Jeremy adds.
“Work-life balance. Holistic therapies. There is a sea change. We need to recognise our under-connectedness with everything and everyone, and act accordingly.
“Someone once said to me: ‘There are different routes to spirituality, and perhaps yours, Jeremy, is through nature?’ And perhaps that makes sense.”
Perhaps it does. Perhaps it’s why Benchmark is celebrating 12 years at the very top of its game, and is looking forward to many, many more.