QUITE A JOURNEY
Peter Hartland is Chief Executive of St Luke’s Hospice in Sheffield and is a Past President of the Sheffield & District Society of Chartered Accountants. Peter shares with us his fascinating business career that has culminated in the transformation of one of Yorkshire’s leading charitable institutions.
Tell us about your early career?
“I went to the University of Bath to study to become an electrical and electronic engineer which sounds incredibly boring, but, back in the day, IT was just taking off and all things electronic were exciting! I was sponsored by International Computers Limited, ICL, and went to work with them after graduating.
I loved what I was doing, but there was constant restructuring and redundancies and at the age of 22 I didn’t want to find myself out of a job, so I decided I still had some study left in me and chose to take an accountancy qualification which I felt would give me lots of options in life.
I ploughed myself through four years of study whilst with Ernst & Whinney, which then became EY. At that time, Ernst & Whinney audited a number of major UK and International plcs – many from the Birmingham office where I worked, so when I qualified as an ICAEW Chartered Accountant I had great experience with a big firm.
Faced with the choice of `what next?’ I wanted to do lots of different things, so it was quite natural to go back into industry.
I joined Courtaulds Textiles plc, newly formed from the break-up of the old Courtaulds empire. I came in as part of an internal audit team as a transitional role, then to move on within the business.”
So, what happened at Courtaulds Textiles?
“The transition wasn’t easy, CT was a complex business with a lot of hardened characters in it so, although it was a fascinating place to work, some of the welcomes you received as a new person into the industry weren’t great. But I made a good start and good impression, then for my first ‘line accounting’ role moved to a division which I found out wasn’t doing quite as well as the previous management team had let on. I was struggling somewhat and if ever you’ve heard the phrase “shoot the messenger” you felt in the firing line as the accountant, under high pressure and often ‘in between’ local management and group executives. That was very uncomfortable and I learned very quickly that the world of commerce at that level can be quite cut–throat and difficult.”
So, what did you learn from your experience at Courtaulds Textiles?
“My five years there was a great learning programme. I probably loved half of it and hated half of it. The half I hated stuck with me as if ever I was in charge of a business, this is what I would not do. Ultimately, I decided that if that’s what being in business is about – short-term rewards for the few at the top with less regard for the wellbeing of ordinary employees and local suppliers, then that was unfair. I recall desperate calls from suppliers who were used as ‘interest free credit’ and not paid on time in order to meet a cash projection. On reflection, I actually think that CT was a good place to work and tried very hard to change cultures that had been engrained for decades – it was taken over after I left, and its operations are now subsumed in international corporates.”
What was your next move?
“I decided to make another change and worked at the University of Sheffield for three years. They were going through a period of transition. They were one of the first universities to hit a bit of a financial buffer in that they’d grown quite spectacularly and suddenly needed to focus on financial realities. I worked very closely with the Director of Finance on a restructuring programme and trying to explain the rationale for a restructure, the introduction of new financial models and reductions in staffing levels to the academic departments and leadership groups, was very, very challenging.”
So, how did you become involved with the charity sector?
“I’d enjoyed what I’d done at the University but I’d probably got to a point where I’d put in as much energy as I wanted and my philosophy in life is that you need to be motivated by what you do. I felt that I would enjoy working in what was becoming known as the Third Sector, the world of charities. Many of the charities I knew were financially immature and were struggling to fulfil their mission.
I made that move and quite strangely, it was into students’ unions, because of their link to the University world. The SU at Sheffield University was recognised as one of the top three or four in the country. It was dynamic and outward looking and it added real value to the University experience. I moved there as FD, staying several years and taking over as FD at Leeds University Union too, which made for many lovely hours on the M1 as part of the dual role!
A lot of people might think that the environment would be highly political but it wasn’t. The students’ unions are democratically elected organisations led by young people who need some support and guidance and advice, but underneath, are quite mature and dynamic businesses in their own right.”
How did you come to be working at St Luke’s Hospice in Sheffield?
“Having spent pretty much fifteen years or so travelling and without as much time in Sheffield (now my adopted city) as I would like, I decided to stay local and when I saw the FD role at St Luke’s Hospice I called up the CEO and he explained that they needed someone who could help move the systems and processes of the organisation from a place that felt like the 1970s to 2000s and beyond.
I joined in 2007 with the intention of being FD for a few years, doing the job required, and then perhaps moving again, but things didn’t happen that way. It was clear that St Luke’s Hospice – a lovely charity doing great work in Sheffield, was in a financial pickle and was in desperate need of re-motivation and renewal as an organisation. I’ll be honest, at that stage I was thinking, “What have I got myself into here?”
Tell me about the issues that you faced?
“St. Luke’s was a worthy charity with great staff and volunteers, but it couldn’t continue as it was. On a financial level, the scale of the problem was significant: a £6m turnover business with a projected deficit of £1.3m, which would have wiped out all of our reserves within 2.5 years if we did nothing. So this well-trusted, great charity could have been out of business in three years, which simply couldn’t happen.
The CEO retired and in 2009 and the Board asked if I would take over in an acting capacity to undertake a recovery plan. My thought at the time was, “If this goes wrong, it could ruin my career, because I could be the man that shuts St Luke’s Hospice down!” It was clearly going to be about more than just putting in the hours because an organisation like this is built on the passion of volunteers, of the community that supports it, of people who over the years have had an emotional experience with us here. It comes into your hands and you’ve got to be the one who’s leading the team to make the changes to keep this thing going, without rocking too many boats and hopefully doing it better, I felt it was a risk to take this role on but it would be a completely new transition.”
Would it be fair to say you weren’t considering a CEO role at this time, but there were other motivators that were leading you to say yes?
“Absolutely. I’d never had an ambition to be a CEO. I’d thought throughout my career I was a really good number two. The CEO is the person with the vision, the drive, the ambition for the organisation. The FD can be the enabler of that by helping it happen. At St Luke’s, if I took on the role, I’d effectively be CEO and FD in one; coming up with a plan and effecting it. For a charity with 40 years of history, passionate local involvement, a turnover of £7m, 200 employees and 600 volunteers, that felt quite a step!
The decision wasn’t “Do I want to go down this route of becoming a CEO?”, it was, “Do I want to take up the challenge with this charity that could in fact be in real trouble if I didn’t?”. My job was working with the board on what would not just be a financial change; it would be a physical change too, and a cultural one too. On the physical estate front, our buildings in those days were very tired, 1970s buildings that were probably coming to an end of their life as useful healthcare facilities. So not only did we embark on the task of restructuring to get us out of a financial hole, but we also took on the prospect of raising £6m to rebuild the infrastructure of the hospice.”
Tell us about the plan you had?
“We had to change everything; the home we were in; the governance structure and all the people involved in that. The senior executive team – wholly reshape it, retrain it, change the structures underneath it, reduce the staffing in some areas, perhaps increase it in a few others, but, not only that – do more than you did before but do it better and try to do it in a way that shows you as being innovative and an exemplar to others. That’s a fairly hefty series of changes.
So between 2009 and 2013, we went through that change, it was difficult and as all-encompassing as I feared it would be. You go into these things fearing the worst and the only thing keeping you going at certain times is the knowledge that you’re trying to do everything in the right way and doing it for the right reasons. Thankfully the new Chair, Alex Pettifer, and the Board were right behind us and the senior executive team helped by leading from the front.”
What were some of the challenges you faced during this period of change?
“We saw some ups and downs of real difficulties involved with change; personality issues, people issues, which are always the most complex. The mantra that we have here is that we always try to do things in a fair and reasonable way. So we never upset people for the sake of it but we try to do the right stuff but in the kindest possible way and that’s a challenge too because sometimes an accountant’s way is to cut hard but that doesn’t work in this kind of organisation. It leaves too many negative emotions, and we needed a new culture and attitude of positivity, innovation and total focus on patients and families.”
How is the organisation developing to meet current demands?
“We have seen our patient numbers increase something like 30% since 2009. We are innovating and are a national partner for technology projects. We have just received “outstanding” status from the Care Quality Commission for what we do and within that, the quality of our leadership was one of the things that they identified as being outstanding.
So, from the dark days to the point where I sit down and now, through the efforts of a huge number of people, we together, collectively (trustees, staff, volunteers, customers & fundraisers) have brought this organisation to a point where we have had financial stability for the last seven years. Our turnover has grown to £9m per annum, we still employ 200 people but now have 750 volunteers, and whilst our NHS funding has now fallen to 25% of total income, we’ve broken records in fundraising and retail income year after year. And we’ve invested something like £10m in infrastructure; and we are now seen as being an essential part of healthcare in our city.”
Looking back now, how do you reflect on all that has happened at St Luke’s?
“It’s been a fantastic journey that has achieved so much, for really deserving people. Personally, I look back on what I would have missed if I’d have just said at that point, “You know what? It’s really not for me. I’ll go off and be an FD somewhere else for a while and then move on again.”
I’ve grown in my self-confidence, my strategic ability, and most of all in my understanding of people, how to deal with people and setting my own moral compass for what I think an organisation like this should be. From a standpoint of integrity, of a real focus on people as opposed to processes, of feelings as opposed to systems.”
What are you looking for when you recruit for your team?
“What really matters is attitude. More so probably than innate ability because if a person’s got the right attitude, and plus some basic skills they need, they can then be developed and grown within the organisation.”
What do you feel is the best way to manage people in an on-going basis?
“A good manager finds the key that unlocks the talents of each individual member of their team. Everyone will have a different lock and will require a different key and if you blindly apply the same key to every lock, you’ll never get far. This is what a great manager should try to do: supporting people to make their own decisions and choices; to harness their capabilities and ambitions as well and to back them up when it goes wrong. That’s what really works.
My experience in doing that here is you end up with a team who give more than you could ever believe and produce results you would never believe were possible.”
So how are things now?
“It feels like a nice place to work, with a ‘buzz,’ a clear purpose, and a corporate attitude that change and innovation – for the right reasons, done in the right way – is part of what we are about. Staff surveys are very positive, volunteers’ surveys are positive. Not everything is perfect, it never will be and we will always be trying to do things better.
The personal journey for me, from a ‘little bit insecure’ accountant, fresh in the world, to a CEO of an organisation now for eight years that has gone through a huge period of change and is highly respected and valued in the city, and does such great work for those that need us – well, what a change!”
What has been the biggest personal challenge for you?
“When the previous CEO left, I got a call from our PR advisor, who said ‘the Sheffield Star want to do an interview with you and so do Radio Sheffield.’ He said, “It’s you, Peter, that they now want to speak to.” At that moment, it suddenly dawned on me, that I’ll be talking with somebody who might come at things from a difficult angle to find a story – so I had to try to convince them that the story was good, under control and that it was business as usual. That gets the juices flowing! I realised that I was now the leader and people were going to look to me in that light, so you lose the anonymity of being a middle manager to suddenly becoming a more publically accessible figure.”
Earlier in your career, did anyone specifically act as a mentor to you?
“The General Manager at Sheffield Students’ Union, John Windle, had a moral framework of fairness and clarity that I aspired to, and of never backing off taking a tough decision or doing something that needed to be done, no matter how hard it was for him. John wasn’t there to `talk the talk’; he was there to `walk the walk’ and I learned an awful lot by working with him.”
Is there a piece of advice that you’ve picked up and carried through your career?
“If an issue comes to mind that you feel needs to be tackled, whether it’s personal or business, then it ain’t gonna go away! Don’t let someone else deal with it for you. Don’t let it just drift away and pretend it’s not there. It will come back at you. So, things that come to mind that don’t feel right, you have to act, because if you don’t, you’ll end up ten times worse off. Every time I’ve failed to do that, I’ve ended up regretting it.”
So, finally, Peter, what’s next for you?
“At the moment I’m enjoying it at St Luke’s. It is such a great charity, we have the honour of working with tremendous people in all we do, and of helping those who really need us. That’s a privilege and a responsibility. Because we can never rest on our laurels, there’s lots to do, lots of new things to achieve, and that keeps me motivated. If I were to move in the future, I’d probably be looking for a role maybe in an organisation which has that ethos. Whatever it might be, it would have to be fun because I’m getting old. And making work fun for yourself and your colleagues is my other mantra; you spend too many years working not to enjoy it!”