Joe Hudson is the CEO of Ibstock Plc - a leading manufacturer of clay bricks and concrete products in the UK. With 2,300 employees, and 41 manufacturing sites, Ibstock is the UK’s largest brick producer, by volume sold. Joe has been the CEO of Ibstock since 2018, before which he enjoyed a successful career within the international building materials group Lafarge Holcim.
Following our conversation with Simon Willis, CEO of Hanson UK, Berwick Partners’ Jonathan Burke caught up with Joe to find out how the pandemic has impacted Ibstock, and what change this could lead to in the future…giving us a very insightful perspective from a different part of the UK’s building products and construction sector supply chain.
How has the current pandemic affected Ibstock Plc?
It has had a significant effect on our group. In April our revenues dropped by 90% for our clay business, and 70% for our concrete business. With all the fixed costs associated with making our products that is a significant drop.
From a health & safety point of view we moved quickly to make sure any of our employees that could be classed as vulnerable were not at risk of catching the virus by being in work. From that point on we had to adapt how we kept everyone motivated, how we communicated with our employees on furlough, and how we managed the cost of running the business.
I have seen a great response from our employees: we’ve had good input from people who have seen downturns before, and at the same time a real boost to creativity from everyone. A lot of people have just taken on the responsibility that the business has needed them to.
How have you approached leading the business through this period? Have you had to change how you lead?
Initially I was quite cautious about making decisions. For instance, we were planning on staggering our factory shut down process once the lockdown period had started. However, we decided to move much quicker than we anticipated on this. This is just one example of how we’ve had to evolve: as a leadership team we have become much faster and more methodical with our decision-making. Whilst we are still collaborative it has been imperative for us to move at pace during this period. When you are in this mode mistakes can be made, and we’ll review these if, and when, that happens.
Having to work from home, our whole approach to leadership has had to evolve. For one thing, you are constantly fixed in the same place, and it is vitally important that you create space and time for your personal stuff – for your family and exercise. I had to make a conscious change to how I was spending my working day, and ensure I got the balance right.
I have been fortunate in having such a supportive Chairman and board of directors – their help has been invaluable to me during the crisis.
What have you learnt as the CEO, and what skills are needed from a leadership team during such a period of crisis?
I’ve learnt that this business can move at the pace I want it to. We have shown that we can make decisions quickly and that we can do this. I’ve seen what effective collaboration and communication across an organisation can achieve, especially when it is needed quickly.
In terms of skills, resilience is a key quality of any leader right now. We have had to deal with more challenges than ever before. In my organisation, the HR team has been pivotal in helping us to tackle some of these challenges – with how we furloughed staff for instance. But in the end, you need to be able to rely on your whole team.
What did you have to plan for when bringing your employees back into the business, and what are your views on ‘working from home’ as an alternative to being in the office?
A key question for us is how we keep people safe and healthy as they return to work. It is about managing risk: enabling the business to perform as well as it can financially whilst ensuring our people are safe.
In terms of how we’ll look at the concept of ‘working from home’...there is a huge amount of value of people being together so we are looking at what life in the office will look like in the future – but it is clear that there will be changes to ‘life in the office’ as we have known it.
When do you think the market will return to pre-lockdown level of demand?
It’s too early to say right now. The general industry forecast is that it could be beyond 2021, but I am more optimistic. The ‘fundamentals’ are still strong in the UK, with demand for housing still good. The housebuilders will all be back on site now – and whilst they are focused on completing current projects some are looking at future development projects already. Ibstock is seeing reasonable levels of activity now as well.
What skills does a leadership team need to navigate their people and business through the type of crisis we are experiencing?
I think the need for closer collaboration, fast-paced decision making using the right data points, and strong communication processes to ensure messages are sent clearly and regularly.
What will be the positive changes to your industry from what you have seen during the pandemic period?
I think the Construction sector has had a re-set, and that we are coming out of the lockdown with a different logic to the one we had going into it. We’ll see new innovations as a direct result of what we have been doing, and we’ll look at how we prioritise relationships. Perhaps most fundamentally for me, I’ve seen people come closer together.
Jonathan Burke is a Partner in Berwick Partners, a division of Odgers Berndtson, and leads the UK Manufacturing & Engineering Practice. A specialist in general management, commercial and operational leadership roles he has a strong track record within the UK’s Building Materials and Process Industries sectors.
If you would like to speak to him about your own leadership requirements, or your own career aspirations, please contact him through his details below:
firstname.lastname@example.org / 0771 8601322