Saturday 2 April 2016

Britain is no longer a country for and says "Goodbye" to a scarce 'old', charismatic Housing pioneer called Tom Manion

Tom, whose controversial approach to Housing as Chief Executive of Irwell Valley Housing Association earned him a reputation as a maverick, but who, nevertheless, gained recognition and approbation from his peers, the Government and the media and undoubtedly had more years of good service in front of him, has died at the age of 62.

He was born in Birkenhead in Cheshire on the opposite bank of the River Mersey to Liverpool in the spring of 1954. It was in Liverpool where he grew up in a close-knit, working class, Irish family living in a council house which left him with a lifelong appreciation and passion for trust and community relations. His secondary school life had been uneventful until the summer of 1970, when at the age of 16 and traipsing back to the playground after football practice, the teenage Tom spotted a lunchtime scrum in front of the ice-cream van, waded in and pushed himself to the heart of the thong : "Kids were pushing to get to the front, there was a bit of messing about, a bit of name-calling. As captain of the football team I was supposed to be a role model for the younger kids – so I guess they had to make an example of me." The 'example' he referred to meant that after being from the mêlée by teachers and just two weeks before he was due to sit his 'O' Levels, he was excluded from school.
Having left school and determined to get his qualifications, he attended night school and took a job in a steelworks to pay for his tuition and ferrying molten metal up and down the length of the factory every day taught him the value of teamwork and trust. "The people I worked with knew exactly how to work together and look out for each other. There was a culture of camaraderie." It was a dangerous environment and while he was there he witnessed the effects on one worker who fell through a skylight on to a stack of red hot ingots. Memories of "the tension and the danger" stayed with him and years later he kept an old photo of the steelworks in his office and said : "I look at this whenever I'm depressed about the Housing Corporation." The steelworks probably presented Tom with the greatest dangers in comparison with his later work, by turns, as a crane driver, binman, scaffolder, lifeguard and certainly, ice cream seller.

He took qualifications a step further when he gained a degree in 'Economics and Geography' from the North Wales Institute of Higher Education and by the time he was 28 in 1982 he was working as Manchester City Council's  'Housing Strategy Officer.' In fact it was on the Council that he made his name at as a bolshie trade union leader and housing officer who would drag his team out of bed at 4am to carry out unannounced inspections on the City's shoddy bed and breakfasts. By 1988, he had travelled some way from his radical youth when he was appointed a front bench adviser on the 1988 Housing Bill which was enacted by Mrs Thatcher's Government and was essentially a law which governed the private rental sector and the parties that make it up, a rulebook containing the statutory rights and legal responsibilities of both landlords and tenants.

By the time he became Chief Executive of the 6500-home Housing Association Irwell Valley at the age of 42 in 1996, he was now 'Dr' Manion, having gained a Phd in 'British Housing Policy' at the University of Lancaster. He began instilling the philosophy behind building good customer relations on his first day in post by sending staff an email informing them that their pay would be two weeks late. He later explained : "It was a joke with a serious purpose. I got 47 emails asking what was going on. But if we're so vigilant about our own wages, and we always pay them on time, what about how we treat the people who are paying those wages? We should treat people how we'd like to be treated."  

Two years later he launched 'The Gold Service' which aimed to give tenants incentives to pay their rent on time and abide by the terms of their tenancy agreements by offering a series of rewards. Tenants who paid their rent on time for at least six weeks qualified for faster repairs, cashback on rent of up to £52 a year and access to education and training grants. His underlying aim "was to provide tenants with a service that made them feel valued. If you treat people with dignity, you'll get positive results."  In his opinion he had to ‘reinvent social housing and incentivise people to behave.’

Newspaper articles followed and his no-nonsense style captured readers' attention. The housing profession was not so easily won over and he recalled : '"I was accused by another Chief Executive in Liverpool of, and I quote, “authoritarian, state terrorism.” 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.” This, however, was not the message housing professionals were hearing, which was "you need to make a fundamental change to the way you do housing management because it’s not good enough."' Tom's 'Gold Service' customers were not the only ones to feel his innovative management style, the staff who worked at the Association also 'benefited' when, on one occasion he put a prisoner on the payroll to advise staff about housing ex-offenders and on another, invited a 80% tattooed American motivational speaker, called 'The Scary Guy' to enthuse them.

Tom published 'The Reward Society' in 2012 which was based on his 'experiences in the public and private sector in America, Europe and China, and helping Irwell Valley Housing Association become an efficient, effective, customer-focused business.'  In answer to the question : 'What kind of Britain do we want ?' His answer was  : a happy, healthy and prosperous nation which 'needed policies, tax incentives and penalties which promote these outcomes.'

Tom looked around at Britain and found that 'indicators for benefit dependency, incarceration, divorce, single parenthood, obesity and deaths from alcohol have increased exponentially in 50 years.' As the concomitant of this he found that  : 'This pressure on public services is unsustainable, given slow economic growth rates and increasing demand.' He asked the question : 'What are we rewarding?' and concluded : 'To get the organisation you want, you need to reward the behaviours you want' and 'revolutionary thinking is needed to produce a new meritocratic paradigm that encourages thrift, hard work, good health and diet, limited welfare reliance, good education, neighbourliness, civic pride and tolerance.'

He was clear that 'citizens who experience hardship or ill health must be included. The hallmark of a just society is its compassion and support for people who are genuinely unable to help themselves.' At the same time he asked the question : 'What about those who could help themselves? and believed that 'Where there is a growing sense of injustice, unfairness and hypocrisy, warning lights start flashing. It is wrong to reward lifestyles that undermine social cohesion.' His core belief was : 'A meritocracy that has at its core an expectation that people will strive to be successful, self-sufficient, healthy and motivated and not benefit-dependent, poorly educated and an unnecessary burden on the health service, would save our nation incalculable amounts of time and money and make us all happier.'

Under his leadership his Association more than trebled in size and achieved international status across Europe and the USA as a front runner in modern methods and innovation in business practice and this must be set against the backdrop that Tom worked in one of the most deprived areas of Britain, with Manchester is listed by the 'Communities and Local Government Department' as the fourth most deprived local authority area in England.

Tom witnessed his Association collect over 30 housing and business awards, gain recognition as a 'Guardian Top Employer' and in 2009, entered 'Laureate Status Hall of Fame' after being listed for 5 consecutive years in the Financial Times 'Best Workplaces' Top 50 Companies.

In 2003 in recognition of his leading work in housing he was awarded 'Cabinet Office Public Servant of the Year' and further recognition came that year when he collected the 'National Customer Services Lifetime Achievement Award', which in his own words was 'unexpectedly premature but a fantastic honour'.

'The Independent' newspaper identified him as one of the 'Top Ten Influential People in Housing in the UK' and 'The Guardian' described him as 'a charismatic pioneer' when they listed him in their 'Top Ten Innovators in the UK.'

In 2009, he became the first UK Housing professional to receive the 'John D. Lange International Award' from the National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials in the USA, which recognised  his 'outstanding contribution towards international understanding and exchange of international experience in housing and community development' and, in addition, he was recognised as a 'Distinguished Professional Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Housing' and a 'Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts'.

In answer to the question : why didn't he move on from Irwell Valley ? Tom replied : "It’s gotten under my skin. 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."

He was very clear about his distinct management style which saw him, in his executive capacity, put a prisoner on the payroll to advise staff about housing ex-offenders and invite a 80% tattooed motivational speaker called the 'Scary Guy' to talk to staff. He once said : "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. If one of the grey-suited guys took over and managed by bureaucracy and fear, there would be a revolt and people would leave. 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"." He was also a great believer in the power of laughter with the proviso that  : "If you make people laugh, you can achieve quite a lot, but you've got to do it competently or you end up looking like the village idiot." 

In 2011 was responsible for organising, along with Alan Sullivan, Director of Jimsul Construction, a 'Charity Extravaganza' in Deeside with war veteran Simon Weston in support of the charity 'Help for Heroes.' The actress Bev Callard, who played Coronation Street landlady Liz McDonald, was among the guests at the event and was working alongside Tom's  Housing Association on a project called 'Homes for Heroes' aimed at providing affordable homes for troops after they return from conflict. Tom said : "It's important to recognise people's contribution. My Grandfather was killed at Dunkirk, first of June 1940, so that we can be free and do the things that we want to do. It's a simple gesture by ourselves to try to raise a bit of money for people who are giving their lives so that we can live in peace." On this occasion he rode his motor bike to the battlefields in France and said :

Living up to his reputation of being the most unconventional housing association chief executive in Britain, Tom played guitar and sang with his band, 'The Tomahawks' for a number of years and enjoyed success in blue chip venues in Manchester with rock ‘n’ roll and blues hits including The Rolling Stones, The Beatles and Santana and renditions of some Elvis classics and in 2012  helped raise £14,000 for 'Help for Heroes'

In 2013 he slammed the Government's bedroom tax with around 900 of his Association's residents set to be affected losing an average £14 per week in housing benefit and during an interview with BBC Manchester, he said: "The expected savings are miniscule compared to the disruption it is causing. This draconian measure is a sledgehammer approach and missing the point that there is a shortage of affordable housing."
Tom's personal style was as unorthodox as his management style. At the turn of the century he wore his hair in a pony tail before he ditched it in favour of gelled up spikes and he once wore a 'diamond' earring to reflect the extension of Irwell's 'gold service' into 'diamond'. He said that his 'Diamond Service customers are eligible to take part in a weekly prize draw of £2,000. The winner receives £1,000 and the two runners up, £500 each. I'll call them personally on Monday and it makes my day that at least three of our customers are having a fantastic start to the week.' He started each working day in the same way :  'No matter what's in the diary, the day starts the same at around 6.30 am. Sixty-four lengths at the local swimming baths, reading the papers and walking the dog, set me up nicely for whatever lies ahead and the serious thinking that's required in my role as CEO of an award winning and successful company.'

In Tom's opinion : ' housing is dead easy. 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.'

It is quiet clear that Tom's plans for Irwell were far from over as he reflected in 2013 : 'At the end of the working day, it's a bit of Corrie, playing the guitar and keeping abreast of industry issues and innovations. The Harvard Business Review is always a good read. I go to bed reflecting on where going as a business and how far there is still to go.'

A bright light has gone out in Manchester
and an even brighter one in the wider world of housing.

1 comment:

  1. Very good tribute to an amazing guy who will be sorely missed by everyone who knew him.