Do not give in: Bob Holt talks leadership and lockdown

Written by: Andrew Merrell | Posted 10 July 2020 7:56

Do not give in: Bob Holt talks leadership and lockdown

The decision makers, the ones we rely on, the invincibles, the ones we think never say die, the leaders of business - they are currently in a tight spot. 

Who would want that hot seat at the moment – when everyone is looking to them to do that thing they can do now the going has got particularly tough? 

Being a boss is one thing, being a leader is another – and not being qualified to dispense comment on either The Raikes Journal went to someone who is for some insight. 

Bob Holt, did not just build Gloucestershire-headquartered Mears Group into a listed company with 1,200 staff. As if that wasn’t enough. 

Half way through lockdown one of the listed company’s he was brought in to save from near-collapse three and a half years ago, Sureserve Group Plc, revealed all to the Stock Market an institution known for taking no prisoners. 

Continuing to operate at 70 to 80 per cent of capacity through the crisis because of its ‘key worker’ status, and taking an estimated £5 million financial hit due to covid-19, its first half profits were up 27 per cent. 

Its order book stands at £323.7m and it has been taking on staff through the crisis to, as Mr Holt put it, ‘grab the opportunities’ which might arise post lockdown. 

“When I came in three and half years ago, we owed the bank £47 million. They now owe us. So you can imagine there are some parts of the anatomy they are quite happy to kiss,” said Mr Holt, wryly. 

Going to him for insight into leadership he was happy with. Building him up he was not going to let The Raikes Journal even start. 

“There is nothing special about me. I have three sons, all grown up now, but I think if I started behaving like I was something special they would soon bring me down to earth,” he said. 

And Sureserve, he was quick to clarify, is a great achievement – but came at a human price he wanted mentioned. 

“I turned up and the first thing in the morning I had a meeting with the financial director and asked him how he was getting on with the 80 staff he said the company needed to get rid of? He said that he had been waiting for me to come in and sort that out,” said Mr Holt. 

“I said ‘we had best get the HR director in here, then hadn’t we?’, at which point he told me ‘there was a bit of a problem. She’s on the list as well!’.” 

In keeping with what has become his honest, open style he called the HR manager in and told her the situation straight away, and said if she managed it well he would look after her. 

“She did an excellent job,” he said. 

With Sureserve it was a case of drastic action, but also of trying to test and gel the existing management teams and imbue them with a new sense of hope. 

Despite the earlier figures, and the need to deliver to the city, what emerged is not a man who does not let the figures govern him. 

“In the city I am views a little like Marmite,” he reflects, judging himself probably more critically than they ever could. 

Surprisingly, when points out as astute as he is at business, the human element seems to be the most powerful element he plugs into, he quotes a certain former Gloucester and England Rugby player. 

“There was something on Phil Vickery’s social media the other day which really resonated with me. It was something like ‘you might not be the quickest, you might not be the strongest or the biggest, but how do you beat someone who does not stop?’,” he said. 

“Sometimes I think that is all I have - an ability to work harder than anyone else.” 

It is a work ethic he credits his mother, the driving force at the family grocery business, with passing on to him. 

And leadership? What about that? 

“I often think back to when I was younger I was not the best footballer on our team by a long shot. Or the best cricketer. But I was the captain of both teams and we did alright,” he reflects, suggesting some of what he has been able to harness has been there from an early age. 

For a man whose style is built on plain speaking, forthright honestly and action, it could be an intimidating proposition for a subordinate. 

Mr Holt, like many driven people, is hardest on himself. He does, he admits, reflect a lot and has for as long as he can remember, had trouble sleeping. Something he freely admits he eventually decided to see a therapist about – an opportunity which arose as a result of lockdown. 

It struck him and shocked him how quickly he could change something that had been a problem for so long with the right advice. 

“After one session I began sleeping better and have been sleeping better than ever since,” he said, energised by the thought. 

An interview on - something he began running after being continually collared by business people for insight – shows a man who has re-evaluated much in the lockdown, found the positives, and enjoyed embracing the change. 

As for the prospect of meeting his management style head on, he has two stories. 

“I once worked in a company with a young chap and he said to me ‘the problem with you is when I come to you with an ideas you tell me you’ve done that before and it won’t work’. 

“I said to him ‘is there a key in that door over there? What you should be doing if you believe in the idea is locking that door and not letting me out until you’ve done your best to make me listen’,” explaining he might talk plainly, but it doesn’t mean he does not have an open mind to change. 

He is well aware how he is might be perceived by some. 

“When I worked for two of the biggest entrepreneurs in the country in the eighties one said ‘Bob, you will not have a problem – the meek will not inherit the earth’. 

“There is a lot of truth in that, but it doesn’t mean you can’t help people. Of course, you can choose not to.” 

That is not just a reference to his management style, of challenging people to be better and rewarding commitment, but to his foundation – something he does not mention during the conversation. 

Footprints has been running for years now. Sureserve also has a foundation. Mears Group has one. 

Business is something he loves and cannot be without, success is the result, and a social conscious is something he cannot escape. But through his continual networking and the likes of Leadership Today he is aware already of the impact of the pandemic to not just challenge business but of the impact it can have on those leaders. 

“I have been talking to people who are suffering through this too. It has affected a lot of people really badly. They are worrying about meeting their commitments. What I would say is fight to stay positive. There are pros and cons in everything and there is always a way.”

To find out more visit Leadership Today.