Paul Evans co-chairs the Living Wage Foundation’s Recognised Service Providers Leadership Group. In a way that, that tells you everything.
Evans is also CEO at Carlisle Support Services, the £80m Luton-based cleaning, security events and retail services specialist. In his five-year tenure, he has masterminded the conversion of Carlisle from a company on the brink of disaster to a solid business helping to lead the Living Wage movement within the facilities sector.
The journey has been one of recovery morphing into transformation, and speaking to him about this, you come away with the distinct impression that rebuilding Carlisle – with employee support and development at the heart of the process – is his passion. An over-worked word these days, but appropriate here.
Paul Evans (right) spent six years as UK sales director at Mitie, leaving in 2013 to become commercial director at recruitment services company Blue Arrow. At that point, Carlisle was a Blue Arrow sister company headquartered in the same building – which meant that Evans couldn’t avoid hearing talk about the fact that Carlisle was, for various reasons, riding a sharp track downwards. In 2015 the group CEO asked him to step in and try to stop the slide. He came face to face with the scale of the challenge on his fourth day in the job when, having been invited to a meeting with the company’s third largest customer, he was presented with a letter stating their intention to terminate the contract. Happily, Evans managed to talk them into giving him a chance to prove Carlisle was changing before they let the sword fall.
How did he do that? “I fell back on my starting point in this industry as a security supervisor,” he explains. “The starting point here had to be – OK, the customer is not happy: what can we do to meet his needs?” Grappling with that eventually translated into a strategy for the Carlisle business based on creating a market position in the mid-tier range (“Big enough to cope, small enough to care” as Evans summarises the benefit of a mid-market position). That was a target designed to ensure survival, let alone any thoughts about growth. A stable foundation was established through various moves, including – crucially – a number of policies designed to improve the quality, commitment and longevity of the workforce. Last year this extended to a decision to remove minimum-wage working from the company, which parallels Carlisle’s involvement with the Living Wage campaign.
Raising pay rates
Over the past year the company has made good progress on squeezing out minimum-wage working. Evans and his team have been putting the case for pay rate increases forward as opportunities permit; but he concedes not all of his customers have moved as fast as he would have hoped. Then at the start of the pandemic Carlisle took the decision to give all remaining minimum wage workers a pay uplift.
When he joined Carlisle in 2015 18% of staff hours were paid at Living Wage rates. That has climbed to 70% now. “This has meant a couple of things,” Evans says. “For a start, it has had a massive impact on how Carlisle is perceived in the marketplace. We are understood to be a company that only wants to work with customers who really value our people. We have walked away from some big opportunities where the procurement department has said ‘we will only pay minimum wage because we want the cheapest cost’.
“We have lost some opportunities on that score,” he continues, “but I’d rather work with a customer who wants to invest in people than just get a cheap price for two years followed by a falling out because nobody can deliver the services on those terms.”
“Also,” he adds, “our staff turnover is roughly 16% a year. In the facilities world that is a very good number: when I was at some of the larger FM businesses they were up to rates of 30 – 35%.
“By setting ourselves on this ‘high-road’ journey we’ve been able to put our employees higher up the agenda. We don’t ever want to be known for just servicing our customers. We also want to be known for ensuring that we are looking after our employees.”
Targeting the Living Wage
About two-thirds of Carlisle customers have committed to the Living Wage so far, including its largest – Northern Trains – which made the move in April. “But,” Evans says, “we still have a number of customers who say to me ‘we’d love to do this, we just haven’t got the money’. But I think that’s often too easy an answer. In my experience, when you get to the right decision-maker – say, the CEO – and you point out that the cleaner is the lowest paid person working in the entire business…and in this environment: effectively all the cleaners and security officers have kept all our buildings clean, secure and operational during this crisis.”
Evans has no illusions about the challenge involved in moving the facilities industry to 100% of hours paid at full Living Wage rates. “That would be an immense achievement, but we have to be realistic about reaching that,” he says. He explains that there are some companies amongst the 144 Recognised Service Providers, mainly smaller cleaning companies and security companies, who are close to achieving it but they are generally starting from a small base and with a limited history, and they set that target from the start of their journey.
But the scale of the challenge hasn’t dented his enthusiasm. “There are still customers who tell us ‘that’s a step too far, increasing the wage rates’. But it is the right thing to do,” he says. He hopes that over the next 18 months companies will put ‘normal’ pay rises on hold and try to narrow that gap between the top of the tree and the bottom of the tree. “That is what we are trying to do,” he says. “We funded the rise from the minimum wage, and we are planning to chip away at the differential each year by raising wages where we can.” He acknowledges, though, that such a policy could put companies like Carlisle in a tricky position. “We want to drive rates up,” he says, “but we don’t want customers to just assume we’ll do that on our own.”
This drive to improve industry practice, especially as it affects the industry’s people, is at least partly attributable to Evans’ experience in FM. As he was leaving that part of the sector it had been through a period of increasing pressure on costs, which typically translated into pressure to deliver the same or even more for less. He saw this harming the business and, more specifically, often harming frontline service delivery staff. At Carlisle, he led the adoption of a ‘care passionately for all’ philosophy, which is still one of the company’s four values. “We started trying to map out the ‘high-road’ strategy, which included which customers we wanted be engaging with,” he recalls. “One of those customers, London Midland (now West Midlands Trains) was the real test case. When we asked ‘what do we get out of this change’, it came down to raising people out of wage poverty but also being able to show procurement teams that there are demonstrable gains to improved wage rates, for example reduced staff turnover, increased customer engagement and increased employee commitment to the customer and to the service delivery.” All of that proved to be demonstrable at West Midlands Trains, with staff turnover on that contract down from 21% to 4% for example.
You can see this sort of commitment evidenced in other Carlisle moves, too – its open communication policy, internal awards programme, the introduction last year of the pay access app Wagestream. All things that move the employee closer to the top of the tree, as Evans would say. And the Living Wage movement is a perfect match to this.
So where does Carlisle go from here?
The company is solidly in the FM mid-market, with turnover having been built back up to about £80m. Its client list is pretty solid, too, and with 60% being public sector organisations the business has been reasonably safe from some of the worst impacts of the pandemic.
Looking forward, Evans notes the swing towards a preference for home or at least remote working. He believes that’s a change here to stay, though it’s difficult to say exactly what the shape of the change will be. And in fact that is a large part of the problem: how long this period of restriction and uncertainty goes on and what businesses face as it continues to go on. All of which comes against the backdrop of exceptional government spending and stress – to say the least – on the economy. Which leads back to costs and wage rates.
With another Living Wage Week just behind us – and especially relevant this year – Paul Evans’ fervent hope is that more companies will sign up to the principles of the campaign, simply because it is the right thing to do.