This month we spoke to Ann Santry, chief executive of Sovereign Housing Association about the challenges created by merging with Spectrum to form the sixth largest HA in the country.
How are things coming together post- merger?
I can’t believe that we’re nearly a year into our merger – a merger which has seen the organisation become the sixth largest housing association in the country, managing over 57,000 homes and looking after 130,000 residents.
In that time we’ve brought our Board, Committees and teams together under a common brand and early on we agreed an interim strategy and interim values, to give us a sense of purpose, direction and a set of collective behaviours. We’ve agreed policies and governance for the new organisation as well as introducing a new resident engagement structure and are now busy bringing all our systems and processes together so we work consistently across the organisation.
We’ve still more to do but we’re beginning to feel like one organisation – an organisation which is capable of using its strength and efficiencies to build more affordable homes for those in need.
So while we’re not there yet, I think we’re getting there.
What have been/are the biggest challenges in bringing together the two organisations?
Oh gosh, there are so many challenges in bringing together two organisations, not least getting over the line in the first instance. However if you’re pushing me for an answer I would pick out two major challenges – realising the benefits of the merger and bringing our people together.
To make a case for a merger, you have to be clear on what the benefits will be and then deliver them. In our case we said that we would save £10 million from year three, build 1500 new homes per year, provide better customer experience as well as creating a great place to work. We were careful to be realistic about what we could achieve rather than over promising to make better headlines. I’m pleased to say that we’re on track so far and are confident of achieving the merger benefits although we’re never complacent.
No matter what you say at the beginning of a merger about a good fit, the best you can hope for are cultural similarities and a shared view of the future. Organisations do things differently and being honest about these differences as well as the recognised similarities is the key to success when bringing people together. And it’s not just recognising the differences; it’s about valuing and harnessing them from both sides of the merger. However we’re mindful this isn’t always easy to do, especially when we’re working at pace, and we’re now working together on a shared set of values for the new organisation as well as developing our future culture.
We understand you’re both transforming and integrating what you do as part of your merger plans, tell us more.
Well, we just didn’t want to simply integrate what we do. We wanted to take advantage of the opportunity of the merger to build a more modern and connected business. And so when it came to integrating systems we challenged ourselves whether any of our systems were right for the future. In some cases they were albeit with added functionality, while others we needed to start from scratch. This meant that our future wasn’t hindered by ineffective or inefficient legacy systems.
Why is becoming a more modern and connected business important to you?
We hear a lot about the different generations – baby boomers, generation X, millennials – and while the differences are still important, their expectations as a customer are similar. All of us, whatever our age, want to have a great customer experience – online, offline it doesn’t matter – and our expectations about what a great customer experience looks and feels like are changing.
Our residents now expect a personalised, multi-channel experience so they can contact us however and whenever they want. They expect to be treated as an individual and want to feel like the organisation knows who they are when they contact us. And when they contact us they want us to deal with their problems quickly.
By using systems that allow us to have customer information at our fingertips, by making the most of digital and social media channels, by employing ChatBots and other artificial intelligence, by working flexibly we’ll be able to deliver a great customer experience for our residents all day , every day.
And importantly by modernising what we do – by moving more transactions online and working in a smarter, faster way – we’ll have more time for those residents who need the personal touch or need more help. And by making best use of our resources we’ll be able to build more homes too.
What difference will the merger make to your residents and employees?
We’ve been committed to providing safe and affordable homes for those who need them, for nearly 30 years, and in today’s world of housing crises and uncertainty that commitment has never been more important. Our merger gives us the financial strength and the opportunity to realise additional efficiencies so we can continue to deliver on this commitment of building more affordable homes.
But we’re not just about providing keys to a home. We’re also about providing great customer experience, and providing additional support for those who need it. Our merger will help us transform our customer service offering and will allow us to do things differently so we can focus on those residents who need additional support.
And for our employees, we’re creating a great place to work. A place where we can work flexibly, where people are empowered to do their job well, where they can make a real difference to our residents lives and where they can be the best they can be.
It’s been an exciting year. But I think the next year will be even more exciting as we start to really feel the benefits of our merger for us, our employees and our residents.