Tom Robinson: Family man for family business

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When not on an adventurous holiday, enjoying water sports or walking in the Lake District, Tom Robinson has a mission to enjoy each challenge that comes along and help Simons Group to reach their targets of sustainable construction.

The family business Simons Group appointed their first non-family member as the new Chief Executive in July 2014. With Tom’s strong family background and understanding of the construction industry, he was a shoe-in for the role. As both he and his wife of 20 years, Ali, are keen on the outdoors, the environment is close to their hearts.

The design, development and construction business sees projects through from start to finish. Starting with finding the right location and land which can then be developed and built on to create what customers need.

“A recent example of this would be the North Lincolnshire Shopping Park where we did everything from finding the land to doing the feasibility studies and getting the planning permission to designing it and getting the tenants on board, the likes of Marks & Spencer’s, Debenhams, Boots and doing some of the fit out work there as well.”

Tom’s new role is to ensure that everything is done to the highest standard possible. “Ultimately I am responsible for proposing strategy to the board and delivering that strategy through the rest of the team and the business.

“That will be around a selection of markets and customer opportunities and then making sure that the team is structured, capable, committed and motivated to deliver on that. It’s about looking for where there is sustainable growth and markets that are going to keep us busy doing things that we enjoy and that we are passionate about, as well as making sure that we have the right people to deliver what the customers in those markets need.”

Tom has always had a strong interest in construction. When he was a child, his family bought an old barn in Colston, just north of Lincoln, which they renovated over five years. He enjoyed it that much that he then went to Bristol Polytechnic, now known as the University of Western England, and did a degree in Building, Engineering and Management.

“While I was at Poly, I became sponsored by Tarmac Construction who came around to pick up interested students. The idea of having £250 a term extra beer money from Tarmac seemed like a good idea at the time.”

“My entire career, before coming here was all in the same organisation. But I enjoyed construction and I enjoyed doing more business improvement type roles. I did an MBA after a few years and moved out of construction management directly and more into the business side of things, getting involved in business improvement and change.”

“I became quite proficient in just general business management, at the same time as being very close to supporting a business that was primarily construction related.” Tom has always enjoyed property and construction and home development to the point that he always has some form of DIY home improvement on the go.

Tom Robinson, Chief Executive of Simons Group. Photo: Steve Smailes for Lincolnshire Business

Tom Robinson, Chief Executive of Simons Group. Photo: Steve Smailes for Lincolnshire Business

Getting ahead of the game

When Tom left boarding school in Somerset he was given an Oxford Dictionary by the Head Master with a simple message inside – “Aim high.” That is exactly what he has done and is proud of how far he has come a relatively short time.

It was very important for Simons Group that the person who took on the chief executive role understands where the family business has come from. They needed someone who could understand the language but who would also keep their family values intact.

Being calm and level-headed is something that Tom is very good at and with two teenage sons, he knows what is required to make a family work. To get the best results in a working environment, he believes that people have to enjoy their jobs and work together.

“I have always wanted to be responsible for my own team and being a Chief Exec means that I have the ultimate team. I enjoy seeing other people enjoying themselves and being fulfilled in what they do. I like a happy and collaborative working environment and I am quite a good facilitator amongst other things. That doesn’t mean to say that it’s always pink, fluffy and a nice, easy road for everyone, as there are some big challenges that we have to face, just like in any business.”

But no job comes without its challenges and taking on a team as large as this one means that there will need to be some changes. “The challenge for me and the rest of the team is to not accept ‘good enough’ as good enough. For me, improvement and being the best is something that we need to really strive for.”

Tom Robinson, Chief Executive of Simons Group. Photo: Steve Smailes for Lincolnshire Business

Tom Robinson, Chief Executive of Simons Group. Photo: Steve Smailes for Lincolnshire Business

An award winning family business

Simons Group has an outstanding awards collection for a company of its size. Last year they won 14 different awards but one of their proudest achievements is being part of the Considerate Constructors Scheme.

“Part of that is about being a good neighbour,” said Tom. “You communicate well with those people affected by the scheme that you are running, you try and make sure that you engage with them, let them know what’s happening, try to disrupt their lives to the absolute minimum degree but also try and get them involved in the scheme.

“Hopefully they will benefit from it too by getting children involved, from an educational perspective, getting them involved in some of the more environmental aspects of the scheme, whether it is learning about biodiversity or planting trees.”

Simons Group try to add to each community that they work in as even though they are based in Lincoln, they work all over the country. Where possible they try and connect to local supply chains and employ local people, like taking on apprentices.

“So those links with education and training and a positive socio-economic impact on the area that you work in just makes a difference. Not only does it make the people that your work impacts upon, benefit from what you’re doing but the people that you employ also feel better about the work as well. It’s a win-win scenario.”

Tom Robinson, Chief Executive of Simons Group. Photo: Steve Smailes for Lincolnshire Business

Tom Robinson, Chief Executive of Simons Group. Photo: Steve Smailes for Lincolnshire Business

What the future holds

With over 200 employees and still growing, it looks like Simons Group has come out of the recession holding its head up high. Over the last few months, they have seen the completion of a few very notable projects including the new Marks & Spencer’s Simply Food store in Grantham and one of their more ambitious projects, the North Lincolnshire Shopping Park, which was a great success for the company.

“It is a really good looking project with some great tenants and it is working well. There is one more unit to let which I think would be a prize for any self-respecting retailer.”

The last financial year saw the company report its first profits in five years due to the recession. “Just taking the business through one of the biggest recessions on record and coming out the other side still relatively strong and still maintaining a good track record of repeat business with some blue chip customers is a pretty notable achievement.”

With Tom being recruited as the new Chief Executive, it has allowed him to combine the best of the sustainability drivers and the leadership of the organisation as a whole into one place. “The underlying philosophy of the business, which has been there for the last 70 years, is something to be proud of and aspiring to bring that further into the future.”

For Tom, it is all about the challenge of what the future will bring. Simons Group has its own 2020 target to hit as well, which is really motivating him. “Challenges are something that are quite motivating really. I have never taken on a job that is just about turning the wheel, there has always been some kind of challenge, whether it be starting a business up from scratch, turning a business around or having to completely restructure a business to face a new challenge. These are the kind of things that I have had to do over the years.

“I think that the challenge here is that the business does have aspirations to grow sustainably over a long term period. That for me is something that is very appealing because it is a long-term project that will require a host of different skills.

“Clearly we have a good customer base in an area that we know well and have historic success with. It is not a market sector that is set to grow with the same kind of aspirations that we have for the coming years, so we will need to do some things a bit differently and will also need to grow the team to do that. For me, there is a great long-term challenge ahead and I am already enjoying it.”

This feature interview was first published in issue 12 of the Lincolnshire Business weekly magazine.