Barrington Billings, the first black person to hold the presidency of the Chartered Institute of Housing, spent years championing the cause of black and ethnic minorities. Now he’s giving firms run by them the chance to win public sector work.
Not many people come up with a multimillion-pound business model for a new generation construction company on their stag night, but Barrington Billings is more motivated than most. What began as a chat about a development opportunity in Barbados became, by six in the morning, a business meeting about how to expand his former colleague’s fledgling building services company.
A confident, Jamaican-born 43-year-old, Billings has already succeeded in securing a double first: he is the first contractor and the first black person to hold the presidency of the Chartered Institute of Housing. He hopes this achievement will enable him to meet his next challenge: helping black minority ethnic contractors – BMEs in industry jargon – to find their place in an industry that has so far remained elusive to them.
Not one to be deterred by entering unchartered territory – he was the first black senior executive at North British Housing Association, the largest organisation of its kind at the time – he walked away from more than 20 years in the housing sector last January to set up maintenance and repairs company, Glendon Property Services.
Billings established the company because he spied a business opportunity in unleashing the potential of BME contractors in the wave of physical regeneration sweeping most of Britain’s major cities. Economic regeneration, aiming to leave behind a legacy of working companies once the funding dries up, was Billings’ aspiration behind founding Glendon.
Glendon Property Services, with a projected turnover of £1m by December 2006, is the first UK company to be set up specifically to help BME contractors find work. Billings and his partner David Bryan, who has a background in procurement, use their skills to secure contracts through Glendon for small BME contractors who may not otherwise find their way through the bureaucratic maze that stands between the private and public sectors.
Billings says: “I realised a lot of these companies could not get their foot on the ladder because they didn’t understand the red tape and how to break through it. I saw that Glendon could serve to include them in the loop. We pitch for the work and then feed it through to the BME community by employing our own people as well as subcontracting work out. We help them understand the jargon, processes and culture of the industry and eventually they’ll go off on their own.”
As socially responsible as this may sound, Billings had sound business reasons for establishing Glendon. After years championing the BME cause in the housing sector, he knows that the Housing Corporation’s equality and diversity requirements mean a certain percentage of contracts must be awarded to BME contractors and specialists, where possible. He also knows these companies are few and far between, so there is plenty of work going begging.
He says: “I knew that housing associations were struggling to find BME contractors to carry out the work, so I’m thinking – there must be a business opportunity here somewhere. Everyone wants to employ BME contractors but they can’t find them. I decided to bring everyone together and make a solid business out of it. Now the housing associations don’t have to go to 50 separate companies, they can just come to us. We’re a one-stop shop for the client.”
I’d task myself with trying to find any flaws. I used to do what I called a raindance where I hopped across each floorboard to see if it squeaked – there was always one
Billings is, ultimately, a sharp business operator and likes to be in a position of power, but he also has a deep understanding of the obstacles facing the BME community. A good example of this is a story he tells about why he first opted to do an environmental heath degree after he came over to the UK from Jamaica in 1978. “I had this vision,” he says, “of walking into a high-class restaurant and the proprietor would turn to look at me as if to say ‘What are you doing in here? You’re not good enough’. Then, I would pull out my ID and say ‘Sir, I’m here to inspect your kitchen – and it better be good enough’.”
He was turned down for this degree and found himself in housing. He has meticulously worked his way up, often side-stepping to smaller housing associations to enable him to reach the senior positions he coveted. He was happy to be a big fish in a small pond, he says, especially when many of the smaller organisations specialised in the BME community.
This power made Billings a hard taskmaster and, as development officer with Northern Counties Housing Association, where he was responsible for handing over new-build houses to tenants, he did not shy away from enforcing the rules. “I’d task myself with trying to find any flaws,” he says. “I’d always find something. I used to do what I called a raindance where I hopped across each floorboard to see if it squeaked – there was always one.”
But as he rises steadily through the ranks, his message has stayed the same. He believes the CIH should reach out to everyone involved with housing, from finance directors to caretakers, and points out that progress is being made in diversity – a quarter of the CIH’s council members are now BME. He plans to use his day job as a contractor to attract the private sector back to the CIH, which has been dominated by the social housing sector in past years, and wants the two to work more in unison to deliver on the government’s huge housing agenda.
At the CIH Harrogate conference this year, Billings used his speech to call for a better qualified workforce and to make housing a “destination career” for talented graduates. He wants to recreate the days when private sector finance directors crossed to the social housing sector, excited by the early flushes of the PFI boom.
Billings is relentlessly driven and is aiming higher still. After expanding Glendon into a national company (it is currently based in the West Midlands), he wants to move to a more strategic level, using the lobbying power of the CIH to promote strategies supporting BME communities, allowing them to become an integral part of the construction industry.
“The secret to the UK’s economic success,” he says, “is that we harness and capture our potential. I know of a whole community that is being underused and I want to encourage both the authorities and the community itself to realise this massive untapped potential.”