|Friday, 11 December 2009 16:43|
Malcolm Padley, the man at the centre of Rentokil Initial communications renaissance, looks back over a comms career propelled more by big ideas than big budgets: Neil Gibbons reports, Photographs by Sam Friedrich:
It may sound corny to ask the head of corporate communications at Rentokil Initial when he first “caught the communications bug”, but what the hell. Malcolm Padley has heard all the jokes before. On the day his appointment was announced, emails from media contacts read ‘Cockroach-ulations!’ – and there’s been plenty more since then.
But as well as being pun-friendly, Rentokil Initial is one of the UK’s most respected brands. From pest control to parcel delivery, cleaning to school meals, it provides business services in 52 countries around the world.
Now, after several internal changes, a new emphasis on comms and the appointment of a new management team, it is back in the FTSE 100 and going from strength to strength.
Malcolm’s interest in communications began before university. He had grown up as a sports-mad, rugby enthusiast in Sutton Coldfield but found himself seduced by radio as a teenager. He had approached Birmingham radio station BRMB. “I wanted to be a radio producer or presenter maybe. I knocked around there a bit, met a few people. I was doing everything and anything: sorting out a show’s music, answering phones from listeners, reading the weather.”
He moved away to read English and Communications at the University of Manchester, but he returned to BRMB after graduating.
Later, a DJ introduced Malcolm to Bob Hopton, who headed up PR company Dark Horse Communications, and he left broadcasting to start a career in PR. “Working with Bob and Laura [de Vere, the company’s co-founder] was fantastic. They were great, experienced communicators. Laura has been presenter of Woman’s Hour, Bob had done fantastic work in broadcasting, such as setting up TV’s Pebble Mill and later BRMB. It was great grounding.”
Dark Horse ran British Airway’s account out of Birmingham, Malcolm’s first exposure to a really big brand. It also gave him experience of crisis management. On a BA flight from Birmingham to Malaga, the plane’s windscreen popped out, leaving the pilot hanging out of the cockpit, with the steward desperately holding on. After the co-pilot’s landing at Southampton had been captured by a freelance photographer, the steer from BA’s communications director was straightforward: ‘BA planes are not dangerous; our staff are heroes.’ The Dark Horse team managed to translate that brief into glowing headlines and BA’s share price actually went up.
Malcolm’s soon upped sticks and moved to London. Hill & Knowlton was seeking someone to work on the American Airlines and St Lucia Tourist Board business and Malcolm was chosen for the role – in the process moving from one of the world’s smallest comms agencies to one of the biggest.
He joined Nelson Bostock Communications, working alongside the founding partners Roger Nelson and Martin Bostock. The agency grew quickly in the six years Malcolm was there and had a fascinating client roster, including Toshiba, Sky TV and Sega.
“I’ve always believed you don’t have to spend huge money to have an impact – a great bit of creativity and news instinct can go a long way,” he says. “At NBC we once had a Sega football game to launch but no funds. So we told the world we were in talks to sponsor the red and yellow cards in the Premier League and said we were going to incentivise referees. The referee that showed the most would get a free holiday. Not only did it make the front pages, the referee’s association phoned us and said ‘That’s not a bad idea actually.’”
Some 17 years on, he’s still remembered fondly by Martin Bostock. “Malcolm showed the never-say-die attitude and superb client handling skills which would stand him in great stead throughout his career,” he says. “He also had a fantastic ability to develop close and fruitful relationships with media of all types. And he was a great guy to have around, too – his ability to play Sega Rally Championship to a high standard while holding a bottle of beer was unrivalled.”
It was thanks to another of his clients that Malcolm eventually made the move in-house. He helped with the launch of digital TV at cable group NTL, eventually joining them on a secondment, which led to a permanent move.
“I really enjoyed going in-house,” he says. “I loved the variety. In TV, we were taking on Sky; in telecoms, we were up against BT; and in the internet space we were taking on the ISPs.”
Competition in the digital TV space was fierce, but that appealed to Malcolm’s sporting instincts. “It was intensive and got noticed,” he says. But despite intensive brand building, the financial markets turned half way through Malcolm’s time at NTL. “We were a US-listed company and had to go into Chapter 11, for 12 months,” he recalls. “This was different to the other issues we had to deal with as a business, because no one understands what it means in the UK. We had to get it right through a number of different channels: we had to keep the supply chain and customers informed and reassured, and help the employees understand it was business as usual and that they’d still get paid. “It was an intense 12 months, but we came out other side and got back to business as usual very quickly.”
He’s particularly proud of NTL’s role in the nascent days of broadband. “We had a TV service not quite as good as Sky’s, telephony not quite as good as BT’s, but our broadband was the best in the country. It meant we had something to focus on. There was an extraordinary amount of press interest.”
Part of the appeal, Malcolm says, was the diversity of the company’s businesses. Rentokil Initial incorporates Rentokil Pest Control, Ambius (a supplier of tropical plants to workplaces), Initial Textiles & Washrooms, Initial Facilities Management (which includes catering and cleaning services), City Link (a parcel delivery business), and a large range of local brands, particularly in Asia Pacific and the US.
Integrating those divisions has been a key concern. “One of the challenges in a large organisation is ensuring messages are aligned and that activity is timed so that colleagues don’t read all about it in the press,” he says. “I know some corporations use the tabloids to communicate with their teams. I’d rather control the message.”
It was a different sector to what Malcolm had done previously, and was also undergoing immense change. Rentokil Initial acquired or disposed of assets worth £1.3 billion in his first 12 months.
From a comms point of view, Malcolm saw the need to devolve responsibility. “We had a big command-and-control team in Sussex and culturally a lot had to change. Communication for the whole business, including America and Asia Pacific, was coming out of Sussex. We now have comms people in divisions locally, which is exactly where they should be. They know the local business, customers, media and people.”
As part of this communications overhaul, he has introduced PR measurement into Rentokil Initial, just as he had at NTL. “Not as a measure of success or otherwise, but as a tool to target comms activity.” That said, favourable coverage increased 20% after his first year at Rentokil Initial.
At both NTL and Rentokil Initial, Malcolm has worked with PR firm Brunswick. Kate Holgate, a partner there, has been impressed by his clarity of thought. “Both companies have had to wrestle with huge financial and operational challenges while maintaining a strong sales and service culture,” she says.
“Employee engagement has an important role to play in this which is why Mal is so focused on making sure the right mechanisms are in place to support an ongoing dialogue across the group.”
Malcolm is passionate about the company and becomes visibly animated when discussing the dedication of the people who make up the different businesses – “That’s what Rentokil Initial is all about. It’s about the people. So the comms strategy is all about dialogue and engagement. With a big mobile workforce, the more engaged they are, the better service they provide.”
To that end, Malcolm has launched a raft of new initiatives to foster greater staff engagement. In September, the group launched Your Voice Counts, an opportunity for employees to feed back their views. The company is now committed to doing it annually and the feedback carries weight. Action plans based on staff’s views will be in place by the end of the year.
Further initiatives have included the creation of a code of conduct, refreshing the company’s governance policies and the pledge that all colleagues will get a monthly team meeting.
“It can make a huge difference,” says Padley. “We ran 24 focus groups around the world last year to make sure we had the right values and behaviours for the business. It showed there was real clarity amid all that passion. The values that came out of the meetings were down-to-earth, pragmatic values based around service, relationships, and teamwork.”
Not only have those values now been applied across the group, competencies have been linked to those values so they are integral to the way Rentokil Initial behaves. Your Voice Counts showed that 79% of staff have a good understanding of the values. “The communications and HR teams have done a great job, everyone got behind it and helped us to align with the values. We didn’t do a big launch, we canned the idea of a big opening, and we just made sure we got the values in everywhere.”
Malcolm understands the power of technology in reaching out to stakeholders. He’s currently redeveloping the corporate website. Video will be central to this – real-life content that showcases the company’s people. “It won’t just be 20-minute videos of the CEO. It’ll be more like 20 different 1-minute videos from the front line.”
He’s helped to revamp the company’s use of technology for internal comms, and it has now become Google‘s largest email customer.
“We’ve acquired a lot of companies, and have heaps of different domains and email systems,” he says. “So there was no one single address book. By the end of next year, our workforce will have access to their own company email address, we’ll have a single address book worldwide, greater collaboration tools, and all from a standard system. And they can access it anywhere on any device, as it’s web-based.”
And because it has such a huge amount of capacity, internal audiences can swap large video files to share knowledge or show the rest of the business what work is being done. The Google service was piloted with Ambius before a roll out over the course of next year. MD Jeff Mariola has already taken to using his webcam to record 3-minute updates which are then sent to his entire workforce.
Malcolm isn’t one to slavishly use technology at the expense of all other media; indeed, he still believes strongly in the importance of human contact, regularly meeting media contacts and local managers. Recently, the pest control business, which has been employed by the Libyan government, was informed of an outbreak of bubonic plague in Tobruk. “We were asked to help and within hours, Richard Jones and his team had got gear together in vans and they were being flown there in military aircraft. Not many companies fight Bubonic plague. It can’t just be virtual, building strong relationships is vital to business success. Social media is a useful tool. But getting on the ground and meeting people is so important.”
The returns on all this investment are starting to become apparent but Malcolm remains as driven as ever.
“You’ve got to have passion,” he says. “But then, I still get a huge kick from great piece of coverage, or positive response to an engagement survey.”