He started life as a motorbike racer, but Mark Henderson is now at the helm of the UK’s fifth largest social housing association. He tells Ruth Lognonne why he traded in his leather jacket for public lettings.
AN EARLY obsession with racing motorbikes has led Mark Henderson down the unforeseen route of running one of the North East’s largest businesses.
As chief executive of Gosforth-based social housing provider, Home Group, Henderson has clocked up nearly 30 years’ experience of working for local authorities, running his own consultancy and now providing affordable homes throughout England and Wales.
Although he says he wanted to make a difference to communities from an early age, Henderson’s earliest career choice saw him whizzing around tracks at breakneck speeds.
“I used to race motorbikes when I was 16 and I raced at the Manx Grand Prix on the Isle of Man in 1984,” he says. “It was a thrilling sport and very dangerous but when it dawned on me that I wasn’t going to be world champion I decided I needed to look for a proper job.”
Henderson’s first job was as a planning technician at Dunfermline District Council and that was primarily because it was close to a race circuit. Nevertheless, he felt it was good to work through an organisation and be part of a large team.
In 1987 he secured a planning technician job at Dundee City Council and it was at that point that he began to take an interest in his career ahead of motorbikes.
“I applied for a job as a planning officer but I didn’t have the proper qualifications,” he says. “That’s when I decided to do a planning degree at Open University which was really tough. I managed for about a year and then I decided to convert and go full-time as a student. At that time I was also asked to become leader of the planning committee with the local authority. I was only 27 years old but there was a whole bunch of young people on the council at the time and it was really exciting for all of us. It also taught me a lot about corporate responsibility.
“We huffed a lot of the old guard at the council who walked away from their positions but we were actually quite successful.
“Dundee had a hard economic time of it but we won things like most improved town centre in Europe while I was in office.
“I suppose the bit that drives me is making a difference to people’s lives. I’ve been like that all my way through life and I think you can also see it in my parents.”
Following short stints with local authorities in Clackmannanshire, Angus and North Lincolnshire, Henderson relocated to the North East where he worked as director for One North East from 2001 until being made chief executive of Northumberland County Council in 2004.
This was Henderson’s first chief executive role and a difficult one to boot. He says: “The council had been put into government intervention for what they deemed as a failing education system, which was quite an interesting welcome to Northumberland!
“It was a tough time turning around the education system as there was a lot of hostility to some of the changes. Then Northumberland went into the local government boundary commission which I thought was very badly planned.
“I decided to leave the council and set up my own consultancy business in 2008 and although I really enjoyed it I had been used to working in big organisations.”
One year later, Henderson received a call from the chairman of Home Group asking him to join the national social housing provider as chief executive.
“I wasn’t really aware of the company at the time,” he says. “It’s the North East’s 19th largest firm and I was very taken with the company’s ethos and the chairman’s drive.”
As well as being placed in the top 20 of The Journal’s Top 200 biggest businesses in the region it is also the UK’s fifth largest social housing provider.
Its annual turnover is £330m and it has 4,000 staff operating across England, Scotland and Wales. The company’s primary aim is providing affordable housing and developing new homes for people to live in.
It has more than 50,000 properties across the UK.
It is also the UK’s largest provider of care and support for homeless people. In total, it helps more than 100,000 people each year.
The firm manages Newcastle’s striking Tyneside Foyer centre for homeless young people, which reopened in January after a devastating fire swept through the building.
Home Group, based in Gosforth, is leading the way among housing providers in using its expertise to deliver more diverse contracts including providing bail accommodation services for the Ministry of Justice and also social care pilots for the NHS helping terminally ill people in the North East.
“At the start I walked into quite a dysfunctional organisation,” says Henderson. “When I first walked into Tyneside Foyer there were barriers across the reception to stop customers getting a hold of the executive. They were gone within three hours.
“The company was very aloof and a lot of what I’ve been doing in the past four years is bringing back faces so our customers feel they are being accounted for properly.
“Yes it’s a charity but it can’t be a bankrupt charity – it’s still a commercial business that turns over £330m a year. The turnover has grown by more than £100m since I arrived despite challenging economic times.”
The Tyneside Foyer provides living accommodation for up to 72 vulnerable residents aged 16 to 25, as well as IT suites, training facilities, and staff offices.
One of Henderson’s biggest concerns is that foster carers no longer receive financial help from the Government after a child reaches the age of 16. He says this strongly contributes to the growing number of young homeless people who feel they have nowhere else to go once their foster parent’s funding dries up.
“Some of the individual stories I hear are just awful,” he says. “As a public sector we’re going through a really tough time but these kids are so vulnerable and they’re at an age where they should be performing well in exams and looking forward to their futures – instead they’re desperately trying to find where their next meal will come from.
“Thankfully, in Newcastle we’ve got quite a strong stance on eliminating homelessness.”
Following the fire at Tyneside Foyer, Home Group worked hard to ensure all 48 young residents affected by the fire were safely and permanently re-housed across the city. “Businesses, cafes and hotels opened up their doors and served our customers breakfast and kept them warm,” says Henderson. “The Thistle Hotel let some of our residents stay with them while we looked to getting everybody re-housed and that to me defines the North East. You wouldn’t get that level of comradery anywhere else in the country. We might be in competition for certain funds or contracts but on that day everybody rallied together.”
Despite government cutbacks, Henderson says Home Group wants to do more than just survive in the coming years.
“We want to thrive as a business and that means being as efficient as we possibly can be. Four years ago we only had a 70% customer satisfaction rate whereas now that’s up to 94% which makes us the best of any social housing association in the country,” he adds.
“The public sector is going through a tough time at the moment but we’re big enough as a commercial concern to not only survive but do extremely well.
“I would like to see the business significantly grow in the next 12 months. We’ve just signed the Big Gateshead Joint Venture contract which will see us working with the private sector to provide thousands of new homes in Gateshead.
“Being big allows us to go to the bank to get good commercial rates to invest in new buildings and that is why we are constantly looking at growing the size of the company.
“I’m very lucky to be in a good career but also part of making a difference alongside a team who are so passionate about what they do. I look forward to coming into work in a morning and I doubt every chief executive could honestly say that.”
Henderson is also vice chair Business and Enterprise UK and chairman of Young Enterprise North East.