When the reportedtroubles started for Serco in the spring of 2013 the snowball effect seemed to have had a serious impact on its business. With the media questioning the company’s culture and character, the high-profile legal questions that were being asked, and the government’s restriction on their bidding for work – reportedly accounting for around 25% of Serco’s global revenues – the pressure was on for the man at the top to do something about it.
The media had put Chris Hyman, Serco’s then CEO under the spotlight. And, after 20 years of service for the company that he had taken to new heights his response was surprising for some and welcomed by others. On 23 October he resigned with immediate effect. One can only assume that the dire seriousness of the ongoing ‘scandal’ resulting in the lost right of the company to bid for UK public sector work demanded urgent and decisive action. And, in his own words – as reported in The Guardian two days later – “At this time, nothing is more important to me than rebuilding the relationship with our UK government customer. In recent weeks it has become clear to me that the best way for the company to move forward is for me to step back.”
By the next month the papers were reporting that £500m had been wiped off the company’s value in just a few months, and the tough task of finding a new captain for the Serco ship began in earnest.
The man behind the plan, to begin the outsourcing giant’s recovery
This article is not an assessment of the strategy employed to set Serco on the road to recovery, nor is it about the reported state that Rupert Soames found the company in when he first sat behind his new desk. Those are questions answered in our next and final instalment of our four-part Serco series – ‘The Serco hot-seat – six discoveries that changed everything’.
No, this article is about the man behind the plan, it’s an insight into the life and times of Rupert Soames and why some believe he alone has the ‘stuff’ to make the difficult decisions that will win back trust from what is perceived as an unforgiving marketplace renowned for its long memory.
Rupert Soames OBE was born in Croydon, South London in 1959, son of Sir Christopher Soames – one-time British ambassador to France and the last governor of Rhodesia – his mother, Lady Mary Soames – who far from being a typical housewife had commanded an anti-aircraft battery during WWII was an accomplished author and served as patron and chair for numerous organisations in the public and arts arena. Rupert is the grandson of Sir Winston Churchill, and the brother of former defence minister to the Major government, Sir Nicholas Soames. And, according to the reports that I have read about him, it seems as though there must be something in those Soames genes as I’m told Rupert exudes self-confidence, positivity and a tenacious determination to move ever onwards and upwards.
He’s an Oxford man, after Eton, though what he studied there seems somewhat less important than the fact that even then, while at one of Britain’s most elite seats of learning, business was more important to him than book-worming. Three times a week* he would make his way to London. It was here he would undertake a Disc-Jockey role at Annabel’s nightclub in Mayfair, making his ‘Touch of Class’ business a reasonable sum for those days.
DJ’ing behind him, Rupert Soames set to work on his career. It reportedly started out at GEC, one of the largest private sector employers at the time, where he spent 15 years honing his management skills and learning much from the then CEO, Arnold Weinstock. He moved on to software company Misys where he rose to chief executive of the banking and securities division. But it was at Aggreko, ‘the world’s largest temporary power generation company’ according to their Wikipedia page, that Soames made his biggest mark, it is reported that he expanded the company’s returns by 450% in just 5 years. Aggreko was exciting work, as they supply electricity where war, natural disasters and need demands, supporting such varied clients as the Japanese government after the 2011 tsunami took out the Fukushima nuclear power plant, Glastonbury and the armed forces while they were in Afghanistan.
The immediacy of demand and the circumstances in which Aggreko’s services were needed seem to have brought to the fore the vital importance of customer care in Rupert Soames’ view of what it constitutes to succeed in business. His determination to ensure that all parties were looked after, that customer service came front and centre in a company’s culture, and that managers were measured by the way in which they dealt with their customers that defines his time at Aggreko and it would appear to continue to define his career now.
Soames, we believe, is a plain talking man with substantial private sector success under his belt before he was approached for the Serco role. He is regarded with a positive outlook and a larger than life character. An aristocrat with an esteemed heritage, whose family fire seems to course through his veins, though it’s unlikely you’ll find him name-dropping in conversation as interviews I’ve read about him describe him as far happier to be his own man and make his own way in the world.
On 28 February 2014 the Serco board appointed Rupert Soames as its new chief executive. Apparently one of his first acts was to visit Margaret Hodge, the chair of the House of Commons public accounts committee (PAC). The PAC are, to all intents and purposes, regarded as the public sector’s outsourcing industry watchdog. He, confidently explained to Ms Hodge that he was going to turn it all around. Then he reportedly started to deconstruct the culture of the organisation he had adopted to replace it with a more plain-speaking and accountable one.
Since his appointment Rupert Soames has made some dramatic speeches, discoveries and admissions. The job of turning the outsourcing juggernaut around is ongoing, but there certainly is now a glimmer of hope where previously it was hard to see the route being travelled.
To discover what Rupert Soames found when he took over as CEO and how he plans to change Serco’s fortunes, keep a watchful eye out for our next and final instalment in this series. If you missed the last one, you can find it here: Part Two – Serco’s Darkest Days: Do we Know the Full Story?