‘Phillip there is only one solution, you must be your own boss’ what mentor told billion pound business leader Phillip Ullmann

Employment & Skills | Interview | Interviews
Phillip Ullman

This is an interview with Phillip Ullmann, Chief Energiser at Cordant Group.

What inspired you to join your family firm all those years ago?

I’d trained at KPMG as an accountant and had a series of jobs. I always made money for my bosses but also spoke my mind and was often sacked for doing so.

One mentor said to me “Phillip there is only one solution, you must be your own boss”. My father was running a small £12million revenue firm that needed help, so he brought me in and that was the beginning of Cordant Group which now has revenues of over £1 billion.

Looking back, what was the key to Cordant’s success in those early years?

I think it was a combination of things. I’ve always had a very good team around me and believe that if you hand over decision making to people they respond better and function more confidently. We grew organically and also by acquisition – we certainly didn’t always get it right, but timing and some good fortune has allowed the business to flourish over time.

When did you first start to see the light around social business as an alternative?

You’re right that I’m very much poacher turned gamekeeper. For years, I was a traditional capitalist only concerned with profit. But my view changed, and I asked myself once you’ve made money how much is enough?

One day, as a result of a conversation with my children, I had an epiphany and realised that Cordant could be much more as a social business, concerned with purpose, not profits, and returns for people and planet. With 125,000 workers on our books, surely, we could make a difference. It was not without its battles, some of them with my family who were less convinced.

What changes did you make at Cordant to deliver a fairer system? What worked – and what didn’t?

In 2017, we changed our Articles of Association, we capped our shareholder dividend and we capped executive pay to 20 times that of the lowest paid (compared to 160x – that of the FTSE). We underwent an in-depth third-party audit to agree a series of measures of our purpose as an organisation, internally and externally to customers.

We also looked at how we might redistribute profits more fairly and serve our communities more effectively. It was a radical idea, but implementation was tough and not everyone, especially customers, understood our aims, often asking for better terms on the basis we seemingly had more to give away!

Why did you end up selling to Twenty20 Capital?

I think I realised that just one company couldn’t singlehandedly change the system, even as a pioneer to reform Capitalism and wanted a change of direction. The Twenty20 team have come in and made the entire operation more efficient and more profitable.

It was that development that will now allow me to channel more funding and investment into new purpose led projects to redistribute wealth and serve different communities more effectively. So, watch this space.

Your new business Covenant Advisory has a different purpose?

I’ve been working with a fresh team of advisors to set up a new business with a different approach. In the last few months we have made real progress working on a unique model that we hope will be joint funded by business and the state. This new partnership will impact the lives of hundreds of thousands of people in time.

You have a radical take on debt management to save a million businesses? Can you tell us more? 

I do think government has a choice here and could offer struggling businesses some form of debt relief. In exchange, it could propose purpose led reforms that demand behavioural change based on a shared equity model. A reform programme would prioritise purpose and related metrics such as returns for people and community wellbeing. This would stimulate opportunities, training, and more meaningful jobs. That would level up the worst hit communities.

What practical measures would you introduce to create jobs or a Job Guarantee?

As a recruiter for most of my professional life, I know what job creation can mean in the confidence it gives people and quality of life. A Job Guarantee programme could feed key growth sectors likely to prosper in a Covid age, seeding sustainability.

Of course, retraining thousands of people will require renewed initiatives from across industries, demanding that public and private sectors collaborate to build a more prosperous system.

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