When I met Phillip Ullmann, head of Cordant Group and employer of over 52,000 people, he had just lost his job title. It wasn’t that someone had taken it from him – rather that he’s shed it. “Job titles are nonsense. What does it mean to be an executive chair, chief executive, managing director? Titles aren’t about meaning, they’re about ego.”
Cordant offers a whole host of services, from electrical specialists to biohazard cleaning. Ullmann has recently bought into the philosophy of flat organisation advocate Frederic Laloux. The New Age thinker says that organisations fall into five categories, which describe their level of hierarchy, and thus inflexibility: red (which is army-level, no flexibility or room for innovation), orange, amber, green and teal.
Ullmann is aiming for teal, where, in Laloux’s words, the focus is on self-management, wholeness and evolutionary purpose. “I believe big business is broken,” says Ullmann. “Laloux’s thesis gives you a new way of organising your business for the current age. I’ve got 50,000 workers. How can I connect with all of them? It can only happen if they talk to me, and that’s a lot easier for everyone if I’m just Phillip.” It may sound far fetched, but Ullmann is quite convincing in his reasoning: in a hyper-connected world where technology can help the individual be more efficient and better informed, are traditional hierarchies really that helpful?
With his executive team on board, Ullmann readily concedes that not all his workers, the vast majority of which are contractors, grasp the concept, but that hasn’t stopped him from inviting the entire workforce to contact him via social media with ideas for and problems they have with the business. “I want to lead from the front, but I’ve never made a decision at the coalface. If you’re trying to create freedom so people can grow the business, why have rules coming from just one person? I need to initiate the change, but to enable more autonomy for everyone else in the organisation.”
Design for living
Ullmann has never operated in a conventional way. After graduating, he went straight into the family manufacturing business. “Nothing had changed for 40 years. I realised that workers were only being utilised for 20 per cent of the time. We moved machines around and halved the labour force. I knew nothing about manufacturing; the way I changed it was by asking at the coalface and then facilitating the change.” In 18 months, he’d doubled profits, but ended up selling what he predicted was a doomed business in a services-led economy. He then worked for KPMG and Sainsbury’s, but often found himself going beyond his remit – “because I’d already transformed a business, I’d speak my mind on how things could be improved. That wasn’t always welcome.”
After buying a business, and being fired from another, it was in 1996 that Ullmann really hit his stride. His dad had set up Cordant in 1959, but it hadn’t made any money for years. “I knew I could work with people and engage them, and we started turning things around.” By 2008, the firm was at £400m turnover, expanding quickly on the back of acquisitions. “Our area was minimum wage workers. We started with security guards, then moved into cleaning. Then I found out that there was this sector called temporary labour. We acquired 12 to 15 companies in that space, and most we made work.”
Ullmann says the crash changed everything for the company. The climate suddenly wasn’t right for M&A or seeking funding, so we had to grow organically. “I made a conscious decision to move into higher value sectors. Minimum wage isn’t a nice space to work in. There’s a lot of competition in the market and many people have no alternative, so it always feels difficult, despite being necessary.” Since then, the company has hit a run rate of £850m. It now provides thousands of IT contractors, accountants, teachers and nurses around the country. “The shift into the public sector is part of a move to give back – right from the core business. I don’t want to do any more acquisitions.”
I ask Ullmann about the national living wage – he seems better placed than most to talk about it. “It has to be right. But as we know, if the wage is artificially increased, the burden is removed from the state in terms of paying out benefits and placed on industry. And it’s a huge burden. If you’re paying £9 an hour, you’ve got to get £9 of value.” Ullmann predicts that a lot of businesses won’t last, because they won’t be able to make the – largely tech-based – changes needed to justify £9 an hour, even if workforces are whittled down. A lot of that, he adds, is down to traditional hierarchies – you can’t move quickly enough if everything has to go to the top before it gets the okay. “It also means your education system has to be incredibly good and in tune with what businesses need, and ours isn’t.”
This brings Ullmann to the changes he’s making in his own business. He’s never going to list Cordant, he explains, because he “thoroughly dislikes the short-termism of the City, and only investing what I generate means I can only build models that don’t require much capital – it means we can keep our business lean”. And with international education recruiter Sugarman within his portfolio, he’s started looking beyond the UK, at Australia and Germany to start with.
But he’s very keen to do more closer to home too. “I want to concentrate on education and healthcare. We’ve got the capabilities – from a vast network of workers to cutting-edge IT systems – to help transform the NHS. I really want to help do that. I don’t want to force myself on anybody, but I’d love the opportunity to speak with government and offer what we’ve got as a business.”
Believing that giving considerably greater autonomy to every individual within a workforce is an imperative means Ullmann also feels strongly about deregulation – and thus the question of Brexit. “The Union is obviously not working. The fact its accounts have not been signed off in 19 years just blows my mind.” He tells me he’d be naïve to think it could dissolve – “the EU is a complete nightmare, but there’s too much political capital invested now, we’ll have to live with it” – but says he can’t stress enough the burden it puts on businesses. “The solution, as with so many thing, is that small is beautiful. That’s the answer. But of course, it’s never really about what’s right, is it?”