by Mark Chillingworth

Peabody IT director building home improvements

Jul 25, 20139 mins
Construction and Engineering IndustryIT StrategyMobile

One thing is clear about Martin Carpenter: his passion for the sector he operates within. As IT director for the famed and historic housing association Peabody, Carpenter always talks animatedly about the challenges his organisation and its sector faces and how technology is key to unlocking the potential of both the Peabody organisation and its tenants.

Before we sit down and talk, Carpenter and the organisation’s official historian take us on a tour of its residencies close to the office. It is obvious during the tour that this is an organisation with both a clear mission statement and a vision for how to achieve it, and that its IT leader is engaged in all aspects of the organisation and dedicated to helping it achieve its outcomes.

Peabody was founded back in 1862 by George Peabody, a banker who believed that housing was the way to tackle poverty in his adopted home of London. Today the organisation, headquartered a stone’s throw from Waterloo station, has over 20,000 homes which house 50,000 Londoners and has a mission to “Make London a city of opportunity for all by ensuring as many people as possible have a good home, a real sense of purpose and a strong feeling of belonging”.

“The surprising thing is how big a business social housing is in the UK economy – it’s 15% of UK households,” Carpenter explains.

And in this age of austerity it is good business. Peabody had a group turnover of £124 million as of March 2012 with a surplus of £20 million, and Carpenter says risk-averse financial services providers are getting involved in lending to the sector as it is both well run and low-risk.

Peabody has recently completed a merger with Gallions Housing Association and as in so many sectors, market consolidation is a growing trend.

“We may do other mergers. They are odd, as no money changes hands: they are almost gentlemen’s agreements as the organisations are looking for good stewards of their properties and customers,” Carpenter says. Following the Gallions Housing Association merger Peabody will invest £200 million into the Thamesmead housing area in South East London, made famous as the modernist location for Stanley Kubrick’s film A Clockwork Orange.

Thamesmead was built in the late 1960s, but many Peabody properties are much older, as are the association’s values. “We don’t build cheap, we build to last and that is part of the DNA,” Carpenter says of the Peabody ethos.

“Getting people back into work and having social and economic opportunities is an important part of the organisation.

“It makes good business sense: if you can help people they can be better residents and the will take more pride in their environment, so they will make better tenants and then need less investment from us. So people in work is a corporate KPI,” Carpenter states.

People are given opportunities to work through a variety of means. For instance, Peabody has a van that visits its sites and acts a training centre for internet skills, and an apprenticeship scheme exists in association with London’s Evening Standard newspaper and for filling internal positions at the organisation.

“So we look after people in our community. The proportion of people that live and understand technology is increasing and will become more and more important. Some 15% of our residents are already online and we have an ambition for everyone to be online,” he says of the e-skills strategy.

“Mobile technology is helping with the community engagement, we have kids building apps,” he adds.

Taxing times

But re-skilling is just one of the challenges Peabody and its tenants are facing. In April the Conservative-led coalition introduced what has become known as the Bedroom Tax which states that housing benefit claimants with a spare room in their property will have their benefit reduced as a result of under-occupancy of the property. At the same time the government has also slashed its funding for social housing.

“Peabody is looking to the City and elsewhere for funding as government funding has reduced for new builds and Universal Credit is expected to put revenues under pressure,” he says.

Additional pressure is also coming from the sector’s regulator, the Homes and Communities Agency, which wants to see increased innovation in achieving value for money. This could include outsourcing of the day-to-day management of housing services, which the CBI says could deliver £650 million in savings. Carpenter has experience of outsourcing from his time in the private sector, but thinks that outsourcing opportunities in social housing could see sector players simply outsource services to each other and may not deliver the savings observers expect.

For Peabody to face these funding challenges it has to operate as efficiently as possible and in the year that Carpenter has been with Peabody he has been laying down transformation technology plans for the association.

“Business excellence with operational efficiency and customer satisfaction is key. IT-wise we have a heavy emphasis on mobile, so we are driving that as a delivery channel and to continue to deliver even more services by mobile as we go forward,” he says.

“We are channel shifting, and moving to deliver more of our services digitally and online, and this is step one,” he says of the new housing management application that he and his team have integrated.

Mobile homes

The housing management system not only allows Peabody to go mobile, but has also allowed it to consolidate its core business applications from six fragmented applications to one. Carpenter’s mobile strategy also allows the organisation to do more business on the move.

“A large proportion of our staff are based in the field and they are the eyes and ears of Peabody. We can collect more information at the point of connection so that neighbourhood managers will have access to pictures of tenants to check that the occupants really are the tenants.

“Mobile is a tool that helps us be more efficient as we grow, so we can keep the same number of staff but look after more properties. The engagement is going to be a lot easier,” he says.

Carpenter is also pushing the use of the internet so that his customer base have round-the-clock access to information, whereas at present the contact centre can only deal with requests and reports between 8am and 8pm.

“It is important that we have a tight integration between our systems,” he says of plans to integrate repairs, contracts and HR systems.

Carpenter is putting in a new Core International cloud-based HR system and a finance system from Infor. The HR system was chosen through a tender process and Carpenter was impressed with its Apple-like simplicity.

He says the same of the system from Infor, whose CEO Charles Philips is well known for talking about “beautiful software”. Carpenter is influenced by this thinking and wants to bring a design ethos to the IT at Peabody. Like many organisations, the technology that Peabody users experience at home is better than that in the organisation, but Carpenter believes his integration and adoption plans “will go a significant way to addressing this”.

“We have gone from six housing systems to one, we will drop from three HR systems to one and again in finance we will drop from three to one system.”

For the organisation the new Aareon QL housing management application will enable data analysis and help give a 360-degree view of the customer.

“We can then understand and tailor our services. We can be a lot better with our data and be more analytical. I’m looking to use predictive analysis to spot crime areas – that will give us an edge as an organisation – but I won’t say Big Data,” Carpenter says with a smile.

Looking ahead, Peabody will move into new headquarters over the next three years and Carpenter is assessing how he can use the move to modernise the infrastructure of the organisation.

Peabody has a staff of 650, 30 of whom work for Carpenter. He divides his team into three, each third focusing on infrastructure, projects and applications. The organisation has an IT opex of £4 million and a capex of £2 million.

Carpenter speaks proudly of his team. “They do a good job. The first thing I did when I came here was to look in the server room and you know you have a good team when everything looks neat and tidy,” he says.

Carpenter came to the social housing sector through a related industry, the building maintenance market. He was Group IT and Procurement Manager for Facilitas Group for three years having been Head of IT at engineering firm EC Harris and a project manager at Serco. His first housing association was the Notting Hill Housing Trust whom he was head of central services for over two years and joined Peabody in May 2012. His interest in social housing was triggered by spending a day with the responsive repairs team of Facilitas, who were working for a housing association.

“I went out with them and got a real sense of the provision of a decent place to live that made a real difference to families,” he explains. “So when the Notting Hill role came up it felt like a good thing to do. It is a very real and friendly sector to work in.”

Friendly it may be, but Carpenter is clear that the normal pressures of a CIO role exist at Peabody and that the association places high expectations on its leaders and technology. It is the outcome from profits (or surplus) that is different here and that outcome is something Carpenter enjoys being part of.

Away from the office his interests couldn’t be more different: a love of Formula 1 led to the purchase of a Jaguar XKR four years ago and it’s a little luxury he loves, when he’s not gardening.

Martin Carpenter CV

May 2012-present:IT Director, Peabody Trust 2010-2012: Head of Central Services, Notting Hill Housing Trust 2006-2010: Group IT and Procurement Manager, Facilitas Group 2006-2009: ITIL ICT Management Examiner, BCS 2003-2006: Head of IT, EC Harris 1990-2002: Project Manager, Serco Group