Portakabin Company Secretary, Martin Goforth
Portakabin’s Company Secretary, Martin Goforth gives us some insight into Portakabin’s operations, the recent changes in the legal function and his own career journey from accounting to governance.
As Portakabin’s Company Secretary, tell us a little more about the company.
Portakabin is the market leader in the design, manufacture and installation of modular buildings.
Portakabin has its head office in the UK, has over 1,850 employees and operates in ten countries: England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland, France, Belgium, Germany, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. The company has a global annual turnover of c£340m.
Portakabin Limited is part of the Shepherd Building Group – one of the largest privately owned businesses in the UK whose shareholders consist solely of members of the Shepherd family.
The group’s operations are now primarily those of Portakabin – the group having disposed of its construction businesses around 6 years ago. The focus now is on continuing the growth story of Portakabin across all ten of the territories in which it operates.
Why is it a good place to work?
The culture of a family company, coupled with professionalism and a corporate approach was something that attracted me, as not only likely to be a good place to work but one where every employee and their contribution was recognised and valued. The organisational culture is one of openness, collaboration and immense pride in the impact we have and can make on wider society (e.g. in terms of helping organisations (public and private sector) meet their needs for space (e.g. school spaces, hospital bed space, office space).
How has Portakabin helped you develop as a Company Secretary and what have been the highlights for you professionally?
The organisation places huge value on developing its employees and giving everyone the platform they need to make the most of themselves (whatever their ambition or capability). From my own perspective, I joined the group as an internal auditor and the culture was such that there were opportunities for me to develop into new roles with support and training. My own journey was one of internal audit to financial controller and then to my current role as Portakabin’s Company Secretary.
Many other members of the senior team here have developed and progressed through the organisation. Testament to the focus placed on developing our people. I have received coaching from one of our HR professionals (who is a qualified coach) and that’s been of tremendous help in helping me to improve the positive impact I have on the business and with a spill over into my personal life.
My current role exposes me to a wide variety of aspects of the organisation. Many employees also share that opportunity to be seconded to other departments, develop new skills and perspectives in order to more fully develop. The highlight of my own career journey has been the transition to my current role and the faith (and support) put in me by the board, which trust I am now repaying through the support and service I provide to them and the wider business from a governance perspective.
What attracted you to a career in governance and compliance and who’s been the most influential to you?
I would say that it’s my skill set of diligence, organisational skills, integrity and financial acumen (as a trained and qualified accountant) suited me naturally to the role of Company Secretary at Portakabin.
My partner at Deloitte LLP (Jonnie Oldham) had most influence in shaping who I am today, in terms of building my confidence in my own ability and helping widen my horizons and aspirations. He helped me to be as effective as I could be whilst staying true to my own personality type.
What are the key issues facing your industry?
The ever changing legislative environment is a significant challenge to navigate and keep on top of. This, I recognise, is a wide ranging statement, but changes affecting governance, product compliance, regulatory compliance, climate etc will all be driven through legislation that we need to keep a radar on and respond to, as a business. My role and that of the legal function is integral to helping the board and the company to navigate through all that.
Portakabin’s legal function currently reports into you. What do you value most from the internal and external lawyers you work with and how has that played out at Portakabin?
As far as external lawyers are concerned, the think I value most is the ability to fully understand our business in order to improve the commerciality of the advice we receive. From my perspective, an in-house lawyer needs to be a trusted advisor, protecting the interests of the company from both a legal and a commercial perspective. So, what is important to me is the ability to apply commercial thinking to a situation which comes out with a proposal or solution that best balances risk mitigation and the demands of the business to attain commercial or financial performance levels.
As a business, we first decided to recruit a General Counsel five years ago to head up Portakabin’s legal function and set the framework of legal governance required by a business of our size. Now the previous General Counsel has moved on, the business is taking the opportunity to refine further its approach to legal governance. Noting and recognising the need for an in house legal function is a necessity in terms of both value / risk protection and value adding as the company progresses through its current strategic cycle and growth.
Why might now be a good time to join Portakabin?
Recent years have seen significant transformation in terms of enhanced governance across the organisation and the time is now right for someone to join to drive that further, really embed high quality legal governance across a growing pan European business, adding significant value and risk mitigation to this business.
How have work patterns changed at the company as a result of Covid?
Prior to Covid-19, we were not a business that had a large amount of remote working. Portakabin reacted quickly to the needs to work from home and invested significantly in the technology to maximise efficient working away from the office.
Notwithstanding that, we have invested in making our workplaces Covid secure so as to allow those small numbers – (c10%) of office based employees at our head office to work safely in the office. All employees are given the opportunity two work in the office on a rota basis. No employee has been working continuously at home and with no contact with colleagues.
How did lockdown affect you and have there been any surprising highs, lessons or things you have learned?
It provided fresh perspective on what was really important in life. It illustrated that ability to adapt and change to new circumstances was something most people possessed and businesses of any size, nature or type could (and had to) do.
What advice would you give to someone in practice looking to move in-house? And what should their first hundred days look like?
The business will value your knowledge and expertise. Don’t be afraid of that, embrace it. By giving advice that walks that fine line between being practical, commercial, risk-protecting and “by the letter” will be valued by, and is hugely valuable to, the business. This will be received positively by the business who will come seek you out for solutions irrespective of your approach in engaging with the business.
In the first 3 months, I would say the key is to work hard to get to know the business and the people. When you are new to the business it is expected you are on a learning curve, so ask lots of questions, look to understand how the business works and what is important to the business. In that way you can develop your advice and guidance accordingly and in line with the commercial reality of the organisation and people’s priorities.
What particular piece of tech could you not do without?
Technology is integral to effective communication. To me there’s not one single stand out tool or application, but it’s the combination that impacts effectiveness. For me this is Diligent Boards, iPads (for note taking) and email.
How do you support your own mental health and that of your team?
I encourage (and look to practice myself) physical exercise and time away from electronic devices as a way of detaching from the pressure of the work environment.
I enjoy spending time with my family (I have two young sons (aged 4 and 7)) and enjoying the countryside (walking, cycling or running).
At the end of a hard week, what’s a treat that you always look forward to?
Turning the laptop and work phone off!
First job and first car?
My first job was working as a checkout operator in WM Morrisons supermarkets. A summer job to tide me through my A-level / University summer holiday. As for the car, it was an Austin Metro – zero power and perhaps zero safety features!
If you could spend an hour with anyone the world of business, politics or entertainment, who would it be?
Astronomy is my guilty pleasure and I often reflect that had I not taken the route of training to become an accountant that I would have liked to have trained in the sciences. So, I would like to spend an hour with Professor Brian Cox and hope he help me understand more about the mysteries of the universe.
Petrus, Gordon Ramsay’s Mayfair restaurant. A special restaurant that my wife and I have had numerous meals at whenever we get to London for a weekend.
Favourite holiday destination so far, and where next?
California. I have visited the US ten times, covering 36 of the 50 states. Only 14 more to go. More prosaically the next holiday will be Norfolk this summer!
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