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Meet Robert Stronge, new Chair of the Westward Board

Robert has worked in housing for over 40 years and was formerly a managing director (West) at Guinness Partnership. He has also worked as interim chief executive at Shire Housing Association. He was a board member at Robert Owen Communities in Totnes, a charity supporting people with learning difficulties and mental health needs. Robert champions the importance of good customer service by listening to and meeting the needs of the community.

What attracted to you to the role initially and when did you first start thinking about it?

I noticed the advert on LinkedIn and it peaked an interest in me so then I spoke to your former chair of the board, Brian Aird who I have worked with in the past, met with Barbara to talk about future plans and the rest as they say is history!

I really do like Westward! When I was with Guinness, I had worked closely with Westward staff members, so I've always had an understanding about the organisation.

I’ve had two stints working with Westward’s property services team in the past. The staff have a ‘can do’ culture and are not afraid to seek out challenges, don’t shy away from issues, find solutions – it’s a culture that really chimes with me.

I think Westward is modern and forward-thinking with the right sort of values and that got me interested. I kept thinking about it whilst I took a break following chairing the board at North Devon Homes and I then joined Cornwall Housing as a board member but I quickly realised I wanted to do more.

We went through the formal interview process as if I was completely new to Westward. I got a very warm feeling from my time spent with Westward’s board and executive team, it was a two-way process that met both parties needs and aspirations.

I was seeking a culture that attuned to my values and was trying to make a difference. One that wouldn't just sit back thinking we've done that, instead always seeking to improve. Brian did a wonderful job as leader of the board and I want to carry on that good work.

There is a superb team of people on the board with their interests and great skills. It’s a great team and a winning one.

Robert Stronge and Barbara Shaw on digger What is your background, did you always work in affordable housing?

I trained for four years as a planner but then there weren’t many jobs, so I was looking around and someone said they were recruiting for a housing assistant at Leeds City Council. It was an eye opener. I was working in inner city areas as a rent collector mainly. I saw all aspects of life and learned many valuable life lessons early on.

I then moved into the housing homeless and welfare team; working with some vulnerable people and those living in dire circumstances - trying to make a difference to their lives. We worked very closely supporting each other and we developed coping mechanisms that ensured we could still retain professionalism around horrendous scenarios being played out in front of us and show compassion to those in need. Helping people and offering opportunities to turn lives around became everything.

From there I went on to join a housing association in Bradford, and my patch was in the red-light district! So, I got to know all the characters there and learnt how to have conversations with a very diverse group of people. I established a really good connection with the local community and began to understand why people were choosing certain paths and this further emphasised the importance of never being judgmental. From this great foundation of work and life experiences, I then started up the managerial path.

My family moved to the south west in the 1990s, it was a big step. I was working for Guinness and I remember driving along one day by the sea in February, in the sun, and I realised - crikey, four months ago I was in inner city Bradford and here I am. I also knew that despite the change in landscape the life struggles are similar including poverty and high housing need.

I remember at a staff conference trying to give people living outside the south west, a true picture of what life is like for some in Cornwall. I chose Camborne, one of the most deprived areas in the country – a surprise for all as people think it’s beaches, sunshine, holidays and fishing. They don’t know how it is for a lot of people living there with the declining traditional industries such as mining and fishing, high unemployment, seasonal work and accommodation. It makes our work there providing homes and services all the more important. 

When I left Guinness, I had a job in Scotland in another former mining area – it wasn’t deliberate!  So much synergy with Camborne. Now I'm using all these experiences and I hope to help influence how we deliver services and meet people's needs.

How do you think you might make a difference through this role?

Well, I want to do more of same for a start, because I think that's been very successful. Although we do great things we will need to continue developing and growing as an organisation but not to put at risk all that we have achieved.  A measured approach.

I have a lot of regional as well as national knowledge, so I would hope to use my experiences and connections. I can use some of my networking to promote what we do and bring new ideas in as well.

What do you think are your strongest skills that you bring to Westward?

Keeping a wider eye on things, including outside the sector, may validate what you're doing in housing on wider topics such as workplace culture, but seeing other ways of thinking may also be helpful to us. I'm open to change and open to different views, different ideas.

In terms of working in Cornwall, I'll be able to bring experiences and knowledge from Cornwall Housing and elsewhere to us here at Westward and also to share our successes and approaches to help them too.

There will be an election coming up so there's an opportunity I think to meet, inform and hopefully influence politicians and also work closely with local councillors because they’re the ones dealing with people and their issues on a daily basis – they may also have more of an impact on local decision-making such as planning!

What do you do in your spare time?

I really enjoy camper van trips. We got our first van in 2008, converted it and went on our first trip to Tuscany. We were driving through the Swiss Alps with my two boys in the back and saying look at that wonderful view there, the mountains and look at that glacial river. They were on their games and stuff and not the slightest bit interested, but that was a wonderful introduction to campervan life. The boys did enjoy the holiday.

We’ve bought a bigger van since and one I can stand up in this time. I've just come back from two weeks in Ireland with Sue, my partner doing the Wild Atlantic Way with our dog Dougie. Walking is a big feature for us, not just the dog walks. Once or twice a month we walk up on Dartmoor with a group of friends who have experience across many sectors and industries and have different perspectives of life and the challenges we face. We do have some interesting conversations – no topic is out of bounds! Then we retire to the pub for a libation! I also cycle a lot. So physical activity is good.

What do you like about living in Devon?

Yorkshire was gorgeous and we had access to the Yorkshire Dales within minutes from where we were living. But here you've got the coastal walks, Dartmoor, cities, history and now of course family.

It’s really nice here and the kids have had a really good experience growing up. It's a really good place to live with outdoorsy type things and I guess we are an active family but the boys race ahead of us now.

I have a keen interest in politics. I'm not a politician but I just like to keep an eye on what's going on – always seeking to verify what’s being said. A good lesson on many fronts these days.

The other interest with an international flavour is that I'm a member of a twinning organisation. Exminster where I live is twinned with Sannerville in Normandy. My wife and I are on the committee and help organise the visits to and fro each year. It's been nice to get involved with French families - although my French isn’t good and I get the language CD out each year just before we meet. My Franglais is very good though!

What would you like to say to Westward customers?

Well, firstly I really want to hear their voice. I had recently had a really good conversation with Donna from the customer scrutiny group. She was at the board and I subsequently attended the scrutiny group and will do for the next few meetings.

The scrutiny group are a key link for us as an organisation and a board. I want to hear and want to know that we are making sure that we're taking the views of customers on board. My ethos is that the customer is first, I want to hear what the customers think. I want to make sure that they get all the opportunities that they need to enjoy living where they live.

I know someone who was on the Channel 4 programme ‘Alone’. The first thing that people did was they built a shelter – home first. And that's the core thing. It is about providing people with that shelter, heat, security and warmth. Then there's an opportunity for people to concentrate on other life matters such as education, health and wealth.

What would you like to say to Westward colleagues?

Hello again, I'm back, but it's a slightly different role!

I'm not going to step on any toes, I know the protocols. I'd love to go and meet people and just find out more about their job and about them. I'm open to share my experiences. You know I'm on the board and the board shouldn't be remote. We're there to have a conversation, interact and hear what people have to say, but we also have a role to play.

But the culture and values of Westward are attuned with mine and I really understand the journey that people have been on. There have been some tough times not least because of covid but I believe we are stronger for it and have become more agile in how we work and deliver our homes and services. The world has changed and so have we – always evolving.

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