How to win at employee engagement the Softcat way

Softcat MD, Colin BrownEngaging its employees has brought dynamic growth to Softcat and earned the IT reseller a place in the Sunday Times Grant Thornton Top Track 250, as MD Colin Brown explains. 

Winning the talent battle – recruiting, engaging and motivating the next generation of Britain’s workforce – is at the heart of Softcat’s success.

The IT reseller’s financial performance is outstanding – turnover rose 30% to more than £400 million in the year to July, generating operating profits of almost £29 million, up 26% – and Colin Brown, managing director, credits the attitude and aptitude of Softcat’s employees as driving this growth.

“People always say: ‘Shouldn’t you start with customer satisfaction?’ I retort that you will never achieve that if you don’t have highly engaged employees.”

What makes a company great?

He was speaking after taking part in a workshop exploring the critical factors that make a good company great. The event was hosted by Grant Thornton and attended by more than 50 CEOs and MDs of companies featuring in this year’s . 

Softcat, which has offices in Marlow, Manchester and London, appears at number 48on the league table, which ranks Britain’s top-performing private mid-market companies.

Colin said that reinvesting profits in new facilities and processes, and a focus on its business partners, were both important factors behind Softcat’s performance.

The crucial factor, however, was the company’s approach to its people.

Happy workers are hard workers

While Softcat expects hard work (a typical day is 9am to 6pm) and is a mid-tier payer in terms of salaries, it invests significant senior management time in making sure that its employees enjoy working for Softcat – and are rewarded handsomely when they outperform.

This business culture was established by the company’s founder Peter Kelly, who remains a non-executive director, and it has been maintained despite recent rapid growth. The company now employs around 600 people.

“[Peter Kelly’s] view was let’s have fun at work, and work hard, and business will come as a result,” says Colin.

The company’s approach to its people echoes advice by business writer Jim Collins in his book Good to Great: “We hire on attitude as you can acquire skills afterwards.”

Free breakfast and shirt-ironing

Softcat also has a number of smaller initiatives that collectively help to reinforce this culture. Its workforce is young – a high proportion are graduates straight from university – and so it offers a range of free services, from breakfast served each day at 8.15am (which provides an opportunity for staff from different teams to interact and build relationships) to a weekly shirt-ironing pick-up and delivery.

Staff are given a half-day off on their birthdays and all those with birthdays falling in the same month are treated to lunch hosted by a director. “As we have grown it has become a bit of a logistical exercise now but we are determined to keep it up,” says Mr Brown.

Trips to Africa for top performers

Sales staff who secure new customers retain the relationship however significant the potential revenue opportunity is, as long as the customer remains happy. This policy encourages long-term relationship-building as the sales person knows their efforts today could reap rewards in a year’s time.

Sales and administrative people who beat their targets or are recognised by their colleagues also qualify for different initiatives, from quarterly lunches to trips to Africa, designed to acknowledge publicly the top performers, build team spirit and encourage healthy competition.

Sales employees are also rewarded generously when they beat targets, says Colin, and the focus is on having transparent reward schemes. “We don’t cap bonuses or commissions; there are no ‘lucky deal’ caps as I have seen at other companies.”

Fourth-best MSB workplace in 2013

It all contributes to employee engagement scores that have won Softcat plaudits. This year it was named the fourth best medium-sized business (MSB) workplace in the UK in 2013 and 10th in the same category across Europe by consultants Great Place to Work.

And as Colin acknowledges, Softcat’s continued success in winning the talent battle was a key reason for its appearance among Britain’s top-performing mid-sized companies on this year’s Top Track 250