'I have enjoyed a great career and had some great experiences', SIG boss Philip Johns opens up

Philip Johns has worked with SIG for most of his career. He has been involved in huge projects and is now its MD for the UK, but it almost never came to pass, writes Mark Casci.

SIG turns 65 this year and, as Philip Johns admits, he has been around for many of them.

The chief executive joined the Sheffield-based building supply company in 1987 when he was headhunted to work as a sales rep. His tenure at the company has taken him all over the country and across many of its multiple divisions.

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The Olympic Stadium in Barcelona, Meadowhall Shopping Centre, Stansted Airport and Bluewater Shopping Centre are just some of the high-profile projects he has been involved in during the course of his career.

Philip Johns
Philip Johns

“I have worked for quite a few of those 65 years,” he said. “I am definitely a part of that history.”

Mr Johns originally joined SIG when it was still a private company, two years before it was listed.

He said: “I had the pleasure of being through the successes of SIG’s growth, all the way through from being a PLC to its acquisitions and organic growth. I have enjoyed a great career and had some great experiences.”

He admits that it was “never in my mind” that he would one day run the company but it almost came about that he and SIG parted for good,

SIG is 65 years old this year.

When he was head of the SIG roofing division, he left the business in 2015, spending periods in other businesses – including a period doing private equity for MKM – before returning in April 2020.

When asked why he departed the business he had been with for decades, Mr Johns is frank.

“The organisation was starting to go down a path which I didn’t feel was right.

“It was centralising significantly and starting certain things that I did not feel was right for the business. If you are running a company you have got to believe in its strategy.

SIG remains rooted in Sheffield.

“I just did not feel it was the right direction. After 30 years with the company I just decided it was time to move on.”

So the obvious question is why did he come back? Again, Mr Johns shows commendable honesty, seldom seen in the upper echelons of the corporate world.

The answer was another change in personnel. Steve Francis was brought in as group CEO in February 2020.

Mr Francis quickly reached out to Mr Johns and the pathway to a return to the fold began to emerge.

“The business has been through a difficult period over the last five years,” said Mr Johns.

“He quickly identified what the business needed to move forward again. He realised that SIG needed to bring back its roots in terms of how it operated whilst at the same time needing to be a modern company.

“I was approached by him, we had a good chat and I explained to him what my views were and he did the same.

“We were very like-minded in that context. I then spoke to the chairman who was similar and there was a real acceptance that the business had been through a difficult period.

“SIG is a business that I love. I grew up in this organisation and to have the opportunity to help get it back on its feet and bring back the traditional ethos and values of the business was a fantastic opportunity for me.

“I was delighted to come back.”

Mr Johns’ concerns about he overly centralised nature of the business was one of the areas of commonality with the new leadership team.

Quickly they set about dismantling it and, as a newspaper which has long campaigned for devolution, it is gratifying to see that the SIG strategy it imposed bore fruit quickly.

“We made sure our managers were empowered almost like a franchise model.

“It means they take ownership of their business and service offering at a local level.

“We have re-engaged with our customers.

“We have made 400 new appointments in the UK. It is all about repositioning people as well as bringing some experienced people back. We have re-engaged with our suppliers.

“It has created an energy in the business which has taken it back on track in terms of its recovery.”

But what of future prospects? The well-publicised difficulties SIG endured appear to show signs of abating. And Mr Johns is optimistic that better days lie ahead.

“We are definitely very pleased with the way that the business is progressing at the moment,” he says, without a hint of braggadocio.

“As far as the UK is concerned we have made quite a lot of changes since I came back.

“We cover a very broad spectrum of the industry, almost all the areas you can think of.

“We have started to see things happen as early as the middle of last year.

“A lot of people had a lot of spare cash because they couldn’t go on holiday so we saw that market recover.

“New housing is starting to show signs of stepping up.

“There is a lot of money out there and people have been cautious, waiting to see when things will move in the right direction.”

Mr Johns’ love for the building industry is palpable, with his affection for its values, impact and particularly its personnel a constant theme.

“It is all about people,” he said. “When I joined SIG the environment was really dynamic, it was an empowered business and it had some great values.

“Rediscovering what we are as a business and getting it back to where it was, SIG has always been very highly respected.”

Mr Johns has worked all over Britain with SIG and the firm’s international remit has seem him work globally.

However, his views on the firm’s birthplace and headquarters are absolutely clear.

“Sheffield is our spiritual home,” he said.

“We are an international business now but we will never forget our roots.”

The interview, sadly by video, sees me speak to him at SIG’s Adsetts House building in the Steel City.

“We are very big on recognising what it is that made the company so strong and successful.

“If you think about how we developed into Europe, it all emanated from that.”