As part of our ongoing series of interviews, Business News Wales had the opportunity to sit with Elaine Ballard, Chief Executive of Taff Housing Association.
Elaine joined the Taff Housing Association in January 2000 from CT Dewi Sant, where she was Director of Housing Services for over five years. Elaine’s previous experience includes many years spent in local government in Cardiff and Nottingham, and three years in Australia.
- Tell us about your business?
Taff celebrated 40 years in business in 2015, so we’ve been part of the Cardiff scene for some time. Taff is a Housing Association, sometimes called a registered social landlord (RSL) which owns and manages over 1300 homes in Cardiff. Our hashtag is #notjusthousing, as we do so much more – we provide support to a range of people, including younger people, older people, homeless people, refugees, families, people leaving hospital- the list goes on. We provide support services throughout South East Wales for these and many other groups.
- What are your plans for the next five years, and where do you see your challenges and opportunities?
Well, we’re coming to the end of our current 5 year plan, which has seen us build around 200 homes, house over 500 people in need and contribute over £35million to the local economy. Our customer satisfaction rating has consistently been over 90% and 98% say their lives have changed for the better when moving into a Taff home. We’ve helped launch two new businesses – Adore and Locality, and around 1800 people have started a ‘Jobs Journey’ through Taff.
So, when we put together our new 5 year plan after Christmas, we will certainly be doing more of this – we need to build homes to help with Cardiff’s severe Housing crisis; we need to help people sustain tenancies so they don’t experience homelessness again; and we will be focussing on helping our Tenants back to work, so they aren’t’ too badly affected by Welfare Reforms. But we want to do much more – we want to collaborate with partner agencies to make our communities great places to live; we want to explore new business ventures and we want to make our business processes smarter for staff and easier for customers. The next 3 months will see staff and Board Members coming together to finalise our plans.
- What do you wish you had known when you started out in business?
I started my career in a very large Local Authority Housing Department in Nottingham, so being the boss and being able to direct the business was a long way off. I think having a role that enables you to see the whole organisation, whatever it is, really does give you a fast track to a senior position. I applied for (but didn’t get!) a trainee role when I first came into Housing, as it would have given me such an opportunity. Instead I made my own, by applying for jobs in different parts of the organisation – it doesn’t matter where you start, as long as you learn along the way! Being curious has become a way of life for me!
- Looking back at your career, are there things you would have done differently?
Not really – I didn’t have a grand plan, or even loads of ambition. I think I was always open to opportunities and wanted to do something meaningful and fulfilling. I am actually incredibly thankful I decided to take some risks in my career – once I got my Housing Qualification, I could have comfortably settled for climbing the career ladder in my organisation. I didn’t – I challenged myself to go to Australia, alone, with no home or job fixed up. I sold my house to help finance the trip and off I went! It was the best thing I ever did, and has taught me that taking risks brings rewards, as long as you have a bit of common sense!
- What do you think are the most important qualities for success in business?
Being true to yourself, having a passion for what you do, and doing everything you can to encourage talent. Taff runs because I have amazing people here, many with far better skills than I have. But by working together, and sharing our strengths, we are successful.
- What advice would you give to anyone thinking of starting a business?
Make sure you have a market, so do your research. Scrutinise the financials – if it doesn’t stack up, don’t do it. Then think very carefully about how to sell what you have – simplicity is the key. Some of the stuff I’ve been involved with over the years has been really complex – if we could have nailed the message in one sentence, it would have taken away some of the grind!
- What are your top three tips for success?
Work hard, recruit good people, make the message clear.
- What’s your thoughts on the recent EU referendum results?
Taff is a-political, so I have to be careful on this one. I don’t think the vote was helpful as it has exposed what looks like a divided country. As an organisation working in ethnically diverse communities, our job is to help promote cohesion rather than division. Thankfully, Cardiff has a proud record of different communities working together, and Taff continues to be part of that. Economically, we’re not affected by exchange rates as we don’t trade overseas, however, the general economic climate impacts on us in all sorts of ways. Uncertainty affects our borrowing rates – every % point extra in interest rates costs us £140,000 more in loan repayments. We have better ways to spend that money!
- What do you think Wales’ strengths and weaknesses are as a place to do business?
Being a relatively small geographical area, the networks are superb. The changes that devolution has brought about in Housing Policy has seen Wales becoming a very attractive re-location option for English Housing Colleagues. We have such amazing access to politicians and policy here, and the Welsh Ministers have shown they listen and understand what our sector contributes to health, social care, the economy as well as Housing. Sometimes we can be a bit inward looking, but on the whole Wales is a great place to do business.
- What can Wales do to attract more inward investment?
I think we need to show the world our ‘can do ‘attitude by investing in skills that are ‘future proof’. There are great examples in life sciences, technology and sustainability, but our service sectors, too, are up for innovation – bring it on!