The Housing Collective: Facing Challenges as a Housing Industry CEO

6 mins
Tom Neely

By Tom Neely

The fourth episode of the Housing Collective podcast, delivered in partnership with crowdfunding platform Beam, sees Neemar Search founder Tom Neely meeting with David McQuade, CEO of Flagship Housing Group, which collectively manages around 32,000 homes, serving the East of England, including Cambridgeshire, Norfolk, Suffolk, and Essex. 

In this first blog exploring the podcast, we speak with David about his journey to becoming a CEO and how he continues to challenge himself, even after 15 years in the role. 

If you’d like to learn more about the Housing Collective podcast or you’re searching for more impactful leadership lessons, make sure to check out our founder’s recent open letter, in which he details the Neemar Search mission statement and highlights the crucial aspects that we believe will make the housing sector and the communities within it stronger, more resilient, and more capable of driving positive change. 

From the Repairs Desk to Group CEO: David’s Journey

David began his tenure in the housing industry in 1981, working as a trainee on the repairs desk of a city housing firm, focusing on maintaining Glasgow’s at-the-time 180,000 properties. As part of this early section of his career, he studied for a degree in housing with the University of Glasgow—a great educational foundation for his later efforts as CEO, as we’ll soon see. 

In his own words, David was lucky to begin working with other departments responsible for housing in the rapidly growing Glasgow, allowing him to develop a robust, comprehensive understanding of the needs of tenants and homeowners. 

"Deprivation, poverty, and disrepair were pretty severe in parts of Glasgow at that time... coming to Tunbridge Wells, it was a slightly more affluent area... but what I realised very quickly was there were really pressing housing issues in both places... affordability was a huge issue, even then."

Moving to Kent in 1988, he continued his work with housing associations before settling in Suffolk in 1993—finding a role as a Director of Housing with Suffolk Heritage, a stock transfer association. In 1998, Suffolk Heritage merged with Great Eastern Housing Group, forming the organisation we now know as Flagship Group. Within this freshly merged business, David began a new role as Group Director and Deputy Chief Executive before finally securing the Chief Executive Officer role in 2008. 

After over fifteen years of experience in the role of CEO, he continues to maintain resilience and ensure he’s ready to respond to challenges in much the same way as that young man working in Glasgow: a commitment to fitness, nutrition, a healthy night’s sleep, and lifestyle balance—ensuring he can keep perspective and learn something new every day.

"Work hard... be passionate about what you do, be open-minded, listen carefully—you're learning every day of the week. In all of that, a big dose of humility, because you're only as good as the team around you."

Flagship has since grown to incorporate an in-house maintenance team alongside Gasway, a heating and gas appliances firm, each with a retail element focused on commercial lines of activity. David and his colleagues aim to use their expertise to make a difference in the lives of tenants and their communities. To this end, they employ over 1500 people, leveraging apprenticeships as part of a comprehensive talent strategy to bring ambitious, motivated candidates on board. 

They’ve invested £240m since 2020 in building new homes, £103m in maintaining their housing stock, and £89m in improving properties. They continue to set their sights on ameliorating the housing crisis, building 800 properties in 2023 alone.

Alongside this focus on ensuring that the homes they provide are prepared for the future, they’ve also created a charity—Hopestead—in which they invest £1m per year to tackle homelessness in the East of England, working in close partnership with a range of organisations to tackle its root causes. 

15 Years of Experience and No Shortage of Challenges

When it comes to continuing to challenge himself as a Chief Executive Officer, David highlights that whilst the central issues around the housing industry may have shifted, much as in 1981—at the beginning of his career—there still remains a range of issues which CEOs within the sector must face as an everyday reality. 

Affordability, homelessness, a lack of housing supply—all of which have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent long phase of recovery—and the cost of living crisis continue to have an impact on Flagship’s tenants, as well as their staff and the broader economy. 

Alongside a planned merger with bpha and Futures Housing Group—a 12-month process of deliberation and preparation—which failed to take root due to the cost-of-living crisis and geopolitical turmoil, recent years have seen David and his team’s focus shift to ensure that the condition of their housing stock remains high. 

"You need to accept things will go pear-shaped, you'll make decisions that don't work out. You've got to keep learning from it and try to make as many good ones as you can."

Issues around mould have been a major focus within the media, but alongside this, Britain’s ageing housing infrastructure is raising questions about sustainability and carbon reduction, especially as the government and other public bodies aim to achieve Net Zero goals. 

In essence, there’s no shortage of challenges to keep him on his toes. So, how does he maintain resilience in the face of the dynamic and fast pace of the housing industry? 

For David, it’s all about the team around him. It’s crucial for CEOs to surround themselves with great colleagues at all levels—from the board and executive team to group directors and individual leaders—which can help business leaders deal with the turbulence that is part and parcel of the sector at large. As a result of this robust team, he’s always able to learn, even from the things that don’t work out: 

“Flagship benefitted tremendously from seeing what bpha and Futures were up to... Although it didn't happen, hopefully we'll be stronger for it moving forward."

Whatever the challenge may be, David’s approach to leadership means that he relishes the opportunity to face problems head-on. His style as CEO is rooted in professional will, with determination and innovation crucial qualities to his attitude and methods. As a CEO, you’re bound to encounter things that go wrong—organisational life isn’t straightforward, so knowing how to deal with setbacks is just as vital as having a team in place that can support you through these periods.

"Surround yourself with a lot of people that are brighter than you."

Specialist Housing Executive Search Firm

Whether you’re a candidate making a career change or you’re a business leader searching for a seasoned expert within the housing industry, Neemar Search is here to support you.

If you’re interested in learning more about the challenges facing the housing sector or you’re searching for more leadership lessons, join the Housing Collective Newsletter for the latest expert insights.

We’re dedicated to partnering with leading not-for-profit housing associations, local authorities, arms-length management organisations (ALMOS), and for-profit enterprises to drive change within the industry through executive staffing solutions. Whether you require recruitment expertise within corporate or customer services, asset management, development, or finance, we can help you make an impact. 

Contact us to learn more about our specialist hiring services within the housing industry. 

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