The In-house Elites: 'I’ve had to roll up my sleeves and do the doing’

Sophie Timms has brought an array of skills to her pivotal, wide-ranging and strategic role as corporate affairs director at construction company Kier Group.

Sophie Timms, corporate affairs director at construction business Kier Group.
Sophie Timms, corporate affairs director at construction business Kier Group.

Room readers and mood musicians: two expressions used by Sophie Timms, corporate affairs director at construction business Kier Group, to describe roles like hers in big companies today.

“We read the room, we understand where the drivers of public opinion and perception are, and we feed that into a company – to help it deliver on its strategy or develop its strategy.”

Having a seat at the top table is crucial for Timms, who joined Kier’s executive committee when promoted to her current role in May, seven months after joining the FTSE 250-listed business as public affairs director. The newly expanded position covers government relations and comms, including internal comms.

There are plenty of rooms that Timms and her team of about 40 need to read.

Hospitals, schools, prisons and vital infrastructure

With construction projects ranging from hospitals to schools, prisons and vital infrastructure work including rail, road and utilities projects – and with 80 per cent of its customer base being the government – it’s difficult to think of a UK company with more complicated external relations needs.

Kier Group projects: The Luton Dart project at Luton Airport

Engagement with national and local media, government depart­ments, councils and public bodies are all priorities for Kier Group, which employed 10,757 people and generated revenue of £3.3bn in 2020/21. Trade bodies, MPs and campaign groups also need to be kept in the loop.

“All of that is done to make sure people feel connected and understand what’s coming – because nobody likes surprises,” says Timms.

“That’s why it’s good to have this role on the exco, because you are assimilating the viewpoint of multiple stakeholders on any given topic. You have that peripheral vision that you understand where the drivers are coming on something you might be planning strategically. I think that’s really vital – that role, compared to some of the other roles on the exco, really does have that broad line of sight to input to the work the company is doing.”

On-site at Paisley Museum to transform the historic building

Peripheral vision is another term Timms uses frequently as we talk. She seems a good fit for the strengthened corporate affairs role, given her varied experience – although she describes public affairs as her “home discipline”, having studied politics at university before joining the Federation of Small Businesses as a policy assistant.

“There were lots of meetings with government departments, officials and ministers. That was really good grounding.”

Mission creep

She then spent 17 years at Zurich Insurance, entering in 2003 as government and industry affairs manager as the company founded its public affairs function. “The Swiss business had merged with some UK financial services arms… there was a lot of new regulation; the FSA [Financial Services Authority] was being set up. The company realised it needed to pay attention to government and to regulation.”

‘Mission creep’ set in. CSR, then external comms, were added to Timms’ remit before she became UK head of corporate affairs. She agrees that corporate comms and public affairs are now intrinsically linked – “It needs to be,” she says. “Ultimately you’re the manager of the message; the audience is different, and you have to tailor it to different audiences – but the message remains the same, and if it’s not you often have a problem.

“That’s not just the message to the government or to the media, it’s to customers, it’s to the general public. You need that oversight of the whole thing. And that’s why I think it’s now so core in the corporate world.”

The importance of government relations in Timms’ role can’t be overstated. Kier is one of 38 strategic suppliers to the government, which means “close and continuous” conversations with the Cabinet Office. Given the variety of projects the group undertakes, it’s also a role that spans multiple government departments.

In practice, her team’s work touches on huge investment projects to help the Government’s pandemic recovery and ‘levelling up’ efforts, alongside specific local investments.

St Sidwell's Point Leisure Centre in Exeter

Underlying it all is the sustainability agenda and net-zero targets. Timms gives the example of St Sidwell's Point Leisure Centre in Exeter – Kier is building the UK’s first leisure centre to Passivhaus standards for ultra-low carbon emissions.

A shared enterprise

At Zurich, her corporate affairs chief role sat under marketing, whereas Timms refers to marketing at Kier as a “shared enterprise” between her team and commercial directors. There’s no chief marketing officer – no surprise, given that it is not a consumer-facing business.

“Eighty per cent of Kier’s customer base is the Government, so marketing needs are different. A lot of our work is done through our tenders. We have a number of bid-writers, who I suppose act in a sort-of pseudo-marketing function.

“Every company does it differently,” she continues. “It’s unlike other functions that are broadly the same wherever you go. I report straight to the CEO, which is fantastic, but not everybody does, and in my life in corporate affairs I’ve pretty much reported to everyone, including HR, operations, legal – you name it.”

The past couple of years have been challenging for Kier Group, and not just due to COVID-19. We speak as the business comes to the end of its two-year transformation strategy, announced in June 2019. Among other things, this has involved a fall in staff numbers by 1,700 and prompted the £110m sale of the loss-making housebuilding arm, Kier Living, to cut debt.

The transformation of Granton station in Edinburgh

Recent trading has been encouraging, however; after we spoke, the group announced a return to profit in the year to 30 June 2021 – pre-tax profit was £5.6m compared to a £225.3m loss in the previous year.

Agencies

Kier retains FTI Consulting for corporate and investor comms, with some support on sustainability from specialist consultancy Sancroft. Timms describes the company’s agency relationships as “quite light-touch”.

“Frankly, I came to Kier when it was in a turnaround phase, which means I’ve had to roll my sleeves up and do the doing. It also means that I haven’t got endless budgets to throw at agencies or new people, and that’s fine; we’re in a really good place now.”

She says there’s “absolutely a place” for agencies, but adds: “I don’t think you can outsource the whole piece because you need that level of granularity that being in the business gives you.”

Timms joined Kier just as the UK’s coronavirus ‘second wave’ took hold last autumn. Has her role changed during COVID-19?

Definitely,” she says. “The pandemic, more than anything, has demonstrated what corporate affairs directors need. They have to be on top of the message at all times, to have that ability to react and respond to emerging things that are happening in a very short news cycle, but also making sure you keep your eye on the horizon – and you have that peripheral vision.

“It’s that balance between short-term/long-term thinking – staying cool and calm on both fronts.”

Even at the height of the COVID-19 crisis, issues like climate change, cyber-attacks, and diversity and inclusion could not be ignored.

The latter is a particular focus for Timms, who has been passionate about supporting the rollout of Kier Group’s five-year ‘diversity roadmap’, which was launched this summer. The strategy includes the group implementing ethnicity pay gap reporting in the next 12 to 18 months (and the topic is a major focus of the PRWeek Pay Gap project).

“[Diversity and inclusion] is a huge passion of mine and I think it is now a strategic agenda item – and it needs to be,” says Timms, who has agreed to sponsor Kier’s Racial Equality Network. “I thought we’d made good progress as a corporate body politic, but there were signs that the pandemic put the brakes on that slightly. I don’t think we can afford to do that.

“I talk about peripheral vision – during the pandemic, we also had the George Floyd moment, and we must not use pandemics to pause progress on these vital topics.”

Timms is clearly comfortable with fingers in different pies, and it’s no surprise she is suited to the strengthened corporate affairs position.

Does she see this combined comms/public affairs role as a model for the future?

“I do think it’s right to combine them, but I also know that everything in life is cyclical,” Timms says. “It may not last, but I think it makes sense to stay as it is, because it is that ability to bring all those things together and come up with solutions… in a coordinated fashion.

“I’m really pleased for the profession that it’s now been recognised as a seat at the exco table. We operate in a 24/7 news and political cycle and you don’t have a lot of time, so it’s important to make sure you’re agile and nimble enough to respond to things that happen.”

Now read: Meet the In-house Elites

Now read: The In-house Elites: 'The road is endless for comms leaders’

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