David Ferrabee is busy rec_ounting a story. The story is a familiar one given the global economic meltdown, and involves employees being made redundant in their local BHS coffee shop. ‘The company wanted to get people off the premises when laying them off,’ says Ferrabee. ‘Plus tea only costs 40p in BHS, so they did not have to spend too much.’
The former Hill & Knowlton head of change and internal comms has several such horror stories that he can recount, collected during 15-odd years in the industry. He is speaking from his office at his own internal comms shop Able and How, which he launched late last year.
The agency is co-founded by former H&K senior consultant Paul Arnold. ‘It seemed like a good time to start this type of business,’ says Ferrabee. ‘Although time will tell whether opening our doors a week before Lehman Brothers collapsed was a very good idea. But we are still here four months later and we started with three people and now we have six, so hopefully it is not a bad decision.’
Given the current economic climate, Ferrabee believes internal comms can help minimise the impact on a business
if implemented well: ‘The damage to the organisation can be long-lasting when the planning and execution is not done well.’
He compares the current perception of redundancy to a ‘grim reaper coming to your town and he is just going to show
up at your door and you are going to be killed’. Ferrabee’s job, he says, is to show businesses that it should not be like
that, because informing staff what is happening, and when, can help them to prepare emotionally.
Recent reports suggesting Woolworths employees found out the company was closing by watching the news highlight exactly what Ferrabee believes companies should avoid.
Ferrabee’s authority on this subject also derives partly from his own experience, having been through a redundancy earlier in his career. Of particular significance is his belief that the internal comms discipline itself needs a reputation boost.
‘Most of our clients do not know they have a problem, and if they do know, they have no idea where to go to get an answer,’ he says. ‘It would be great if we could make our business better understood.’
What is clear is that internal comms is increasingly being recognised as an important part of a business’ structure. Fifteen years ago only 20 per cent of the FTSE 100 companies had an internal comms head. Now, according to Ferrabee, there is only one company still without one .
‘I think if you look at all 99 of those people they would be doing very different things. Some are essentially media managers who run magazines and intranets. Some are the CEOs’ assistants, who write their speeches and follow them around carrying their jackets.
Others will sit in meetings and find solutions to business problems. It is a whole variety of things.’
The problem, he believes, is that there is not the agreed training for internal comms that there is for PR. ‘There are lots of courses you can do in change management and HR. But there is a whole business sitting between that, which is where we end up.’
Able and How MD Arnold says that what sets Ferrabee apart as a consultant is his compassion for people: ‘He recognises the importance of people in business. He is the very opposite of a hierarchical pompous manager and is incredibly modest.’
Despite his passion, Ferrabee’s modesty shines throughout the interview. He claims to have ‘no recognisable skills
except experience’. When growing up he went to nine schools, in six cities, in three continents and he jokes: ‘I studied the French Revolution three times in two different languages and I still do not know a thing about it.’
Though born in Canada, he has lived as long out of the country as he has in it, but has failed to develop a fake English accent. ‘Although when I go back to Canada, people point out I say brilliant and lovely a lot. They assume I work in the theatre or something.’
He is also a man of big ambitions. It appears that drumming up business for Able and How is not enough. ‘I am excited about what we are doing now. Not only are we building a business but we are trying to help build an industry.’
Building an industry based on employee relations at a time when there are more people being laid off than any time since the Second World War. Let’s hope Ferrabee likes a challenge.
David Ferrabee’s turning points
What was your biggest career break?
My first consultancy offered me a job and when I said ‘I do not really understand what you do’, they said ‘Don’t worry, we know we can teach you that.’ And consultancy is a bit like that. Curious, clever people can really make a difference in consultancy.
What advice would you give to anyone climbing the career ladder?
Do not assume you know what you want to be when you grow up. We do not all get to be firemen and doctors. There are lots and lots of jobs in business that you will love and your mum may never understand.
Have you a notable mentor?
I get great advice from all sorts of people. My all-time favourite has got to be US president Lyndon B Johnson (who I didn’t know!) who said: ‘Only speak when it improves the silence.’ We could all do with a bit of that.
What do you prize in new recruits?
We have always looked for people who do not know how good they are. At Able and How we have a view that we hire ‘nothing but stars’. But the subtext to that is that you also cannot think you are precious, or too clever.
2008 MD, Able and How, London
2005 MD, change & internal comms, Hill & Knowlton, London
2004 Senior consultant, Synopsis Communication Consulting, London
1998 Consultant, Towers Perrin, Montreal
1996 Senior editor, International Air Transport Association, Montreal
1992 Director of comms, Alliance Quebec, Montreal
1989 Special assistant, minister of supply and services, Government of Canada, Ottawa
1988 News desk copy editor, Montreal Daily News, Montreal