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Case study: Simon Woodhams - PFI CEO

Case study: Simon Woodhams - PFI CEO

A story of exponential business growth and a leadership evolution

Property for Industry Limited (PFI) is a professional landlord servicing the New Zealand industrial sector with over 5,000 shareholders and a portfolio of 96 properties valued at over $2 billion dollars. Listed since 1994, PFI is a high-performing and trusted property fund backed by consistent results. 

In recent years PFI underwent a significant growth cycle doubling its portfolio size from $1 to $2 billion, along with this growth several new and vocal competitors entered the market. Simon Woodhams, CEO of PFI, recognised the need for change both in relation to his role as CEO and the business itself. PFI moved from a small to medium sized entity and the organisation’s structures, processes and workforce needed to adapt to the new internal and external conditions. 

Upon the recommendation of a PFI board member, Simon was introduced to FrontTier and together they have gone on to create impactful leadership programmes for the senior and emerging leadership teams. Simon’s role also required reprioritisation placing a greater emphasis on ambassadorship and future growth. Working directly with FrontTier’s Steven Colligan , Simon has expanded his personal objectives and overall purview as PFI’s CEO. 

The leadership programmes created by Simon and FrontTier have focused on re-engineering company processes to improve cohesion across the business and to encourage a re-orientation of management priorities to ensure optimal infrastructure is in place to support PFI’s continuing growth and prosperity.  

 

Laying the foundation for change

We’ve always had a very strong culture,” Simon says. “Over the last few years we undertook staff engagement scores, and according to the survey company, we have received some of the highest scores they have seen - well up in the 80s.

So, from a cultural perspective nothing is or has been broken but it comes back to the point of scaling. Will the culture be the same if we were to move from 25 to 60 staff? And how do you preserve the culture when you are not there?”

Working with consulting firm KPMG the PFI leadership team looked at their strategic planning and what soon became apparent was the opportunity for PFI to scale.

We were challenged by KPMG, and it opened my eyes to the opportunities of scaling but also the question of how you do that successfully,” Simon says. “Most of us have come from entrepreneurial backgrounds where we have done the development work for the fund and are very hands on in the business. But to scale, people like me cannot have a finger in every pie, you have to empower people to get involved.

And so, armed with a strong performance record, happy workforce and significant market potential, Simon set about further developing the PFI leadership team’s (and his own) capabilities.  

 

Working with FrontTier to unlock potential

It all began with a coffee between Simon and Steven and grew from there. FrontTier partner closely with their clients to co-create programmes tailored to what they actually need. And as needs evolve, so too do the programmes.

Steven and Glenys came highly recommended,” Simon explains. “We started with a two/three workshop on diversity, and it all went very well. I then reached out to Steven for some executive coaching as I liked his style.

We are now coming up on 18 months and have been running a senior leadership programme with FrontTier and this year we have also introduced an emerging leaders programme.”

Simon admits he didn’t know what to expect when PFI first embarked on its journey with FrontTier and what exactly they would get out of it, but the relationship has resulted in a comprehensive programme for the PFI team. One that Simon says, “everyone is very complimentary about, and I feel like we’ve done something very good, very good for the team.”

The senior leadership group, which is made up of four executives, undertake quarterly half-day workshops with FrontTier and receive individual coaching from Glenys and Steven. The emerging leadership programme commenced this year and includes seven managers from across the business.

The feedback from the senior leadership group last year had been very positive, and when I asked the team if they wanted to finish the workshops, letting them know we could if they wanted, everyone was adamant we should not only keep the workshops but roll it out through the rest of the business,” Simon says.

 

A programme with tangible outcomes

FrontTier work to develop participants’ soft skills in line with the organisation’s objectives and as a starting point they reference research and use psychometrics.

It is quite interesting, Steven and Glenys did strength analysis in our initial sessions. I have done psychometric tests in the past, I think most of us had, and so we were not surprised with what came out, but it is a good process to have done,” Simon says. “You begin with a set of results and once you start to break that down and understand it, you can really use it.”

According to Simon, the four senior leaders in PFI’s executive team have very different personalities and are all high-performing individuals, and so an important part of the leadership programme was making sure the team was aligned.

We’ve been challenged to set goals, the four of us as a team, and while it is not perfect straight away there has been a definite change in the way we communicate and how we work together,” Simon says.

Clarity between the four of us has become evident. There’s been a shift in the way the senior leadership team talks together and directs together.”

As PFI’S senior leadership team progress plans for the organisation’s ambitious growth strategy there has been a recognition, as individuals, they have limited bandwidth.

In support of these growth objectives and keeping on track, we’ve got to have a business that can handle multiple major transactions and be able to take advantage of opportunities that arise and not be reliant on my involvement, for example. The whole senior leadership team cannot be there all the time,” Simon explains.

How do you grow that resource over time? Being small we are very agile, but we need to infuse the results we have established over the last five years throughout the whole organisation. And so, we need to develop the next layer of people and motivate them.”

PFI’s emerging leadership programme was launched at the beginning of 2024 and Simon says the group has provided positive feedback, stating they see real value in the programme.

Working with FriontTier it is very flexible and a joint effort, as the client you get to set the agenda.”

 

Why Simon believes in leadership development

While not one for “fluffy, wordy” things, Simon does believe in coaching.

“I look at it this way, you can train and improve your physical fitness so why would you not look to improve/train your mind?” Personally, it has made me more self-aware not just around my limitations, but my strengths that I didn’t necessarily lean into.”

With changing market dynamics and new competitors at play, PFI needed to evolve, and this included Simon’s own role in the business. In the past, Simon prioritised hands-on involvement in the business and declined speaking opportunities, industry governance roles and so on. But as PFI’s trajectory rises, he acknowledges PR is an important vehicle for communicating their reputation to the market. This is something Simon is working on with FrontTier.

It is all part of the continued growth story for PFI, raising our profile to ensure we continue to be a market leader.”

At the end of the day a business’s success boils down to its people and PFI’s team is a relatively small one, this makes cohesion across the business vital.

When you are in an office of say 60, people can avoid a person they don’t get on with, but that is difficult in a team of 25,” Simon says.

We work with FrontTier on things like ‘courageous conversations’, facing topics you are not comfortable with. It’s easy to avoid conflict if you don’t like something. It is about learning to say uncomfortable things in a respectful, honest and empathic way.”

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