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In the spotlight with Thomas Martin

09 June 2024

This month we put the spotlight on Thomas Martin, chairman of Arco and winner of the 2024 Safety & Health Excellence Awards Lifetime Achievement award.

How did you get into the health and safety industry?

The Martin family first entered the business back in 1907, so it is in my blood in many respects. After university, I spent a few years working for an advertising agency, before joining Arco in 1988 as the fourth generation of the family. I then worked my way around the business, gaining valuable experience as trading director (safety), supply chain director, and then became joint managing director in 2002 with my cousin Jo. In 2017, I took up the role of non-executive chairman, my 8th leadership role within the company.

What do you enjoy most about your job?

I’ve always been passionate about keeping people safe at work, and I’d like to think that I have made a meaningful contribution to making this happen throughout Arco and the Industry over the years, but there is a lot more yet to do.

No longer Arco’s lead, as non-executive chairman, I am heavily involved in our public affairs work, through which we help shape the UK's safety agenda to ensure workers are safe at work. We continue to contribute to some of the key national debates on health and safety regulation, product quality and standards, PPE procurement and emergency planning. We’ve earned the right to our voice, and we use it responsibly.

What do you think are the biggest challenges facing the health and safety industry in the UK?

Recent economic challenges, with new ways of working, new industries emerging, new technologies and risks, mixed with a change in expectations from our workforces have made life “interesting”. 

Threats to consumer safety have also come about with the growth of the digital economy, post-Brexit regulatory changes, and the continued reliance on a fragmented system of regulation, monitoring and enforcement for product safety. We must protect the UK’s record on health and safety leadership from uninformed changes with unexpected consequences .

How do you think these challenges can be overcome?

We need to look at the structures that protect us from everyday risk from substandard goods and unscrupulous businesses. It is also important to continue to learn from the experiences of the pandemic to ensure the country can be better prepared for future emergencies.

Arco's position paper “Towards a Safer Future” is our vision for a world-leading, modern product safety framework that is effective in a digital economy and more resilient for future emergencies. It looks at the current challenges and makes a series of recommendations, focusing on harnessing innovation and expertise, and building a system that is easy to navigate but harder to circumvent.

What sets Arco apart from its competitors?

Our 140 years of experience of industry delivered through a team of experts with an unrivalled combination of specialist safety knowledge across many different sectors. 

We are the only safety partner to deliver a strategic end-to-end approach to safety. Our joined-up safety solutions leave no room for gaps in safety management, tailoring the right combination of products and services for our customers. 

Our focus on product quality is real, and not just a tick-box exercise. Our UKAS-accredited product assurance laboratory puts us at the forefront of compliance across all sectors.

We also pride ourselves on being a responsible choice, helping to secure a safer future by being more sustainable in how we develop and deliver products and services and how we work with customers and partners.

These are all long-term strategic elements that you would expect from a family-owned business that thinks in the same cycle – no public quarterly reporting consequences here.

What are your most memorable successes at Arco?

When it gets really nasty, we get involved: SARS, swine flu, bird flu, and I’m particularly proud of our work supporting frontline health workers responding to the Ebola crisis in 2015, and the work we carried out during the Covid-19 pandemic, in very difficult circumstances. 

Other career highlights include innovations in supply chain management, product development that shaped the industry, and the chance to work with, whilst learning from, some exceptional talent. Then, using these experiences to educate both government and opposition has allowed me to do more to protect more, joining up my work and my passion. 

On a personal level, I was proud to be named runner-up Entrepreneur of the Year in 2007, losing to a manufacturer - we were their biggest customer! Receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award at the recent Safety and Health Excellence Awards was a huge honour, as was being voted UK’s best family business in 2010 and 2021.

What’s next in the product pipeline for Arco?

Sustainability will continue to be a focus, as we explore different ways in which we can help our customers make responsible choices. We have already made huge strides in this area, particularly with our Responsible range of workwear and PPE. That’s great for our customers, for us and for the planet.

What’s your vision for the future of Arco?

Our chief executive, Guy Bruce, and his team are focused on the things that make us stand out from our competitors: brand heritage, joined-up safety solutions, unrivalled expertise and experience, and commitment to sustainability.

We see huge potential for growth, building on this unique position as a joined-up safety solutions partner and true experts in safety.

Our ESG agenda will also be key, not just in the sustainability of our product range, but in every part of our business, as outlined in A Safe Tomorrow, our plan to help secure a safer future for businesses, people and the planet. 

I have absolutely no doubt that Arco will continue to be a leader in safety for many, many years to come.

What do you think the medium-term future holds for the safety industry globally?

Too many already see safety of people as a bolt-on product offer, and too few really understand what is at stake. That is only going to increase, and I my biggest fear is a rapid aggregation of standards, expectations and lack of compliance. That’s just not on. You cannot play “the odds” with people’s lives. 

I hope that the responsible providers will continue to add their expertise to whatever boxes are being pushed through their supply chains. We know our role. 

What health and safety issues are you most passionate about?

We risk becoming a commodity sector, with global brands and channels supplying the now, but perhaps having insufficient regard for shaping the future. I simply cannot allow a dilution of safety on my watch, and that is the fear that keeps me energised. 

There are multiple unintended consequences of political interference, and I’ve been active in both sides of both Houses at Westminster. It’s about resources, standards and educating whoever is in command that safety must not be diluted. I also remain excited at real innovation in processes, products, people and services: there’s plenty of that in the day job!

How can we entice more young talent to work in the health and safety sector?

This is a mature, exciting industry that really makes a difference to people’s lives: literally. There are multiple career pathways available, and this is a “big village” where people move through channels, brands and sectors. If you are good, you will be noticed! 

We need an easier-to-manage apprentice scheme, and a recalibration that responsible health and safety isn’t about red tape and stopping people doing things; it’s about understanding what you want to do, and then providing the training and the kit to allow you to do this safely. 

People need to harness their passion for the industry, and how it can be deployed. Too often, it’s assumed this is understood. Get this right, demonstrate innovation, strategy, education, and career pathways, and you will win the race for talent: it’s as easy as that.

The 5th generation of the Martin family is now in the business, so we’d better follow the blueprint for success.

Thomas Martin​ is chairman of Arco. For more information, visit www.arco.co.uk