Imagine this situation: you’re in your office and the phone rings, it’s upper management and they say “Hey, we’re going to be acquiring this company and it’s up to you to integrate them and get them up to speed with our health & safety program.”
Now, what do you do?
Thankfully, you will not need to panic or feel overwhelmed because I’ve got you covered.
Whether we like it or not, pursuing mergers and acquisitions (M&As) is one of the strategies that businesses take to grow and expand. So, as a Health & Safety practitioner, it’s important to know what to do in this type of situation because it may come across your path at one point or another in your career.
In episode 14 of the Transmit Safety Podcast, I chatted with Ashley Mckie, a CRSP, CHSC, and the Director of Safety for Venturis Capital Corporation, with more than 10 years of experience working in Health & Safety. In recent years, Ashley has been playing an important role in the merger and acquisition of several forklift dealerships across Canada and the US as the company she works at expands and she shared all about her experiences and the lessons she’s learned along the way that help make M&As as easy and stress-free as possible.
So, I have compiled all you need to know about mergers & acquisitions as a Health & Safety practitioner into this guide so you can be ready to go if you ever get that call. You’ll learn about:
- What you can do before the M&A takes place
- What should ideally be in place for a smoother integration
- How to deal with what the acquired company already has in place
- Navigating the human aspect of M&As
- The importance of continuous improvement
If you’re ready to discover how to kick ass when an M&A comes around, fill up that workplace-approved beverage of your choice and get reading!
1. What you can do before the M&A takes place
It’s key to acknowledge the fact that we, as health & safety practitioners, can’t necessarily change the M&A decision, but we can impact the strategy of how the merger will be implemented within the company.
In this case, a Health & Safety practitioner can add value to the process by looking at the potential liabilities of bringing in that business.
Some aspects to examine for red flags are the company’s
- Incident history → is it poor or good?
- Premiums → are they low or through the roof?
- Pending OHS investigations or stop work orders → are there any?
By identifying these types of red flags going into the M&A, you can make the overall process much smoother for everyone down the road.
This way the parent company and the Health & Safety team can guarantee that everyone is prepared for that liability or try to mitigate it upfront, making sure that it’s part of the plan to address it as soon as possible once the M&A paperwork is signed.
2. What should ideally be in place for a smoother integration
No M&A is ever the same and the process is indeed complex, but there are some things the Health & Safety team can have in place that can make the actual merging and integrating process much easier on both sides.
It’s also important to remember that having what we’re mentioning here set up in your company can be extremely beneficial for day-to-day operations, even without an M&A on the horizon.
a. A Simple Health & Safety program
So often you see companies that have a 5000-page manual and a super complicated Health & Safety program. However, the truth is that it should be simple to understand so that that knowledge can be easily transferable and applicable.
If someone goes “Oh, this is too hard” the second you hand them your manual, then you probably have a problem on your hands because you never want your policies to be so complicated, that somebody has an immediate resistance to them.
Not only that, if you can’t explain your own policy concisely and it doesn’t make sense or it puts people on their heels and makes them think that you don’t understand the work they do, you’re going to be dead in the water before you’ve gotten through the door.
So, it’s important to take a good hard look at the policies in place in your company and identify what processes can be streamlined, what is working, and what is not working, as well as the cases where the company’s own internal language is being used.
It is a lot of information to take in and a lot of things to implement, so be sure to make everything accessible, simple, and user-friendly.
The goal here is to have a Health & Safety program manual that can be read, understood, and safely put into practice even if the one reading it knows nothing about the organization and doesn’t have the Health & Safety team’s guidance and support (not that that would be the case). This way, the implementation process can be as easy and stress-free as possible for both parties.
b. Assessment Tools & Integration Plans
To quickly bring the acquired company up to speed with the parent company’s Health & Safety program, making sure it’s simple is not enough. You also need to know where they stand, that is if there are any formalized safety policies and procedures in place, if they have a designated safety person or team, and any safety concerns the business may have.
For this, it is important to develop good and thorough assessment tools. You should look through everything:
- their paperwork
- their program (if it exists or their current safety practices, if it doesn’t)
- any relevant indicators
- customer safety requirements
- their facilities (yes, even those third-party contractor sites)
- their equipment
Along with having this type of assessment ready to go, having an integration plan in place, with all the steps to your safety program listed out (yes, it’s supposed to be a very long list), is another thing that can make all the difference when bringing in a new company because it makes it easier to quickly identify gaps and fill them and alleviate the other company’s problems with your existing program.
3. How to deal with what the acquired company already has in place
When you do your thorough assessment of the incoming company, you may find that they have developed good policies and procedures, that they have a certain level of formality around their program, and that they either have a health and safety person on staff or someone who knows the business very well.
The idea here is not to supplant what they already have with the parent company’s corporate program. Remember that the goal of an M&A is to bring in a new business and have a bigger and better company at the end of it. So, as the merger takes place it is important to look for ways to integrate both the new company and the parent company with the best results in mind. The focus should be on looking for opportunities to help, to guide, and to bring forth the best practices from each side.
This is a great opportunity for improvement for everyone. So, if they have something better, more specific, or even clearer and simpler than what you have in place, it’s only natural that you should adopt that and bring it into your own program.
Sometimes acquiring a new business also means bringing in new activities or new local requirements and it’s necessary to incorporate what they already had in place to incorporate into your program to make sure you address the hazards of that new scope of work.
There’s also a lot of potential when it comes to the employees who come from the acquired company. Ashley related that two really key members of her Health & Safety team came as a result of M&As.
The good news here is that it’s not necessary for the incoming employees to specifically work with health & safety. In Ashley’s case, one of the employees did have a safety background and the other didn’t but had an operational background, so if they either understand safety really well or the business really well they can be great additions to your team because both of those lend well to training the other half of that equation.
4. Navigating the human aspect of M&As
When going into an acquisition, obviously, no amount of reassurance will override human nature to be worried and concerned about change. Those who work in the acquired company don’t know exactly what’s going to happen, they don’t know if everybody will stay on or if cuts will be made, and they don’t know if roles and teams will change or stay as they are.
That’s a lot of uncertainty, and it takes its toll. Especially, at the beginning of the integration period where change is kind of a moving target with all the different departments descending on the acquired business trying to implement their portion.
You obviously can’t go in dictating and demanding, that’s just not going to get you anywhere. The focus here should be on relationship building, to make sure that you can partner with the incoming organization rather than dominate. So, it’s really important to have the support of some key players in this transitionary period: the senior management team, who will set the tone for how the integration will take place, and maybe, even more importantly, the change agents from both sides that will champion the necessary changes.
To build these necessary relationships with those people coming from acquisitions and have a smoother integration for everyone, Ashley recommends that you:
- put yourself in their shoes and seek to understand where they’re coming from
- be very kind
- clearly explain what you are trying to do, to minimize concerns
- be flexible and open to change
- be very transparent, to avoid misunderstandings
- understand how they typically do things and what’s working well
- figure out where you can provide value to what they’re currently struggling with
- do your best to guide and support them and alleviate possible headaches
Ultimately, if you don’t take care of the people, it’s really hard to take care of the rest of the business. So, be sure to truly take the time to focus on this aspect of the M&A.
5. The importance of continuous improvement
Every policy and program is always a work-in-progress, so your Health & Safety program should always be living, breathing, and evolving. All of this makes continuous improvement essential to ensure workers go home safely every day.
In practice, this looks like always being open to discussing what’s working and what’s not working and making the necessary changes. This also looks like working really hard to find ways to make everything simpler, clearer, and more streamlined, even if it means redoing something completely.
Ashley’s team is not perfect and they don’t know everything either, but they’ve spent the last 10 years really developing their program and getting it to a point where it’s accessible, simple, and user-friendly. To achieve this, they spend a lot of time on continuous improvement every year, and they make sure to look at every policy they have on at least a three-year basis.
One very important aspect of ensuring your program truly serves its purpose is keeping up with legislation, especially if the M&A expands not only the size of the company but also the locations where it operates.
We know that just being on top of the legislation changes is something that can be a full-time job for a larger company, where you need to monitor and keep track of all the legislation and regulation updates across multiple jurisdictions and regions.
So, here are some things that Ashley’s team does to keep up with the changes across Canada and the US:
- Stay close to the regulators, subscribe to their newsletters, and keep an eye on what’s going on
- Try to attend whenever there’s a public forum for feedback on regulations that apply to your company
- Try to participate in the direction of regulations where you can
- Have people either within your team or within your network that are experts in their territories, this way they get to keep an eye on the nuances of different regulations and different things that are happening on the ground
- Take the highest standard between the jurisdictions where you work and use it as the bare minimum standard for the whole company. As other regions catch up to that change your company will be ready and you’ll also be able to keep your program consistent across the board, ensuring that people aren’t confused by what the policies say no matter the location they work at
If nothing else, make sure to take this with you:
- You are only one piece of the puzzle, so remember that you are dealing with people and that most of them have a lot of other concerns that go beyond just your Health & Safety program
- People don’t like change, as we are wired to not enjoy it. So, know that you are taking somebody out of their comfort zone, and be sure to approach it without judgment
- Seek first to understand, be compassionate, provide value and support, be flexible and open to change, and, most importantly, keep everything as simple and clear as you possibly can
- Try to build the relationships early on, if you can, to support what you need to do
- Simplify your Health & Safety program so it can be as close to plug and play and effective as possible. Make it accessible, make it make sense, and make it approachable, so that their participation and adoption is easy
Thank you for being part of the Transmit Safety network.
I hope these lessons will be valuable to you and help you on your journey to become the Health and Safety leader you want to be!
To dive deeper into Ashley’s experiences with M&As, the lessons she learned along the way, how she got to where she is today, and some truly valuable advice for Health & Safety practitioners who are isolated and don’t have a Health & Safety team in their organizations, tune in to episode 14 of the Transmit Safety Podcast – Navigating Mergers & Acquisitions As A Health & Safety Professional With Ashley Mckie.
To continue discovering ways to achieve a holistic approach to workplace health and safety, and become an impactful Health and Safety leader, make sure to tune into the next episodes of the Transmit Safety Podcast.