A poor upbringing – including a period of homelessness – has had an enormous bearing on the career of Tom Murtha.
The Midland Heart chief executive experienced the heartache of losing his family home as a teenager and the instability that caused remains with him.
Mr Murtha, who has risen through the ranks of the social housing sector, said he is more passionate than ever that the most vulnerable of society are not left out in the cold as the country enters a stage of politics where the only certainty is public funding cuts.
And he is in a position to help, as Midland Heart currently manages more than 32,000 properties across the region.
He said: “I grew up in Leicester in a loving yet poor family.
“After my dad passed away in 1997 we worked out that he’d had 57 jobs in his life time.
“He was someone that was good at getting jobs but not very good at keeping them.
“When I was 13 years old he was working in an off-licence with tied-accommodation.
“We lived in a two-bedroom flat above the shop so when my dad lost this job, we also lost our home.
“We spent the next six months living with relatives. I think we lived in about five different places over that time and every day my dad would go to the council and ask if they could house us. He was a very determined man and eventually the council found us a home.
“I craved stability while we were living with relatives and was adamant I would remain at my current school. I remember riding seven miles there and back daily just so I had a sense of permanence about something in my life. It’s very unsettling to be homeless and is not something to be wished on anyone”.
It was these early defining moments that went on to shape Mr Murtha’s career.
Even as a teenager his social values were deeply entrenched and he knew he wanted to be involved in something that helped those less fortunate than others.
“I left school at 16. I had dreams of being a footballer or a teacher but on the advice of a careers counsellor who said I was good at maths, I took a traineeship as an accountant,” he said.
Mr Murtha did this for two years before deciding to complete A-levels.
He went on in 1976, to complete a degree in history at Goldsmiths College and then a postgraduate certificate in education.
Unusually for a student, he married his wife Vishva, a Kenyan Asian asylum seeker, during his first year of study. They went on to have a son, Kieran.
It was also as a student, that his political views were manifested through his campaigning activity.
“I was chair of the student union and involved in lobbying for left wing causes,” Mr Murtha said.
“This meant I couldn’t get a job as a teacher so I took my first step into social housing through employment in the Leicester City urban renewal team.
“I continued my interest in politics and became an active trade unionist, fighting for better working rights.”
Mr Murtha went on to become a regional officer for the National Housing Federation in 1980 after a period at Coventry Churches Housing Association.
During this time he was on a panel that wrote the first piece of guidance on race and housing.
This document sought to bring the issues of institutionalised racism to the fore, and ensure equitable access to housing for people from all walks of life.
Three years later he joined Moseley and District Housing Association as deputy director.
He said: “My working life has been driven by a passion for social housing which reaches back to my roots of living in council accommodation. I have been fortunate enough to progress through the ranks of housing organisations but some of my career moves have been better than others.
“I moved to Moseley and District thinking that I would become the chief executive within two years on the retirement of the incumbent.
“This was not to be and on reflection I wasn’t ready for such a position of leadership.
“I learned a great deal over the next few years from influential, socially principled and inspiring individuals. The most notable thing I learned was to be true to your values and leave your ego at the door.
“I’ve always appreciated the worth of the people I have worked with and my colleagues at this time made it even more apparent to me that your team should be your most valuable asset. I think it’s important to invest in them so they can deliver what your customers want and need.”
Mr Murtha furthered his career with a move to Merseyside Improved Houses – now Riverside – in 1988 as executive director under the inspirational Barry Natton.
He stayed there for eight years and at the time of leaving was responsible for half of their property portfolio.
“After Merseyside I decided I wanted to move back to the Midlands. At the time, Midland Area Housing Association was under supervision from the Housing Corporation for poor performance and it faced some tough times ahead,” he said. “I was appointed as chief executive and led a fantastic team who worked hard to provide homes for some of Birmingham’s most vulnerable people.”
Within two years the supervision order was lifted and MAHA had developed a reputation for punching above its weight. MAHA went on to merge with Touchstone Housing Association and then with Prime Focus, forming Midland Heart of which Mr Murtha is currently the chief executive.
Mr Murtha believes his strong values and experiences put him in a good position for the future as the country faces the consequences of the recession and an unstable political environment.
“The social housing sector faces the same difficulties as commercial businesses. The challenge for us is to respond in a way that controls costs and increases the quality of service delivery while at the same time, holding true the social values on which we are built.
“We measure our returns on how many people we support out of homelessness; how many people we support to find jobs or training; on how many lives we transform.”