Bravo to Lord Digby Jones for being prepared to step on to television in the shoes of Sir John Harvey Jones as The New Troubleshooter, says IFT Member Ian Parker…
…And what an excellent trouble shooter he made. In a fascinating series of three programmes on BBC Two we saw Digby giving sound common sense advice to three SME businesses facing very different challenges.
The first was a Hereford furniture manufacturer coming to terms with its first ever trading loss and unsure as to how to change the business trajectory to ensure its long term survival. The second was a profitable Hawick knitware company steeped in tradition and already a survivor in a very competitive market but reluctant to “break out” and tackle the growth potential of the brand conscious Asian market. The third was a family manufacturer of water coolers and humidifiers which had decided to diversify by reviving a chest freezer brand acquired out of administration.
Digby is passionate for UK business and is a natural mentor. But like his eminent predecessor, Sir John Harvey Jones, there were undoubtedly moments of frustration with the Management teams he was advising, in his words, “what part of this do you not understand?”
I am sure though that each Management team would recognise that the process of being challenged by an outsider was tremendously beneficial to the development and execution of the eventual chosen strategy.
It was also refreshing to see Digby’s discoursive interaction with the Management teams and his hands on attitude to seeing all aspects of the businesses rather than the PowerPoint overviews that can dominate so much of business discussion and debate today.
From Infotainment to Action
A TV programme is by nature “entertainment”. The focus on product, brand and market strategy told the underlying story of each business. But that did not mean ignoring the necessity of financial planning and analysis. If anything, Digby was frustrated by the lack of proper financial review and cash flow modelling by the businesses of the strategies under consideration. He is a believer in the old adage that “what gets measured, gets done!” Each firm was firmly but politely encouraged to build a cash flow forecast and use it to monitor the success or otherwise of their strategy.
Being the CEO or MD of an SME is a lonely business whatever the governance structure of the firm. There are always pressures to address be they from customers, investors, employees or the wider stakeholder community. Is it small wonder that “outputs today” all too often preclude more rigorous debate about the business ambition and strategy?
So to whom can an SME owner, CEO, or MD turn to if Lord Jones is not available? There is no shortage of potential advisors from big four firms to independent executives but a referral from a trusted source is always the best starting point. As the UK’s leading professional body for accredited independent executives the IFT should be the first port of call for SMEs looking for transformational advice.
All IFT independent executives have led businesses under private, corporate or private equity ownership and being generally “grey haired” have faced a multitude of challenges. Our accredited members are used to working with Management teams to achieve better outcomes. Getting good advice early, at the first signs of a change in the business’ trajectory, and making a plan is often the surest route to a successful outcome.
The three firms Lord Jones advised in his ‘New Troubleshooter’ series clearly benefited from an independent third party asking some pertinent questions of owners and managers. Not all the advice was accepted. But the discussion and debate made for a better outcome than the future the firm faced before the intervention. That has to be the driving reason for inviting a stranger to give the “businesses tyres” a kick!
In the words of Lord Jones at the end of programme one:
“It’s small medium size businesses employing one more person that solve unemployment. It’s small and medium size businesses that grow because they take risk and they change and then they take on another person. They make more money. They pay more tax. They build more schools and hospitals.”
“That is why it is important that small and medium size businesses in our nation survive and prosper. That’s why it is important that Hereford Furniture does well. These guys pull this off; of course they will have done right by themselves, by their investment, by their courage, by their people who work here.”
“But they will have done right by the City of Hereford and they will have done right by our Country and frankly you can’t ask for more than that.”
Lessons from the series
These probably need an IFT members’ brainstorm session but here is my list for starters:
- Focus on what the business does best
- Optimise manufacturing efficiency
- Create value and pride through a brand
- Research your markets: what is the firm’s biggest opportunity?
- Break down barriers through communication and teamwork
- Plan changes and monitor progress against a cash flow forecast
- Reach out for advice
- Succession (maintaining skills) is vital for a sustainable future
- Leadership takes courage
- Hire the best
What the Digby’d firms say
Benny Hartop, Managing Director Hawick Knitware, The Draper, April 8 2014:
“When you’re involved in the day to day it can be hard to see the wood from the trees at times. It was very reassuring that all the points Digby raised we had already discussed in-house, but it was a matter of changing priorities in order to make the most of the export market.”
Post script: Hawick Knitware has taken on a Japanese agent and secured an account with Isetan Mitsukoshi, a high end department store. It has also had some promising meetings with Chinese buyers.
Pamela Petty, Managing Director, Ebac and Norfrost, website:
“…the opportunity to go behind the scenes of some world class companies and industry experts was an amazing opportunity. We’ve learned so much on this journey, not least from Digby himself.”
Post script: Ebac is expanding its appliance manufacturing and is planning to launch a washing machine in 2014.
If you think your business could benefit from “new troubleshooter” style advice then the IFT can help you find someone with the experience to lead the discussion and make a difference to your business outcome.
Contact IFT Central for details of members in your region: [email protected]