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Case Study: Family Dynamics

February 18th, 2016


Alastair Soper

Alastair Soper

Interview by the Academy for Chief Executives

What’s the background of your business?

Hallis Hudson is a family-run national wholesaler and distributor of soft furnishing fabrics, blinds, tracks and curtain poles that was founded by my grandfather. In 2014 (after 14 years in the business) I was appointed Managing Director, and my father became Chairman.

Are there any other family members in the business?

Yes, my brother Russell is a Director of the business and is involved in new product development and marketing.

How was it decided that you would take the MD role rather than your brother?

We both have quite different skill sets and it was simply that I’m more suited to the MD role. Our actual job titles are almost irrelevant in a way. We have different skills that complement each other, and we play off each other’s strengths.

How does the dynamic work between you, Russell and your father?

There is certain creative tension between the three of us. It’s also fair to say that I have a closer working relationship with my dad. I see my role as custodian of the business to ensure that it is passed on for future generations. As such, I tend to take a more measured and evolutionary approach, incremental rather than sudden change. Russell’s role is more creative, so his outlook is more likely to be influenced by external factors. I’m less risk-averse than either Russell or my father. This can result in a certain level of conflict at times.   

What role do you play within this dynamic?

Part of my role is to help manage the balance between the three of us. Whilst on the one hand it’s important to make sure that the business doesn’t expand too quickly, we have to ensure that we adapt to changing market conditions and remain competitive. It’s all about ensuring that each side understands the pros and cons of what is being brought to the table.

That said, my dad has always been dynamic and stood firm in the belief that if you don’t change the business, it will eventually die, so it’s more a question of balancing the pace of change.

We also work closely with an external financial consultant, who acts as an extension of the family in some ways. He knows and understands us very well and can offer an objective sounding Board, and challenge us as necessary. He can also help us to navigate potential areas of conflict or disagreement.

How does the Academy help you with the typical challenges of managing a family business?

I was a member of the Directors’ Forum 13 for five years, before joining Peter Hills’ group, ACE 18 in Manchester, in January 2014. Both groups have helped me change and navigate my way through a variety of issues, particularly since becoming Managing Director. There are a couple of other family businesses in my Group and this is very helpful. As much as anything it’s nice to know that others deal with the same issues that we face.

The Academy has also really helped my understanding of the dynamics of effective communication, in particular the importance of understanding the position of others before you try to resolve an issue or make a final decision.

How’s it going with the transition of your father to his new role as Chairman?

As it progresses, the transition gets better every day. This journey will take as long as it takes – it’s not like flicking a light switch. Again, it’s a question of getting the balance right. It’s important that I own the position of MD, but at the same time I’m conscious of the fact that my father is hugely experienced and that there are still things that I can learn from him.

We did try to create a job description for him but that didn’t really work! So it’s more of an informal evolution, with my focus on the day-to-day running of the business and my father’s focus on strategic direction and making sure the business delivers a return.

What has been one of the most challenging issues of being in a family business?

In any family business the blurring of boundaries can become an issue; for example, there was a period of time where I continued with my previous job of Operations Director whilst also taking on the MD role. In essence, I was doing two jobs over this period which wasn’t always effective and also put me under a certain amount of personal pressure.   We have now asked the senior management team to all step up to each fulfil a little part of my old role.

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Case Study: Silence is Golden

July 3rd, 2015


Glenn Watkins

Glenn Watkins – Chairman Academy 88 & Academy 08

Glenn Watkins is Chair of Academy 88 and Academy 08 which cover North and West Central London, Watford and Harrow. In May, he sat on the panel of London’s first ever Mindfulness Summit for business leaders in London.

Last autumn Glenn decided to sign up for an intensive meditation retreat in early June as one of his personal goals for 2015. The programme took place in a 22-acre property in deepest Herefordshire, set in beautiful wooded grounds.

The meditation technique used is called Vipassana and dates back 2,500 years ago. It is agnostic, non-religious and non-dogmatic, a pure form of meditation. And there was no talking for the 10-day duration of the course. We had to find out more.

When did you first become interested in meditation?

Discovering and practising meditation 15 years ago has enabled me to more fully experience and enjoy the varied aspects of my life, including business. I love the feeling of calm energy, deep creativity and “connectedness” that kicks in when I choose to practice regularly and live a more mindful existence.

Why did you decide to invest in the retreat?

As Academy Chairs, we are always thinking about how to stretch ourselves. If I can model that for myself then I can model and share my learning with members and other Chairs. One of the wonderful things about the Academy is that we have always embraced the softer skills as part of a holistic approach. As an Academy Chair, you have to be a model member.

This means always being open and ever receptive to new learning and different ways of doing things. I call this AOA or Always on Awareness. We are about healthy leader/healthy business, growing leader/growing business, more mindful leader/more mindful team. Whilst I have embraced mindfulness, I am also a very KPI-focused, hard number-crunchy type businessman. So for me it’s all about achieving a balance.



Why was no talking allowed on the retreat?

Actually there was no speaking, reading, writing or even eye contact nor any other kind of communication or interaction. It was explained that this was to help with focusing one’s mind. This also helped to create an environment where there was never a reason to hurry.

As an example, after two hours of meditation every morning I would walk into the dining room and immerse myself in the experience of eating breakfast in quiet contemplation. By fully placing my attention on the bowl of porridge, toast and herbal tea for a good half hour, it took the experience of breakfast to a whole new level. This was an opportunity for pure mindfulness and I really enjoyed this part of the day. All too often if I had been at home I would have bolted down breakfast or grabbed a banana to eat on the way out.

Ten days sounds like a long time – how did it feel when you were there?

By the third day I realised that it was time to really let go and embrace the process as I was in it for the long haul. Going with the flow is another way of describing it, being open to the best possible outcome without trying to control what happens.

So how does all of this apply in a business context?                            

Mindful practice can really help to set you up for the day. If things are not going your way or you have unexpected news to deal with, it enables you to draw a breath before a reaction and respond more calmly than you might otherwise have done. As leaders we are programmed to try to ‘fix’ people and problems. But when we pause, take a breath and stop and think, a more considered, constructive and more creative approach often emerges.

It’s also about how you want to show up every day and how you want to be seen by your colleagues and team. I want to be the best that I can be and continuous improvement is an important part of this process. As a leader I have a thirst for learning and appetite for sharing this insight and knowledge with others.

If we as leaders are having a bad day, it may give permission for others to do the same. However, if our minds are calm we can be fully present and in the moment and enjoy the interactions for what they are, whether that’s a board meeting, a sales meeting or a family meal.

What did you learn from all of this?

One of the key learnings for me was the importance of breath which is a pathway into the unconscious mind. Breathing is one of the things we that we take for granted, yet breath is about the only critical body function that unlike the heart of the liver, we can control if we choose to do so.

By placing attention on the breath, it is possible to sharpen the mind to access a sub-atomic cellular level within the body. It’s at this level that can change deeply engrained patterns by accessing the unconscious mind. This is done through an increased awareness of sensations and feeling in the body, be it pain, heat, a tingling feeling or an itch. But rather than react to that sensation, you sit with it, observe it and release it.

The teaching here is the law of nature; nothing stays the same, everything changes. It’s just all a moment in time. When you recognise this you can react differently and choose what to do next. If you train and sharpen the mind to be more aware of what’s happening at an unconscious level, it is possible to alter a lifetime of habits and patterns.

It can be quite technical to master this process and take great discipline and patience to continuously scan the body – with a clear mind – and observe the sensations for hours at a time.  However, the rewards more than made up for the investment of time and energy. All in all it’s quite a phenomenal space to experience.

One of the most rewarding insights was the deep feeling of gratitude that I felt about life and those around me. The whole experience gave me the opportunity to take stock of my life and to really appreciate and feel grateful for all that I have; family, business, friends, my Academy Group members. This gratitude has also inspired me to share my learning from the retreat. It has also motivated me increase my own personal meditation practice to an hour every day.

The combination of the quiet and reflective environment and the intensive focus on the Vipassana technique also acted as a catalyst for deep emotional memories to surface. There are many things that we suppress over the period of our lives often because they are too painful to deal with at the time. During the retreat I found situations and/or people I had suppressed for one reason or other surfacing in thoughts, emotions, pain or other sensations.

This was a great opportunity to resolve and release issues that had the potential to prevent me fully expressing my full authentic self. It’s hard to explain how profound the release of deep-rooted issues and engrained patterns is to experience. It really was a very deep and heart-felt release straight from the depths of my core beingness. As a result of this release, there was a wonderful sense of being more centred, more authentic than ever before.

Another key theme that emerged around day three or four was forgiveness. This was an intense opportunity to let go of baggage I had been carrying around and to forgive people (including family members) who had created a situation where I chose to feel angst in my life at some level.

Would you do it all again?

Yes! Next time I might go back for a shorter period to serve as a volunteer. This means that you get the opportunity to help the other students in a practical way by working in the kitchens, helping to clean or serving the food others. In this way, there is the opportunity to share the experience of those around you on the journey, whilst at the same time having access to the meditation sessions for one’s own self development.

Glenn WatkGlenn Watkinsins

Glenn’s passion for leadership development and entrepreneurial business growth have resulted in becoming a Chairman with the Academy for Chief Executives ( where, having “walked the talk” as a CEO member for seven years, he chairs groups for progressive leaders in London to accelerate growth in themselves and business.

Academy 88 and Academy 08 peer groups are a powerful yet practical experiential learning environment; members of the groups are guided on a journey to greater career fulfillment and inspired to achieve extraordinary business results.

A confidential safe space where objectives are identified, experience is shared and knowledge gained. Members work together to solve problems, elicit new ideas and make better decisions, while measuring and sharing the outcomes.

More information: and

Interview: Striking a Balance

May 7th, 2015


Lorna Davidson

Lorna Davidson is CEO of The Mothership Group, a group of entrepreneurs who are harnessing technology to incubate and launch innovation and disruptive propositions, all focussed around intelligent selling to make a noticeable change in the sector they work in. The Group has also launched a charity called The Mothership Foundation, which helps provide investment funding for individuals who would not get any otherwise.

Q: When did you become conscious that work life balance was an issue for you?

A: When I was a married, working mother with children working in the corporate world. The lack of work-life balance was the reason I made the decision to go it on my own and founded my first business, a field marketing agency called Tactical Solutions that I started in my garden shed. I needed more flexibility and balance in my life. This decision paid off and I am happy to say that I have been very fortunate and made every parent evening, school play and rugby match.

Q: Is it easier for women with children to step in and be assertive about work life balance than it is for single women?

A: My experience is that people are much more assertive when it comes to their work/life balance requirements than ever before, whether or not they are parents. At the Mothership Group my sales director doesn’t have children, but she has a very hectic social life, likes to travel, enjoys dining out and has a very good quality of life. And she balances that in the same way that a woman with children does. Equally, we have men who don’t have children, but have structured their lives to fit in their outside interests. One of our MDs has place in Lake District and he works there at least one day a week, so that he can enjoy the outdoors and his love of walking.

But I do think that working mothers still suffer from the guilt complex that comes from wanting to do both a great job at work and as well as be the perfect mother at home – it can pull on the old heart strings.

Q: How did you instil a culture of work/life balance into the business?

A: Whilst I was running Tactical Solutions I realised that it‘s really all about honouring people’s lifestyle choices. So when I put the senior management team in place for the Mothership Group we created a mood board based on what each of them wanted work to feel like. Based on their input the cultural framework for the business was created. For us work/life balance is just one facet of a wider cultural landscape, which includes the importance of being fair and doing the right thing.

Q: In your Academy Group (Group 18, chaired by Peter Hills), are you unusual in having cracked the work life balance equilibrium?

A: That’s an interesting question. I am a returning member after being away for five years. I don’t really see much change in that we all still have to devote time and focus to staying fit and healthy and balancing our life-style choices. I think that as leaders and managers, it’s always going to be a balancing act.

Q: What has been the hardest thing for you when it comes to work life balance?

A: The thing I personally struggle with is saying ‘No’ to people. I do a fair amount of work with the Liverpool Chamber of Commerce where I mentor people. There are always requests to meet someone new and spend time with so and so, to the degree that it can really encroach on my life.

One tactic that I have put in place is to co-ordinate my diary with colour coding. So I have a colour for ‘nice to do’ meetings and I can see very quickly how much room I have for other stuff after those.

I’ve also started to delegate some meetings. We have just moved our offices to Liverpool, and the City and its people have been hugely welcoming to us and want to understand what we do. Whilst that’s really great, I have had to remind myself that it doesn’t always have to be me doing this.

Q: Your business consists of a team of very senior people. Has your work life balance strategy played a part in recruiting and retaining them?

Yes, definitely. When people get to a certain stage in their careers they often welcome the chance to have more freedom and flexibility with their lives. The team I work with were all keen to do something new, to be part of something that they had helped to co-create.

In this business, everyone is empowered to take full ownership of their work life balance. We don’t even have holiday quotas. It’s up to the individual to decide how much or how little time that they would like to take off. This approach sets us apart as it empowers people to be responsible.

I believe that when people have full sovereignty over their life choices, they can express themselves and develop their potential to the full. But to do that, they need to have reached a point of emotional and spiritual maturity in their lives, where they have the confidence to say ‘this is how I perform best and if I am not performing to the optimal I will do what is required to deliver’. Perhaps that’s why my team and I share the same moral compass, the same driving factors.

So work-life balance is really part of a bigger picture. It’s not just about the practicalities of how we manage our daily lives. What it all boils down to is honouring the ability of individuals to make informed and responsible decisions about their own lives.


Case Study: Building Trust

April 9th, 2015


Warren Rosenberg

Warren Rosenberg is a co- founder of Watford-based luxury property developer,Fusion Residential and its sister company developing student accommodation, Fusion Students. Both he and co-founder Nigel Henry are Academy Group Seven members. He describes his business philosophy as “doing the right thing and not just finding the quickest route,” something that lies at the core of the company’s approach to client management.

Choose your clients carefully

“For us the big thing is to work with clients you want to work with – some people feel obligated to deal with whoever they come across. We are great believers in focussing on the relationships with people who matter.”

“When we build client relationships we build friendships. Invest time in developing these key relationships, keep in regular contact so you develop a relationship that is based on trust and friendship.” Make friends with your clients

Be human

“One thing I do is to try is to encourage our people to get out of the office and to talk, meet and see clients face-to-face rather than relying on email. The way that we communicate today is very robotic – be human about it. The more technology moves forward the more interpersonal skills become important. Laugh, joke – it makes it more real and it really can lead you to have more successful relationships.”

Be authentic

“Trust is key to building the really long-term relationships – acting honourably and being consistent with your feelings, regardless of whether you are eating lunch with a client or involved in a large transaction.”

Don’t get bogged down in detail

“Sometimes what happens in a transaction is that people get embroiled in detail rather than focusing on the outcome. The same can happen if there’s a problem. In both cases, the ability to see the bigger picture is essential. Issues can take longer than necessary to solve because people get embroiled in the detail. If you’re getting bogged down with a problem rather than finding a solution, try bringing in someone different who can offer a different lens of perceptive.”

Be in it for the long-term

“We have been working with the same banks since the early 1990s. During the downturn we went through a hard time but we continued to support our banks and they continued to service us through thick and through thin. In 2007 we bought a site and the bank gave us a year’s facility. Seven years later we still owned it. Most banks would have terminated the loan, however we worked together and recently it was finally sold and we returned the full amount to the bank plus the interest. That’s all about long-term confidence.”

Make it fun

“We always celebrate success with clients. Next year we are taking some clients ice driving. We try to do things that are unusual and fun – something that they will remember.”

Mix and match – diversity makes for happy teams

“We have a good mix of diversity within our organisation in terms of age and skills. There are the old pros who have been doing this sort of thing since for 20 years and those in their early 20s who are just starting out. Our working environment is an informal learning hub where people feel fully supported. Everyone intermingles – there are no age-related divisions and this happy team environment is in turn reflected in how people of all ages and levels of responsibility interact with our clients.” 

Never underestimate loyalty and longevity

“No one from our organisation has ever come to us and said that they want to leave. This longevity is reflected in the length of time we have worked with our suppliers and clients. We work with one construction company that has been a client for 25 years, and also have suppliers who have been with us for the same length of time, so a long-term focus is imprinted in our organisational DNA.”

Case Study: The Power of Listening

March 4th, 2015


Beth Butterwick, Academy member

Beth Butterwick
Academy member

Bonmarché, one of the UK’s largest womenswear value retailers, catering for women over 50, won the IPO of the Year Award at the 2014 Annual Small Cap Awards after is floatation on AIM in November 2013, having raised some £40m.

What makes this so remarkable is that less than two years previously, the Wakefield-based company had faced an uncertain future after its parent group, Peacocks, collapsed into administration with debts of £250 million.

Bonmarché’s phoenix-like rebirth and turnaround from the ashes of what was one of the largest retail failures since Woolworths was masterminded by Academy Group 45 member, Beth Butterwick, who had joined Bonmarché as Brand Director in 2011.

“Bonmarché was a niche gem on the high street, but it needed to be loved,” she said. “It had drifted into trying to cater for much younger customers and as sales declined, it made the mistake of putting prices up to compensate for this. In other words, it had moved away from its primary values.”Over and above the woes of its parent group, Butterwick quicklyrealised that the business had lost touch with its core customer.

With over 20 year’s retail experience, she was well-placed to identify a company that was out of touch with its customers. Having started her career as a graduate trainee with Marks & Spencer, where she progressed to Head of Buying for the Accessories Group, she moved to a senior with GAP and spent three years in Holland as Commercial Director of a women’s fashion business with 450 stores across six countries.

So when Bonmarché went into administration, she joined forces with Finance Director, Stephen Alldridge, to devise a turnaround strategy that would see the company return to what it does best. Within two weeks, private equity firm Sun European Partners acquired Bonmarché via a pre-pack administration deal with KPMG, and she was catapulted into the role of CEO.

“The low-hanging fruit was to reposition the product positioning and prices back to the core customer,” she said. “We had to focus on listening to what our customers wanted as well as establishing a differentiated on-line offering to supplement the on-site stores.”

Bonmarché’s on-line offering was critical, Beth says, because the 55-plus demographic represents the fastest-growing online market segment. These customers are becoming increasingly internet-savvy, with the birth of the tablet device.

“Through our loyalty programme, we’ve have been able to better evaluate our customers and understand their purchasing profiles. This information is really qualitative as we have 6.5 million members, 1.8 million of whom are active. Three -quarters of our weekly sales are driven through Bonus Club customers.’’

‘’Developing a robust multi-channel business has been a fundamental requirement as customers shopping channel habits change. For example, 37% of our customers who buy online choose to collect their purchases in store and with circa 273 shops across the country, our stores represent an important opportunity to interact with our customers.

“On collection, we encourage them to open up their package and try it for size. At this point suggestions can be made regarding additional outfit solutions. Our data tells us that customers who shop across multi-channels spend on average 36% more than customers who shop one channel.’’

Continual customer feedback is key. Therefore once a month, we have a focus group feedback session from our customers via stores.. What we learn from this information helps shape our forward strategy.”

With a website, mail order catalogue, a telephone order service and a TV shopping channel, Bonmarché is now a truly multi-channel operation with a deep understanding of its customers; one of the key components as to why it has gone from administration to 200% growth and a successful float on AIM in less than two years.

Another key factor in this remarkable turnaround, however, is trust.

“Businesses with a strong ‘trust ethic’ consistently deliver a higher ROI,” Beth says. “At all times, I need to know what the business is feeling, and this applies to both our customers and staff. Sometimes it could be a feeling that’s under the cover. I encourage our staff to obsess about listening to our customers; understanding what they are saying and giving them what they want is absolutely core to Bonmarché’s values. I believe our unique point of difference to other retailers is that we are essentially a customer-centric business.”

Beth met Academy Group 45 Chairman, Kevin Kerley, in 2012, and has been a member since becoming Bonmarché’s CEO.

“The prospect of joining the Academy seemed absolutely right. It felt important to build up a network and get external support for the business issues that I was not familiar as a first-time CEO, such as supply chain and property.

“One business initiative, in which the Academy has supported me on, was in helping me to consider whether an in-house or out-sourced ‘customer services’ model was right. We brainstormed this issue in one of our monthly meetings and finally, through good questioning, it felt that an out-sourced one would be the right ‘service’ and cost solution. So in May 2013, we set up a partnership with a small company in Wetherby, who are the perfect ‘fit’ for Bonmarché; in that they work with other ‘like partners’, therefore understand how to speak to our customers.’’

“At a senior management level, too, the Academy has supported me on the appropriate multi-channel strategies and on-going is a discussion around what make a great ‘people focused’ HR department, including what this team could look like.”

So what’s the next goal?

“No business can stand still now – the moment you do, your business is backward-looking. It’s critical to remain ahead of the curve, especially in the world of retail! The biggest discipline is to make sure that the support functions are in good shape and that my team don’t get overloaded by taking on too many exciting business initiatives. Assess your objectives and map out your priorities so that the inception of an idea can progress to delivery. However most importantly, never forget who your customers are.”


Case Study: the Sting

December 30th, 2014



This is a true story…

Vince Tickel is Chair of Academy Group 1 and sits on the Academy’s board of directors. Among his external business interests is Hunter Sourcing, a Hertfordshire-based importer of premium packaging products and promotional items that are developed or designed in the UK and primarily manufactured in China. These might be the sort of luxury packaging boxes, gift bags or tins that fill stores at Christmas, or promotional items produced for a particular campaign or event. Or, as in this case, teddy bears.

While teddy bears weren’t a regular type of order, Vince explains that Hunter was able to fulfil the order for 20,000 bears using a long-standing Chinese supplier that specialises in so-called “plush” goods.

The order process proceeded as normal. The suppler quoted the cost, terms were agreed and manufacturing began. As with all their manufacturing orders, Hunter carried out quality control checks during the manufacturing process and once the production run was complete, they paid the supplier a 10% deposit with the balance – some $70,000 – due on what’s known as a ‘bill of lading’, a standard form of transaction in international trade.

“The bill of lading was emailed from the supplier in China with a note saying that they had changed banks and including the new bank transfer details,” Vince says. “The company name had also changed, but in China this seems to happen quite regularly so it’s wasn’t particularly unusual that might actually happen.

“We sent them an email. They had the bill of lading, the right documents, the right cost – everything has to be attached to these emails. We even emailed them back just to make sure that the change of details was correct and they said it was. So we transferred the balance and waited for our bears.”

Except the good were never shipped because the supplier was never paid. The money Hunter had wired simply disappeared.

Hunter had fallen victim to a sophisticated scam that hinged on the fact that their supplier’s email account had been hacked. The correspondence between the two parties had been intercepted by the criminals, the attachments removed and altered and then sent on to their legitimate destinations. As part of the fraud the supplier declared that they had changed bank accounts and were now with a new bank and requested payment into that account. This was queried on several follow up emails and confirmed as correct. Meanwhile, the manufacturer in China got an email purportedly from Hunter saying that the payment would be made in two weeks.

So the first the company knew about this was when Hunter received an email from their supplier two weeks later saying that they still hadn’t received payment for the order.

“We got back to them and said ‘we’ve already paid you. Here’s all of the correspondence.’ But they came back and said ‘this isn’t an email from us…’”

“You’re sort of left there thinking what on earth could we have done? The money’s gone into this other account and been swept straight back out again.”

“I have to say, looking through the paperwork, I had to stand back and say it was fantastically done. They had set this up like a sting operation. I’ve never come across anything like it before.“

So could it happen to you? As Vince says, we take electronic communication for granted today, but how do we know that an email we receive from a contact or supplier is really from them?

“You think you’re secure, but the people you’re dealing with possibly aren’t,” Vince says. “So it’s all very well a business owner, MD or FD being wise to the potential for fraud, but how many people working for them would even be able to spot something like this? The weak link isn’t the bank end, it’s at the end of who you’re paying.”

To make matters worse, Hunter’s insurance didn’t cover this type of loss – and in any event, Vince has since discovered that any insurance against frauds like this would likely be so full of exclusions and disclaimers as to be worthless.

So the onus is on business owners to protect themselves. At Hunter, that means that any change to a supplier’s details have to be evidenced by two separate pieces of communication, one digital (eg via email) and one by a phone call or another form of physical contact. All new suppliers are also carefully checked and their identities and financial details confirmed.

“It’s like breaking into a house,” says Vince. “You don’t go in through the front door if there’s a broken window at the back. The broken window was our supplier, somebody we had dealt with for a long period of time and trusted. And these scammers sat there, watched and waited.”

“Hunter is a five million pound business,” Vince adds. “It’s operated by experienced, intelligent people. But I read all of the files of all of the emails going backwards and forward and I wouldn’t have spotted it. There was nothing to make you stop and think, ’hold on – have we got this covered?’ And I wouldn’t be surprised if many, many, other businesses haven’t got this one covered either.”

The only thing we now do and I strongly recommend this to everyone is when you have a new supplier to pay or an existing one changes banks do not rely on electronic communication alone pick up the phone and double check.

What about you? Do you KNOW this couldn’t happen to your business? Ask you accounts department what they would do if a supplier says we have changed bank accounts via email …do they accept it because if so this could happen to you.

Case Study: An Authentic Heritage

November 5th, 2014


Matthew Jones

John Jones first entered into the fine art industry in the 1960’s when he quickly discovered that he had an aptitude for making high-quality bespoke picture frames. It was not long before he was framing professionally for artists such as Francis Bacon and David Hockney, designing and producing museum-standard frames specifically to complement their work. In January 2012, John Jones was awarded an MBE as Master Framer for his services to the arts.

In the intervening decades, John Jones oversaw the expansion of his company into a leading international consultancy business specialising in the protection and presentation of works of art. But he never departed from the belief that the firm should be family-owned and family-run, bringing his sons, Matthew and Kristian, and sister, Kelly, into the business and handing its stewardship over to them when he retired as CEO in 2013.

In June this year, the company moved into its new north London HQ – a six storey warehouse incorporating design consultation, conservation, photography and print studios, plus workshops where artwork is fitted into frames that have been hand made at the John Jones wood mill in Hertfordshire. It also houses the John Jones Project Space, a not for profit exhibition space, part funded by the Arts Council England and Islington Council.

With its bare concrete ceilings, simple wood floors and plain, unadorned windows, The Arts Building reflects the key message that this is a business that values substance over image and is determined not to compromise on its values or the way the business is run.

As Matthew Jones, the eldest of the three siblings and managing director of the business, explains, the building may mark the start of a new era, but the legacy of his father is never far from the surface.

“It’s his name above the door of the new building and we have created something that he is proud of. He built this business on an authentic passion for being the best and delivering unequalled quality. Now that my dad is out of the picture in terms of the day-to-day running of the business,it’s up for us to continue this legacy,” says Matt.

It has also been part of the journey to recognise that the authenticity of our brand is based on our passion for high standards and refusal to compromise on quality. We are very conscious of the fact that it would be detrimental to the business to lower our standards or to compromise simply to meet a budget,” he continues.

Matthew is a member of Academy Group 88 and was also voted Academy Member of the Year for his contributions to his group and the strategy and actions he’s applying to John Jones.

“Our business can be very fluffy.  We are dealing with creatives – artists and art lovers.  Art is an incredible thing – you buy on impulse to collect and you hope that when buying that it will also become an asset that will increase in value. These decisions are based on a creative eye, intuition and even an emotional connection with the piece of art. So one important aspect of the culture of our business is that we are authentic, sensitive and in tune with these impulses.

But that doesn’t mean indulging every whim. Sometimes a creative tension emerges:

“Part of our role is to take people through an emotional journey in acquiring a piece of work – flat or sculptural and the creative process of how it can be installed in its new environment.  Our clients trust the pedigree of our brand and its heritage and so if a customer has a view but we don’t think that it is right – from a quality and/or aesthetic point of view – we will take a stand.”

And there are other areas where the tension between the commercial and emotional sides of the business can emerge.

“We get approached all the time to support charities, and whilst we would love to be able to help on every occasion, you have to remember that you cannot say ‘Yes’ to everything. This is where putting clear budgets in place for the year and sticking to them is important.

“My Academy Group leader, Glenn Watkins, has been instrumental in reminding me that at the end of the day, we are a business. One thing in particular that I have learned from my time at the Academy is the importance of knowing when to say ‘no’!

“In terms of the dynamics of working for a family business The Academy was very supportive in helping us through this transition. As a family we all went through the process of better understanding each other’s strengths and weaknesses and how we can all work together to best effect. As a result there’s no doubt that we have grown stronger.

“It’s also all too easy to think that you think you know it all but actually talking through things it really helps. I am a big believer in reflections. If you are talking through where you are and where you want to be, there is encouragement to ensure that things are thought through in the right way.

“In our case it is clear that the brand, the heritage, the business are all intertwined and so it was essential that my sister, brother and I were all aligned through the process of transition now that my dad has stepped down from day-to-day responsibilities. It has also helped us to come together as a team as never before.”

Case Study: The First-Time CEO

October 23rd, 2014


Vicky Lawton

Vicky Lawton

Executive search firm Warren Partners combines head hunting with leadership coaching and board review services. Based in London, Cheshire and Edinburgh, it has clients in the UK and internationally.

When Vicky Lawton was appointed as MD of Warren Partners in 2012, it was her first time at the helm of a business. Despite having previously been the company’s Director of Operations, the step up was still a challenge.

“When you move into a MD or CEO role for the first time within the same company, the dynamics of the relationships that you have built up over time change overnight,” she says. “At first, this can come as a bit of a shock. Suddenly the support systems you’ve been used to don’t operate in the same way.”

Compounding this is the pressure that new CEOs face to make their mark and bring their own leadership style to the role.

“It can be stressful and lonely in a role like this for the first time. Your head is full of ideas about how you want it to be and then there is what everyone else expects – you have to be authentic and do it your way.”

For Vicky, this meant defining a new strategic direction for the business. Here again it was all new territory.

“Anyone managing a small business through the last seven years has had a very stressful time. It’s difficult to maintain and grow a business in a challenging economic environment. It requires you to keep tight control of the levers that affect your profitability, whilst continuing to invest in the areas which will underpin your growth. Having a clear brand and market position is vital and that means being brave about what you are and importantly, what you are not.”

Like many head-hunting firms without distinct brand positioning, Warren Partners had struggled during the recession. Vicky’s task was to re-position the business to deliver additional value through boardroom services and a more consultative approach. At the same time, the firm re-structured its own board and ownership structure. So both internal and externally, change was taking place at multiple levels and Vicky‘s leadership was at the centre of this complex web of decision making.

After 12 months in the new role, in October 2012, the company’s accountant suggested Vicky meet with Peter Hills, Chairman of Academy Group 18 and she became a member.

“One thing that the Academy has done is to give me the confidence to lead the business in my own way”, says Vicky. “The trust and support provided by other members of my group has been really valuable, particularly when things have been challenging. I can talk to them about the things that I find difficult and they provide great advice and act as a totally independent sounding board.

“I knew that I understood my role and what I needed to do, but the external validation of people in similar roles and going through similar experiences was especially helpful in what was still a relatively new position.”

Another area of learning for Vicky as a first time MD was the challenge of juggling a vast array of diverse responsibilities and the importance of taking time out in order to gain a balanced perspective.

“At first I felt guilty about taking a full day out of the office for my monthly Academy meeting, but I soon recognised that when you step out of a situation or environment there are insights and new perspectives that emerge which you couldn’t have seen before.

“All too often our unconscious filters screen out what we don’t want to see or hear. The independent sounding board I get from being challenged by my Academy group members is a valuable resource that I did not have access to before.

“I always try to bring something back from these meetings into the business. It may be a creative idea from one of the morning’s speakers or simply an ‘energy shot’ based on the fact that I’m feeling invigorated myself.”

In her Academy group there is a MD of another professional services business with similar challenges and they now meet up on a regular basis.

“It’s especially important for the business leaders of small businesses to network externally. If you don’t your perspective becomes too narrow and overly focused in your market. You run the risk of spending too much time on the operational and task orientated side of things to the detriment of strategy and creativity.”

Case Study: What a Good Idea…!

September 24th, 2014


Richard Blanford

Case Study by Academy for Chief Executives

Sometimes all a business needs to transform itself is a really good idea. And it was just such a brainwave  that helped  Richard Blanford, MD of Fordway and a member of Academy CEO Group 14, to re-position his technology business for a sustainable, long-term future.

Like many IT Systems Integrators, Fordway’s traditional business model was based on revenue from winning and fulfilling IT infrastructure transformation projects. This had worked well until the recession caused by the financial crisis in 2008/9 when the supply of potential projects requiring Fordway’s skills and expertise dried up.

Richard Blanford

“Our business model was selling 3rd party products with our consultancy skills on a project basis for large scale IT Infrastructure transformation projects. We worked across all industry sectors with a focus on the public sector,” Richard explains. “But when the commercial environment became really tough we found that this wasn’t going to stand the test of time.”

The key issue that the recession exposed was that Fordway had very little contractually-guaranteed recurring revenue.

“Whilst we had a good level of repeat business, budget cuts in the downturn reduced the number of companies implementing major upgrades or kicking off new projects. So the same number of suppliers were left fighting for a vast reduction in potential projects, resulting in many suppliers willing to accept unsustainable margins purely to maintain turnover. This resulted in some high profile bankruptcies among our competitors. Thankfully we chose not to do this,” Richard says.

The company’s turnover was hit, with revenue falling from £10m to £7.5 million over 2 financial years, margins squeezed and the first substantial losses in Fordway’s history. It became clear that a new approach was required to bring back a healthy stream of recurring business.

That innovation was for Fordway to build its own managed cloud platform and offer cloud computing services direct to clients, rather than acting as a re-seller and integrator of other vendors’ products.

“We sat down and worked out how we could apply what we were good at differently to build a more sustainable, profitable business. It was a major commercial decision to build this platform and required considerable investment. In addition to the financial outlay we had to recruit new people and learn new skills to ensure consistent, high quality service delivery to our clients. Moving from reselling to a products-based business also meant there were other lessons to be learned.”

The transformation started in 2010 and is still ongoing, although the majority of the transformation work is complete. In 2009, Fordway’s contractually guaranteed recurring revenue was 7% of turnover, with a further 10% coming from renewal of third party support contracts, themselves became subject to competition from increasingly desperate competitors.

In Fordway’s 2013-2014 financial year, contractually-guaranteed recurring revenue has increased to 40% of turnover, whilst the company’s overall turnover has increased 20%. Fordway’s business plan predicts the new services will reach 55% of turnover in the next financial year, with the new services offering considerably higher margins than Fordway’s ‘traditional’ business.

Fordway were ahead of the curve when they re-structured the business for a more sustainable business with strong long-term prospects. This competitive advantage in their sector has continued due to an on-going focus on continuous improvement in both delivery and capability.

“One of the keys to our success has been to very clearly define our preferred customer base and to target them ruthlessly,“ Richard adds. “We have also invested in ensuring we have all the relevant accreditations to deliver services to Central Government and other parts of the Public Sector”.

“Our head-count has nearly doubled, we have job titles that didn’t exist 18 months ago and it’s a very different company these days. We also now work more closely in partnership with our clients to help with the evolution and development of new products and services which is highly rewarding.”

Looking back over this period of change, transformation and growth for Fordway, Richard says that when things get tough, doing nothing is not an option.

“The key piece of advice I would offer is that if the business is working don’t wait for things to get better. Understand how you can apply what you are good at differently, change your game and do it fast even if this means cannibalising your existing business.”

Case Study: Stepping Down to Step Up

August 8th, 2014


Thomas Coles

MSM Software is a UK-based software company providing bespoke software development and support of business-critical systems. Founded 16 years ago, the company has offices in Exeter, Bristol and London.

Whilst MSM weathered the first half of the recession well, the completion of a number of l

ong-term contracts in 2012 came at a time when the market was still in the doldrums. As a result, there was a significant drop in turnover.

Drastic action was required and an innovative plan was hatched by Managing Director, Thomas Coles, and his Academy Group Chairman, William Waddington.

By applying lateral thinking William suggested that Thomas focus 100% of his time on sales rather than managing the business as well. Thomas had a sales background and this was his original passion. However, his duties as MD had left insufficient time for the sales and client account management side of the business.

Thomas Coles

“It was a real ‘aha’ moment” says Thomas. “It just made so much sense and I intuitively knew that this would work. I felt far happier knowing that I could now focus my efforts more effectively on delivery to the bottom-line.”

“It’s not that I didn’t enjoy the MD role, as much as the fact that I had to juggle the leadership role of heading up the business, alongside a degree of sales and account management – there simply weren’t enough hours in the day and they are two quite different roles.”

“The brainwave was contingent on Sinead O’Brien, our Operations Director, accepting the role of Managing Director. It was a providential match as we didn’t have a formal succession plan in place. Sinead is a natural leader and manager of people and was delighted to accept the role.”

Once the decision was made events moved quickly. Within a couple of days the team changes were announced.

“We highlighted how the new structure would play to both of our strengths and the feedback we received was all very positive. I moved out of my office and slotted into the sales team right away.” From worst to best, turnover has doubled under Sinead’s leadership, proving that it was the right decision.

This decision has been such a success that it helped to double monthly turnover in under a year. Thomas also experienced a range of positive effects on his performance and productivity.

“An immediate result of the changeover was that my creative juices started to really flow again, I felt re-energised and my stress and worry about the future of the business simply evaporated.”

“My advice to Academy members is to act immediately on the advice that you are given and to trust your instinct. Most founder owners will have to hand over the helm at some point and recognising the optimum time to do this is the difference between a successful transition and leaving it too late.”