My “big business” light bulb moment
Big business thinking for the SME and entrepreneurial world
In 2005, Jacki and I moved to leafy Surrey (the leaves are vital). I had recently started my new role as CEO in a plc near Portsmouth. Everything was new and exciting.
From a business perspective, the exit from my own business had moved me through the corporate sausage factory to this point and part of my remuneration package was a substantial relocation fee from East Sussex to ‘leafy’ Surrey
At the age of 37, life was pretty, pretty good. Or so it seemed.
I discovered the business I was now part of was not, in fact, all it seemed to be, in truth it was a complete bag of nails.
The shareholders were not on board, the staff were revolting (as in the verb), and the customers and suppliers were just one issue away from walking. I had been sold a pup by the head-hunters and left a comfortable role to join and captain RMS Titanic plc.
They say when you are at the bottom of the well the only way is up, so that was the comfort I took, things could only get better.
Remember, this was my first major CEO role and in essence, I had taken over a fully developed business with all the things in place, but which desperately needed a hasty turnaround. I was told we had about six months to show progress.
I related it to my new home that we had relocated to. However, in contrast, my brand new home was built on solid foundations with shiny furnishings. This business was dilapidated and run down, with bits falling off. Oh, and losing around a quarter of a million per month. I was never told this at any of the interview stages.
Now, the great thing about taking over an existing but not profitable business of this size and level is that everything was in place. Just not the right place.
It had a sales and marketing team, a financial team, an operational structure, HR and IT departments, a leadership team and even something called a compliance department! This totalled around 130 people.
Coming from an Entrepreneurial background where we tend to do everything at breakneck speed, juggling 15 balls at any one time whilst creating uncertainty, chaos and confusion around us (I’m just being honest!). This actually seemed a luxury, surely we should be more successful with all these people.
So what was wrong with it? Why was it losing so much money?
Everybody in the business seemed to have the answers to the problems, and you may recognise some of these in your own business:
- ‘If only we could get more customers’
- ‘We just don’t have the right staff in this area’
- ‘A cash injection of £1 million will solve all of our problems’
- ‘We are too me-too’ (actually that was true)
- ‘Our business model is incorrect’
- ‘We cannot find the right talent at senior level’ (I hope they weren’t talking about me)
But my challenge was that nobody was asking the right questions. Quick fixes tend to be that; they solve an immediate problem but then something else crops up and as business leaders we run to that, solve that one and so on and so on. The challenge was that we were just treading water and not moving forward. Recognise that situation?
It was then I had a breakthrough and to be honest one of the biggest ones I have had in my entire business career. But the breakthrough did not materialise through my daily work, it popped into my head at home over one weekend.
Jacki and I were in our garden packing away the Summer furniture and BBQ and gearing up for Autumn. Actually, we were a little late as I was working some weekends. I even did Fridays back then!
Anyway, we were frantically sweeping the carpet of conkers and slimy leaves from the patio and were on our eighth bin bag of these unwelcomed invaders. Even our poor cat Peppard had been negotiating the prickly patio in Tom Cruise Mission Impossible style manoeuvres just to reach his cat flap.
It was hard work, even with gardening gloves on those conkers were spiky, scratchy and sticking to the leaves. Looking up at the tree was disheartening; despite all the clearing, it was laden with thousands more ready to drop. So, guess what we were doing the following weekend? We must have filled over fifty bags bin bags that Autumn.
It was through talking that night about that bloody tree, that it hit me…
Why would we plan to sweep the floor every weekend for a whole season instead of just cutting down the tree? No tree = no leaves or conkers. Light bulb moment…. the business connection.
Back at work with rather sore hands, and an even sorer back, on Monday I gathered the team together in the boardroom and asked them all to think differently. I did not want answers anymore; I wanted QUESTIONS.
I spoke of my light bulb moment that weekend, and I wanted to know WHY all of our staff were ‘sweeping the floor’ every single day. What was causing it and what could we do to stop it? With that, the team left the boardroom slightly confused as to what a horse chestnut tree had anything to do with turning around a large business.
I didn’t know whether or not my hunch was right, but I knew that nature was pretty damn clever and that I could ‘turn off’ a tree by cutting it down. Could I turn off some things at work that was causing the problems?
This became our new mantra and suddenly instead of having 130 people just giving me random ways of ‘sweeping the floor’, they were now all focused on what was the cause of them sweeping the floor.
The results were AMAZING. We had a massively engaged group of people who were able to challenge why we did what we did, we had customers we actually said bye to, we had suppliers that could see the green shoots of recovery, and more importantly we had stakeholders who gave us a stay of execution because of the turnaround they were witnessing.
Within 18 months of starting in this organisation, we had completely stopped the rot and started to put money in the bank account on a month basis instead of asking the banks for more. Goodbye RMS Titanic plc, hello HMS Victory plc!
The turnaround had got to a point where we actively looked for other businesses to do the very same because I knew that most of them would be so focused on ‘sweeping their floor’ that they had not realised there were a few big business trees that needed knocking down. (We did, and did!).