Small Company. Big Plans. Part One.
by Duncan Geddes
Technical Foam Services (TFS) is a successful foam conversion company based in Corby, Northamptonshire. With a workforce of around 45 people, TFS has been in business for 30 years. Taking all manner of foam materials, TFS designs, cuts, shapes and assembles them into various forms and technical specifications. The end products can range from comfort pads in a medical visor, or packing for delicate instruments, to the sponges in the baby aisle of your local supermarket. You’d be surprised where their work pops up.
In the last three years, the company has been through a period of challenges, yet still managed to grow its annual turnover to around £5m. The Managing Director, Duncan Geddes, is now the sole owner of the business following a mutually agreed separation and buy-out of the previous co-owner. That’s taken a lot of Duncan’s time, effort and resolve to sort, adjust and move the business forward during the last few years. This culminated in the production of a glorious 10-year plan – a document Duncan is, rightly, very proud of. It plots the future pathway for the business, taking it from £5m to £8m over a decade.
However, the plan flagged one very significant issue: “How do we create the environment capable of delivering £8m, when £5m maxes us out today?” Like many small businesses, success has come from a great work ethic and a strong culture of rolling up the sleeves and getting stuff done. It didn’t matter who did it, as long as it happened. That’s a principle that has worked well for TFS to date.
But Duncan recognised that with the new growth expectations would come a greater level of complexity. This would manifest itself in the form of new customers, new people, new machinery and new processes, having great effect on the production and storage space required to deliver such growth.
Complexity, or rather failure to deal with complexity as businesses grows, is one of the top company killers. Keeping that original mentality of doing whatever it takes to create happy customers while dealing with the challenges growth brings, is a puzzle for many small business owners. How do we cope with growth and not lose our soul? A re-evaluation of what TFS was doing and how they were doing it, without damaging the positive culture of the business, was required. But where to start?
Recognising that previous attempts at change had been hampered by years of doing things a certain way, and that undoing that muscle-memory had proven too tough to make lasting progress, Duncan turned to support from outside the company. Duncan aimed to get a fresh perspective on how to make the lasting changes necessary to realise the company ambitions. Enter Andy Goram, a business and engagement strategist from Bizjuicer Consulting. With more than 25 years’ experience working across diverse business sectors, such as leisure, retail, hospitality, care and gaming, Andy has spent most of his time as a member of the C-suite. Whilst primarily wearing a marketing hat, he’s always worked closely and collaboratively with HR and Operations to ensure everything was aligned to the business culture, and was clearly understood and communicated in a simple, engaging and compelling way. Now, with a keen focus on the engagement of the people within an organisation, Andy helps businesses prepare for growth by helping them design, align and communicate clear strategy, actionable values and a compelling brand story.
This is not a story of a small business spending a fortune and hiring a big consulting business to make its smaller business bigger – Andy and Duncan are friends outside of work, stemming from having kids at the same school in the early days and wives working on the PTA. Andy was a year into going it alone (not quite one of the Big Four, yet!) and Duncan needed help from someone he could trust. Andy could see the stresses Duncan was dealing with and wanted to provide that help.
“It just seemed like a natural fit. Andy knows me and the business but didn’t have any of our baggage!” said Duncan.
“It’s great to be able to help a friend out, in a business-sense, and in a business that has clearly done so well already,” agreed Andy. “Plus, I absolutely love the pace that comes with working with smaller businesses. We can chat about something today, make a decision and then make it happen right away. That’s so refreshing when you’ve worked in big, much slower corporate businesses, I can tell you.”
So, the challenge to grow, without tearing-up the existing culture was agreed and the two of them set to work on taking TFS to the next level.
Let’s not forget that TFS is a successful business. It services many happy customers every day and has long-lasting relationships with lots of them. This is not a turnaround job. This is a future growth job and it starts with setting some sound foundations. Well, it actually started with a whole bunch of conversations.
As an “outsider”, sitting down with employees of a company and talking to them about their business is a wonderful privilege. You get to see and hear what the business is really like. It’s always surprising how much of a truth serum a friendly smile, a cup of coffee and some shortbread can be. You get to hear the good, the bad and the ugly. Hopefully, if you ask the right questions and create the right atmosphere, you also get to feel the passion and loyalty people have for it. The outputs of these conversations will often confirm or dismiss your hunches and pre-conceptions, and give you a real insight into what might be needed and in which priority. This was the case with the team at TFS. Aside from the things that could be improved, what stood out was the company’s fantastically warm, genuinely friendly family feel.
It was evident from the conversations that as the business had grown over the years, the approach to handling that growth hadn’t really evolved from the early days. Work would get done by whoever was nearest or had capacity. Everybody mucked in and did their part. While this effort had managed to get the business to its current size, the same approach would struggle to elevate it to the lofty, future ambitions that Duncan had.
Putting their heads together, Duncan and Andy have now devised the “Next Stage” plan – a starting series of connected steps focused on getting the business better organised and aligned, so that it was ready to make a successful assault on the ultimate growth target. The initial five-step plan consists of:
- Produce and communicate a reduced two-year strategy plan that gives clear direction to the team and reasons behind the actions to be taken.
- Set and share clear, personal objectives for the management team that link to the vision, mission and objective of the two-year plan.
- Re-organise the management team and their direct reports, ensuring each role has clear responsibilities and accountabilities. Again, these will be shared with colleagues so everybody is clear about who does what.
- Introduce a monthly management meeting structure that moves from a chinwag about “stuff” to an action-orientated session, where individuals take ownership for actions and communication of progress.
- Set up a coaching and mentoring framework for the management team and their direct reports, that gave them the skills and confidence to find better ways to release the full potential of their teams and handle some of the more difficult areas of people-management.
These are just the first few steps in building the solid foundations for growth. They are pointedly focused on organising and equipping the senior team with the skills, authority and confidence to take ownership, make decisions and get the best out of their people.
Duncan, Andy and the team are at the start of this exciting journey and you can follow their progress here. In the next few articles, we’ll look at the people who make TFS work, their reaction to the new plan and the impact it’s having on their daily lives.
Technical Foam Services supply industrial rubber and foam conversion services, and expertly engineered foam and rubber products to some of the most successful companies and innovative start-ups all over the world. Get in touch here.
Andy Goram is the owner of Bizjuicer – a consultancy that believes engaged people are capable of extraordinary things. He helps businesses light the fires within their people and exceed their goals by helping them design, align and communicate clear strategy, actionable values and a compelling brand story that the team feel proud of and connected to. Get in touch here.