“I’ve lost my job!” were the first words David uttered when he turned up to see me in early 2002. David and I had known each other for well over twenty years, since our time in the lighting industry running competitor companies. Despite the intense rivalry between our organisations we had always enjoyed each other’s friendship when we met at industry functions. We had lost touch with each other when David had moved to the south for a new role but he had recently relocated back to Yorkshire again. We spent time together discussing what had happened and the options David had for his next career move.
It was some months before I met David again, but when he came calling it was to set my career off in a new direction and widen my portfolio of roles still further. “I’ve got an idea for a business.” was David’s greeting that second meeting, “Are you interested?” He went on to say that he had paid a large sum of money to sign up with what claimed to be a not for profit organisation that provided re-training for executives wishing to move into business consultancy. David’s view was that the course he had attended had provided poor value for money and he believed we could do far better in setting up our own competing service.
I was noncommittal that first day but said that I would research the sector and see if the concept of a competing business made sense. I went through the process of producing a draft business plan. After reviewing the company in question, all similar businesses and the Small and Medium Enterprise (SME) sector I came to the view that, given David’s recent experience, we could well put together a superior service. When I added in our respective experience and skills I became convinced that this was a viable proposition. I met up with David once more, took him through my findings and we quickly trashed out the actions required to get our new business started.
Within a short period I had registered a company (The Academy of Business Consultants), obtained a VAT registration, taken out the required insurances, produced a corporate identity, leaflets and business cards, created and implemented a website and sketched out a marketing and operations plan. I was driven! Working with David proved to be extremely productive as we found that we had a synergistic effect upon each other that made creating concepts and resolving problems a simple and enjoyable process. Within six months of our initial discussions we had our business and launch plans complete and placed the first advertisement of our advertising campaign in the Sunday Times.
The concept we had developed involved refining the enquiries we received from the advertising campaign, getting the candidates to complete an online personality profiling questionnaire and inviting them to an evening seminar. During these seminars we would outline a genuine array of career options open to them, present a profile of the SME sector and its needs, pitch our training course concept and provide valuable feedback on their behavioural preferences and how these might impact upon future roles. The responses we received to the advertising were good and we ran seminars in the North, Midlands and London. However, despite receiving healthy attendance and strong interest it quickly became apparent that we had a failure on our hands. We had encountered an insurmountable problem.
We had offered a better and more relevant training programme, set our price at a more attractive level and matched the offering of refined leads and continuing support to those completing the training programme. There was, however, a critical element of our main competitor’s offering that clinched business for them but one we had chosen not to follow. One of the key factors that invariably clinched the sale for our competitor was an ‘income guarantee’. Having reviewed the documentation that David had been given it was clear that the guarantee was all but worthless, so hedged around with conditions and procedures that it was almost inconceivable that anyone could succeed with a claim. Little wonder that they boasted that they had never had to pay out! We decided that it would be unethical to match this misleading offer and we changed the direction of our business.
Whilst David had found that the ‘hot leads’ he had been provided by our competitor were at best on the tepid side of stone cold he had, nevertheless, succeeded in building a strong client base of his own. An interesting and resourceful turn of events had been David’s success in persuading a local firm of chartered accountants to sub-contract the provision of business advice for clients to him. This experience had led him into a similar arrangement with other firms. The accounting firms were all members of a national marketing membership organisation (we’ll call them XYZ) that provided help and assistance to members to enable them to run a better business.
We knew from research conducted by Strathclyde University that accountants were the most trusted source of advice amongst private business owners. However, David’s experience was that beyond the traditional areas of accounting and tax, most small and medium sized accounting firms shied away from offering other forms of business related advice. “Why don’t we offer our business advice service to more of XYZ’s members?” I suggested. “They obviously see the commercial wisdom of offering advice to clients but don’t feel confident or expert enough to do so themselves.” David agreed and this was the genesis of our new business venture.
I joined David (in my ‘spare time’) in widening the number of firms we approached and we quickly succeeded in winning further clients amongst the members. Convinced that the service we were providing was potentially of real value to XYZ, we decided to approach them. This was not a simple matter and it took many attempts over six months before we sat across a desk from one of the two founders. The meeting went well and we came away with an agreement to trial our service to a sample of their members. We recruited another highly experienced business advisor to join us and once again proved we could deliver results. Some months later the trial was extended to a further region and the results continued to improve.
A short way into our extended trial the three of us started to uncover the same situation time and again. It was the practice owner rather than their clients who was in most urgent need of face to face business guidance and support. Despite being highly qualified and experienced chartered accountants the vast majority of practice owners lacked the wider business skills to get the most from their teams and their clients. The answer we soon implemented was to commence a coaching programme with the practice owner in addition to our work with their clients.
We had implemented a client satisfaction feedback process whereby our researcher, interviewed every practice owner and client we worked with following a set period. The feedback we received was invaluable and showed our service to be rated either first or second out of the whole XYZ offering. It also enabled us to take corrective action where required and ensure that our service continued to meet members’ needs. We also fed back the results to each associate and the XYZ management. The change of direction was extremely successful and led to a real breakthrough when XYZ asked us to provide a national service for every new member they recruited. We then formed a new company with XYZ as partners. Given that we were now about to create a business with effectively a sole customer, we argued that such a shared destiny required a reciprocal shareholding in XYZ. We were not successful in this but settled for the right to attend and participate in their board meetings.
Faced with a national launch far beyond the geographic capabilities of three of us we started an intensive recruitment campaign to cover the entire UK. Within a short period we assembled and trained a team of 20 associates, each of whom had previously held at least one role as MD or chairman. Ironically, each of these new associates had been uncovered via our previous competitor’s online network! Based on the experience that we had gathered from our existing work, our model was based upon a mix of coaching and mentoring. We knew that pure coaching methodologies (the coach questions and the coachee provides their own solutions) can provide strong results. However, our own experience showed that a combination of coaching blended with appropriate guidance (based on the vast experience of our associates) enabled a time-efficient and professional solution.
By this stage I had been running businesses for thirty years and been an owner of various different organisations for ten. These organisations had been many times larger than the one David and I had created and they had given me rich and varied experience. But having created a successful organisation together from the failure of our initial concept was richly and uniquely rewarding. To start and build a successful business is something really rather special. We were now helping many business owners and their teams to be more successful as organisations and more fulfilled as individuals. David and I had continued to make a truly synergistic team where difficulties were merely fresh challenges to be overcome. With David’s superior interpersonal skills and my research, analysis and organisational work we were a powerful team.
David and I also worked closely with our new partners, resulting in initially a strong relationship. However, management changes took place within their organisation after a couple of years and differences of opinion started to emerge over strategy. As time moved on I found that I was spending more and more time attempting to negotiate a resolution of these differences. I became to realise that the rich feelings of satisfaction with our business that I had enjoyed so much had all but evaporated. I could see only opportunity squandered and a loss of personal freedom stretching ahead. A concept that both David and I had planned to run on into retirement had become something from which I could no longer derive satisfaction.
Following lengthy discussions over the situation we both seemed to realise that events had changed so much that we could never recapture the fun and satisfaction we had previously enjoyed. Subsequently, following discussions with our partners, an offer was made to buy out my stake in the business and in 2010, after 8 great years working with David, I departed.
Reading over this last chapter I realise that it ends on a very low note but that accurately reflects the way it felt at the time. There is a very much more complex story that I have abbreviated into a few short paragraphs but legal reasons preclude me from going into greater detail. I really missed what David and I had created but time and circumstances had moved on and I had to do likewise.
David continued to run the business with our previous partners for another two years until the situation changed once more and the contract was terminated. He is now continuing to offer business coaching and advice to a much wider spectrum of professions and still working with most of our previous associates. I wish him every success in what remains a valuable endeavour.
We had succeeded in building this business together whilst I was still heavily involved in the running of ABC, Trisk and Bison as well as chairing Hallamshire. I still don’t know how it all fitted together into 365 day years – perhaps the extra day in leap years helped. And yes, whilst I was having fun in all these businesses, there was always the time I spent each week in Newcastle with the big investment I had made in Metal Spinners Group. And events there were becoming ever more involving.
Less than a month after my departure an event took place in Newcastle that was to have far reaching implications.