Representatives from some of the most successful businesses throughout Cheshire came together for a round table discussion about their achievements and the current economic climate in the county.
‘There has been too much gloom and doom. The pendulum is swinging back.’
This was the optimistic verdict of Michael Oliver, chairman and founder of Oliver Valves in Knutsford, when talking about the manufacturing industry in Cheshire.
And there are few people in the county better placed to make that kind of bold statement than Mr Oliver who was declared the Business Person of the Year at the 2012 Cheshire Business Awards last autumn. He was one of the guests at the CBA Winners Lunch which took place at Oddfellows in Chester on Friday, hosted by awards sponsors SAS Daniels and Click Consult and organisers Trinity Mirror North West and North Wales.
“Manufacturing is starting to come back. You can see the start of the resurgence of the UK economy,” he confidently predicted.
And he went on to stress the recent acquisition by the University of Chester of the Shell research and development facilities at Ellesmere Port will help consolidate that progress.
His upbeat message was welcomed and echoed by many of those assembled for a round table discussion to share accounts of how they have helped make their businesses successful and why Cheshire is the right place to be.
Carl Wood, commercial director with Trinity Mirror North West and North Wales, summarised the aim of the event: “We want to look at what components make a successful business through the experience you have had in running a successful company, to help encourage and inspire other businesses in Cheshire.
“It has been tough out there and it is still tough out there. We want to explore the things you are doing in your business that make them successful so other businesses can learn from it.”
The discussion began by asking everyone what it takes to create a successful business to which Michael Oliver instantly replied: “Fear of failure. For anyone who is running a business, it is insecurity which drives it.”
But he added: “I also have top people working for me. The main thing is to surround yourself with people who are better than you in all departments. They create the hot air that takes your balloon higher. “And you have got to be focussed. A lot of people swerve off left, right and centre.”
Les Hobson, manufacturing director with Unipart Rail Ltd, which has offices in Crewe, agreed but added: “You must also be confident in equal measure. It is probably a balance of the two. For the first couple of years, you will be worried. But hard work is the basis of most things. Most people around this table are doing long hours, longer than they were a few years ago.” ‘Chutzpah’ was another vital ingredient emphasised by Mark Ingram, managing director of GHA Livigunn Ltd in Cheadle.
“We have made one or two acquisitions which have almost always failed because they do not want to break out. The younger you do this the better. I was 28 when I did it although there are people in their 50s who say it was the best thing they ever did because they had the confidence to break out of their comfort zone and test themselves.”
Mr Oliver gave an account of the circumstances which led to the creation of his incredibly successful business which now has a worldwide reputation for quality. “I was working for a company and had a row with the chairman and he fired me on the spot. You could do that in those days!
“I went home and said to my wife I had a great idea for a valve. So I cleared the garage out and started assembling them. Then I knew the only guy who could fire me would be the bank manager.
“We’ve just produced our five millionth valve all based on that first valve I showed to my wife. “I charge a lot of money for my product. I’m in business to make money. But we have got to make good valves to make good money and we are perceived as the Rolls Royce of valve makers. You can then finance growth without going back to the bank.”
Another subject on which there was general consensus was how essential it was to hire the best people to get the job done.
Mr Ingram admitted: “We have hired some duck eggs over the years and you have to get them out of the door quickly. I read the book Good to Great by Jim Collins over an Easter weekend and that was one of the main lessons. When in doubt, do not hire. Do not put up with people who will drag you down.”
And he also had some words of advice for companies when it comes to dealing with valued members of staff who have contributed significantly to their success. He said: “Treat your people well and pay them well. I have always said I do not want anyone to leave because of their remuneration package. How they get treated should never be a reason for someone to leave.”
Finding the right people to recruit is far from easy, though, especially in the manufacturing sector, as Mr Oliver explained.
“Trained engineers coming out of university are non-existent. The good ones are snapped up but there are not enough of them coming through.”
This is one of the reasons he has committed to helping out with the new University of Chester faculty at the former Shell R&D site.
“We are hopefully going to help them get the new faculty up and running. This is going to be very favourable for Cheshire. We need more proper engineers coming out of university and this will help achieve that.”
Modern trends were pointed to as a reason why skills such as engineering are becoming more difficult to find these days.
Claire Davies, head of marketing at Hooton-based Click Consult, said: “It’s all about what is trendy. A lot of people do not hear about engineering courses anymore. It’s all about what courses seem exciting.”
Business development director at SAS Daniels, which has offices in Chester, Stockport, Macclesfield and Congleton, added: “In marketing, you have coming out of university eight times the number of people than there are jobs for them. These people say: “I am only qualified to do marketing. What do I do?””
A similar situation was highlighted by John Mortimer, business development manager at Equilibrium Asset Management LLP, based in Wilmslow, who said: “We are in the administration business. If we advertise a job, it is not a case of where are the applicants – we get thousands. Trawling through them and funnelling it down to people we do want is hard work.”
The many virtues of being based in Cheshire rather than elsewhere in the UK was also a theme of the discussion, especially the way the county is so well favoured with communications. Claire Ross, head of bids and strategy at Click Consult, said: “The cost of running a business down south means the dynamic is changing along with the north-south divide. You can now cover the whole of the UK from the north thanks to communications. So you can go to wherever is best for your business in the market you are in. Cheshire is ideally placed to do that to service the UK.”
Chief executive of SAS Daniels, added: “We have a highly skilled, intelligent work force in Cheshire. We are blessed.”
A more literal form of communication, however, was highlighted as a problem by Mark Ingram: “We do need faster broadband in Cheshire to enable more video conferencing to take place.” Dave Collins-Lafferty, business development and marketing manager at Prism Total IT Solutions Ltd in Congleton, agreed this was a widespread problem.
He said: “A lot of the country is in the same position with broadband. A lot of home broadband is better than that available to business.” The discussion approached its conclusion with an emphasis on the benefits of simply thinking positively about Cheshire and the economic situation with Laura Parkinson pointing out how we can learn a thing or two from the success of last summer’s London Olympics.
She said: “You look at what we achieved with the Olympics. Despite a lot of doom and gloom, a lot of people just got in there and did a good job and pulled it off.”
Les Hobson echoed this by stressing: “We are not good at telling our story in this country. In Cheshire, we need to be telling our story and saying what is good about the area. And we should not be afraid to share best practice. If you see someone with a good idea, take it back and improve your own business.”
SAS Daniels Chief Executive concluded: “We do not shout about it anywhere near enough. Cheshire is the ninth biggest economy in the UK and the biggest outside the south east. It is already motoring as a sub region.”
The above article was published in the Chester Chronicle on Thursday, 18 April 2013. Thank you to Trinity Mirror North West and North Wales for granting permission to use the text.