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. Tony McDonough reports on what they had to say. Pictures by Ian Cooper.
Attracting and retaining people with the right skills is a key issue for Cheshire businesses.
That was just one of the topics discussed during a business round table organised by Trinity Mirror, owners of the Chester and Flintshire Chronicles and the Ellesmere Port Pioneer.
Chairing the discussion was business development director at Trinity Mirror Cheshire and North Wales Andy Phelan and taking part were Matt Bullas and Andrew Smith of digital marketing agency Click Consult, and Kaye Whitby, Jeremy Orrell and Tom Cressey of law firm SAS Daniels. Both firms were the main sponsors of the awards.
Award winners present included Chris Naylor of Peckforton Castle, who was Business Person of the Year; Mike Jennings of GHA LiviGunn, Employer of the Year; Russ Kavanagh of LearnerVerse, Start-Up of the Year; Les Hobson of Unipart Rail, winner of the Aspiring Apprenticeships Award; Brian Gelling, of Daulby Read Insurance Brokers, winner of the CSR Award; and Terry Hearfield of Aspect Construction Contracts, who was the Young Business Person of the Year.
Andy Phelan kicked off the discussion with the question: what does it take to create a successful company?
All agreed that hiring and keeping the right people was essential for keeping their businesses moving forward.
“It is all about the people,” said Mike Jennings.
“We won the Employer of the Year award and it is all about empowering the people in the workforce and making sure they are motivated – it is about keeping them engaged.”
Matt Bullas identified two strands that were important in engaging his firm’s workforce – having a clear strategy and plan with goals to work towards and making sure people understood what was expected of them over a specific timeframe.
He explained: “We have a company meeting every two weeks. I will give updates and then we go through the managers and we talk through every area of the business in terms of what has happened in the last two weeks and what is happening over the next two weeks.
“The staff have really bought into that because they feel they are part of the business and have been given a clear vision.”
Chris Naylor said his achievement of becoming Business Person of the Year would not have been possible without the work of his team at Peckforton Castle.
He said: “It is all about the people that you have around you. We tend to recruit from within so we have people pushing at the door at each level which in turn pushes on those above them to keep delivering.
“We have a young team who are all keen to push through to manager level.”
Mr Naylor said that, unlike other sectors, the problem in the hospitality industry in Cheshire was finding people to take up the lower paid casual or entry level jobs.
“There is quite a lot of money in this area and you have parents who are giving young people an allowance every week and so they don’t want the jobs.”
Les Hobson of Unipart Rail said his company’s key strategy was to join up employee engagement and customer engagement. This, he added, was key to winning extra work worth millions of pounds from existing clients.
However, he said that competition for skilled people in the rail sector was fierce and that keeping hold of good people was an ongoing battle.
“I come from the rail industry and we have been recession-proof since 2008,” he said.
“Network Rail have billions to spend over each five-year period and over the next five years they have ï¿½33bn to spend.
“What we are finding is that people are getting poached because salaries are getting higher and higher. We have got to find a different way of keeping people engaged.”
Kaye Whitby said offering staff extra benefits, such as access to professional advisors, could prove a powerful tool in staff retention.
“I think during the recession, businesses have been very reluctant to buy in outside services,” she said. “That is now changing and they will buy in expertise. Your business will be stifled unless you can do that.”
The panel also discussed the challenges of managing clients’ expectations.
Good service was now a “given” they agreed – clients expect that as a minimum and often seek added value.
Brian Gelling said that although price was a key factor for his clients in insurance broking, it was still important to go that bit further to win and retain business.
He explained: “The biggest thing for us is that extra angle that we can give to the client that makes us different from our competitors – it is about making yourself stand out.
“Our industry is very price-focused but that is not the be-all and end-all. You look at the bigger picture and try to understand what the client wants and what they expect.”
Kaye Whitby agreed adding that it was vital to approach client meetings with an open mind.
“It is about listening to what the client wants rather than having pre-conceived ideas,” she said.
“You may assume they just want legal advice but when you sit down with them they are looking for a more diverse approach in terms of adding value to their business. I think that is the expectation now.”
Her colleague Jeremy Orrell chipped in: “Relationships are key. Every business has blips so when your relationships are strong your clients will stay with you through difficult periods.”
An ongoing issue for businesses in recent times has been access to finance and this topic was raised during the discussion.
Russ Kavanagh, whose firm LearnerVerse develops educational software, described the lack of finance options for fledgling companies as a “joke”.
He said: “We look to our American cousins and we see millions of pounds going towards start-up and seed funding – nowhere near as good as we find here.
“We have had to be innovative and smart in the way we work. We have put very little money in.
“We have a partnership with the University of Chester with whom we have a profit-sharing agreement.
“We went to a social media company in the States and arranged a partnership with them. We have had to be very daring and very bold. For our staff, we cannot pay them huge amounts of money.
“We have a John Lewis approach with partnerships and profit-sharing.”
Mr Orrell pointed out that local firms struggle when it comes to winning work from public bodies, particularly Cheshire’s local authorities.
“It is a real challenge to get into the public sector – they put a lot of obstacles in the way and won’t use local firms,” he said.
“They all organise meet the buyer events but in reality they just channel the work elsewhere and I don’t think that helps to develop the region.”
Other topics discussed at the event were the growing importance of social media and the need for more cohesion among business support agencies in the county.
The panel also touched on the qualities needed in a good leader and talked about the importance of trusting people within their organisations to make key decisions.
Matt Bullas said the “cultural fit” was important when hiring senior staff into his company.
“I deliver on the entrepreneurial side of the business and it is important to get a mix of different skills in the management team.
“I don’t expect them to be able to do everything. You need three or four seniors with a good mix of skills that combine into a team – otherwise you can find there are clashes between people.”
Young Business Person of the Year, Terry Hearfield, says it is the confident entrepreneur who trusts key people within his or her business and can, when necessary, take a step back.
He added: “Sometimes I think business people can struggle to admit that they don’t have their finger on every aspect of the business.
“As a good leader you need to find people who are better than you in specific areas and trust those people.
“Some leaders are perhaps less confident and may actually fear people who have more knowledge then they do.”