Wednesday, February 24, 2021
Next month (March) marks 15 years since I acquired a humble lifting and rigging company that employed six staff in South Wales. I was 30 at the time (don’t do the maths!) and had already been in the lifting sector for 12 years. Today, 80 employees turn up each morning at eight national RSS sites across the UK.
And, guess what? We’re only just getting started.
But this isn’t a blog about everyone getting together for a slice of socially-distanced cake (sorry, Alan). I want to take an opportunity to stress the importance of plans and, wherever possible, transparency in business. I can point to many things that have led to the growth and success of our company over the years—customers, people, fortune, etc.—but without a roadmap, there would have been no destination; and, without clarity of message and a vision that people could buy into to, I’m not sure we would have even opened our second depot in Templeborough, Rotherham, let alone our third in Aylesford, Kent; and fourth in Grangemouth, Scotland; and so on.
Let’s look at plans and transparency in more detail:
Man with a plan
Without a plan, it’s unlikely that a goal can be achieved. How would you even know where it was? And it’s got to be a good, long-term ambition. One of the problems with government and leadership generally is that plans are too immediate. “Get Brexit done,” is a good example. Then what? There’s no value in soundbites that lack substance and don’t provide the footholds for a big climb. Many governments and businesses alike are constantly falling back to the foot of a cliff-face because they only sell people on how they’re going to get part of the way.
An endpoint has got to be real too. I’ve long been associated with my vision to open 10 regional lifting and rigging depots across the UK. It’s a clear target. People know how to count to 10 and understand what 10 buildings in 10 areas looks like. There’s also a clue what order we’ll go in: 1, 2, 3, 4… Everyone comprehends. It wasn’t an airy-fairy plan to change the course of history or reinvent the way people lift and move materials. No, history has its own path; and gravity hasn’t changed its intent to bring everything crashing back down to earth.
However, the end point is the starting point when it comes to planning. I’ll explain. There’s no point setting a target to open 10 depots (or whatever your own goal is) in 2006 and expecting to arrive there waving flags and blowing trumpets 20 years later. We worked backwards from that moment and started by solving the puzzle: how do we get from one depot to two? We then looked at getting the South Wales operation as close to how we wanted it as possible, before assessing the value of entering different regions. Then it became about finding the right people. Then came the Templeborough site, and so on. At every step we were executing a plan within a plan.
At the risk of sounding ambiguous, I also want to stress the necessity of flexibility within these plans. That doesn’t mean allow scope to meander off course, or travel in a different direction, but you’ve got to react to obstacles in the road. We’ve all seen that illustration that appears on LinkedIn with increasing regularity, where a person has one idea of a plan in mind, ascending an even hill to a summit; and another, which represents reality, where the same two points are separated by mountains, ravines, forests and lakes, etc. There are times where we must wait for a storm to pass or build a raft to cross a waterway.
The biggest flexibility within my 10 depot plan is that we’re likely to go beyond it in the coming years. But I’ve already been planning for that for a while.
An open book
It’s clear when you look at the complexities of planning, that it’s crucial to be clear and transparent about them. There are some plans that I keep private to myself but, in the main, my vision is shared with everyone at the company. If you stopped any of my staff onsite and asked them where the boss was headed, they would be able to tell you. Consider how valuable this transparency is. Imagine the uncertainty among staff and customers alike if they weren’t sure if Grangemouth was to be our last facility, or not. Think of the chaos that would ensue if some thought the plan was to make each depot much larger and diversify into general plant hire (*gulps*).
The benefit of such openness among business leaders is best seen as a company grows and arguably becomes a target for larger, acquisitive firms. The lifting and rigging sector is constantly evolving in terms of companies taking over others. The pandemic era is likely to see that continue. There’s nothing wrong with preparing a business for sale—or not—but it helps in the planning process if the goal is clear. Of course, acquisitions are shrouded in secrecy, but I don’t want my staff going to work every day wondering if there’ll be new owners tomorrow.
As I’ve told trade media when they’ve quizzed me on this, it’s interesting how people react when you approach these milestones. I remember talking to the press when I celebrated a decade of ownership and, again, it seems to have prompted questions about exit strategies and completion of a journey. But I feel as fresh as I did 15 years ago and remain focussed on continued expansion of the company. More important to me than selling my business is being challenged every day, enjoying life and being part of a team striving for goals. I’m ticking those boxes here and I’m crystal clear about my willingness to keep going.
Too early to talk about a dynasty
When I set out on this path with the company 15 years ago, I didn’t see my children being part of the journey. To be honest, I didn’t see them being involved even only a few years ago, but the value of flexibility—and opportunism—are evident in that Lacey, financial controller; and Morgan, apprentice welder are very much part of the tapestry now. It’s important to acknowledge their presence, but it doesn’t change anything from a planning or directional standpoint. Of course, I’m mindful that I need to ensure the business caters for their development as young people, but that’s no different to anyone else who comes to work here.
There are many family businesses in our sector and I know a lot of first, second, and third generation owners. It’s too early to be talking about our business—or family—in these terms, but it’s always interesting to see how these companies are operated. It’s certainly not for everyone to invite their children into a firm, and in many cases not for the younger generation either. Lacey and Morgan will grow in age and stature within RSS, I’m sure, and we’ll see what the future holds.
Generally, I think sons and daughters of owners in the lifting sector, particular those who’ve moved into ownership or leadership positions, step up to the plate and do an excellent job. It comes with a great deal of expectation, and sometimes resentment, so good luck to anyone who has successfully taken the baton and ran with it.
It’s impossible to look back on 15 years of ownership—and 27 years in this industry—without remembering the low points along the way. While we’ve never endured a pandemic like Coronavirus in our generation, we have survived recessions and emerged from the other side, much like we will do again. Some people and businesses won’t make it, which only emphasises the need to keep a steady head.
We’ve been fortunate as an essential business that provides equipment for other necessary work that we’ve remained operational for much of the last 12 months. Simultaneously, I have refocussed my plans and have been energised by realisation of the importance of people and face-to-face contact with employees and industry contacts. I have redoubled efforts to ensure further growth and will embrace the future challenges that the lifestyle brings.
I’ve been mindful to retain perspective though; just because we will come out of the pandemic stronger than we went in, it doesn’t mean others will be able to do the same, no matter how hard they’ve tried or how dynamic they’ve become. We all have a duty to be dignified, tasteful, and sensitive heading into what might be the brighter months of spring and summer, but remain dark and desperate for many.
Inevitably, the pandemic has driven a lot of buying activity online. I’d urge the lifting gear suppliers prioritising online sales to proceed with caution, though; nobody wants to be busy selling £10 orders like Amazon. The race to the bottom can be a doomed one. Location is still important to effective nationwide service and delivery is dependent on the right leadership and staff at each of our eight (and counting) sites.
Our people, and our ability to retain them, are second to none. We have an online store, but our customers prefer the personal touch—and we like to provide a personal service. I sell the same product that I did 27 years ago and the rules of the game remain unchanged: keep it simple; service is key to growth; enjoy yourself; don’t get too excited in good times, and never too down in rough times.
It’s just business.
Here’s to the next 15 years.