Is Your Business Built To Last? Keep Long-Term Vision in Mind
By Sue Tabbitt. Updated February 13, 2017.
Over the years and decades, companies will face various challenges, opportunities and decision-making crossroads. The route they choose could have a strong bearing on how long that business stays afloat.
Whatever the current distractions, it helps to keep the long-term vision in mind.
Client Trust Is Something You Can’t Buy
Law firms often have histories that stretch back decades. If the service is consistently reliable, clients may remain loyal for generations.
But this isn’t something practices can take for granted, as Swansea-based DJM Solicitors has learnt. As it grew and became more corporate, it began to lose the reassuring family-business feel its clients valued, and staff began to feel less personally invested.
The firm, which celebrated its 70th anniversary last year, traces its origins back to a friendship struck up between two solicitors during their commute to work. They soon started up their own practice in a rented room in central Swansea.
Their activities attracted national interest: co-founder John Mercer acted for the last person to be hanged in Swansea prison. But it was the cozy feel and personal service that kept clients coming back. Current practice director Barry Davies joined in 1990 as an accounting assistant after his A Levels, while he worked out what to do next. He felt so at home, he never left.
Despite rapid growth in the 1970s, a branch structure stopped the firm feeling too big. But it consolidated its operations in Swansea after economic recession in the 1990s, later moving to a business park and becoming a limited company with a board of directors. This reflected its changing focus too, which had shifted from “regular high street activities” to more commercial legal work.
Older partners were beginning to retire and the firm was developing a more modern feel, fronted by shiny new glass and steel offices and younger staff. But something had been lost in the process and staff were becoming unsettled, threatening the firm’s future.
“There was pressure to become more hard-nosed and corporate, but it wasn’t working for us,” Davies says. “The more senior partners commented that it wasn’t like the old days; they were glad to be retiring.”
Davies was made a partner/director in 2010 (billable hours and profitability are now important measures of success in the sector, so it is acceptable for accountants to run practices). Despite his financial bias, Davies is keen to stay true to the values that resonate most with clients -- and which have been key to hanging on to good people.
“It’s not just about having whizz-bang systems (though we have these too),” he notes. “It’s the trust that stands out in client surveys, the fact that we’ve provided a family solution for years. You can’t buy that,” he says.
To secure the firm’s future, Davies has gone back to basics, reviewing the way it invests in people -- offering equity to younger board members who were salaried but had no stake in the firm. “They were getting twitchy because they couldn’t see a progression plan,” he says. He also proposed taking on a new tranche of ‘associate directors’ -- halfway between an assistant and a partner - to secure the next generation of successors. DJM will also be looking to acquire other local law firms with a similar ethos, supporting its plan to double revenues and maximize profits over the next 5-10 years.
Breadth of Experience Is as Important as Depth
For London-based design and marketing agency Greenwich Design, now into its sixth decade, longevity is about breadth as well as depth of experience.
The small, family-owned business still employs only 10 people, but has some big named clients. It designed the original Mothercare logo and has just celebrated its 50th anniversary of working with Shell.
Our staff turnover has been unbelievably low. People tend to join and stay for their career”
MD Simon Wright took over the reins from his father, Peter, who drew up the Mothercare design in his bedroom in Bromley, south London, when he was fresh out of art school. A year later he was joined by a friend who had been working at Shell, securing a further household brand.
Simon came on board in 1984, after cutting his teeth at other agencies. Although the company remained small, it was doing some good work and Bromley was starting to feel a bit parochial, prompting a move to Greenwich -- “a more fitting location for an exciting design agency,” Wright says. Growing the design team was never the big ambition: “Modern technology enables one designer to do the work of three now,” he notes. But one thing the firm has guarded carefully is its reputation as an ‘all-rounder’.
“Our clients vary from a leather shop in Greenwich Market to an anti-counterfeit company in Melbourne; and our work ranges from honey labels for Harrods to an exhibition stand for Ferrari,” Wright says. “That’s great for an agency, to keep the creative juices flowing.” Being ‘specialists in lots of areas’ means the Greenwich Design team understands how all of the parts work together. “This is key to our worth to Shell -- we can help them across the board,” he notes. Success breeds success too: working for such a big name has also brought in business from HSBC and PwC.
The variety also keeps the team interested. “Our staff turnover has been unbelievably low,” Wright says. “People tend to join and stay for their career. With larger agencies, you don’t get that same opportunity.”
Keeping pace with the market is vital too though, and Wright concedes that with all of the evolving opportunities arising from social media it is finally time to delegate, via a new inter-agency collaboration strategy. “We’re developing a virtual network of expert teams that we can pull together for a client,” Wright explains. Under the ‘The Chemistry Works’ umbrella, Greenwich Design will be able to field any combination of PR, design and brand strategy skills for the project in hand. “It ensures we won’t get left behind,” he says.
Any Business Can Benefit from a Brand Makeover
At Poole Dick, a 67-year-old quantity surveying firm in Manchester which flourished thanks to post-war local authority spending in the 1950s, continuous reinvention is the key to staying relevant.
The business has only had four managing directors, the latest of which is Steve Connolly who is spearheading the firm’s latest roadmap, dubbed 2020 Vision.
Feedback from a client survey in 2010 revealed a market perception of Poole Dick as a safe pair of hands, but a bit boring. With help from external consultants, the firm’s directors resolved to put ‘The Poole Dick Way’ on the map as the template for managing a successful construction project in the UK.
They decided to start from the inside out -- investing in staff development, culture and the physical environment. “When people walk in now, the company looks more like an advertising agency than a QS firm,” Connolly says, pointing to new murals, stenciled messages and modern ‘break-out’ areas. “A more creative space encourages more creative thinking, one of our core values.”
Regular ‘story & skills share’ sessions reflect the fact that modern QS requires more than technical knowhow. Staff drive leadership and interpersonal skills training - from emotional intelligence and speed reading to public speaking and networking -- following a principle that ‘the best way to learn something is to teach it’. They also share significant experiences; the really interesting ones are turned into blogs on Poole Dick’s website, which have a growing audience.
Other innovations include using videos in client pitches, showcasing the firm’s ‘Inside Out’ approach, for example. This has led to project wins, despite Poole Dick not being the cheapest bidder, Connolly notes. “It shows we’re moving in the right direct in ‘de-commoditizing’ our brand.” The firm is also picking up business from outside its core markets: supermarket chain Lidl is among its new clients.
A willingness to keep challenging itself, as well as investing in keeping its people challenged and engaged, have proved a winning formula.