UK: Building A World-Class Company

Last Updated: 16 November 2011
Article by Smith & Williamson

Tips from our expert panel

Every entrepreneur aspires to create a firstrate business, but achieving this is no mean feat. So, how do you make that all-important breakthrough? Enterprise speaks to a leading panel of experts to get their views on how to get your business to the top.

Making the breakthrough

Perhaps unsurprisingly, strong leadership is seen as one of the main ingredients for a business to make the breakthrough, according to our panel. Lara Morgan, founder and CEO of, says: "Becoming world class begins from the outset with the key ingredients being leadership by example and having an established and well-communicated statement of intent – otherwise, I imagine it's a far more painful process."

Stuart Miller, co-founder and CEO of supply chain management company ByBox, illustrates the need to lead by example when he talks about the importance of balancing a winning culture with an institutional humility. He says there should be "a commitment by all parts of the business to perform to the best of their ability, with no chest-puffing, cultural emblems, such as directors' offices or parking spaces".

Steve Gilroy, chief executive of Vistage, a leading membership organisation for chief executives and managing directors, says: "A clear vision and value proposition, understood and worked on by all staff, with regular reminders, updates and reinforcement is essential. You also need a practical set of goals and milestones cascaded throughout the organisation and a commitment to follow through."

Andrew Lester, chairman of Carr- Michael Consulting, focuses on the customer proposition. He says making the breakthrough is about "driving cash and delivering sustainable growth". This involves "strong management of timing, waste, costs, quality and pricing on all customer propositions, as well as an understanding of your customers and both their real and perceived needs".

Barriers to success

Across the board the panel agreed that one of the most common barriers to making the breakthrough is poor leadership. Steve points to the dangers of "a lack of communication, motivation and leadership", with bosses managing and not leading, setting their sights low and settling for 'good enough'. Stuart refers to the "stagnating leader". He says: "Maybe they've run their course. Maybe their strength is the start-up phase and now it's a 'proper' business. Maybe early success has gone to their head and they're now writing and believing their own headlines. Or maybe they just weren't that ambitious after all."

He emphasises the importance of young, ambitious companies having a balanced board, with a strong chairman and finance director to support and challenge the CEO. "You might be the founder of the company, but you should still have to justify your strategy. The CEO shouldn't be allowed to run roughshod over the business," he says.

Lara agrees: "It's all about great leaders who are brave enough to employ brilliance and work with them [these employees] to progress and improve the offering." But Andrew notes that while most business owners strive to hire people like themselves – they shouldn't. He points to the fact that most successful entrepreneurs hire talented operations staff, balancing creativity with logic.

Working 'on' not 'in' the business

The panel had some interesting views on the often-heard advice about working 'on' rather than 'in' the business. Stuart sees it as "a convenient play on words, which is very dangerous". He says: "Forget about working on the business and focus on being firmly in it. Using James Dyson, founder of Dyson, and the late Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple, as examples, he argues that people who are actually in the business lead most world-class companies.

According to Steve Gilroy, having hired the best talent you can afford, you should: "Try not to do the work but inspire, coach and mentor your staff to do it for you," making the most of external forums to share thoughts, concerns and issues. Lara adds: "Remain paranoid of failure and live with the shadow of knowing that neither you nor your business are perfect. If you are complacent, others will overtake you and leave you behind."

Focusing your time

When it comes to where business owners should spend their time in order to make the breakthrough, Steve stresses the need for a clear and compelling value proposition, understood by staff and reflected in all marketing and sales messages, to attract customers and transform them into loyal advocates.

"Build your business and culture around it," he says. "Ensure it's reflected in every aspect of the business and be ruthless with anything that detracts from it."

For Lara it's about culture and people first, while maintaining a clear focus on cash management and profit maximisation. "In the early days, your focus should be on sales," she says. "Later on, when you need to consider lowering costs and maximising profits, invest in export and overseas production if necessary."

Andrew suggests that business owners should limit working in the business to 80% of the working week, with one full day spent on planning and implementing successive growth projects. He advocates growing the capabilities of people, processes and products. "For the business to grow and survive, you need to understand how these areas should develop," he says. And when it comes to people, Stuart's approach is clear: "Recruit people better and brighter than you. Listen to them. Trust them. Support them. Believe them. And finally, fire them if they tell lies."

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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