By Alex Evans, Editorial Director, National Business Awards

Seven of Britain’s most resilient and high performing privately-owned businesses, from industries including financial services, manufacturing, construction, technology, shipping, and energy management, gathered at the offices of 3i in London last month to debate the attributes for success that have helped them ride out the recession.

Setting the scene, Gordon Hague, 3i’s Director of UK Private Equity said: “It’s too easy to dwell on the current economic gloom. Turmoil creates gaps and opportunities in the market. This year’s finalists for 3i Private Business of the Year are living proof, collectively achieving average turnover growth of 23% in the last 12 months, employing over 20,000 people and trading for over 600 years. From the longest established businesses to relative newcomers, the best organisations evolve continually.”

Proving that you can still be agile with scale, Bibby Line Group was crowned 3i Private Business of the Year for combining family values with empowered managers. Founded in 1807 as a shipping company, it has diversified into financial services, retail and renewable energy — achieving impressive growth despite the downturn and revenues of over £1.2bn in 2010. “We stay ahead of the competition because we push decision-making as close to the customer as possible, and encourage our managers to be entrepreneurs,” explained Associate Strategy Director Steve Potter. “We also bring group values like ‘restless momentum’ to well supported management teams.”

Decision and direction

With such a mix of family, founder and management-owned businesses among this year’s finalists, the panel were asked how leadership is defined and measured within their organisations.

“Delegation and leadership don’t come naturally to many CEOs who become leaders by default,” said Andy Bell, CEO and founder of pensions and insurance specialist A J Bell. “I’ve seen the impact on performance from being more visible and communicating more about where we are and where we’re going.”

Picking up on this point, Stannah Group Director Patrick Stannah said: “One of our values is that direction is more important than effort, and as a group we need to stand back and look at the broader direction of the business.”

“We foster an entrepreneurial culture and allow managers to be masters of their own destiny,” said Richard Ring, Finance Director of food technology specialist apetito, while Barry Houlihan, CEO of Mobile Interactive Group (MIG) added that his own entrepreneurial drive had to be tempered by a professionalising team that ensures excellence in delivery.

Challenging assumptions

But what are these businesses doing to challenge themselves and long held assumptions, particularly at board level, asked Stuart Miners, 3i’s Director Private Equity.

“We took the decision in 2007 to run ourselves like a plc and we chose Non-Executive Directors that could be relied upon for sound advice based on years of experience,” said Andy Bell. “It’s made me less impulsive and more inclined to research opportunities before acting on them; but this has to be balanced with my own intuition from deep market knowledge.”

“I put together a board of Non-Execs that knew our market but also sectors we were looking to move into because they open doors and advise on the best approach,” added Barry Houlihan.

It’s too easy to become immersed in one’s own market, and define ambitions by what competitors are doing. Employing expertise from outside the industry has certainly benefited energy management specialist Mark Group, according to Chris Brazendale, President of International Operations. However, apetito has gone a step further to inject fresh ideas. “We organise what we call ‘meet the aliens’ events, where the senior management team meets its equivalent from non-competing businesses to learn,” said Richard Ring. “There are always common elements, like an innovation culture, but there often new ideas. People passionate about their business are happy to share and everyone benefits.”

People power

Creating an internal culture where staff are happy to share ideas and best practice is vital - but how do you attract and retain talent? “We pick up boutique business and talent to enhance our service and grow into new areas,” said Richard Steer, Chairman of architectural engineering consultancy Gleeds. “Our brand is strong enough in our industry to attract that talent. We keep talent in the business by keeping it fun and interesting.”

MIG’s investment in brand and reputation for excellence has made it a target for headhunters, said Barry Houlihan, so it has invested heavily in an academy to attract and keep the best in the industry. This approach is well-established at Bibby Line said Steve Potter, adding that it targets entry level talent at universities. “We have four academies in four different businesses; it’s about differentiating yourself but also about life-long career development,” he added.

Both AJ Bell and Stannah offer employee share schemes to retain talent. Patrick Stannah said its profit share scheme had increased loyalty, adding that “staff understand the link between what they do and the performance of the business”, while Andy Bell said its EMI scheme means “you get an owner’s eye from staff.”

While Bibby Line Group ultimately triumphed as 3i Private Business of the Year, all ten of this year’s finalists were selected as champions of their sector and each demonstrated attributes for success that the wider business community can learn from.

The attributes of success

Sharing the attitudes and approaches that have made their businesses market leaders, this year’s finalists for 3i Private Business of the Year highlighted the following:

- Innovation and agility

- Attention to detail

- Thinking like the customer

- Investing in IP and ongoing R&D

- Bringing expertise from other industries

- Internationalising and applying expertise in new markets and sectors

- A continuous focus on creating competitive advantage

- Combining family values with high performing, autonomous management teams

- Balancing entrepreneurialism with organisation and structure

- Creating a culture and brand that people want to be part of

- Nurturing a sense of pride within the organisation

- Having the courage to take a risk

For more information on Bibby Line Group, the 3i Private Business of the Year, plus details of all of this year’s winners and video highlights of the Gala Dinner, visit www.nationalbusinessawards.co.uk

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