By Mike Southon
FT Columnist

Few entrepreneurs have a plan of precisely where they want to get to or how they are going to get there. This is understandable as they never know what dark challenges might lurk around the corner, whether from their own incompetence or external forces, such as an unexpected and superior competitor.

More fundamental is that most entrepreneurs have no idea why they behave in the way they do. It can take much soul-searching and self-realisation in their later years before they really understand what has happened to them, and why.

Peter Backman left school with no career plan, finding a job in a food testing laboratory run by a friend of the family. He soon realised that people in suits earned more money than those in laboratory coats, but then worked in a number of unfulfilling roles before ending up in a market research company operating in two unconnected areas: packaging and foodservices.

He took on the foodservice division, subsequently working for an American publisher who acquired the business, before eventually buying himself out. At the age of 57 this self-confessed late developer found himself as the owner-manager of his own business, Horizons, in the niche area of providing carefully researched and well structured information for the eating out industry.

This covers a wide spectrum of user experiences from pubs and restaurants to takeaways and peoples’ choices when eating at work. This is a highly dynamic and competitive industry with some very major players who now rely on Backman’s expertise.

He is now a relatively big fish in the small pond of this particular niche of market research. Those in the know understand that many of the terms and techniques used in their industry were developed by Backman himself, so he has never been short of customer interest or revenue opportunities.

But not having applied the same level of smart modelling to his business as he had to his market research meant he found himself constantly drawn in several directions at once, unable to do anything but act tactically to incoming opportunities.

Fortunately he met Alan Wick, an experienced entrepreneur who was able to provide good advice, everything from just being a natural sounding board to looking at the long term strategic plan. Wick’s first question was about Backman’s ultimate aim for his company; did he plan to just switch off the lights and go home one day, or did he have some ultimate purpose for the business?

One of Wick’s first and most basic recommendations was to employ a professional bookkeeper to put all the financial data into a proper accounting package in case someone wanted to invest in or buy the company, in preparation for the inevitable due diligence process.

Together they developed a plan to replicate Backman’s knowledge and experience into a database-driven system that could provide structured data without his personal involvement. Then, a major opportunity arose with two rival companies looking to make a £1Bn acquisition in the foodservice sector. Both companies needed six weeks’ solid research as well as all of Horizons’ database information.

Wick helped negotiate the potentially hazardous bidding war between the two companies to a successful commercial outcome by bringing coaching and consulting skills supported by a suite of tools from business coaching company Shirlaws, where he had just joined.

Today Backman now has a viable, scalable business that could be offered for a trade sale or management buy-out based on the excellent data and systems that they continue to develop. More importantly, Backman now understands his position in the foodservice industry, as well as his own contribution to its history.

Horizons can be found at www.horizonsforsuccess.com


Originally published in The Financial Times: www.ft.com Copyright ©Mike Southon 2011. All Rights Reserved. Not to be reproduced without permission in writing. Mike Southon- Co-author of The Beermat Entrepreneur & Business Speaker- www.mikesouthon.com

Mike is one of the world’s top business speakers, a Fellow of The Professional Speakers Association. Mike is a Visiting Fellow in Innovation and Entrepreneurship at London South Bank University. He has made frequent appearances on television and radio, has a monthly sales column in Real Business magazine and is a regular commentator in the Financial Times.


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