Brittelstand Symposium Addresses the Issues Faced by Leaders of Mid-Sized Companies in the New Business Environment
30 September 2019
"Fantastic speakers!" "Lots of takeaways!" and "Doesn’t get any better than Google and Cisco!" were some of the comments from delegates.
On Wednesday 18 September 2019 more than 100 business leaders and guests gathered at Henley Business School’s Greenlands campus to listen and debate the issues that are challenging mid-sized businesses for the Brittelstand Symposium 2019.
Building on the success of last year’s event, the fourth Brittelstand Symposium addressed the issues that leaders of mid-sized businesses now face in the new business environment; a mix of rapid technology advancement, new working practices and world trade tensions, not to forget Brexit.
42 speakers, including four keynote speakers, 12 chairs and 24 panellists, delivered talks and answered questions throughout the day. The Symposium was opened by Chris Dodson OBE DL, Founder and Chairman of Business United, a network of business leaders running £1m to £100m plus revenue businesses in the Thames Valley. Chris introduced the Symposium by setting out some reflections on the mid-sized business landscape in the UK and why the Symposium was established, along with a brief overview of the Brittelstand story. Chris traced Brittelstand’s origins back to Mittelstand, which defines companies predominantly run by ‘owner-entrepreneurial families’ that are SMEs with annual revenues up to 50 million Euros and under 500 employees operating in Germany speaking countries.
Quoting official figures, Chris highlighted there are more than 14 million people employed by Brittelstand companies in the UK and an EU performance review of the UK economy recently estimated that the gross value added by these companies is some 50% percent of the UK economy.
Drawing comparison with the Germany economy, Chris pointed out that Germany runs at a surplus while the UK runs at a deficit and suggested that correcting that deficit was in the hands of the Brittelstand companies. Chris went on to describe the challenges faced by Brittelstand companies, including short-termism in planning and investment, low and falling numbers of people learning technical skills and failure to develop apprenticeships as a career path.
Describing the value of the Brittelstand community as the ability to learn from our peers that have been there, done that and can help us, Chris set out the purpose of the Symposium; to learn from experts in their chosen field and from fellow directors of Brittelstand businesses, on the issues that the Brittelstand community identifies as being relevant.
Rain Newton-Smith, Chief Economist at the CBI and a local resident, delivered the first keynote talk, titled ‘The UK in a changing world: The view from Business’. Rain immediately highlighted the uncertainty of not knowing what the trading relation will be with the EU, which she viewed as a major challenge facing businesses today.
Rain then raised the question that was on the minds of every business leader in the room: ‘how are companies preparing for Brexit?’ Rain noted that this was a very unsettling time but was optimistic in saying there are plenty of opportunities for Brittelstand companies, which she viewed as the engine of the British economy whose success relies on investment.
In the Q&A session Rain was asked to call on the government to support schools and colleges to increase the number of students studying STEM subjects. She spoke about the CBI’s call for more investment in further education colleges and its partnership with the Careers and Enterprise Company to link more businesses with schools.
Following Rain’s talk delegates were treated to six breakout sessions in two streams of three. The breakout sessions were titled ‘Developing leadership capabilities for business success’, ‘Driving digital transformation’, ‘Creating a culture of innovation to flourish’, ‘Future challenges require forward thinkers; the best invest in business and leadership coaching’, ‘Know how AI can grow your business’ and ‘Building customer loyalty and maximising lifetime value’.
As in previous years the breakout sessions were organised around a panel of business leaders chaired by an expert in the topic, with the aim of facilitating learning, providing insights and promoting collaboration. These were some of the highlights:
Driving digital transformation
The session revealed many examples of how digital transformation is being enacted by mid-sized companies to improve aspects of business performance such as digitalisation of the manufacturing process and enhancing customer engagement. Asim Siddiqi, Partner and digital transformation lead at PwC, chaired the session and highlighted the fact that no two companies are the same in how they see and carry on digital transformation.
All panellists stressed that businesses need to be clear about the problem that is being addressed by digitalisation and that business must recognise that digital transformation is a journey. Delegates were told that there are many myths about digital transformation, including ‘digital will replace physical’, but in reality more often both co-exist. The panel members also debunked the idea that ‘digital transformation is expensive’, as they reasoned that when you know the problem needing to be solved and you are well advised this does not need to be the case. Training of all staff in digital was regarded as key to successful digital transformation.
Developing leadership capabilities for business success
Led by Prof Bernd Vogel, Director of the Henley Centre for Leadership, this panel of business leaders provided insights into how the leadership capabilities in their organisations are being developed and nurtured for business success.
What was deemed to be paramount was openness and honesty by a leader. Anything less very quickly becomes evident and significantly reduces trust in employees. William Bird MBE described his own experience in recruiting a ‘professional manager’ who was well qualified for the role but did not have the authenticity that William had underestimated in himself.
Creating a culture of innovation to flourish
Kim Gelling, Marketing Director of Ella’s Kitchen, opened the session by explaining the importance of innovation in translating an idea or invention into a product or service that creates value or for which customers will pay. Kim commented that it is all about finding new ways to solve customer challenges.
Tim Brownstone, Founder and CEO of wearable technology company KYMIRA, described how he had chosen to make innovations in textile performance and ‘wearable tech’ through quarterly awaydays with his team where all ideas were welcomed, assessed and, if possible, adopted within days. Every attendee had to bring an idea to each meeting no matter how small.
Future challenges require forward thinkers; the best invest in business and leadership coaching
Sharon Curry, Partner and Executive Leadership Coach at The Trusted Executive Foundation, opened the session by asking the panel what the role of business coaching was and why it is important. The panel were unanimous in their view that ‘coaching is bringing about change, building successful businesses and helping leaders facilitate change’ and when the panel were asked a follow-up question on the qualities required of a business leader and coach Anna Rasmussen took the reins. Anna is the CEO of Open Blend, a people oriented platform that facilitates coaching led one-to-one meetings to support all aspects of an individual’s development journey, and she said the key was the ability to deal with deal with the changing world of work and how this is demanding change in the behaviours of business leaders.
When Sharon posed a third question to the panel, asking them about the cost of coaching and how to be sure it is having a positive effect, Executive Coach Ian Day remarked that a lot of leaders are lost and need coaching in this changing world. The rest of the panel argued that coaching is cost effective when done continuously and involving all staff and not to provide coaching carries a greater cost.
Sharon then challenged the audience to take five minutes every day to build their capacity to respond by sitting quietly, no matter how busy they were. She encouraged everyone to consider the hidden experts that they could listen to, with a focus on ensuring that they really listen and hear their words, and raised the thought-provoking point to get everybody considering how capable their managers are in navigating a coaching conversation with their direct reports.
The audience responded with equal measure, challenging the panel to share their own experiences, and Sharon concluded by saying, “We as leaders and as coaches need to adapt to the future of work, equipping ourselves and enabling all others with the skills, behaviours and mindsets most pertinent to uncertainty, rapid pace of change and the AI and digital world. This includes resilience, agility, mindfulness and access for all to coaching tools and techniques. There is a cost involved of course, however the cost of not investing in a coaching ethos is far greater.”
Building customer loyalty and maximising lifetime value
Prof Moira Clark, Professor of Strategic Marketing and Director of the Henley Centre for Customer Management, was chair of the session and reminded delegates that customer loyalty is all about building long term relationships with your customer, observing that many companies ‘don’t get this fundamental point’. In discussing measurement, many of those in the audience knew about NPS and worked with this measure but few knew about measuring ‘ease of doing business’, a key indicator of customer loyalty. Moira iterated that it can just be a simple question: ‘Did you find it easy to do business with the company? Yes or No and, if No, why?’
Members of the panel each took it in turn to share their insight into building customer loyalty. David Grundy, Founder and former CEO of software company Invenias, shared his background on how he started and grew Invenias into a mid-sized business before selling it on. David was wholehearted in his view that this success was built on customer loyalty, with referrals from loyal customers a major source of client leads. For David, building loyal customers meant spending as much time with customers as possible.
David Griffiths, CEO of Fiscal Technologies, was next to speak. Fiscal Technologies are a developer and supplier of forensic accounting software selling globally and David highlighted some disappointments in customer retention, which he put down to ‘not looking after the customer and not building a relationship’.
Dealing with customer complaints was an engaging topic during the session. All acknowledged that how well companies deal with complaints, which every company will face at some point, will determine the extent of customer loyalty. It was argued that every company should have a customer complaints programme, which is much more than just a procedure for handling complaints, for customer loyalty to flourish.
Know how AI can grow your business
Rob McCargow, Director of Artificial Intelligence at PwC, opened the session and the panel focused on how large companies and a growing number of mid-sized companies have already adopted AI. This includes machine learning and robotics in their operations to help improve efficiency and productivity.
Sara El-Hanfy, Innovation Technologist at Innovate UK, explained how use of AI tools is growing and already addressing business needs better than before. She elaborated on the many interventions that are available through Innovate UK in support of the business sector and Hannah Evans, Head of Innovation Strategy and AI at Volume, explained how their company approached an enquiry about AI such that a prospective user really understood what AI could and more importantly could not do for them. She also shared how training businesses in the use of AI is an area of critical importance.
Sean Taylor DL, Global CEO of Redwood Technologies Group, a software development company and provider of cloud services, was the second of the keynote speakers. His talk, titled ‘Doing things right and doing the right things’, was highly anticipated and he spoke eloquently about the things that matter when building a business, sharing the story of how Redwood Technologies was built over a period of more than 25 years since he and his brother founded the company in 1993.
In Sean’s view, doing things right was all about addressing the 4 Ws – what, why, who and when. He believed this mindset was one which all employees follow and had defined Redwood and its performance, not least its 30% revenue growth year on year since 2016, a growth rate that is expected to continue as Redwood expands internationally.
Sean stated that doing the right thing came down to what you want the company and its leadership to be seen as, whether that was ‘The CEO is always visible and really engaged with the team’ or ‘Long hours and you can never work hard enough’. Quoting the Edelman Barometer, Sean said that businesses must embrace leadership on societal issues and change, which meant doing the right thing for the right reasons. In practice that means being admired for doing the right things, like the Forbes top 10 most admired companies that include Apple, Amazon and Alphabet. Sean said it was about working as a team and quoted Steve Jobs: ‘Great things in business are never done by one person. They’re done by a team of people’.
In closing Sean shared some of the things that are important to him, such as supporting charities and voluntary organisations. This has earned him the reputation of a leader who is doing the right thing and seeing the results of a company and community that is flourishing.
Delegates continued discussion over lunch and it was a testimony to the Symposium to see delegates engaged in conversation and exploring opportunities, as well as sharing views and experiences.
After lunch came the plenary panel chaired by John Ellis, Senior Partner at PwC. Titled ‘Adopting best working practices for scaling businesses’, the panel comprised of businesses leaders from Comxo, Zzoomm and Southern Communications. The panellists spoke to those factors that helped them scale their businesses, chief among which were clarity of vision (i.e. knowing what direction you want the business to go), a ‘sales engine’ and values by which the company works that all staff subscribe to.
Andrew Try, the ECEO of Comxo, stressed the importance of ‘culture’ or core beliefs and values whilst Paul Bradbury, CEO of Southern Communications, cited the 3 Ps of people, platform and processes. Matthew Hare added the importance of being clear about where you are heading and measuring your ROAR score.
Two further breakout session followed, titled ‘Investing in content marketing to grow your business’ and ‘Balancing technical and soft skills for the digital age’.
Investing in content marketing to grow your business
Ben Neville, Head of Group Marketing at Prodrive, explained briefly how content marketing has become crucial to the success of every company. Described as a form of marketing focused on creating, publishing and distributing content for a targeted audience, online content marketing has taken over from more traditional forms of marketing for attracting and engaging customers.
There was discussion about how the content needs to be relevant, define a need and be specific to any particular entry point to a particular stage of an engagement with a customer. It was made clear that bad content should be avoided at all costs and old content can still be relevant.
Will Sturgeon, Head of Content and Thought Leadership at PwC, commented that good digital content can now span more channels but must be specific to the channel used. He suggested that customer stories were always to be favoured, no matter how old.
Balancing technical and soft skills for the digital age
The session was chaired by Sotiris Kroustis, Private Business Partner and People Lead at PwC, and addressed the modern day challenge of balancing technical skills with what is often regarded as the ‘essential’ soft skills. Sharon Pursey, Co-Founder of SafeToNet, Tracey Sanderson, MD of Sensory Dimensions, and Harry Novic, CEO of Rocky AI, each in turn spoke about their experience of building these skills in their work teams. All identified ‘communication’ among the top skills required by staff and for some it is their biggest challenge.
The panel debated the ways soft skills can be developed in staff and offered several solutions from their personal experience, identifying immediate and continuous training giving examples of how it worked in their organisations.
The third of the keynote speakers was Scot Gardner, Chief Executive of Cisco UK and Ireland. His talk, titled ‘The Next 30 Years of Possible’, focused on what the future would bring. Why 30 years? Because it was 30 years ago that the WWW as we know it was born, helped by Cisco’s technology.
A Cisco veteran of some 20 years, Scot recalled the changes that have taken place in his time and how true the tagline ‘changing the way we live, work, play and learn’ was that greeted him when he joined Cisco. It has been all change and he believed that as a society we are only just on the beaches of what this revolution will become.
Scot shared details of the many technologies being developed, including the cloud, 5G, Wi-Fi 6, automation, AI and security, and in Scot’s words, “We are still at the foundations of all these technologies.”
Scot was of the view that the next big change would be machines talking to machines and he shared examples of how things have changed, highlighting what machine to machine means by picking out Newcastle and explaining how the city is reporting on air pollution and optimising rubbish collection through the application of M2M technology. He gave another example by highlighting how the port of Rotterdam uses sensors to track tides in real-time to improve their operational efficiency, enabling it to stay open for longer. Even the Natural History Museum was benefiting from digital technology, having embarked on an epic journey to digitise its 80 million specimens.
Scot went on to describe the three key areas that businesses need to address now and in the future: productivity, secure connectivity and skills.
What might the next 30 years look like? Scot said we don’t know, but he believes that digital innovations in the period ahead will require a shared responsibility – partnerships across business, government and academia, stating, “We’ve got to all want to be part of the future and work together to get there.”
The final keynote speaker was Alan Coad, Managing Director of UK and Ireland Google Cloud and entrepreneur. Kicking off with a video, Alan gave the delegates a view of the future, exploring how it has been ‘reimagined by companies disrupting the technology landscape.
Alan reminded the audience of the demands of customers. Business and consumers of today demand things immediately and want to be assisted. This is why such demands drive technological development, with Alan citing Gmail as an example, revealing how it has evolved since first being introduced in 2004 to its present form, which includes AI powered predictive text.
Alan shared several examples of how Google and others are applying AI, highlighting in particular its growing role in the delivery of healthcare. He showed a video clip of Ocado’s warehouse with grocery packing robots, which testifies to one application and what can be achieved, and in replying to a question about AI being for good Alan shared Google’s AI principles. These principles are broadly grouped around the two prongs of what AI should be/do and what it should not be/do. Alan stressed that Google will never pursue applications that are likely to cause harm to people.
Following the presentations it was a real pleasure to have both Alan and Scot remain and continue to answer questions. Jurek Sikorski, Executive Director of Henley Centre for Entrepreneurship, closed the Symposium by thanking all the speakers and sponsors for what had been a very engaging and enjoyable event. Jurek finished with his top takeaway, that digital transformation is to be embraced and not feared. Continuing, Jurek stressed that success will be determined by how far and how well businesses adapt to the rapidly expanding digital economy.
Overall the Symposium delivered some revealing insights into the issues facing British businesses at this time of political turmoil and a looming exit from the EU. The Symposium is bringing the community of Brittelstand companies together in a way not seen before and that will be of great importance when it comes to helping the Thames Valley prosper and grow economically and socially.
Thanks to all the members of the delivery team: Frazer George, Alex Baker, Ella Dodson, Ines Tshiteta, Fabian Cardozo, Luis Valencia and Julia Kala.
Brittelstand supports various business initiatives across the Thames Valley, including ScaleUp Berkshire (https://scaleupberkshire.co.uk/) delivered by Oxford Innovations on behalf of Thames Valley LEP. ScaleUp Berkshire is an exclusive service that provides opportunities for CEOs and founders of scale-up businesses to make the connections and gain access to the solutions, advice and sounding boards for them to take their businesses to the next level.
The ScaleUp Berkshire has asked Brittelstand for its help with promoting the annual ScaleUp Institute survey, now in its fifth year. If you are a scale up company please take a few moments to complete the survey by 2 October 2019 at http://bit.ly/ScaleUp19l333 A big thank you!
Be sure to save the date for the next Brittelstand Symposium which has been provisionally scheduled for Wednesday, 23 September 2020.
Co-host of Brittelstand Symposium
Executive Director of Henley Centre for Entrepreneurship
Henley Business School
Chris Dodson OBE DL
Co-host of Brittelstand Symposium
Chairman of Business United and Mortimer and Torftech Groups
We thank our headline sponsor, PWC for their contributions and support for the Brittelstand Symposium 2019.
We also thank our key supporters who have played a pivotal role in promoting and advising for the Brittelstand Symposium 2019.