Cranfield or Bust

In 1998 my company Pacific Direct was turning over around £4.5 million and growing quickly – and always profitable, which I have since learnt is rare. In fact, I never ran the business in a year when we did not improve on profit; now I know how challenging that is, but at the time I was just running my business. You might think that with such a successful company, I already knew enough about business and had no need for a Business Growth and Development Programme. I had built the company from the ground up, doing almost everything myself for the first few years, and I had no formal qualifications past A Level. I knew that while the company was already somewhat successful I was actually miserable, no longer enjoying my role and working ridiculously hard. I felt that  I could never take it any further – or continue the current rate of success – without some formal training. And so I applied for the Business Growth and Development Programme (BGP) at Cranfield, beginning in 1999 (along with my newborn, breastfeeding second daughter).

I believe that my attendance at Cranfield on the BGP is what allowed Pacific Direct to become the company I later sold for around £20 million.

It also allowed me to become the person who could remain at the helm of such a large, complex global distribution company. I learned everything from how to write a funding request to how to understand the untapped talents of my team.

Cranfield or Bust

Cranfield is one of the oldest business schools in Europe (celebrating 50 years this year), and also one of the most reputable. I knew that by attending their BGP I would be learning the best skills from the best people. As well as teaching me numerous new skills and ideas, it also confirmed for me that I had been going in the right direction with Pacific Direct. As someone who had started a company with no real business experience, this was massively beneficial for my self-confidence and allowed me for the first time ever to really look at my business, and to plan ahead with increased enthusiasm and commitment.

One thing Cranfield confirmed for me was that I had been going in the right direction in my people management. I have always believed it is the people who make a business, and I value hugely the people who work hard with me. I knew I needed A grade players to keep the business successful. Long term, sustainable, resilient, respected and valued success comes only if your team comes with you. I believe that if you invest in your staff, they will want to work hard for you, above and beyond whatever their official job title or description may be. When your team are truly invested in how the company performs, rather than their job just being something that pays the bills, you can achieve amazing things as a team. Key performance indicators define the outcomes expected after a rigorously well defined role description. We recruited against this and then linked directly to a team and an individual rewards system; this is when things really started to work.

Communication with staff is key. This was something I already felt in my gut, but to learn a similar approach from one of the best business schools in Europe really improved the quality, the value, the content and the reporting of all results to help us deliver consistently better results. I believe my success in business, both with Pacific Direct and my business ventures since, has come as much because of the people working for me, as from my own hard work. No man (or woman) is an island, and there is only so much any of us can do without a great (not just good) team around us.

At Cranfield I learned that while you may be successful in the short term without structure, you do need to learn these things. I had far too many reports to allow the business to flourish, and there were many changes to be made. Since Cranfield time and time again I have met well meaning founders who should accept they are no longer singularly the right person for the top job and need to bravely move aside in order for the business to grow and flourish.

Attending Cranfield allowed me to step outside of the business for the first time, and to work on it rather than in it. This experience in itself was invaluable as no matter how hard we try as business owners, it is difficult to get that overview and clarity while still performing daily tasks and duties. As business leaders we have the unenviable job of running our businesses today as they are, while also working to make the business better, and looking ahead to changes in the business. Cranfield allowed me to do this in a way I had never managed before, and ingrained in me the need to have regular planning and review sessions in every business I have been involved with since.

looking to the future

By the time I left Cranfield I had a very clear plan for my business, with goals and objectives. I have learned about the meaning of a strategy, and what a niche strategy can do for a company valuation. I have learned to stick to my own knitting and let other professionals excel and add value in the company with freedom, authority and trust. There was immense value for me, and my fellow cohort, in not only learning to write a comprehensive business plan but also having it tested for viability by others. There is no escaping the fact that the truly successful business owners of this world are the ones who know where they are going, and write it down in a structured plan. I am embarrassed now to say that Pacific Direct had been going for nine years before we had a proper business plan – something I would never advise anyone else to do! Having a well thought out and tested plan, with clear goals, is the route to success. It should not hinder the power of agility, but can add huge clarity to focusing on what makes the economic engine work. As well as this, it is important to bear in mind that a business plan should be regularly reviewed and edited; it is not something that you write for a meeting with the bank manager and then consign to a drawer until you need to visit the bank manager again. Cranfield really brought home to me the value not only of writing a plan, but of having advisors and contemporaries read it over to test for viability.

Another thing I really value form my time at Cranfield is the lessons I learned about investment in IT systems, the recruitment process and the planning of marketing. The 1990s were a time of great development in computers and technology, and I came away from Cranfield certain that we must improve our IT systems in order to keep up. Until this point Pacific Direct had grown with cobbled-together Excel spreadsheets and processes that changed reactively as the company grew. This was working reasonably well for the company as it was, but it was essential to invest time and money in a proper system in order to grow the company further, and to avoid losing money and business in the long term. In 1998 most people didn’t have the internet, and there was no such thing as a smartphone. These days I believe that investment in IT and software really can make or break a company. There have been so many more developments in recent years, and things keep changing. As business owners it’s crucial to stay on top of what’s going on, not so much to be considered “cool” or “ahead of the crowd” but to avoid being left behind by the crowd!

As well as learning a great deal from the course itself, I learned a lot from the people around me. It was a real eye opener to see that my fellow students from different companies gained magnificent benefits from some lectures in which I struggled to find a new value or insight. Time spent socialising and networking with other business owners brought me not only business contacts but knowledge and insight I previously had limited access to, and this proved invaluable not just throughout the course but in the following years.

In short, the Cranfield BGP was a game changer for me. It took me from running a multinational, multi-million pound organisation on a wing and a prayer, to managing and understanding my business not only as it was, but how I planned for it to be in the future.

Key Take-away points from this blog:

  • Education is not a one-off thing; we need to continue our education throughout our lives.
  • Invest – not only in yourself but also in your team.
  • Take time out to work on your business, not just in it.
  • Set aside planning time and be agile to make decisions and win.
Written by Lara

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