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At an event in 2019 a marketing expert asked me that tired old networking opening, “So what is it that you do?”.
I explained that my company provided engineering services to the craft beverage industry, before launching into an account of my industry experience (my first brewery visit was when I was eight!) and what I’d seen happening over the past decade as the craft market exploded. I offered my perspective on the impact of a market flooded with competitors, the effect of beer duty, the bizarre machinations of Brexit and the unprecedented rise in businesses that didn’t seem to make their owners any money.
Continuing, I discussed the way that businesses in my industry were wrongly projecting increasing volumes with a linear increase in profit (or decrease in losses), and talked about how, in many cases, producers weren’t looking to improve their business processes before they blindly installed additional capacity they might not need, for which they would take out huge loans that increased their opex (operational expenditure) even further.
At this point, the marketing expert smiled, put a hand on my shoulder and said, “I think you need to have a think about what you really do – because what you just described to me is not how a paperclip salesman would talk about their job.”
I was taken aback by this, to say the least – but I could see that my companion might be on to something.
I had spent the previous decade running around and meeting people, immersing myself in the industry and learning everything I could – but I had never stepped back and meaningfully analysed what I was doing as a professional. I knew that I sold equipment and organised projects but, beyond that, I was stumped.
To help me figure this out, I asked myself four basic questions:
The answers I came up with were genuinely surprising.
Firstly, I learnt that I was spending the majority of my time not making any money. I was either letting myself be caught up dealing with enquiries from time-wasters, or I was simply looking after the existing business operations. Both of these are complete time-sucking vampires that largely don’t bring anything of value to me or the business if I spend my time on them.
Secondly, my perception was that my customers were all craft brewers, as that’s who I spent most of my time with.However, in reality many of my best customers were global businesses, some of whom aren’t even in the brewing industry.
My third insight was that people tended to buy from me because I took the time to understand the problem they were trying to solve with their intended purchase, before making a recommendation about what they should be buying.
Finally, I realised that I love problem solving first and foremost – and that selling equipment to solve these problems was just a happy by-product of this process.
A solid route towards this is to stop fighting the fires in front of you and instead get rid of the source of said fires, whether this is improving processes or replacing personnel.
As an employer, my priority has to be to ensure the health of the company rather than to provide people with jobs. Getting rid of a difficult person can bring a sense of relief but, as I know all too well, it can be a rough experience from an employer’s perspective.
Even if you like an employee and the way they work, if you cannot make a business case to continue employing them, then unfortunately you have to do what you have to do.
Working on business processes tends to be a less emotional decision but you should keep in mind that people can still act in bizarre ways.
Woe betide the manager who wants a standardised visit report or time sheet; I’ve seen some impressively generic uses of time over my career, including a project manager who put ‘business improvement’ down for 60% of his time. Needless to say, he didn’t last.
Working out that I wanted to spend my time problem solving was when everything started to click. I began to work on my business processes, stopped wasting my time on tire-kicking muppets and regained my enthusiasm. Through this, I freed up spare time to work on moving the business forwards without losing out on profits.
At that point, I got back in touch with the marketing expert and we discussed what I’d been working on. His thoughts were as follows:
“So you’re an industry expert that enjoys solving problems. I actually know someone who could do with your help, if you fancy consulting with them. If you have faith in the idea then offer to work for an equity stake and help them out long-term – you’d love it.”
After I’d stopped blushing, I realised that this could be exactly what I was looking for. I love analysing the way in which other companies work and talking with people throughout a company to identify ways it could be improves and run more effectively – this was a a great opportunity to do just that.
Fast forward a few months of preparation, a decent amount of market modelling and a willing client to help us formulate our offer, and former Maersk CFO Scott Robson and I are launching Ambro Partners – a dedicated consultancy that helps food and drink businesses to reach their full potential and helps investors in those businesses to achieve the returns they’re looking for.
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