We’re getting thousands of pounds-worth of expert advice for nothing
As Yorkshire-based manufacturer CB Solutions approached the medium-sized business category, MD Kerry-Ann Taylor knew it needed help to grow sustainably.
Moving from the “small” to “medium-sized” category is a milestone to be celebrated by a business. But growth, especially fast growth, brings challenges as well as opportunities. So, when Kerry-Ann was asked if she’d like to work with a Be the Business specialist construction industry taskforce board, she leapt at the chance.
“We want to ensure that we have structured, controlled, sustainable growth,” said Kerry-Ann. “Having the support of a board of experienced, knowledgeable people, who’ve seen and done it all before, to help us move into the next stage of our development, sounded fantastic.”
When Kerry-Ann’s father set up the business in 2000 it manufactured single-glazed aluminium windows. It has expanded and diversified into areas including fire-rated timber door-sets and screens and non-slip decking, with hospitals, schools, hotels and universities being important customers. CB Solutions now supplies around 85 per cent of its products to the modular-building construction industry, and just 15 per cent to traditional “bricks and mortar” builders. The difference between the two groups of customers is, added Kerry-Ann, “the sheer pace of a modular builder”.
A high-calibre board
Kerry-Ann was introduced to Be the Business by one of her company’s key customers, which had itself benefited from a Be the Business Board. “They couldn’t speak highly enough of them,” commented Kerry-Ann.
When she started working with her own board, she understood why. The board comprises five people, and Kerry-Ann has derived immense value from their input after just two meetings.
“We feel really lucky to be able to tap into the knowledge and experience of people at that level – and people who really want to share their knowledge to help others,” she explained. “Sometimes people can be a closed book. The people who sit on the Be the Business Boards are obviously very carefully selected: they really want others to do well.”
What the board looks like
Ed Puddincombe is director of strategy and business engagement at information systems company Niaxo. “He’s an IT/cyber security professional, has been a captain and special officer in the army and has worked closely with the Met [police] on technical security,” said Kerry-Ann.
Jyoti Mehan is CEO of Health Care First Partnership, which describes itself as “a general practice at scale”, and she has a consultancy background. “She challenged us to look at the demographics of our recruitment,” added Kerry-Ann.
James Harrop-Griffiths is investment manager at GPE, a property investment and development company in London. “I hope we’ll be able to tap into his specific expertise soon,” explained Kerry-Ann.
Stuart Barker is facilities manager engineering, and governance manager, at the AIR Sector, BAE Systems. “He is just superb: his background is in engineering and manufacturing, he has a huge amount of knowledge in managing staff, he ‘gets’ our business and our growth issues, and he’s a health and safety professional too,” said Kerry-Ann.
Ronee Walsh is channel manager from Be the Business. “She’s a marketing professional, which is my passion, and I get on with her like a house on fire,” revealed Kerry-Ann. “She’s incredibly passionate, very strong on internal comms, knows what motivates people and makes them tick. She’s given us loads of quick wins that we’ve implemented, such as suggestion boxes and employees of the month. She also set up for us to go and visit a manufacturing company of a similar size to ours.”
The recruitment challenge
One pressing issue that Kerry-Ann brought to the first quarterly Boards programme meeting in April was recruitment.
CB Solutions currently employs 84 people, 24 of them in the office, around seven on the road installing products on customers’ sites, and the remainder working in its three on-site factories. But being based in the countryside near Bridlington on the Yorkshire coast poses recruitment challenges, and it has struggled to find and retain staff.
“As you grow, you are only as good as your staff,” said Kerry-Ann. “The board gave us all sorts of ideas about what we could do without having to use agency staff. They asked us challenging questions about the demographics we had been targeting – and maybe should be targeting – and how we were targeting them. For example, we had a really interesting conversation about parent-teacher-association meetings at schools – and the number of contacts you can make there in your direct local community.”
She continued: “They pointed out that, in a rural setting, it is your direct community that are your labour resources. So, you can sponsor a hog roast and your name is everywhere. We were already sponsoring local football teams, but the board made us realise it’s not just about having our name on their shirts, but being on their Facebook pages, their team WhatsApp chats – and advertising jobs on those pages.”
The company has also started to run, and increased the frequency of, employee surveys to give its workforce a voice that is heard and listened to.
“Quick-win” suggestions from the board – suggestion schemes, employee-of-the-month schemes and more frequent employee surveys – have already made “a massive difference”.
“Recruiting is becoming easier as we are becoming better known,” she said. “And staff turnover has fallen too. People seem to have a lot more confidence in themselves and the business, and they feel more valued.”
Another issue she brought to the board was business security and continuity. With just two full-time directors – herself and commercial director Jon Clark – she is acutely conscious that the majority of the knowledge and responsibility in the business sits with them.
“I’ve only been here six years, but Jon has been here since day one, and worked his way up, so he knows every aspect and every angle of the business – and, as he is the first to admit, struggles to share that knowledge. If anything happened to either of us, we’d be in a sticky situation.”
Since she became MD four years ago, Kerry-Ann has been working to strengthen middle-management. “We’ve had some robust conversations with the board on this front too.” Another ‘quick fix’ (courtesy of Ed Puddincombe) has been to video their daily routines and processes so that someone could step in at short notice and see what to do. As she says, people are more likely to watch a quick video rather than pore over lengthy process documents. “Using less paper fits with our sustainability efforts too.”
Finance and sustainability
Kerry-Ann already knows what she’ll take to the next board meeting – the appropriate financial structure and processes for a medium-sized business (which they’ve recently become), and environmental sustainability.
“I’d like to have some discussion around the best time to file accounts,” she explained. “When you’ve had a good year, you are obviously keen to share that, but I sometimes fear that it can also cause you problems – for example, the supply chain raise their prices, customers ask for discounts and staff seek pay rises. All that is reasonable, of course, but those stakeholders don’t necessarily see the bigger picture – like the fact that we need to finance a new truck that will land in January, and that we’ve got other new machinery on order that we need to fund as part of our growth plans – not to mention escalating energy costs. I’m really looking forward to hearing the board’s thoughts and opinions on that one, as I am very conscious that, as a medium-sized business, we will be analysed much more.”
On environmental sustainability, she wants the board’s views on the right time to invest in solar panels – the price of which is rising due to soaring energy prices and escalating demand for alternative sources.
A safe space
Aside from the specific actionable advice the board has already provided, Kerry-Ann and Jon also appreciate being able to share their hopes and fears with a team of people who’ve been through it all themselves and come out the other end.
She explained: “I sometimes feel as though we’re in a pantomime – you know, you put on this positive face to your staff, whatever’s going on. But when we go into those board meetings we can be ourselves in a safe environment where people really understand, and can provide support, guidance, reassurance, ideas for reaching the light at the end of the tunnel – whatever we need.”
And crucially, they emerge from the meetings uplifted. “We’re usually buzzing,” she said. “It’s only when you discuss what you’ve done that you realise how much you’ve actually achieved.”
Efficiency and effectiveness
The board meeting process is extremely well organised and structured, added Kerry-Ann. “We meet on Zoom. Someone from Be the Business sends out my report in advance of each meeting, setting out what I’d like the discussion to focus on. The board members take it in turn to chair the meetings, so no one individual or idea dominates. A maximum of a week later, we get the minutes, with action points, and the Be the Business person follows up to make sure we are all on track. All the meetings through into 2023 are in everyone’s diaries.”
What has the help of the board enabled CB Solutions to do faster or better than it would have done without it?
Kerry-Ann commented: “They are pushing us quite hard, and challenging our thinking, which means we are achieving our objectives quicker, more confidently, and without the tumbles we would probably otherwise have faced on the way. It’s not aggressive though – more, ‘well, have you thought about it this way?’.”
She concluded: “The Boards programme experience been incredibly beneficial and rewarding, and I would definitely recommend other companies take advantage of it if they get the chance. We’re essentially getting thousands of pounds-worth of expert advice for nothing. It’s absolutely brilliant.”
Board member comments
"It has been amazing to see Kerry-Ann and her team really consider, absorb and implement so many suggestions given by board members in such a short space of time. I am really excited to see where she goes with this and how her businesses will build even stronger as a result." Ronee Walsh.
"Kerry-Ann has presented an honest and forthright perspective on the business and the sector they work in. It is clear from the engagement to date she has listened attentively to the ideas and thoughts discussed and with real determination taken those ideas away and made instant and immediate change to test the theory, to find what works, to engage her people and importantly to make a difference." Stuart Barker.
"Working with Kerry-Ann and CB Solutions has been an eyeopener. Hers is a totally different business to mine, in a different market, in a different region. However, the points of discussion and decisions Kerry has been considering are strikingly similar. I’ve been challenged to consider different priorities, both from the thoughtful way Kerry has expressed herself, and by the diverse opinions offered by the other board members. Participating in the board is a great development opportunity, a real win for all participants." Ed Puddicombe