When taking the reins at a family business the tendency may be to abide by the status quo. Chloe Watmore has torn up the rule book and breathed new life into a stagnated enterprise.
When Chloe Watmore became general manager at Thermotex in Chesterfield in 2015, the operation was a typical small engineering company. A handful of employees worked out of a dirty grey-walled tin shed, from which the family business had ticked along for 20 years, making thermal insulation products for a range of overseas markets.
At the time, Watmore was a 22 year-old graduate with no experience of running an engineering company. She’d simply joined the family business to gain experience of working life, and gained a promotion after helping her father secure a massive contract – one whose fulfilment would require a major shift in productivity.
“The company was effective, but not future-proofed,” explained Watmore. “Manufacturing companies tend to think things are ok because they’re doing things the way they always have, but we now had to think about where the company would be in 20 to 30 years. That meant changing the mindset from doing what’s easy, to doing what’s effective in the long run.”
Watmore has a passion for technology, so her first major change was to replace the old computers in the office with Macs – to “look, think and act smart”. But she knew that revamping tech alone wouldn’t be enough – she’d need a labour force that was agile and responsive. “I believe in future manufacturing, and for that your people need to be feeling smart and purposeful, and able to leverage the technology. Companies used to use computers to find errors in what people were doing, but now people are up-skilling themselves to manage computers and make sure they’re behaving. For me, what really drives productivity is this self-enforcing circle of people and technology working together.”
The young business leader brought her team right into the conversation, and everything that was previously set in stone – from working hours to the factory lay-out – suddenly became open for debate. Armed with the team’s input, she moved the workspaces to a leaner, open-plan arrangement with better flow.
Targets – setting and displaying them
Next up came the task of setting targets – something the family business had never previously done. The senior management and teams below them would all have daily goals. With all stock and raw materials now documented using newly-acquired software, it could be linked to labour results and task times. Staff were given simple KPIs related to their areas of accountability, providing specific targets to aim for, and the company could suddenly measure outcomes and success. Meanwhile, everyone was encouraged to cross-train, which further sharpened their awareness of the bigger picture.
“It’s about data and knowledge and being able to see things before they go wrong,” commented Watmore. “People could now close the gap towards the targets, and understand how all this work was contributing towards the big goal of the company.”
One crucial shift was to clearly define each individual’s accountability and their wider responsibilities. The two concepts would be distinct, but connected.
“Every individual monitors and measures the specific area they’re accountable for, and shouts if it goes wrong,” she added. “But everyone also must feel responsibility for everything: if you’re in sales and accountable for quotes, you’re still responsible for every product going out the door, and for health and safety. The same goes for a machinist.”
Watmore was quick to affirm that none of this means anything if the business can’t react to changes. The Thermotex management team began altering its company objectives systematically at the start of each month, distributing the information via printouts to the teams, which the boss then insisted gather every morning for a group meeting. The next step for the business, she revealed, was to install a large digital board on the shop floor, putting live data up in front of everyone and increasing its visibility even more.
Yet, amid all the systematic documenting and data collection, there was one area that Watmore decided to stop monitoring – absence. Instead of keeping a close record of how much leave time people had used, she realised it would be better for morale – and therefore productivity – if management simply trusted people to be team players. Management’s job now wasn’t to police absence, but to ask if there was anything they could do to support. That extended to people’s broader life choices, such as deciding to start a family.
“I’m a young female in business, in a nearly 80 per cent female engineering company, and I really encourage women to go off and start a family if they want to. And there’s no right and wrong afterwards – come back, take time out, be a stay at home mum. Whatever. For me it doesn’t matter, it’s about giving people support and options.”
Altering the volume of labour
Some changes are bound to test trust and morale more than others. In January 2016, Watmore announced the company was moving all its cutting to a CNC machine. There was some resistance: not only was the machine replacing hard-earned skills, it actually made the work slower, initially, because no one knew how to use it. She stuck to her guns and moved to 100 per cent automated cutting within three months. The impact was offset by training displaced people in other areas.
“The person who was doing that cutting had been here 15 years,” she said. “He is now using his skills here in a different way. It’s important for people to know they have a future and a purpose.”
The results have proven worth any frustration. Watmore described the productivity increase as “massive”. And the changes have successfully turned a day-by-day operation into one with a future: it can now produce a greater volume of work, to a higher standard, target new clients and deliver designs far quicker.
“We’re turning designs around in 3D,” she boasted. “We used to hand sketch them on pieces of paper.”
Thermotex scooped seven awards last year, which Watmore believes is testament to the team. As well as demanding a trophy cabinet, that group has grown to 25 people over the last couple of years alongside a turnover doubling last year to £3m. The ambitious business leader now wants that up to £15m by 2020, with a 70-strong team and a client base on every major continent.
“We’re a developing company, moving more into consultancy and design as well as manufacturing,” she closed by saying. Still only 25, she pledged: “Again, we’re up-skilling people and moving them through. Success will be down to how we take everyone on that journey. We’re not the finished article, by any means.”
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