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How to build a self-managing business

Pete Fraser's sefl-managing business
Pete Fraser only needs to spend two days a week directly involved with his business

Going from hunting Russian submarines to building a fish and chip empire in Cornwall might sound like a confused career path, but for Pete Fraser it has been a dream journey and one which now gives him the perfect balance.

Pete Fraser left the Royal Navy at 40 knowing the next step of his life would involve becoming a business owner. But that was about the extent of his planning.

“It could have been a taxi company and it could have been a hair salon – I just wanted to own my own business,” Pete admitted. “I opened the local paper and saw a chip shop was for sale. I had no catering background, but one of the principles I had picked up through an Open University course is to pick a business in a great location that is not trading to its full potential.”

The chip shop in question ticked all those boxes. Located in Falmouth, on the high street and right by the water, Pete had his “business with potential” to start transforming.

Successful strategy

Fast-forward 19 years and the company’s turnover has quintupled in that period. Harbour Lights in Falmouth has a turnover set to hit £1.7m and employs 55 people at the height of summer. Success has also given Pete the opportunity to open a second site closer to home in Penzance. Another underperforming site there now operates as Fraser’s Fish & Chips and is about a third the size of Harbour Lights.

Despite his lack of experience in running a fish and chip business, or even a hospitality business in general, Pete actually points to his naivety as a benefit. “Just because you can bake bread or cut hair, that doesn’t make you a good business person. You’re better off getting involved in a business you have no prior experience of as, from day one, you’re looking at it as an actual business, not an extension of something you like doing,” he commented.

Coming from a military background, Pete had to get himself immersed in all parts of the business to be sure the wool wasn’t being pulled over his eyes. “I knew I needed to be a business owner, not just one employee within it,” he added.

A self-managing business

His leadership approach is cemented firmly in a hands-off approach. He prefers to empower his people to make decisions and, if needed, learn from their mistakes. “In the Navy you set the goal and rules to play by – those non-conditional ones – recruit the best staff and then give them free rein,” he said. “When people make mistakes, which everyone does, don’t bite their heads off. Instead, enjoy it as a learning opportunity by talking it through.”

This approach has given his staff the confidence to become improvement enablers, rather than simply clocking in and then going home. “One of my junior workers grabbed me recently and said ‘Pete, I think you’re totally wrong about this, you should do it another way’. I gave him a pay rise on the spot. He had the guts to say ‘I think you’re wrong at this’ to someone so senior to him and the respect I had for him was massive.”

Pete’s ability to prosper in an industry he had no experience of operating in has been made possible by an upfront approach to lacking certain skills or knowledge. When he bought Harbour Lights, Pete walked into the nearest fish and chip shop to his home [in Helston] not knowing he was about to meet the guy who was a recent fish and chip shop of the year winner. “I just asked for help and over the next 2-3 years this extremely kind guy bent over backwards to do so. I then sought out those who I thought were subject experts in my business, and now have three people at the top of their game in the fish and chip industry who I speak to once a week – for the smallest or biggest of guidance.”

With a management team free to make decisions as they see fit, always knowing they have Pete as a soundboard and supporter, his week is now divided up in a fairly enviable way. His eternal hunt for the best practices of others means Pete sets aside two days a week for what he labels “strategy”. He disconnects himself completely, switching email and his phone off, and escapes to a place with zero distractions. This allows him to uncover new practices, speak with his mentors, analyse market trends and generally get “out” of the business.

The rest of his week is taken up with “buffer days”, the two days he spends immersed in Harbour Lights and Fraser’s Fish & Chips catching up with his senior team, and then a ring-fenced free day to completely switch off. “It’s all about creating a self-managing business,” he commented, “regaining the right lifestyle and not being an employee in your own business.”

Staying on top

A self-managing business needs systems and processes which give the business owner confidence that everything is running as it should be. For Pete, that means breaking his year down into quarters and then having 3-4 big tasks for each period – monitoring and reporting on these as they move through the months. He then has a scoreboard so he knows where the company’s financial health sits. “If I’m lucky enough to be on a Caribbean beach I could just look at the scoreboard – 60 per cent of that is financial health, how sales are doing, costs and profit. But there are also gauges of how happy staff and customers are,” he explained.

He cited Gino Wickman’s book, Traction, as the inspiration behind his efforts to build a self-managing business. Wickman’s theory is based on having a company that is goal focused, breaking them down into chunks that can be achieved over a certain period of time.

Being able to take a backseat role in day-to-day operations has meant Pete has more time to start paying it back to the fish and chips industry that has given so much to him – an industry he describes as the friendliest out there. He’s also working hard with fellow local business owners to boost footfall into Penzance, his birth town.

While building a self-managing business does not happen overnight, Pete’s story shows how setting the right goals in the right sort of time to the right kind of employees can ultimately let you take a more back seat position.

Pete Fraser is one of five shortlisted Business Leader of the Year award nominees at the Cornwall Tourism Awards. Be the Business sponsored the Business Leader of the Year award and, in the run up to the awards on 7 November 2019, published a profile piece of each business leader. Read more from the same series here.

Find out how other business leaders in Britain have honed their management approach.

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