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I’m sharing info with my advisory board that has never left the business

Helen Tonks has ambitious plans for Hydraulics Online

With ambitious growth plans of 20 per cent a year, Hydraulics Online are using an advisory board made up of experienced business leaders to mark a clear route.

With just £900 and a spare desk, Helen and Mark Tonks co-founded Hydraulics Online from their home in 2004. Fast-forward to today and their company has exported to 130 countries worldwide – ­securing recognition as a Northern Powerhouse Export Champion by the UK’s Department for International Trade.

On the cusp of major growth, the husband-and-wife team recognised the value of securing external input. To become a world leader in their engineering space, they are working with an advisory board of experienced business professionals to question and refine strategies.

We caught up with Helen after her first Be the Business Advisory Board programme session to understand the ambitious growth plans she has in store and ask why an advisory board might help the business owner get there.

Why did you decide it was time to seek support outside of your business?

“As our business has grown, I’ve had to wear different hats and teach myself new things. I’ve regularly been out of my comfort zone. It all gets a bit exhausting and can be scary at times. The easiest, but worst, thing to do would be to just keep turning the handle and tread water. But we’re now at a point where we can see the potential for real growth, building on all that we have achieved so far. I wanted an advisory board for a sense of upward accountability, objective perspective and to provide a balance of challenge and support.

“One of the best things about being your own business is that you’re your own boss. Nobody is enforcing deadlines or making you compromise on values. The downside is the loneliness. You don’t have a sounding board to bounce ideas off, or someone to guide and support you.

“We’ve attracted lots of support for our business in recent years, but for the most part it has been tactical. Advisory boards are a superb opportunity to get joined-up thinking across the whole of our business over a 12-month period. Through this strategic level of support, we’ll be able to make some real changes and growth in our business.”

Is there a specific challenge that you’re looking for support to overcome?

“The main thing I’m hoping to gain from this experience is buy-in to a clearly-defined route to growth over the next five years.

“I know where I want us to go – our goal is to grow 20 percent each year – and I’m confident we can do that with the plans that we have to get there. We’re doing so many things right already, but I know that there are also areas we can improve in and challenge ourselves further. To get us to that next level I am looking for validation and greater structure around my way of thinking. As a business leader, it’s also about having the confidence to drive us forward – to know that my gut instinct is right.”

What was the first session like?

Helen and Mark Tonks on the right with the Hydraulics Online team

It felt a bit like a counselling session. To prepare for it I wanted to get our thoughts down on paper so I could walk the advisers through my strategy. I produced a five-year plan and went through it in quite a bit of detail. There were some clever people sitting around that table who were nodding and affirming that our strategy and approach was on the right track. That was hugely confidence boosting.

“There were also a couple of challenges from the advisers which were enormously useful. I came away with my head spinning, but I also had this sense of calm and an even clearer vision for where we need to go and what we need to do.”

Was it difficult to speak openly about your business with people you don’t know?

“I had visions of Alan Sugar’s The Apprentice – but I was instantly reassured. The room setting was perfect with a small table; it was like a cathartic team meeting. It also helped that everyone else had their own personal reasons for wanting to be involved. As senior managers they all expressed that they had something to learn from being there as well.

“I’ve never shared detail that I gave at the advisory board outside the business before. I was at an award shortlisting interview the other day and while being completely honest in sharing our story and vision, it wasn’t exactly appropriate to kick new ideas around or open up about the things sometimes keeping you awake at night!”

What will you be working on in advance of your next session?

“At the next advisory board session, I will be reporting back against our five-year plan as well as two new initiatives which we agreed on. The first is to develop a new value-based proposition. We have a particular customer base where we have deeper relationships and act almost like an extension of their own teams – offering a real partnership and consultancy services. There is clearly something more that we can do here.

“The second initiative is to boost our conversion rate. The rate we convert enquiries into sales is on par with others in our industry, but I know we can do more. If we can turn that dial up just a bit it would make a massive difference to our bottom line.”

What would you say to someone who is thinking about joining the advisory board programme?

“You would be daft not to do it! As business owners we are wise enough to know that we haven’t got all the answers and the bright ideas. I have no ego and love learning and exploring and tapping into other people’s experiences and best practice.

“The Advisory Board is an extraordinary opportunity for me personally – and for our business it’s going to be priceless. Things will never be the same again.”

Helen Tonks and Hydraulics Online are participants in our Be the Business Advisory Boards programme. We’re inviting family-owned and operated businesses in the North West of England to take part in a free 12-month programme of non-executive style support from experienced business leaders. For more information or to sign up go here or email familybusiness@bethebusiness.com.

Interested in the other side of the story? Read about what it’s like to be an adviser here.

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