In this business interview we talk to James Edsberg, Senior Partner at business strategy group, Gulland Padfield about how he first got started in the consulting industry, what more can be done to help small businesses grow in today’s economic climate and more.
Thanks for taking the time to answer a few of our questions. Could you start by providing us with a bit of background about what it is you do and how you first got started in consulting?
When I was growing up in the 1980s, John Harvey-Jones, the former Chairman of ICI had a TV programme called ‘Troubleshooter’. Each week he would drop into a struggling business, diagnose its problems, ask incisive questions, and build a turnaround plan with the management. I remember thinking, “What a fascinating job”. Harvey-Jones would have hated being labeled a ‘management consultant’, but that’s what he was. Years later, having started my career as a commercial lawyer, it dawned on me that I was more interested in how my clients’ businesses worked than in the legal advice they needed. So, after an MBA in France, I switched careers and joined a consultancy to advise firms in the sectors I had got to know well as a lawyer; financial services and professional firms. It helped that none of the big name, existing strategy consultancies seemed to have a deep understanding of these advisory businesses.
I’m still a sucker for TV programmes like ‘Troubleshooter’. They’re like ‘home makeovers’ for businesses; you’re always gripped to the end to see the before and after. From Gerry Robinson to Mary Portas – even the Dragon’s Den team – all of them, in their different way, enjoy the process of understanding what makes a business tick and working with a team to fix it.
Who are some of Gulland Padfield’s clients? What is the split of clients like between the three sectors you support (financial, law and accounting)?
Our team has advised many of the top ten global banking groups, all of the ‘Big Four’ accounting firms and 27 of the top 30 commercial law firms – including some of the large global law firms. Put simply, we help these institutions to be Client Centric – something which many firms, particularly in the financial services sector, admit they lost sight of in the last 15 years. Now these firms want to understand their clients better and win back their trust and loyalty. We help them to do that. And we’ve recently put on-line the diagnostic which we run with management teams of our clients to help them assess how client focused they are. Take the test at www.clientcentricindex.com
In the current business environment, the best way – frankly, the only way – for our clients’ firms to grow is for them to look after their current clients, to understand their clients’ needs better than ever before and align their businesses to client needs needs. Sounds simple, I know, but to achieve it may mean changes to some fundamentals – to operations, marketing, remuneration, the habits and skills of their client facing teams. That’s where we can help with a plan and some experience of what has worked and what hasn’t in the past. The end result of every Gulland Padfield project is that our client knows better how to keep and deepen profitable and mutually beneficial relationships with their own clients.
What have been some of your favourite projects that you’ve worked on?
No two businesses are quite the same. The best projects are when you helpfully challenge a management team and work with them to find a workable answer to help their business grow. Strategy is an over-used term. I prefer the word ‘planning’. I work with CEOs and senior partners of our clients on a plan. And in doing so, I constantly ask myself, “If I were in their shoes, is this what I would do?” In that way, you make a plan and offer recommendations that are always workable and appropriate for that institution. Leadership is lonely. Many at the top of business want advice that is 100% realistic and practical – and they want a plan that they can put into action immediately.
What would you say are some of the biggest challenges in your industry or the industries you deal with at present?
The biggest single challenge is to be ‘Client Centric’. Not just to pay lip service to a vague concept of ‘client service’ but to ask whether the business as a whole and in all its teams is thinking, “What does this mean for clients?”, “Is this going to be a service or a product that will bring them value and for which they will be willing to pay?” That is the profound question for all of the businesses in the sectors we work with – asset managers, corporate banking teams, private banks, law firms, property consultants and all advisers offering complex advice to a largely B2B senior executive audience. Have they really understood what it takes to be client centric in this market?
We all know the examples of some of the world’s major banking and professional services brands didn’t act in their clients’ interests. They acted in a way that was the opposite of Client Centric. Many in the banking sector, acted in a way which was ‘employee centric’ when it came to bonuses, for example. Re-establishing Client Centricity is the key to growth in these markets.
In your opinion, what more could be done to help small/medium businesses thrive in the UK in such challenging economic times?
The only way we’re going to get out of the economic trough we’re in, is to grow our way out of it. We can’t borrow our way out of it. We can’t rely on the public sector to drive growth. It’s down to us in the private sector – and to SMEs in particular. I sincerely hope David Cameron and George Osborne ask themselves each day what measures have they taken to help job creators like me and all other SMEs in this country. It’s a risk to set up a business, and a big responsibility to have a large staff dependent on your ability to run the business well and ultimately pay for their mortgages, children’s Christmas presents etc. What the government needs to do is make it easier for us who choose to have those responsibilities, easy for us to create jobs, and reward those who have the pluck to set up their own business.
Can you tell us five key business growth tips for startups/new businesses?
1. Start your business in a recession and grow it as the economy recovers. Although it sounds counterintuitive, I believe that tougher times require you to make better business decisions. And whatever business you start, if you can get sales going in the hard times, you’ll find that you’ve created a business that is fit and really for the good times.
2. Don’t be fazed when your first employee moves on. I remember when we launched our graduate scheme a few years back, we hired a great guy who had all the makings of a superb consultant. Having been with us for three years, he decided he wanted to do an MBA and moved on. It was difficult not to take it as a personal slight – but I realise now that if you run a people business, you have to invest in people without reservation that they might move on eventually. Home-grown talent is always the way to go, in my view. If you recruit the right people, you will find that they quickly contribute to the business. Trust them, invite them to show initiative, but always, always take responsibility as a director if things go wrong – as occasionally they do – and shield them if they make mistakes.
3. In any pitch, and in the first meeting you may have with a client make sure you don’t speak for more than one third of the time – and try to make that one third towards the end of the meeting. Humans like to talk and be listened to – and in the corporate world, it is more important that the client tells you their story before you try to jump in and take a stab at shaping a solution.
4. Presentation is important. The way your documents and website looks says a lot about you and your organisation. Brand counts.
5. Don’t chase the differentiator. Many businesses which provide a service, incorrectly apply consumer goods marketing thinking to a fundamentally different industry. Services are different. There are rarely unique differentiators in banking, law, consulting, professional services in the same way that you can defend and protect the intellectual property in a new mobile phone, for example, or any other consumer product. In services, it’s better to focus on delivering what you do well and getting close to clients to demonstrate that you understand them better than the next service provider.
What’s the best piece of business advice you’ve ever been given, and by whom?
It sounds trivial but a former senior executive at the advertising giant Saatchi introduced me to big colour marker pens, and encouraged me to use them and flip charts or large sheets of blank paper in client meetings. Now, when I’m pitching to a prospective client, rather than fret to perfect a large deck of Powerpoint slides beforehand, I take a large marker pen and sketch out the solution with the client ‘live’ in the meeting. You come across as confident. And it means that you create something collaboratively with the client – rather than expecting them to fit into a ‘pre-cooked’ powerpoint framework.
What’s in the pipeline during the next year (and beyond) for you and Gulland Padfield?
We have just put on-line our successful diagnostic called the Client Centric Index (www.clientcenrticindex.com). It helps organisations in the Financial, Professional and Business Services to transform their business through a Client Centric approach to their governance, structure, systems, offering, client relationships, brand, remuneration and culture. It comprises 12 questions. It takes 5 minutes to complete online. It allows you to compare your business against a benchmark of similar service businesses. It’s the routemap to becoming Client Centric.