After almost 20 years of trading, company founder Helen Short felt she had reached an impasse. Her Newcastle-based management systems and training business, Absolute Quality Consultancy & Training, was always busy and growing organically. But Helen knew that with the right know how, it had the potential to rapidly develop into a much bigger company.
“I simply did not have the experience or skills to move forward to where I knew we could be,” she says.
“My expertise lies in developing management systems and training people to help grow businesses, but it’s hard to see your own business in context. I had expanded my company to a team of five, and we have an excellent client base. But I knew there was so much more potential there, just out of reach.
“It’s a dilemma faced by so many SME owners – we are experts at what we do, but we need help to optimise our business potential.”
Then, a fortuitous meeting between Helen’s business manager Debbie Reay and Business Doctor Graham Robson at a networking event set the wheels in motion for the change and growth Helen desired.
“We had an initial discussion,” Helen says, “and quickly agreed some first steps.
“Graham stripped everything back in terms of who we are and where we were and got us really thinking about working ON the business rather than just IN it for the first time.
“I felt he was a great fit for our organisation and quickly understood what we offered to our clients.”
It was decided that Graham would sit in on monthly team meetings, with a designated role of ‘asking tough questions’.
Absolute Quality was primarily a referral business, but as a result of Brexit fall out, the company was having to go hunting for business for the first time in its two decades of trading.
“We had been a victim of our own success,” says Helen. “We had never had to really think about sales or marketing as up and till that point, we were always full to capacity.”
Graham delivered some sales training, which improved the team’s confidence in making proactive approaches to potential clients. He also spent time working on team building and communication within the company.
Whilst concentrating on these aspects, Graham also uncovered a tendency within the business to fixate on some aspects of financials.
“Absolute Quality could paint me a very accurate picture financially of where they were, but had no idea what was happening long term, or how to manage the business growth whilst controlling the finance,” he says. They needed to be looking forward and planning”.
Graham worked with both directors to start thinking strategically about next steps and how to get there.
Another issue Graham discovered was that founder Helen’s greatest strength was also her – and the company as a whole’s – weakness.
“Helen was always ‘head down, bum up’ at the coal face,” says Graham. “She has such a passion for servicing clients, that she would have rather delegated being MD than delegate client work. And whilst I had nothing but admiration for her specialist knowledge and dedication, this was not doing the company any favours.”
Originally trained as a medical microbiologist, Helen had side-stepped into industry, spending time in quality and technical management roles with companies including Nestle. From the get go, her vision for Absolute Quality was to provide high levels of technical support to small businesses, in affordable bite size pieces. The company’s USP was to be able to offer SMEs levels of support and service that many larger companies take for granted, but that had previously been inaccessible to smaller players.
Established in 2001, the company has enabled SMEs in a number of different sectors including manufacturing, food, engineering, waste & recycling, design, security and distribution to develop and embed management systems and to meet the requirements of quality, environmental and health & safety certification.
“In early 2020, we had been working with Graham for just over a year,” says Helen, “and he had truly transformed our approach to developing the company and the team.
“By the February, we were on the cusp of securing a huge training contract that was going to take the business to the next level. It was to deliver an enormous programme of ongoing face-to-face training. But as people realised how serious things were getting with Covid, the contract was indefinitely put on hold.”
Helen remembers clearly an urgent discussion at the time with the other director Andrew Wilson.
“I can remember insisting that we needed Graham now more than ever,” she says, “but Andrew, conscious of our uncertain income, said we could no longer afford him and was looking to make cuts wherever possible.
“I fought my corner, adamant that we couldn’t afford NOT to have Graham on board, as almost every aspect of how we had operated our business was about to be turned on its head, for how long we did not know.”
As it turned out, the company didn’t have to worry about finding the cash to pay for Graham. For his first pandemic piece of work, he helped them to apply for SME Restart and Recovery Package funding, which covered his fees.
The company then decided to call Graham in to facilitate a session about how they were going to pivot away from face-to-face working and to move towards delivering a blend of virtual and socially-distanced services.
“We needed to prepare both mentally and practically for the months ahead,” says Helen. “Covid took us by the knees as we went over night from ‘we’re about to take on our biggest ever contract’ to ‘how are we going to survive this?’
The Absolute Quality directors worked with Graham to develop a strategy to survive the pandemic and to emerge, stronger, and ready to grow out the other side.
“Helen runs at speed,” says Graham. “She is a true visionary, but not always a fan of the details.
“So in effect, we went back to basics. We looked at job descriptions and responsibilities. We looked at bringing more people in to the team to allow the business to grow beyond the current capacity.
“We’re setting up performance evaluations and 360 degree feedback sessions. We are reinforcing the company’s foundations, from processes to sales pipelines and setting six-monthly growth targets.
“We are putting personal development plans in place for team members, to help fill in any gaps and to help them to feel valued.”
As Helen points out, ironically, some of the work around processes is exactly what Absolute Quality does for clients, “but we have always been too busy to step back and put it in place for ourselves,” she says.
“As a business, we were always good at understanding our clients’ needs,” says Helen, “but required some support – and objectivity – to break down what we needed to do strategically for our own business.
“I’m dreadful for being a field of dreams person. Build it and they will come has always been my approach. But building a company is hard, particularly when you are busy spending all of your time servicing clients.
Helen says that her company is now “pretty much back” to where it was pre-pandemic. They are recruiting and according to Helen, “are stronger and more agile than ever as we have developed new ways of working that allow us to sell our services more flexibly to a greater number of companies”.