From artisan to strategist – a personal journey

Many business books, consultants and coaches talk about the need for owner managers to work on the business some of their time, rather than in the business all of the time.  This idea is easy to describe, easy to recognise – and very difficult for most of us to do!

Ben Hillson is joint MD of Aspect, a London based events management business. He takes us through his personal and, in parts, painful journey from starting out to becoming a strategist.

Like many entrepreneurs, Ben Hillson started off as a happy artisan when he founded Aspect with fellow director Simon King-Cline 14 years ago. “Back in the early days, it was very much us against the world – we were at the heart of the creative and commercial processes of pitching to clients, creating visuals, and running events,” he recalls.

Several years of rapid growth followed. Ben and Simon developed a reputation for running professional, exciting and effective events, acquired blue chip clients like Balfour Beatty, BP and Danone, and grew turnover to £7 million by 2004. They became known as “the AGM specialists” and, in the process, got to work closely and personally with board directors and CEOs of some of the biggest companies.

At that point, they seemed to ‘hit a glass ceiling’.  Ben and Simon were in great demand by their corporate clients and were personally required to oversee, and usually be present at, the events so that they could personally coach the CEOs and directors who would be speaking.

Ben says they weren’t overly concerned as “life was quite comfy, we were making good money and we adopted the attitude that, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

It was the banking crisis in autumn 2008 that forced a change of approach. As a result of high-profile insolvencies and major budget cuts, Aspect lost four of its largest clients overnight, and had to lay off a third of its workforce.

To get the business through 2009, Ben and Simon put some of their own capital back in and, where previously new business had always come from word of mouth, they invested in direct mail and a sales team.  By the end of 2009, things hadn’t improved greatly. “Morale got really low. We were all working really hard and delivering some great stuff but the projects were smaller than we were used to, and we weren’t seeing a return on our investment in sales.”

And on a personal level, Ben wasn’t really enjoying the business as much as he used to. “I knew I didn’t want to carry on as I had before – working incredibly hard to generate new business, attend client meetings, organise events, and then trying to run the business in my spare time. Basically, I was a jack of all trades and master of none.”

Realising something needed to change, they brought in an external consultant who helped them to undertake a 360 degree feedback exercise.  The overwhelmingly clear and startling message from the rest of the staff was that the change needed to start with Ben and Simon themselves.

Part of the problem was rooted in Ben and Simon’s ‘meddling’. “We had project teams with apparent autonomy, but we undermined them without realising it by telling them how to do things and asking them to run everything past us.”

‘Muddling’ was also a problem within the business. “When people were preparing pitches, they would be designed in different ways depending on which of us was leading the project, and we would talk about what great client service looked like, but it would look different depending on which of us described it.” This inconsistent direction was compounded by an absence of structure or process within the business.

Realising that they needed some help to change their deeply ingrained behaviours, Ben and Simon decided to participate in the Better Business Programme run by Your Business Your Future in partnership with Cass Business School.

A lot has changed since then. Aspect now has an inspiring vision of where they want to be, a mission which clearly states what they do, a set of values which describe how they do it, and a key point of differentiation.  And all of these are agreed between Ben and Simon and, indeed, everyone else in the business.  They’ve also developed an appraisal system and a proper organisational chart. “Our old one was a circle with the directors in the middle, which says it all – the whole business was revolving around us and not the client experience,” says Ben.

The short-term strategy has been developed by other members of the Aspect leadership team and is being driven by them.  “The aim is to protect and grow our core business, doing what we’ve always done really well, and doing it even better. We also want to build a sales pipeline aligned to this strategy, and implement an enterprise resource planning (ERP) system to provide management information at a project and departmental level.”

Meanwhile, Ben and Simon focus on the long-term future of the business.  “Simon and I are no longer involved on an operational basis,” says Ben. “We’re preparing for the next stage of growth, which includes establishing stronger partnerships with clients and suppliers, looking at Investors In People and sustainability accreditations, and identifying potential acquisition targets. Ultimately, we’re considering grooming the business for a sale or MBO.”

Ben and Simon are most of the way to being the strategists that their business needs them to be – looking forwards and outwards to articulate and bring about the different and better future they want for the business and for themselves. And, for Ben, one of the biggest rewards of making the transition is that he has more time to do what he wants. “If I’m brutally honest, what I do isn’t a full time job,” he confesses, “and that frees up some time for gardening and projects outside Aspect – which is what I always wanted.”

http://www.aspect.ltd.uk/

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