From small beginnings in 1892, Thomas Graham & Sons is now a major steel and industrial supplier in Britain. In its fifth generation as a family-owned and managed business, the company has just been named Family Business of the Year for the North of England and Northern Ireland.
The cherry on top is a new multi-million pound contract to supply the nuclear industry with engineering tools and products.
Roger Smith, managing director at Thomas Graham & Sons, told Be the Business about what lies at the heart of a family business, the strategies businesses should be stealing from the sporting world and why embracing change in an increasingly competitive business environment can be so beneficial.
What is your management style like?
“As an owner and manager I have two jobs. The first is to go out and inspire my team and give them a reason to commit every day. The second is to help everyone improve, rather than make decisions for them. Not unlike a coach.
“I play a lot of sport, and a good coach for me is someone who tells you when you’ve done something wrong. They grab you after the game and help you work through what went wrong and what to do in the future.
“I’m constantly working on my management style to become a better coach. Rather than controlling everything I need to let my management team come up with their own ideas first.”
How do you build your teams?
“Continuing with the sport analogy, I’ve played rugby all my life and it’s the ultimate team sport. You need every shape and size of player, and unless you have the right mix, you don’t win. The same is true for business – everyone has their own strengths and weaknesses that need to be balanced.
“When it comes to hiring, we don’t look for skills so much as talent. We look for people who are happy, prepared to work hard, and who get on well with others. Hiring people for culture is impossible if you’re just looking at CVs. So, we recently changed our interview process to a three stage one which begins with a phone call. This way we can increase the number of applicants we speak with and get a better idea of who might be a good fit.”
What does family business mean to you?
“This is something that I talk about a lot with my family. My dad still comes in every day and my sister is the financial director. We’re still very much a family-owned and operated business. But as the company grows, we wonder if it’s as much of a family business as it used to be.
“For me, family business is about looking after people. Not everything is about the money you make. My old man and I want to be proud of the business and we want the people who are working for the business to be proud as well.
“But business in general has changed a lot over the last five to ten years, and it’s put a strain on these family values. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t say they have to work harder than they used to.
In this more demanding work environment, how do you support your staff?
“People today are more stressed, they have busier lives, and they work a lot harder. We have more tools to make things easier, but that doesn’t mean that their job is easier overall. The margins are nothing like they used to be, and costs are growing faster than turnover.
“Because of this we’re trying to improve the way we look after and support our teams. In previous years we’ve trained people using the buddy approach – where a current employee takes responsibility for the development of a new employee. While our company culture is supportive and friendly as a result, I don’t think our standards are as high as they used to be in some areas.
“The buddy approach worked when we had a smaller team, but with over 200 team members today it became increasingly difficult to train new employees to our highest standards. To bring everyone up to the standard we needed we took on a full-time trainer. We’ve also launched a code of conduct to ensure everyone is treated with respect and that team members know what to expect from their managers.
“In this challenging business environment, you have to be prepared to change all the time. People tend to dislike change, but when you involve them in that change, you give them some feeling of control and ownership.
How do you motivate staff to come up with new ideas and take initiative?
“We have the usual interventions like suggestion boxes and bonuses for sales representatives. But where we’re seeing some quick progress is through our new initiative of continuous improvement groups and champions. As a team they decide what areas they want to improve, and they prioritise which are most important.
“As a result of one of these continuous improvement groups, we’ve put in barcoding downstairs in the warehouse. It cost a lot of money and time but we’re already seeing the amount of time saved by employees and are expecting substantial returns. It’s all those little things that make a difference.
What’s one piece of advice you would give to other business leaders?
“There are so many opportunities out there to improve your business and best practice. One of our five values at Thomas Graham is to always look at everything, always be prepared to take a risk and explore opportunities.
“Before we moved to our new office in Carlisle, we did a tour of the UK for five days just to gather ideas. We copied everything religiously wherever we went. We visited a wide range of businesses and styles of offices, and from that we learned exactly what would work for us and what wouldn’t.
“The other important lesson I’ve learned is that I don’t have enough time to make all the decisions for everyone else. Life’s changing all the time and I think the most important thing is that you inspire people and ensure they know the direction you’re going.”
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