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Always Here in SPirit …

Cheers and Good luck, Thomas!

It’s a big welcome to The Crosby Group’s general manager, load monitoring, as another chapter of Straightpoint’s new ownership is opened.

Last week I sent an email to my Straightpoint (SP) colleagues, confirming that I will be stepping into another role as part of my ongoing transition away from company leadership.

Regular readers of my blog, and those I’ve worked with over the last two decades, already know the timeline:

  • I bought SP on 15 April 2002.
  • I sold it to The Crosby Group on 2 January 2019.
  • I was named global business development director for load monitoring solutions.
  • I served for six months before taking an overdue sabbatical.
  • Unfinished business was on the agenda when I returned last autumn.

I guess all that remains to add is:

  • The unfinished business is now finished.
  • Thomas Dietvorst was named general manager, load monitoring in March 2020.
  • I will continue to serve the business—and Thomas—in a long-term consultancy role.

It’s been a lot for people to keep up with, given that for 17 years the only evolution was associated with growth. And even in the last year or so the key elements of the business in terms of the product range and our status as global pioneers in the force measurement sector, have remained consistent. However, it would be trite not to acknowledge that we have come through a period of fast-paced, exciting change that has put the business I love on the threshold of its most exciting era yet.

This is no eulogy of my time at SP’s helm, but it’s opportune to use the continuation of my journey as a reference point for other individuals and businesses in a transitional phase, whether it be following an acquisition or not.

Finding Thomas

The biggest takeaway from a three-month recruitment process is that we should always be aware what is under our noses. We always had Thomas as the front-runner for the job, as he had been serving as strategic marketing manager, EMEA, at The Crosby Group, based in Belgium (Jason Colwell, managing director, EMEA, first tabled his name). There, he was responsible for overseeing product managers, training, marketing and development departments. However, only when we started to fit him into the role, did we start to realise just how well suited he was. Once placed in the load monitoring environment, it was clear he had SP DNA. An MBA without the DNA is useless, as many boardrooms across the land prove.

The second most important finding, therefore, was that we don’t know what’s right in front of us if we don’t compare and contrast it with what’s beyond the horizon. We had a blank canvas on which to write Thomas’s job description and we weren’t limited to Crosby’s existing payroll. However, the wider we searched and the more conversations we had, the more it became apparent that the right person for the job was part of the family already. It would have been a mistake not to look, though, and that’s the point. Even if the right candidate does appear to be the obvious choice, take time to exhaust all other options first.

That said, it’s important that a recruitment campaign isn’t left to meander. That fact that I’m staying in the business meant that Crosby leadership could easily have let the situation drift. I’ve seen it at other companies where someone has seemingly been retiring or leaving forever, but a replacement is never recruited. It’s boring for all in earshot when one hears, “This is my last trade show,” for the fifth time. All the while, existing leadership is in a transitional mindset and a business can lose its way. Crosby served as a good example in this instance of conducting a thorough but fast-paced campaign, completed in a timely fashion.

All together now: There’s Only One Mr. Loadlink!

It would have been a mistake for us to try to find Mr. Loadlink Mk. 2. There’s only one Mr. Loadlink, damn it! It’s not an arrogant stance and we don’t need to apply the guidance directly to me at all. To put it differently, it would be a fool’s errand for any business to try to find a direct replacement for any 20-year (or longer) owner.

In some positions it’s possible, but where do you find someone else whose sweat and blood is on the workshop floor? Show me another person who has seen the company go from two, to three, to four… employees. Introduce me to the man or woman who has travelled the world banging the SP drum and laid awake at night worrying about it as though it were a poorly infant. I’d like to meet them. And they’d probably make a great general manager, load monitoring. But they don’t exist.

Practically, this means a business in a similar position to where SP found itself at the turn of the year, must recruit to fill a new, not an existing, role. Moreover, a company at this junction in its timeline doesn’t need another entrepreneurial owner that’s going to nurture an embryo and see it through to adulthood. That job has been done. Now is the time for a professional with a different skillset that is going to take the company through its next growth spurt. Thomas has some great ideas that I would never have thought of. He sees things already that I, as the previous owner of two decades, could only understand from my own perspective. It’s going to be exciting to watch from the corner of the boardroom as the next chapter unfolds.

Anyone who, like me, is remaining in the c-suite as something of a spiritual leader must get the handover right. Thomas hasn’t stepped into a designate role nor do we both have a hand on the tiller. That wouldn’t work. I’m not going to lurk behind him like a bloated shadow. That doesn’t mean I’m going to sit back and blow smoke rings into his face either. I will provide counsel when asked and a viewpoint that only a previous owner of a business can have. Make no mistake, I fully expect it to be a role that brings its own challenges because there will be times when Thomas wants me to accurately recall the mistakes and successes of the past as part of due diligence on new product development and other endeavours.

Timing is everything

The time is right, principally for SP’s customers, for a product-centric specialist to take the reins. I expect our operations, sales, marketing, engineering and customer service teams to be reinvigorated by the appointment, which can only be good for distributors, end users and everyone else in the supply chain. In the timeline I shared at the outset, I don’t think I would have done anything a single second earlier or later than it happened. There has been a rhyme, rhythm and reason to everything that has happened since 15 April 2002, even if it didn’t always feel like it at that point in time.

I won’t pretend my heart isn’t breaking to take another agonising few steps back from the frontline. Recent decisions, however right they might be, have been hard to make. But the biggest mistake I could have made would be to remain at the coalface only to find my tools had gone blunt. SP means too much to me to let that happen.

*wipes tear from sooted cheek*

Over to you, Thomas.

Fair Flops…

It’s likely to be another spring season of wasted opportunities, bemoans Mr. Loadlink.

We’ve all heard the song, ‘There’s No Business Like Show Business’. Ok, it’s hardly George Benson’s ‘Give Me The Night’ but Irving Berlin’s lyrics are more meaningful than it originally appears. It’s a foot-tapping tune that hides the irony within. Upon the first listen it feels as though the song champions the stardom of show business and all its bright lights. However, it’s more tongue-in-cheek than that and actually points to the trials and tribulations of the industry. Berlin refers to ‘The headaches, the heartaches, the backaches, the flops’, for example.

He also quips:
‘There’s no people like show people
They smile when they are low’

You might not realise that because the tune is so catchy and upbeat.

Our show business (trade expos and fairs) and show people (organisers, exhibitors, and visitors) are very different, yet similar. There’s something about the word ‘show’ that makes us feel buoyant and jovial. It conjures up images of time out of the office, perhaps overseas travel, networking dinners, cocktail parties, and sales. Call it a ‘fair’, as they do in many parts of the world, and the connotations are the same. Even ‘expo’ is punchy and cool. It’s not ‘meeting’ or ‘seminar’, which are altogether different.

Trade events and show business have much in common.

Trade events and show business have much in common.

The problem with everyone skipping to an exhibition hall in such high spirits is that they fail to acknowledge what hard work it is. It’s like the little girl or boy who idolises a singer or dancer and wants to emulate their success. They see the sequins, glamour, and adulation, and want a piece of it. What they don’t see is the ‘…closing when the customers won’t come’ (Berlin). It’s the same for inexperienced trade show exhibitors or attendees who cross the threshold of the Big Show naive and ignorant, or the veterans who’ve not really respected the process for a long time but never had a cause to change.

I want to share a few faux pas and funnies as they relate to both vendors and visitors, as we approach another busy exhibition season, which typically starts next month (February) and stretches into the early summer, marketplace depending.

Greatest hit

Before you start throwing the, ‘Mr. Loadlink, you sound like a broken record,’ line at me, consider this: most exhibitors continue to approach trade shows badly. They’re not listening to people like me who’ve spent years on stands and in aisles. Millions of dollars of marketing budget is being poured down the drain every year because businesses don’t know how to exhibit professionally and efficiently. Similarly, many visitors are wasting their time too. When they throw the bag of freebies into the airport trash and discard those business cards of people they never really wanted to speak to, they’re tossing away respect for themselves and their employers. I’m serious. And I’ll keep my message on repeat until the situation improves.

The first group of people I’m going to heckle is exhibitors, with my three top peeves:

  1. Cement mixers
Eating is cheating, especially on an exhibit

Eating is cheating, especially on an exhibit

George Benson doesn’t go on stage thinking, ‘Where’s my baguette? Let’s take a big mouthful before addressing my fans.’ And nor should an exhibitor be stuffing their face on the stand or booth. I’ve seen vendors offer an outstretched hand to a potential customer with their paw covered in crisp or potato chip crumbs. I’ve witnessed smartly dressed representatives of companies with mayo smeared all over their faces and pickle stains on their ties. Then there are the exhibits with shiny products on show, fantastic graphics, but remnants of breakfast all over the carpet.

Tip: Eat breakfast and then frequently—it’s a long day at a show—but do it away from the stand

  1. The IT crowd

Some people would say that mobile phones are the scourge of society. I don’t necessarily subscribe to that (I use my phone a lot) but there is a time and a place to text your friends, post a tweet, or check an email. This misdemeanour can be extended to use of tablets, laptops, and hands-free telephones—you know, the annoying earpieces people have when you don’t know if they’re talking to you or their mum, until they say, ‘I love you too’.

Texting, typing or making / receiving calls on an exhibit is like a rockstar stopping a concert to order a pizza. It lacks respect for the process and the audience. I heard a guy once speaking to someone on the phone as they tore down a stand (half an hour early, I might add) lambasting organisers for wasting his week. Actually, he missed most of the opportunities on offer, huddled in the corner of the stand sending emails.

Tip: We’ve all got to keep on top of business but factor in a time before, during, and after the show to do so. If an important call does come in and you’re not with a customer, excuse yourself and take a walk.

U r missin out on a sales opportunity btw :-(

U r missin out on a sales opportunity btw 🙁

  1. Disappearing act

The trouble with shows is that there are distractions away from the expo, some of which I referenced earlier. Exhibitors may be jet-lagged, hungover, delayed by traffic or all of the above, maybe even before the show has started. At the other end of the fair, whether it is two, three, five or more days, there’s the temptation to sneak off to catch the earlier flight, or take lessened footfall as a cue to head to the hotel.

Other times, an exhibition stand is left empty because one person has been asked to cover too much ground and make visits, sit in a conference, and staff a booth. Whatever the cause, an empty exhibit is bad for an image and great news for that company’s competitors. Would you chase down a business that couldn’t be bothered to put someone on the stand when you’d made an effort to visit him or her? Me neither.

Tip: I’ve sold load cells before a show has officially opened and moments after another has closed. Plan attendance, meetings, flights, etc. with constant booth representation in mind.

Allow for traffic jams; many trade shows add congestion to an area.

Allow for traffic jams; many trade shows add congestion to an area.

Just visiting

Visitors don’t get away with it completely, although I am appreciative of the fact that they invest time and money into what is likely to result in more cost, so my tone (I hope) is more advisory than critical. When a vendor participates in a show, they’re looking to sell their wares to make money. For an attendee, a long flight, expensive hotel room, and days away from the tools might result only in a request for more funds to buy a series of forklifts, for instance. That said I see too many visitors wasting time and missing good opportunities. Again, I’ve picked my top (bottom) three:

  1. Not buying a ticket

The biggest mistake many potential visitors make is not attending a show. Few marketplaces are really good at communicating messages up and down a supply chain and not many purchasing decision makers have the time to look at what every existing or prospective supplier is doing in terms of product improvement, innovation, or diversification. Further, technology is driving change, in some sectors more than others, at frightening speed. Researching and attending the right shows is a great way to keep informed about the solutions available.

Tip: Avoid looking for approval for attendance based on cost. Focus on productivity and safety improvements. Look for co-located activity such as conferences and seminars that might add more weight to participation.

  1. Feeling sheepish

Trade show organisers spend a lot of time and money researching footfall and attendee habits at exhibitions. It’s a science in its own right. Their overarching mission is to put as many people in all areas of a fair as early as is feasible and for as long as possible. Entrances, signage, theatres, cafes, and everything else you see at a show are there for a reason. But a visitor can—and should—set their own agenda. There’s no point walking the length of aisle number one in the morning because everyone else is, when you know the solutions you seek are on the other side of the hall. Engaging with visitors just to be polite wastes everyone’s time. Prioritise and only go window-shopping if a schedule allows.

Tip: Look at an exhibitor list and floor plan in advance. Make a list and plan a route. If it’s really important to see someone, approach him or her before travelling and fix an appointment.

Following everyone else can be a mistake for trade show visitors

Following everyone else can be a mistake for trade show visitors

  1. Restricted view

Some visitors attend shows alone and others travel en masse. Regardless, it’s important that a delegation flows around a hall so people can get to where they need to be and vendors get a steady flow of traffic past their stand. Holding meetings or stopping to talk in large circles in the middle of an aisle creates a blockage. Depending how large (or small) an expo is, this can cause problems such as a potential customer avoiding an area because they can see it is too densely populated. We’ve all seen bunches of visitors huddled together with their giveaway bags and goodies at their feet, exchanging notes. When it’s on the doorstep of an exhibitor it not only blocks the light but also potential custom.

Tip: Conversations are a key component of trade show participation but find a suitable place, like a quiet corner or cafe. Highlight such areas when planning a pathway around a show.

When I look back on my career, many of my fondest, funniest and most successful moments would have happened in and around trade events. I went to my first show as a naive novice, as we all do, but I’ve always been willing to learn and observe. It’s people’s general reluctance to do the same that frustrates me most.

As Berlin wrote, ‘Let’s go on with the show, let’s go on with the show’.

Mr. Loadlink

Not a sandwich or cell phone in sight.

Not a sandwich or cell phone in sight.