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Busy Fools and Discourses

A common character trait of many businesspeople, especially entrepreneurs, must be kept in check, says Mr. Loadlink.

I was jet lagged, my inbox was exploding, and I couldn’t remember the last time I went horse racing. For a moment, I wasn’t even sure what day of the week it was.

Now, I remember that time well; I made a note of it just to make sure I don’t go back. It’s not important when it was—only my close friends and family even know about it (until now!)—nor does it matter what label I put on my state of mind (burn-out could be one) but it was crucial that I learnt from it.

I’m very proud of my work ethic but I let it get the better of me. I’d convinced myself that one more hour with my nose millimetres from the grindstone was always worth it. I saw no harm in waking up to a notepad full of ideas and scrawled diagrams on my bedside table—the product of sleepless nights wondering how to gain 1% more productivity here or 2% more margin there. I thought, isn’t it great that I can be creative when everyone else is asleep? I cursed the hours when my body finally succumbed and I completely shut down; exhausted, I sunk into the pillow before I’d even thought about trying to get some sleep.

Sadly, many readers of this blog can probably relate to this. After all, what makes us successful entrepreneurs is a passion for what we do. And that’s the hardest thing to rein in. I never cursed any sleepless night, or 80-hour week (many were probably more) because I loved every minute of them. The buzz of working on an overnight flight before landing and going straight into the office was like a drug. Cramming as many trade shows as possible into a spring or autumn season kept adrenaline whizzing through my body at such a rate that I sometimes had to remind myself to eat.

That was ok, though, because there was always someone to have a networking dinner with so we could talk about work in between mouthfuls.

In hindsight, it’s clear how clouded my senses had become. I justified to myself missing barbecues with friends and family; and saw the layers of dust building up on my golf clubs as a sign of my success. I remember thinking back to the days when my company was in its infancy and I had time to swing a club or put on a snappy suit and spend a few hours at Goodwood, which is not only my local racecourse but also one of the most picturesque in the world. That entire caper was for those with time on their hands or a lack of drive. I couldn’t keep count of my shots on a course or place bets at a track and answer phone calls or brainstorm at the same time. So I didn’t do it.

Stress out

Any medical professional will tell you that enduring a state of stress over a long period of time is a harmful thing. It puts strain on all the organs and bodily functions that we need to take care of the most. The side effects—loss of appetite, sleepless nights, low immune system, low energy, headaches—are there for an individual to feel and their friends and family to see, but they’re somehow suppressed or given a different label. It’s the quality of air in aeroplanes that makes one feel drowsy, I’ve heard it said. Or, no wonder that high-flying business owner has constant headaches, performing such wizardry on spreadsheets until the small hours.

When entrepreneurs get together it creates an intoxicating, yet dangerous, environment. See a group of over-worked, highly stressed professionals in a huddle, laughing, and it’s usually because one of them has mentioned a television programme or favourite pastime. They might even have had the audacity to mention the upcoming weekend. Champagne is spat from their ulcer-ridden gobs and they double over their big guts. One scoffs: what chance have I got to watch TV?; another boasts: weekend, what’s that?; I remember when my handicap was down to seven—now I couldn’t even hit it off the tee, roars the most pale-looking of them all.

If none of this incentivises a reader to slow down, get this: working so many hours actually makes a person perform worse. Chances are, a solid 50-hour week and a weekend off with the family, perhaps with a gentle coaxing of ducks into a row on a Sunday evening, will yield greater productivity and efficiency than an 80-hour week where one has barely spared time to ask how a loved one’s day at school or work went. Think about it: how could I have been as dynamic and engaging at a trade show on the morning after an all-nighter at the laptop, than when I’d had a relaxing meal, seven hours of sleep, and a healthy breakfast? The mind is a powerful thing and it can seemingly convince a person, especially an entrepreneur, of anything.

Any medical professional will tell you that enduring a state of stress over a long period of time is a dangerous thing.

Any medical professional will tell you that enduring a state of stress over a long period of time is a dangerous thing.

Here are my top four tips for anyone getting sucked into the world of busy fools:

  1. Get active

Schedule activities away from work and make them business-free zones. Whether it’s fishing, golf, horse racing, or billiards (fresh air activities are better), put plenty of it in the diary and make them as important as quarterly board meetings. Further, when the rod is cast, the ball is thwacked onto a fairway, the bet is place, or the black is potted, don’t let the workplace detract from the moment. Turn off one’s mobile phone and don’t put anything work-related in the diary immediately afterwards that might create a distraction or tempt a person to rush away from the fun. It’s amazing how mind, body, and soul can benefit.

Schedule activities away from work.

Schedule activities away from work.

  1. Take long holidays

It’s remarkable how many successful people, with plenty of money, don’t take holidays. I’ve heard (and made) all the excuses in the book: I’ve got too much on to leave the office; I’d only spend the whole time in the room working; what if I couldn’t get reliable Wi-Fi?; I’d have too much to catch up on when I got back; the company would lose momentum without its leader; what example does it set if I sit on a beach for two weeks?; I’m happier at work than on a sun-bed or sight-seeing so what’s the point?

The most laughable of all of these is the necessity for a business leader to be at their company’s beckon call 24/7. Of course, it would be unwise to take a three-month tour of the Far East just days after registering a UK-focussed business at Companies House, but there’s something wrong with an established, successful firm if the wheels come off when the boss takes some time off. (I’ll come back to this point.)

  1. Prioritise relationships

There’s no point reflecting on a great career, prematurely bound to a rocking chair, if it has come at the cost of every hobby, friend, and family member a person had. It’s no badge of honour or achievement to say, “I’m a great businessman, that’s why I haven’t got any friends or family.” Make time for immediate and distant family; sign-up to memberships that have nothing to do with business; be on a WhatsApp group with people who don’t even know what you do for a living; have a circle of friends that ask how you are but not how work is going. At times of great need, these are the people who will step in, not the customers or suppliers that get the majority of an entrepreneur’s time. Get to the office on a Monday morning having forgotten about what it looks like for 60 hours.

  1. Take email off your phone

This has proven to be a game-changer for me. Like a lot of business leaders, indeed, anyone in most jobs these days, I get bombarded by emails that range from important messages from by business partner to spam about money laundering schemes. I got into a mentality that I was being judged by the time it took me to respond, forward, delete, or act upon messages. If it was 2:05am and a customer had asked a question, they’d have the answer by 2:10am. Every time I felt my phone vibrate, I’d check the message and deal with it. Now I have to log into my laptop to access messages, which is inconvenient and takes time. Great! It means I only address them when I’m settled at a desk with a cup of tea—not when I stir in the middle of the night.

Taking email off my smart phone has drastically reduced stress levels.

Taking email off my smart phone has drastically reduced stress levels.

I wholeheartedly embrace the benefits of technology and I love my smart devices, but being a slave to an inbox is foolish. When I started my career as a rep, I used to carry a bag of 2p coins with me so I could stop and use a payphone by the roadside if I was running early or late for an appointment. Businesses back then still turned over millions of pounds. Whilst our companies are reliant upon technology and the efficiencies it creates, nothing is going to happen if an email doesn’t get replied to when one is at an airport or taking a taxi to a hotel.

As Steve Torres, CEO at Group Four Transducers Inc., told me once near his home in Boston, Massachusetts, it’s important to take time to smell the roses.

Good luck, Jessi; welcome, Kizzie

I alluded to the importance of systemising a business and building a strong team earlier in the piece. I don’t want to lose the hands-on approach that’s served me so well over the years, but much of being able to step away and implement any of the four tips outlined above depends on an entrepreneur’s ability to delegate and entrust a team.

We were very sorry to see Jessi Boskovic leave us recently; she had been with SP since school and blossomed into a consummate professional. However, we wish her well with a new challenge and remain proud that she will use the experience gained with us to no doubt be a huge success elsewhere. Jessie has been replaced by Kizzie Cordwell, inside sales, and the team is excited about working with her in the immediate and long-term future.

We had 18 applicants for the job and Kizzie was the outstanding candidate. I talk (and blog) a lot about the DNA we look for in prospective employees and we’re confident we’ve chosen wisely in our latest recruit.

Thank you for reading and use the hashtag #loadcell on social media.

Mr. Loadlink

It is important for business leaders to allow members of staff to represent the company on the front line. Dave Mullard, business development manager; and Mike Neal, product sales engineer, did a great job at the recent Vertikal Days, I hear.

It is important for business leaders to allow members of staff to represent the company on the front line. Dave Mullard, business development manager; and Mike Neal, product sales engineer, did a great job at the recent Vertikal Days, I hear.

Smooth as Silk…

A recent order for SP load cells proved the value of simplicity, says Mr. Loadlink, who also reflects on U.S. planning meetings and wishes an old friend a happy retirement.

I rarely get through a blog without referencing the importance of planning (this one is no exception!). As a business, SP is a meticulous planner; we break yearly plans into quarterly plans, into monthly plans, and so on. Everyone has a set of responsibilities and individuals know their roles as they relate to the wider mechanics of the company. If something happens—good or bad, expected or unexpected—you can bet your bottom dollar there’s a plan for it.

Sound complicated? Wrong

The purpose of these plans is to simplify the way we do business with an end goal of making it easy for customers to work with us. I’ll elaborate but first let me share a short story to demonstrate what simplicity feels like as a customer:

Zoe Silk, sales and hire here at SP, took a telephone enquiry for some load cells from a potential new customer recently. It was a Thursday. Within 30 minutes she had delivered a quote and later the same day followed up. The order was taken and shipped the following day prior to arrival onsite on Monday.

Upon taking delivery of the equipment, the customer told Zoe how impressed he was at the ease with which we processed the order and got the kit to him. He said he’d asked for several quotes but two of them arrived the day we shipped the load cells and the other still hadn’t arrived. The SP load cells could literally have been on a crane while another supplier was still assembling information to provide a quote. Think about whom he’ll call next time.

Sure, Zoe is a diligent professional, but all she did was follow a simple plan. Simple for her, simple for the customer. At no point in the process between taking the call to rigging the equipment below-the-hook was there a complexity to overcome. In that moment, Zoe was responsible for the company upholding its commitment to work to the shortest lead times in the sector, but she didn’t have to do anything out of the ordinary to deliver.

I’ve heard stories about companies adding layers of complexity, particularly when it comes to quoting new customers. Before an enquiry can be advanced in some instances, personnel are required to fill out long forms about the person on the end of the phone, before initiating an unnecessarily complicated process to gather the relevant information from different departments. This may well have been the case when Zoe beat three others to the punch.

Beauty isn’t skin-deep

Simplicity isn’t effective if it’s only a facade; it has to be in the DNA of a company. We share information and communicate with each other with the same clarity and simplicity that our customers experience. Facts are outlined clearly, not buried in lengthy emails that skate around the issue. If staff always follow a plan and aim to simplify their processes, that will filter into client engagement and order fulfillment. Try it.

Simplicity is intrinsic to a good plan. When we sit down for a quarterly planning meeting, we don’t arrive burdened with briefcases full of paperwork or calculations down to the last dime. It’s not a time to blind people with science or compete over who can work out turnover or profit down to the most decimal points. There’s no digital chart on the big screen with 15 different measurables fluctuating every minute with the stock exchange.

Instead the content is much simpler: how is this product performing? What problems are we experiencing with its supply chain? What did we do well? What did we do not so well? How can we do more of the good stuff to boost the next quarter? What isn’t working? What are our distributors telling us that we need to be aware of? Has anyone got any feedback from relevant markets they’d like to share?

This was very much the tone of our Q2 review when I visited the states earlier this month. Also on the agenda was finalising a restructure of the U.S. operation under Jeff Miller, the general manager of Straightpoint Inc., based at HQ in Camarillo, California.

Job titles and roles are another area of business that gets overly complicated by some people. The key consideration should be matching a person’s skills to a role where they will be best-suited and most likely to make a positive difference.

(As somewhat of an aside, I’d rather have somebody in a place where they can positively influence or disrupt a marketplace through development of their personal brand than restricted within the confines of a job description written for someone else. I think we’ve discussed square pegs and round holes before.)

Using a blueprint

One could probably define blueprints as successful plans, meaning there’s a place for them at any successful company.

Here in the UK, David Mullard, business development manager, and I have benefitted from a clear plan on how to develop business. It’s also allowed Mike Neal, product sales engineer, to improve our lead conversion on non-standard products. It made sense, therefore, to implement a similar strategy on the other side of the pond.

To that end, Wayne Wille has stepped into the role of national business development manager, and Aaron Orsak is now regional business development manager. The pair will take care of developing our distribution channels and meeting with dealers. John Molidor, as director of projects and market development, meanwhile, can focus more exclusively on engineered load cell projects and large-scale orders. Say the military want 250 load cells of a certain type, John will be well placed to advance…the enquiry, that is.

Since returning from the states I’ve been involved with product development. I can’t say too much about the innovations yet, but it’s relevant to this blog because of the extent to which we simplify the process through planning.

If you don’t already use a Gantt chart (named after creator Henry Gantt) to track a product development schedule, you might be overlooking important detail that will later impact the launch or production line. From the initial design concept to product unveiling and posting a video on YouTube, a good Gantt chart will cover it all.

This excerpt from Gantt’s 1919 book titled, ‘Organizing for Work’ resonates with me:

‘…it is so simple that it is readily understood by the workman and employer, and so comprehensive that one intelligent workman made the remark, ‘If we chart everything we are doing that way, anybody can run the shop.’ While we are hardly prepared to agree with this opinion, we are entirely satisfied that if the facts about business can be presented in a compact and comprehensive manner, it will be found possible to run any business much more effectively than has been the custom in the past.’

Hear, hear!

Stalwarts set sail

In closing, I want to pay tribute to two friends who recently announced their retirements—Fred Ashcroft, who has called time after 47 years in the weighing industry; and Geoff Holden, former chief executive of LEEA.

We celebrated the retirement of Fred Ashcroft (third from left) after a suitably hot curry! SP’s David Mullard (far left) and Mike Neal (to his left) joined us. Mike is also ex Weightronix

We celebrated the retirement of Fred Ashcroft (third from left) after a suitably hot curry! SP’s David Mullard (far left) and Mike Neal (to his left) joined us. Mike is also ex Weightronix.

I worked with Fred for a number of years at Weightronix and then employed him at Solent Scales when I owned that business. He has been selling load cells and weighing systems since 1970 and is a true legend of the sector. I was honoured to be among SP representatives at his retirement curry. Fred always did like it hot!

Here I am with Geoff Holden (third from right) and friends on what turned out to be one of my last pints with him as chief executive of LEEA

Here I am with Geoff Holden (third from right) and friends on what turned out to be one of my last pints with him as chief executive of LEEA.

On Geoff’s watch, membership in the association grew to 1,100 in 62 countries. He frequently travelled to all four corners of the world (I know that because our paths often crossed en route!) to represent the association and its members. Geoff always spoke about LEEA and the lifting industry with a passion that will be sorely missed.

More importantly, Geoff always seemed to be a trustworthy, salt of the earth bloke that I always looked forward to seeing at trade shows and events. He was constantly willing to share the benefit of his experience, yet equally forthcoming in giving younger professionals a chance to shine. I hope his retirement affords him the time to drop into the industry again, when we’ll be sure to find another bar to catch up and exchange battle stories.

I hear Geoff plans to spend a lot of time on his boat—I’ve heard many a tale about his sailing antics—and I wish him, and his wife, Linda, a long and happy retirement on and off the water.

As Rat says to Mole in ‘The Wind in the Willows’

‘Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing—absolutely nothing—half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats. Simply messing about in boats—or with boats. In or out of ’em, it doesn’t matter. Nothing seems really to matter, that’s the charm of it. Whether you get away, or whether you don’t; whether you arrive at your destination or whether you reach somewhere else, or whether you never get anywhere at all, you’re always busy, and you never do anything in particular; and when you’ve done it there’s always something else to do, and you can do it if you like, but you’d much better not.’

Literally or otherwise, happy sailing, my friends.

Mr. Loadlink