Coventry at Work: 'Evolve and fight for sales - or die'
- 22 February 2012
- From the section Business
Denys Shortt is a former England under-21 hockey player, an entrepreneur and founder of DCS Europe plc and Enable Software, employing nearly 300 people. He is also chairman of the Coventry & Warwickshire Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP).
My drive and determination comes from my England hockey days when I played centre forward, the goal scorer. I learned the hard way from my coaches - you were either scoring goals or you were dropped from the team!
I worked for my father for a few years and learned how family businesses have their challenges. I realised that to grow a really big business I had to think big. In just 15 years I have grown DCS Europe to sales of £130m and 250 employees.
I have not stopped there - I started a second business, with a 16-year-old, called Enable Software. This is now up to £2m sales and 20 employees.
A significant achievement and something we work hard to achieve is that both companies have grown every year since established. This requires a laser-like focus on growing.
How do we do it? Fundamentally, we are always fighting to win more sales. Our business model is good - it just needs more and more sales to make it truly brilliant.
A good strategy is key: ours is 50 pages long and broken down to individual salespeople.
I sometimes wonder if businesses have forgotten how to hustle, how to really get out there and win those orders.
Also I find it strange how slow businesses have been to adopt IT in the digital age. All businesses were quick to adopt e-mail and websites, but it feels like being in a Jurassic time warp when I talk to business owners about winning sales using connections on Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn. I have won more than £1m of export sales using LinkedIn alone.
My experience with exports has been interesting too. In recent years I have seen fewer and fewer British businesses exhibiting at international trade shows. I have noticed the USA in full force and countries like Turkey becoming serious players. Is that down to cost or have Britain's companies lost their mojo? Perhaps it's both.
My focus on growth is especially important in my role as Chair of the LEP. We are in extremely hard times and it's harder than ever for businesses to grow.
When the government set up LEPs a year ago, I immediately volunteered my services. In my view LEPs are good news; it was the first time in my 15 years in business that the government had asked for my opinion. I had never spoken to my district council, despite being one of Stratford-upon-Avon's largest employers.
Public sector 'treacle'
My allergies are simple: I am allergic to slow decisions, slow processes and procrastination.
The "treacle" of the public sector has haunted me for many years and I wade through it over and over again with my businesses.
As you grow a business you cycle through these three things: the need for more funding, the need for a bigger warehouse or office and the need for better staff with the right skills.
These key challenges apply to all businesses in every LEP region.
Lack of funding for businesses is a key challenge in this economic climate, with the banks reeling from the crash. I therefore was quick to pick up on this and I set up a banking group within weeks. To my surprise, the banks had not sat in a room together for 15 years!
Our Access to Finance group is now helping many businesses to get banks loans, angel investment or other types of funding.
Space is an issue both in terms of physical space and in terms of the challenges of the planning system.
Making sure that each district has a plan for growth and the actual space for businesses to grow into is absolutely key.
I discovered that district councils have never been measured on business growth and jobs, so this is uncharted territory for some. A further challenge is that many economic development officers have lost their jobs in budget cuts because economic development is not a key measure.
This is, of course, shocking for me a business owner. Things need to change.
The planning system is a huge challenge for business and, interestingly, the most talked about. Decisions can take forever, appeals are too easy to create and can cost businesses millions - and in some cases stop the development altogether.
I have heard stories of three-year delays on huge projects, and stories of businesses opting to move to Europe instead of fighting the UK planning system. I understand we have earned a reputation as a country where it's hard to get planning permission.
I have started with some basics: surely we can simplify the process to a decision within seven weeks? Surely if jobs are to be created then there could be a fast-track to planning permission?
Sadly, common sense is not common.
People are the next business challenge. In growing a business, you need good people and it is clear that all businesses have trouble getting good people with the right skills. I think leadership is key and there are not many true leaders in the UK, but that's a whole other story.
Skills are a key issue in the UK, and especially in areas such as engineering. We have closed so many factories in Britain that the engineers have retrained and got other jobs. Many of the older engineers are now coming up to retirement age.
We need young engineers being trained. University Technical Colleges (UTCs) will help this, with students being able to start studying engineering at the age of 14.
Communication is also key. Before LEPs came along I had experienced a wide communication gap between businesses and the public sector. Our aim at the LEP is to get businesses and the public sector communicating and working together. We have engaged with more than 1,000 businesses in our LEP.
At a local level I have set up Stratford Vision: a local group of businesses, public sector and community groups to look at key issues. It's community at work and so far it is proving successful.
How would I summarise?
Well, for a start this is not about grants, it is about growth. Businesses need to wean themselves off grants and realise the government has no money.
Secondly, strong sustainable businesses will survive, and if a business is at risk it needs to change its model.
As Darwin said, it's not the strongest of the species that survive nor the most intelligent, but the ones most adaptive to change. So evolve or die.