The beginning of July brought two great speakers to K-Club’s regular Salford networking event – Thomas Kirk, Director of family firm Francis Kirk Group plus Jo Whitfield, Retail Chief Executive of Co-op Food.
So, after the usual excellent breakfast courtesy of hosts AJ Bell Stadium, Thomas Kirk took to the mike. With his main focus on exporting, Tom spoke about his family business – Francis Kirk Group – 150 years old this year.
Following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, Tom took up the mantle of 5 generations to continue the legacy of his family business. Started in 1868 the business was grown from a tool-shop in Denton making horse and cart tools, through to making fasteners after the war and through to his own father bringing in metric fasteners in the 1980s. Family orientated through and through, his staff and apprentices also make up the ‘family’.
Tom went on to explain that in 2012 one of his suppliers was struggling to manufacture and in the spirit of seeing opportunity rather than crisis, the result was that he and his family bought a new business in Pontefract. From there he described moving into the middle east marketplace, where a potential dispute over unpaid commissions from previous owners was resolved allowing opportunity to trade in a new region. Many challenges would lie ahead – not least where restrictions on trade with Iran were put in place almost overnight! Again challenges were turned from restrictions to new routes with alternatives explored.
Looking at the issues, Tom expressed that the biggest challenge was the language barriers and also, time differences – but with a business partner speaking 7 languages, and determination, they overcame these hurdles, urging Tom to reflect on the importance of learning languages for business. Furthermore, he encountered difficulties in currency exchanges and banking system politics – e.g. which banks would or would not deal with which countries. Big unexpected expenses would incur and mount up – such as transportation costs and the unseen costs of cross-cultural business management where there would be significant differences in operational styles and business cultures.
“What fits for one doesn’t fit for everyone.” Tom stressed the importance of having people ‘on the ground’ and nurturing face to face relationships that are built on “trust, honest and integrity”. Our future business is based on mutual opportunity so it’s essential to meet partners and customers at a local level. In growing a family business, he explained: “We must always treat our staff, customers and partners as extended family – make the effort to understand and respect their culture, no matter how geographically extended they are.”
Jo Whitfield then shared her experience and insight gleaned from her position at a community retailer with over 160 years of diverse history. As a welder’s daughter, Jo explained that her parents had left school at 15 and didn’t have many opportunities for education, as a result, her parents were determined to give Jo and her brother the chances they didn’t have. As such, she studied business at university and specialised in finance. Quickly learning how to lead others (who had many more years of experience) and in a male-dominated industry, Jo learned how to manage business and people across a number of areas. This encouraged her to build ‘a great team’ – by listening and understanding in order to draw on the strengths of others.
After spending time at GE, a move to retail with Matalan opened up new opportunities for Jo. Explaining that she loved the pace and energy of it and starting off as finance controller, she saw significant change for the business and for herself: with much opportunity to balance her career with motherhood. Returning to her position after maternity leave, much had changed including the team of people she had come to know. She was thus involved in a lot of restructuring, due diligence, and developing new relationships with the new leadership team. It was all change and a fresh perspective.
It was at this point in her career that Jo suggested she was beginning to see the importance of business networking – essential opportunities for cultivating crucial relationships. Breaking through with a role in George (Asda) Jo was able to expand her skillset before arriving at Co-op Food as Finance Director. Then, after only 8 months, Jo stepped up to lead the division in her current role as Retail Chief Executive allowing for further learning and deeper experience in the new position.
Referencing Asda’s hiring mantra, “You hire for attitude and you train for skill” Jo expressed her alignment with the mindset of listening to learn, immersing oneself in what’s going well (or not well) to understand where improvements can be made. Just as Jo felt that she benefited from those who spotted talent in her and gave her diverse roles, she urged us all to spot opportunities in people and give them the confidence to take those diverse roles. As a CEO Jo also explained that in this role there is privilege and responsibility – you speak for everyone and represent the brand.
Summing up the lessons she has learned, Jo enthuses about resilience, authenticity and support networks. Resilience and a sense of humour have been key for encouraging collaboration between people. Being herself – being authentic – in the face of competition, glass ceilings and juggling her work/life balance is what Jo believes has garnered her the trust of her staff. Tapping in to the help and support of others when challenges set it, helps to achieve the work/life balance which in turn, builds resilience. As a CEO, being a good listener and support to others is essential to nurture great people for an amazing business.
After these two fantastic presentations K-Club presented a round table K-nowledge event: “Giving your website visitors the best user experience.” In this ‘taster’ session, members were invited to hear from Website Conversion expert Paul Rouke of PRWD, who covered how to make websites more accessible, logical and a more enjoyable experience for visitors, ultimately converting those visitors through to customers. He explained and provided examples of the most advanced ways to engage and convert visitors across a business’s multi-channel experience.
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