Interim Solutions Showcase – September 2019

Welcome to my Interim Solutions Showcase for September. I hope that you had a wonderful summer break and are ready for the interesting times ahead…

I have known Ian Parker for many years, and thought you might be interested in his story. Thanks to Ian for his candour and insight into “Transformation”.


In the latest in my series of interviews with business leaders, I am exploring how performance can be improved and attitudes changed in SME’s…

Ian Parker is a commercially orientated Transformation leader taking roles as Executive Chairman, Chief Executive and Managing Director in businesses under corporate, family, MBO and private equity ownership. His forte is industrial/engineering, manufacturing and related services SME businesses that are based in the UK and have an international dimension.

Ian brings a collaborative approach to successful business leadership, guiding management teams and engaging with key business stakeholders, customers and third parties at all levels to deliver sustainable business outcomes.

He has first-hand knowledge of being under the spotlight when things don’t go to plan and the particular challenges such events can bring to owners, customers, management and employees.

Ian has an MBA from Cranfield School of Management and an Honours BSc (Biochemistry) from the University of St Andrews.

He is a Fellow of The Institute for Turnaround and is also a Corporate Member of Make UK.

Ian has been married for over 30 years, has three grown up sons and loves to relax listening to classical music.

Q: Ian, I understand that you have completed seven transformations in fifteen years – what have been the high and low points?

Each project brings different challenges. The highs are all around getting existing management teams and employees to come together in teams to deliver results that previously they thought were impossible to attain.

Three years ago I was asked to lead the transformation of a family engineering business. It was facing a huge time delay in a critical order and the potential late delivery penalties could have wiped out the parent group. Once “settled in” I gathered the key business leaders round a white board and asked them to help me list the critical task project deliverables. Within a couple of hours we had a list of the “Top 10” and we reviewed progress at the beginning and the end of each day. Within a week the whole company became engaged and not only did we deliver on time but the client praised the company for delivering the best platform shipment in their experience of buying modular package systems.

The lows are when things don’t go to plan. In 2008 I led an MBO in the car component sector. In four years we were hit with the 2009 crash, an earthquake in Japan and flooding in Thailand each of which led to extended reductions in OEM volumes. Unfortunately we ran out of road despite diversifying into high value industrial products and winning repeat new model nominations. Explaining to 350 employees that we had to appoint an administrator was definitely a very low low.

Q: How would you define “sensitive” leadership?
Leadership is about making choices and accepting of the consequences of them. It is about setting goals, shaping teams, getting them to perform and helping every level of the business to contribute and achieve.

Inevitably the leader’s “style” will influence how the company is perceived, how managers behave and whether employees are fully engaged.

In manufacturing environments regularly walking the shop floor is a vital part of the routine. You will see and hear what is going well and what is going wrong. It is easy to praise the good, but much harder to motivate teams to overcome what is going wrong.

I would describe myself as a “listening mentor”. This is sensitive leadership. It is the style I respond to best and more importantly it is the style I try to bring to any business I am running.

That does not mean being undemanding, by setting hard to reach targets, but it does mean working whatever problem faced with your teams in an open and respectful way.

Going to see a problem, listening to the team as they talk you through what has happened and, more importantly, what they plan to do in the immediate short term to recover, will bring about team empowerment and build team members’ confidence to take decisions.

As a leader we all make mistakes. No one gets all the decisions right. Few management decisions are clearly right or wrong. So when evidence shows that a wrong decision was taken, being open with the team and revisiting the issue will make for much better support to take the company forward.

Q: How do your international roles compare to working with UK companies?
My early career was based in UK businesses serving only UK customers but since 1985 my career and roles have all been international. I like the additional challenge of getting to know another culture and “the way they do things” which in business terms can often be very different. I have also been fortunate to have lived and worked in my mid 30’s in France and Japan.

Multisite international businesses also offer more opportunities for employees to open their eyes and see that things can be done differently. I am a great believer in industrial tourism, particularly for plant leaders.

There are downsides… After a particularly challenging 14 month project in Le Mans, I gained 8Kg! Well, it would have been rude not to!!

Q: What attracted you to Interim Management and to what do you attribute your success and longevity in the field?
Like many full time interim/project managers my first step across the Rubicon was of necessity. I had just suffered my third serial corporate restructuring as an MD and needed to take some time to think about what I was going to do next. A short term 3 month project was offered to me in France which was extended to 14 months.

I found I liked the clear focus on goals, the lack of corporate politics and being able to focus on making often neglected management teams and businesses grow, change and improve. One project led to another and I never looked back.

It is at times a lonely place and that is why I am an active member of the Institute for Turnaround. As much as a forum for advancing transformation and turnaround, our members provide each other considerable support and advice, in what can at times be a very lonely world.

Q: Turnaround or Transformation? Are we squeamish about the term turnaround nowadays because it implies some kind of failure?
Business owners today want growth! Growth in sales, profit, cash and EBITDA. For some firms executing the same strategy and tactics can be a winner. But most businesses have to adapt regularly in the face of competition, new entrants, new technologies and ever-changing customer expectations to prosper and survive. This is economic natural selection.

The “wake-up” call for most businesses is often the first annual loss. But that “loss” is merely the outcome of issues unnoticed, ignored or unrecognised by Management much earlier.

Early signs of trouble ahead include a lost order from a regular customer; below par operational outcomes for quality, delivery and productivity; delays to new projects; resignation of key employees and declining or negative operating cash flow.

Of course, not everything shows up on the radar screen at once. Much that does, may seem familiar or be explainable. It is human nature to be optimistic and so miss the accumulated signs of slow changes over time. And it is likely that Management teams will disagree as to whether what is showing up is a trend or just a blip.

Depending on the degree of performance challenge, the transformation leader often meets a business en route to “intensive care” and will face the immediate challenge of stabilising the company before working with the business leaders to get it back to the “general ward” and finally, “discharged” out into the community.

As in medicine the skills sets for intensive care are different to those of the general ward. But I prefer to think of both as being transformations.

Are we squeamish about terminology? I hope not because the goal is about delivering better outcomes. And certainly a better outcome than would have been achieved without the specialist transformation leader’s intervention.

Q: You say that you bring “fresh thinking” to SMEs. How do you do that?
Recognising the need to change is key. But determining what to do and how to deliver sustainable growth can be one of the most difficult challenges Managers face. Fundamentally, no-one likes change; particularly as change almost always means disruption and learning new ways of doing things. And frequently today, it means doing more with less.

Owners, Managers and Investors need to take a step back and look at the business with fresh perspective. This is best achieved by engaging an outsider to lead the transformation process to:

• determine the business status and set out the transformation plan
• ensure engagement of employees and their alignment with the new business goals
• drive step change in commercial and operational performance to ensure high levels of customer satisfaction
• restructure finances, sites, operations and services to meet the requirements of the new business condition

Following these steps I take a fresh look at every business element and focus on growth in sales, cash, EBITDA and profit.

The key objective is to energise Owners, Managers and Employees to deliver growth.

My thanks to Ian for sharing his thoughts.