Looking to the Future: People Make the Business
At this third event under the umbrella title “Looking to the Future” held on 12 May 2010, Sir Tom Farmer addressed over 70 people and gave an entertaining and fascinating talk on how, in his experience, people are key to the success of any business.
The event was hosted by Biggart Baillie and business matters is very grateful to them for their hospitality and organisation.
Straight away at the start of Sir Tom’s talk I was struck by his enthusiasm and undoubted pleasure at being in a group of people with whom he could communicate. What also became apparent very quickly was that Sir Tom believes in looking ahead and grasping the opportunities that present themselves. He referred to the current changing scenario in Westminster and urged everyone, irrespective of political leanings, to get involved and get behind the politicians – not to stand on the sidelines and snipe but to encourage, to comment constructively and above all to demonstrate an interest in seeing things improved in the country as a whole.
He mentioned that he had had a good day so far, being present at the opening of a new school in Craigroyston and he wished to emphasise that, in his eyes, the youngsters of today are the best generation he has seen in terms of caring about social issues – due at least in part no doubt to the fact that they have benefited from an education in high quality new facilities. He emphasised: there are clearly good news stories around; let’s focus on a few.
Sir Tom confessed that, as he had been preparing for the evening’s talk, he had jotted down a few salient points. He had left these on the kitchen table and his wife had caught sight of them and suggested that, rather than going through the rulebook, as it were, he should use his own experiences and life story to illustrate the points. That advice he took. It is exactly what he did at our event.
In his own words, he said at the outset: “I am like Edith Piaf – I have no regrets”. Life had been good to him; yes, it had had its highs and challenges, but the mix of happy and sad events, easy and difficult times, “is what life is all about”.
It quickly became clear to us that Sir Tom sets great store by community. He was brought up in Leith and believes his success has been founded and grounded on support from people from his earliest days. He told of how he came from a large family and of the influence that his parents had been on him; of the fact that he never came home to an empty house until he was 14 years old and, even then, of how the community around kept an eye on him, encouraged him, and where necessary chastised him. This foundation, he said, allowed him and his brothers and sisters to cope with difficult situations and even to enjoy the last few months of his sister’s life, when she was coping with a terminal illness.
Sir Tom admits he does not plan ahead. Short term planning is tomorrow morning and long term planning is tomorrow evening! So it was not a well thought out, goal-orientated career plan which led him into the tyre business but rather the availability of a job when he left school – as stores boy at Scottish Tyres. He simply seemed to have a desire to get on and get working. Where would it lead him?
That first job was one where his own self-motivation was encouraged and built up by the two men at the top of the company. Sir Tom clearly believes that it is better to build someone’s self-motivation than try somehow to “motivate” them from outside. He was encouraged to sit his driving test and that enabled him to focus on becoming “the best van driver in the company”, as he thought to become. No sooner did he pass than he was told he was now to see himself as a company representative – the face of the company who would relate to, and be seen and judged by, customers as he drove around the country. His response? He told us that the next day he came into work in a shirt and tie, sports jacket and flannels! He had taken on board the challenge and opportunity which the new role offered, recognising immediately that relating to people, and not least customers, was really important.
As he progressed to the job of salesman and travelled across Scotland, he said he enjoyed immensely meeting and relating to people. He reminded us, from experience, that relationships are two way and that the manner in which customers treated him influenced things just as much as how he dealt with them. His enthusiasm for customer service was obvious, as he related how moving to another company, larger and US-owned, had led to him feeling “like a number”. Eventually, as his employers implemented systems which increasingly disadvantaged the employees, he decided in 1964 at the age of 23 that from that time on he was never going to work for anyone other than himself.
Sir Tom was very honest and up front in stating that he believes that people work, in the first instance, for money but that, once the financial basis is correct, the key thing is for people to know what’s expected of them, to be trained to carry out their job, and thereby to understand how they can better themselves in that job and progress. The mix of these factors leads to someone enjoying their work.
He set up his first company in 1964 to sell discount tyres, just as Retail Price Maintenance (RPM as it was called) was coming to an end. He was able to turn over enough to get by until, as he recounted in an amusing anecdote, he gave an interview to the Sunday Post which was published under the headline “Tyre King Tommy Being Squeezed Out By The Big Boys”. On the same morning as the paper was published he found a queue of 42 cars waiting outside his business and it quickly became apparent that his service was in demand and he needed to expand. It was in listening to this tale that I heard him enunciate one of his guiding principles: he needed people around him but they needed to be people who he could get on with. Outcome: he went to his friends and fellow Leithers to build his first team. As he said (also using the same comment about the fact that he had by this time married the girl next door): “there was no learning curve needed”.
The company went from strength to strength, went public in 1968 and was purchased that year, allowing Sir Tom to ‘retire’ and move with his wife and family to America. However, after some time, his wife and he worked out that his being at home 24/7 was probably not a good idea (he was getting under her feet!) and they decided to return to the UK. It spoke volumes to me about his focus on people and relationships that, on meeting up with some of his former colleagues again, one of them asked the question: “Are you home for good then?” and on receiving the reply: “yes” asked: “Well, what are we going to do now?” It was a tribute to the way in which Sir Tom had run his company that his former staff were eager to work together and with him again.
In 1970 Kwik-Fit was started as a single outlet in Edinburgh. Over the years it expanded to 2,300 outlets across 18 countries, employing 12,500 people and servicing in the order of 15 million cars per year. Sir Tom focused on one key point: while the tyres and exhaust systems were the same as many other companies’, the element which differentiated Kwik-Fit was the people. They were the best people – not necessarily the most intelligent but they were those who really wanted to work for the company – to create a “buzz” as Sir Tom said. Were things always right? Was every decision that was made correct? No. The 80/20 rule applied but the key thing was not to focus on what was going right but to look to sort the things which needed improving. How was this done? Not by acquiring new buildings, mounting a brand-new advertising campaign or investing in new IT systems but by developing people, gaining their commitment and stretching them to perform better. Sir Tom acknowledged that the company was a demanding one to work for but was one which rewarded its staff for their efforts and was willing in turn to be fully committed to the staff. As he said, when a member of staff was given a “sunshine” talk, as in “Sunshine, we want to have a talk with you”, the manager had to go into that encounter prepared to receive a “sunshine” talk back. It was by focusing on people, by having a “magnificent obsession with people”, by communicating face to face rather than by technology, that relationships were built, staff had their self-motivation built up and company performance improved.
In a way of understanding businesses which I had not heard or thought about before, Sir Tom suggested that the most important group of people for the success of a retailing company is not the customers but in fact the staff, followed by the suppliers, and then the customers. Having the staff trained, motivated and rewarded and the suppliers working effectively sets the foundations for good customer service; and thus the final group of interested people, the investors, will see a result from their investment.
In his summing up, Sir Tom reiterated: “business is all about people” and those people should be looked after, listened to and know that they belong.
As he approached the Q and A session, Sir Tom pre-empted a question which is nearly always asked: “Can you run a successful business while operating according to Christian principles?” Sir Tom’s Catholic upbringing and Christian beliefs are well known and his answer was a firm “yes”. Indeed, he cited the major, long established businesses such as Cadbury as examples of this. As he said, “Life is all about respect for your fellow man and respect for God.” Following that ethos will ensure that your business is operated with honesty and integrity and you will build a customer base of people who know they can trust you.
Sir Tom was asked whether Government had ever approached him for advice. While answering with a firm “no”, he repeated what he had advocated at the start of his talk: people need to be involved and willing to give help and advice as appropriate – “people power”. Another question was on how best in our modern society to encourage young disaffected people to come out of their lifestyles and work for themselves. Were we going to be treated to social comment or theory? Not a bit of it. The question allowed Sir Tom to give a very current example of how one can go about this matter in practice: he described a project where he is involved with a group of young people from some of the most deprived areas in Scotland. It was clear listening to him that he takes the opportunity to interact with them very seriously and expects the youngsters to show the same interested approach that he has. What they see in Sir Tom, I think, is someone who is willing to give up his time, really give of himself, go for a bacon roll with them at breakfast time, arrange activities for them which will benefit them, and altogether lend them a helping hand. This was a clear demonstration of taking a real interest in people and that people do matter and can “make the business” – in this case a mutually helpful community.
Sir Tom was asked about writing a book. He said a manuscript has been in existence for the last eighteen years but he has no intention of having it published. Why? “Vanity”, he said: he has no worries about being quoted but is concerned lest it not prove a best seller and he would have to go round the shops himself to buy up the stock. That was not a view shared by the audience who had benefited from his easy-to-listen-to experience and wisdom. He got a rapturous round of applause.
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