Barry Hibbert’s surprise departure from his key position at Polestar has thrown the spotlight onto a neglected crisis in the industry the frightening shortage of good managers.
Before Christmas, speculation focused on who might take over from him, but no natural successor emerged. Mr Hibbert was always going to be a difficult man to replace. But few would have realised quite how difficult.
Harrison Scott director George Thompson says the research department at his recruitment agency could name 19 individuals who might be appropriate candidates for Mr Hibbert’s job, but this number declines rapidly when you look at who is available or ready to move on. There are perhaps no more than a handful who could be tempted.
Says Mr Thompson: “One common factor apparent in all these candidates, is that they have limited or minimal equity in the business they run. As the industry is predominantly owner-driven, head-hunting non-equity managing directors is an extremely difficult task.”
It means that good managing directors without equity are likely to look for opportunities where they can gain it in other words stage a management buy in.
3i is the UK’s leading provider of mbi finance having backed 600 in the UK in the last ten years.
Its director in charge of mbi’s is Conor Boden, who says that the leveraged buy in is going to become more popular as recession means that companies come up for sale at sensible prices.
“We would look to back people who have strong managing director credentials. They have a minimum of five years experience as an MD, have a track record in other words have done previously what they now want to do for themselves.
“Over the five years they have produced significant volume growth and have sold the business on, but as managing director they are doing this for their share holders, and though they may have done well, they could have done even better with an equity share. We are very interested in these types of people. It’s a relatively high risk as you know less about the business than you would through doing an mbo, hence the reason we back existing managing directors. You might also keep some of the management team in place and bring in outside expertise in the buy in-management buyout (bimbo) route.”
3i was part of the team that backed Paul Holohan’s move to SR Communications from Taylor Bloxham. While at the Leicester company, he worked hard to achieve an MBA qualification, something that too few in the industry manage. He started on machines, moving up into management as so many do-through happenstance
However, unlike others, he has become convinced of the need for proper management training.
Mr Holohan explains: “Management is the scarcest resource of all, more so than machinery or money, because it’s people that run businesses. And quality management is even scarcer.”
The best option, he believes, and at Taylor Bloxham proved it, is to train the complete management team. Managers were sent on an Institute of Directors development programme. The result was that rather than have one person trying to convince the others about the need for Total Quality Management, the whole team understood and was enthused.
Alongside the shared commitment and motivation, Mr Holohan lists the other benefits as increased professionalism, confidence imparted to the stakeholders such as the financial institutions and a sense of personal achievement.
If all companies in the industry took this care to develop staff, those moving from one job to another would create opportunities for others rather than speculation.
For Polestar, the options now include looking outside printing for its next managers. It has done so in appointing ex-St Regis Paper director Mike Walmsley to run its two major web operations. Other instances have included Paul Smith who moved from managing Eastern Press for Rexam to a £25m division with Rexam and now runs a £200m waste management company. But then he has three Cambridge degrees and was first in his MBA year at Harvard.
Mr Thompson says that Harrison Scott has recognised this, urging certain candidates that register to acquire MBA qualifications. He has himself been to lecture to the new crop of graduate students at the London College of Printing and says that the company will be emphasising the value of recruiting graduates to its client companies in the coming months.
In the same vein, the Young Managing Printers organisation continues to offer management training, though current chairman Ian Short says it can be a struggle to get people to training events, because of the pressures of time. “I think,” he says. “There are skills you need as a manager that you have to learn as you go along. Delegation for instance where there is no recognised training course.”
It is a start, but the poor support for the YMP’s efforts indicates that many in the industry are prepared to muddle along. The need for management skills is higher than ever. No company is going to escape the need to examine its customer service, its position with regard to digital technology, nor its need to invest in new printing systems.
Says Mr Holohan: “Until there is change. Firms will continue to have problems. The industry has a shortfall of quality management and management is today the scarcest resource of all.”