Getting support from peers is just one of the factors that is vital for business owners with growth aspirations, according to Viv Parry, Founder and Managing Director of Exquisite Handmade Cakes based in Leeds. Viv was lucky enough to find it through her participation in the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses programme currently running across the UK, which helps businesses with growth potential to receive specialist business support.
“My business had been growing year on year since we launched in 2004 but I did not really see its broader potential until I was on the programme with other like minded business owners” says Parry. “They gave me encouragement and valuable feedback which helped me to raise my game, and develop a much greater sense of belief about what’s possible. I now feel much more confident, and as a result I even delivered the graduation speech in front of my peers which was quite a change compared to the start of the programme, when I just froze speaking in public”.
Because of this new found confidence Viv now has ambitious plans for the next stage of growth for the business, which supplies upmarket cakes to the catering and food service sector, as well as direct to customers who are looking for a product that delivers an exquisite experience. Their client list is growing – they supply to Sodexo, the world’s largest food service company, also train operator Grand Central, the MCC, Café W in Waterstones; and their products were recently supplied into the Chelsea Flower Show via Sodexo
Whilst baking cakes is not Viv’s specialty (she has never made a cake in their premises), managing the finances is definitely her area of expertise. Having trained as a Chartered Accountant Parry believes that it’s vital to have passion for your business but also to have the ability to step back and view it objectively. Being able to take this strategic view on the Goldman Sachs programme really helped Viv identify the strengths and weaknesses in her business, as well as the growth opportunities.
This capability to be objective even helped Viv to start up the business in the first place. During her career as an Accountant she was involved in doing a management buy out (MBO) along with a number of other individuals. And when the deal fell through, she took the opportunity to get married and have a family. While she was bringing up her daughters, Viv took a bookkeeping job in order earn money and it happened to be in a bakery. When it went into liquidation, Viv believed she could make a business out of it, and took the opportunity to buy the assets for £20,000.
“Buying the assets from a failed business is quite a negative way to start up a business, Viv comments. However I probably would never have had the confidence to do so, had I not had been through a similar situation before with the MBO so it did not phase me to start up a business in this way.
“Perhaps the most difficult bit was trying to purchase ingredients when the previous business had a bad credit history with its suppliers. I used to go to the wholesaler 2-3 times a week in my car, load it up with ingredients and pay with cash. They used to tell me on a regular basis that I’d overloaded the car, so we had to make other arrangements as we grew. But you do what it takes to move the business forward.
“I’ve also had my fair share of people challenges over the years. Being able to step back and review things objectively helped me to see that some people were going to be able to grow with the business in future and others were not. Our vision and values are what distinguishes us from our competition and it very soon becomes apparent when we have employed people who don’t have these values.
“But what I learned from this experience is that when I make tough decisions I am also doing it for others in the team. They all naturally have the vision and values of the business in their hearts and convey this to the outside world whatever their role is”.
Another challenge facing many small businesses currently is finding finance for growth. Viv’s initial finance came from friends and family but as the business has grown she sought alternative routes. When high street banks were not supportive, Viv turned to peer to peer funding to finance the purchase of a new machine for the business. She managed to successfully raise £50,000 and learned a lot from the experience.
“It was interesting to notice that as more bids were made, the interest rate went down, so it made it more affordable for us. The investors have a much more powerful relationship with the business than traditional lenders as they become advocates of the business.
“Initially I found it odd to share a lot of information about our business in a public manner, but then I said to myself – if peers think it’s viable they will want to invest. I shall consider using crowd funding again in future and maybe for something that does not have an asset value e.g. a website as a route to online selling. I guess that’s where it might get more tricky, but would hope that each investor would also become a customer” she says.
It seems clear from what Parry describes that any business owner with growth ambitions must be able to work “on the business” from day one, as opposed to just “in the business”. It is taking objective perspective that is vital to get a sense of whether the business is scalable. Many people find this difficult to do, because they get too close emotionally to the product or service that they offer, but by finding some type of peer support, it can enable them to hear advice and ideas from others with similar ambitions.
Viv Parry’s three top tips for businesses with growth aspirations
1. Believe in what you are doing
As the leader if you believe in your business and can convey that message with passion, it inspires your employees, suppliers, and customers – even the bank!
2. Invest in a good accountant
“Good” means one that can think strategically about your business, and help you plan for the future, and manage the finances. Make the investment, even before you think you can afford it.
3. Develop a great team around you
Find people that you believe have the right attitude and passion for your business, and then grow their skills and capabilities internally. That way you can develop more loyalty and commitment in your team.
Business Growth programmes and Peer Support Organisations
Sue Stockdale is London Chapter Chair of Women Presidents Organisation – a not for profit membership organisation offering peer support for women business owners with revenues in excess of $1m.