Sat dangling from a crane eating a barbecue high above the River Tyne, BQ’s Chris Middleton and Andrew Pickersgill discuss the importance of family in business, growing through word of mouth, and staying ahead of the curve.
As I drove across the Tyne Bridge into Gateshead to meet Andrew Pickersgill, I could see my destination: a metal beam towering into the sky above like an obelisk to the Gods.
I was on my way to interview the commercial director of Diamond Group, a Gateshead-based business solutions company that deals in I.T., telecoms, copiers, and asset finance.
Interviewing someone over dinner is not an unusual occurrence, but interviewing them while you are strapped into a harness, eating while suspended over the River Tyne is a little bit unnerving, at least to begin with.
And truthfully, I had been half-filled with apprehension and half-filled with wonder as rain smashed against the office window and the wind howled earlier in the day; fortunately, it had subsided for now.
“I wouldn’t fancy their insurance premium,” he jokes, as we wait patiently to be hoisted up into the clouds. There are two dozen or so other diners with us on this experience. One woman has been brought as a birthday treat, but her fear of heights prevents her from looking anywhere but directly at her plate as the table ascends to the heavens.
The mechanical components of the crane groan as the table rises, but nerves soon settle down. Not that that was ever a problem for Andrew. “It’s quite impressive, isn’t it? Even the chairs move,” he says swinging from side to side.
“Have you looked down yet...?” I hadn’t.
A meal is being prepared for us by Red’s True Barbecue. It was as meaty an offering as you might expect, with sausages, ribs, pulled pork, and coleslaw, accompanied by a selection of homemade sauces. And there’s something about being 100ft in the air that makes the taste even more satisfying. But despite the incredible food and the unusual setting, we’re here to talk turkey.
Falling into business
Andrew is a Yorkshire lad born and bred, who has found his way to where he is
Born and raised in Sheffield, he knew from a young age that he didn’t want to continue in the family trade. “My dad’s a chef, my sister is a chef – so one thing I knew was that I didn’t want to work in a kitchen,” he jokes.
Like many working-class Northern kids, football played a huge part in his formative years - and he even played for the Sheffield United youth academy when he was 16, but admits he was never good enough to make it professionally.
With no intention to become a chef and not enough ability to make it as a professional footballer, Andrew did what many aimless teenagers
He was quite good at sales and became a mortgage consultant for a year before getting involved in European road freight, selling football merchandise across the continent. “You know, the half and half scarves you get at football stadiums – the stores outside where it’s not official merchandise. It was a high-pressure job because if the lorries got there a day late, the merchandise was worthless.”
Eventually becoming disillusioned with the big city life of London, he wanted to move back up North. “I wanted to buy a house but I couldn’t afford it in London, so I got one in Leeds. I thought I’d better get a job there too and I ended up moving into recruitment for 11 years. Some of it in Leeds, some in the North East, and some in London.”
By 2011 he had set up his own recruitment company, specializing in finance recruitment, financial directors as well as blue-collar managerial roles. He then set up a digital recruitment arm that did web developers, pay-per-click specialists and SEO specialists, which at the time wasn’t really a massive market.
“By this point, I had two kids and wanted to come back to Newcastle, so we closed the recruitment company, moved to Newcastle again in 2014 and I bought an American management consultancy company.”
It was through this that Andrew would begin working for Diamond. They were his client for four or five months, and what was supposed to be one day a month turned into one day a week, turned into two days a week, and then he ended up staying. He closed his consultancy company and joined Diamond full time.
“It was hard to close it, but as a single Dad I wasn’t parenting as much as I’d like, I was dropping them off really early and picking them up really late. I was just fitting them around my work.
“Whereas now, because I’m at a company with the right culture, I can fit my work around my kids and still do the work, so it’s not to a detriment. That’s why it made sense for me to work for Diamond - the kids have got a dad that’s involved in their lives again.”
It was the culture of Diamond Group that ultimately convinced Andrew to switch from self-employment to full-time work. And it is a decision he hasn’t looked back on. He is now part of a company where he has the flexibility, the understanding, and the trust from his employers that allows him to attend his own family.
Diamond Group are a local company that try to help businesses of all sizes. Whether they are spending too much on printing and telecoms, are losing money because they are behind in the latest technology, or aren’t getting the most out of the systems they currently have in place, Diamond wants to get involved.
“We can work with anyone,” Andrew says. “Just about any company in Newcastle is going to have a telephone, a PC, a printer – therefore any company can become one of our customers. What we do is consolidate all that into one – so you get one bill for all your business solutions. These are the services that can generally be quite boring – but they’re essential to running any business in the modern era.”
What is today known as Diamond Group started out in humble beginnings some 25 years
Andrew joined the company a year ago, to consolidate this message and provide customers with a clear group message – Diamond Group can be a total communications solution.
“I now have a specific commercial focus to recruit new salespeople, manage the sales team day to day, and put in new processes and systems, such as consumer lifecycle management. We have over 600 customers, of which 90% are North East based. We are a very local company, but some of our customers expand and go national, and we go with them. But our main focus has always been on the North East.”
“Last week we were with a North East based charity – one thing we’ll do for any company is a free IT and telecoms audit, so we look at what you’re currently using, what you should be using, whether there are any advances in technology that can make your processes and systems a lot more efficient. This charity -– we could save them £20,000 a year.”
This combination of simplicity and cost-effectiveness is what has allowed Diamond Group to grow organically, without any direct sales input. “The last four years we’ve done 20% year on year growth, simply through word of mouth and referral. The plan is, in three years, to double in both turnover and staff. But we’ve never had a sales processing strategy to specifically target new customers.”
Despite the few companies that Diamond has gone national with, Andrew is still focused on his own backyard and dealing with the myriad of customers across Newcastle and Gateshead we can see from our lofty perch. “Because of what we do, and the number of customers that could have a requirement for us that we still don’t deal with, it would be almost foolhardy to expand beyond the city. From up here, I can see three-quarters of Newcastle that could use us for at least one of our three services.”
Finding the right culture
“Ultimately, it comes back to the culture of the business. They know that some days I have to leave earlier because I can’t be late for the kids. The company knows that’s my requirement, so I do extra work when the kids go to bed and catch up on what I’ve missed.”
Diamond Group tries to actively inculcate this family culture into the business, despite the ever-increasing burden this kind of culture takes on when faced with commercial expansion. And it is this family culture that led Andrew away from his own self-employed consultancy and back towards working for someone else.
“The thing I like about Diamond is that everyone’s very similar in terms of the people. While we’ve all come from different backgrounds with different mindsets, we have different opinions, but we all have the same focus which is to make the business better by growing it through customer service and picking the right kind of customers, and everyone believes in that and that’s what brings the biggest results for us.”
This steady, customer-based growth is what allows the company to maintain a focus on its culture while it continues to expand. But a focus on employees is also vital to maintaining the right culture. “For me, it’s not necessarily about the skills that a new employee brings to the job – it’s their attitude.
“You can easily teach someone who has the right attitude the skills required to do their job, but it is almost impossible to teach someone who has the skills how to have the right attitude for the company. That’s why I’d rather take on an eager apprentice we can mould rather than a seasoned pro who is more rigid in his work.”
It is this commitment to family culture, steady growth through word of mouth, and ensuring the best for their customers means that for Diamond Group, much like this meal, the sky is the limit.