Mike Hughes learns about the anatomy of growing a company, from BATA Group chief exec Andrew Richardson.
You get the sense that Andrew Richardson always had a plan for his career. The movement between his jobs and between roles within those companies seems logical at every stage and he seems to have built up just enough experience each time to make him the perfect choice for the next role. The ‘Richardson Route’ led to him leading an MBO of the company he was working for, which led to it being sold, which led to him being MD of the newly merged firm. All very logical.
The firms in question are animal feed producer William Thompson and agricultural supplies business Brandsby Agricultural Trading Association, better known as BATA. Andrew had joined William Thompson in 1987. By the time the company started discussing long-term plans, there was no obvious contender to lead the company within the Thompson family.
Perhaps the time had come for the entrepreneurial ‘new boy’ to take the reins. By 2007 he had bought the business in an MBO, with WPCreers and Harrowells Solicitors looking after William Thompson and Hamish Morrison of BHP and Jonathan Simms and Paul King of Clarion advising BATA.
“There were other choices for the family, but I think I had showed me mettle by then,” said Andrew. “I was talking strongly with the banks, who wanted to keep hold of the assets and let me purchase the trading arm, but my colleague John Drury and myself looked at it and knew we wanted to take it lock, stock and barrel.
“We had a ten year strategic plan which we managed to build in seven. I had brought in five independent shareholders to the business and we had made a decision to come out and look for other opportunities.
“There was an element of cashing in, but also of trying to find a way forward.
“Three or four years ago we had been talking in a strategic way with BATA – although whether they knew it or not I don’t know – and were looking to do a contract with them and get to know them a little bit.
“The CEO Steven Clarke was looking at ways to bolster his business with some new management ideas.”
Andrew had assembled a good team of staff, a strong supply line and good customers – the three boxes to tick for a potential buyer. His aim was to retain all that and find a buyer in the same business. Also, that carefully composed career plan was by no means complete. Andrew wanted to stay on and take his experience to another level.
In July last year BATA purchased William Thompson, with Andrew heading up the group. The brand was strong enough for the William Thompson name to continue. “BATA knew they had bought a brand, so to devalue that or do something different with it would strategically damage it. There is no need or reason to do that.
“It was important to me to find the time to stand back and look at the ethics of what we are doing for both sides of the merger. It was also important to the customer and supply base that we focused on certain parts of the business.
“The customers are very happy because they didn’t want to see us getting drawn out by a big national.”
So now he sits in the boss’s chair looking after 200 workers, some of whom took longer to bring on board than others. There are two different cultures here, including a traditional element that would rather nothing changed. But Andrew’s open management style means there have been no secrets, which has brought out the true colours of many workers. Bluntly, it becomes fairly clear in such a deal who is really up for a challenge, who is running for the exit door and who wants to keep their heads down and see out their time.
Being on top of this combination and knowing what to expect leaves a good manager free to deal with the unpredictable curve balls that will inevitably come his or her way. “Times do change and I’m a firm believer that looking at the past is not a true reflection of how the future is going to turn out. These firms have been around for a long time and you can’t just wipe that away. But you have to project into the future and think about what’s coming.”
That approach started to be embedded when Andrew left college, where he had studied engineering and worked with metal and wood for about a year. An uncle who ran a building business offered him the chance of a change of direction, which suited Andrew’s manual skills, and so for the next four years he built houses – often ‘walling’ 1,000 bricks a day.
The skills are still keen now, and it is a very good antidote to the pressures of being a CEO to go out and build a wall. “There are some very good disciplines in the building industry - I’ve built my own home since then and am in the process of building another,” he says.
The next move was courtesy of a friend who had gone to work with Thompsons, and
tipped Andrew off that they were looking for someone to handle their logistics. Even at that early stage, when he was 22, Andrew got the idea that the business was quite deep and that it might be the next challenge – and it was about a mile down the road from the family home.
“When I joined I was very much the young guy in the white socks and the paisley tie, but after a while I think they saw that I wanted to get on, and when I had the chance to work in the mill I told them that, actually, I was more interested in the management side. “It didn’t happen that time, but as I mastered the logistics operation I was looking at the family and thinking that perhaps they should be having more of a strategic view.
“I thought that if I took some work off them they would be free to look at other aspects of the business. I was interested in the purchasing side and after a few conversations I managed to push Mike Thompson out of that area and let him get on with other things. I always had the family’s interests at heart.”
Andrew uses the phrase “it whetted my appetite” several times, which gives an interesting insight into how he has progressed. On the occasions when he hasn’t logically planned his next step, but an opportunity appears in front of him, he sits back for just a short while and listens to the details.
But his mind quickly goes beyond the initial offer to what it might lead to. He has a sharp business sense that can do that quickly and give him a clear picture of the future prospects. If he takes a job, or a project, it is because he likes the idea of what will come next. So when Mike, as they were getting out of a cab at a London event, asked Andrew what he wanted to do next, the answer was instinctive – I want your job.
This was a big step for the family, the first time someone outside their number might become their MD, so the shuffle took a little time, but it happened and Andrew took full control and got first refusal when a sale was being considered. The future direction of the new firm will be guided by Andrew’s character, built of farming, bricks, mortar and experience – and rugby.
The value of teamwork and camaraderie he has spotlighted working with young players at Pocklington, where his son plays with the senior colts, mirrors his work closely. Different levels of skill in different positions, but all needed to be worked with and developed to bring out the best.“If you brought them all into this room, you’d see me,” says Andrew.
That would indeed be formidable team.