Austin Brown talks to BQ about turning around the fortunes of Black Cat Fireworks, overcoming perfectionism and the importance of empowering your team.
Describe your role in no more than 100 words.
As general manager and vice president of Black Cat Fireworks Ltd, I hold full profit and loss accountability for the UK business, leading my teams in the delivery of all day-to-day sales, operations and logistics. I’m responsible for defining sales and marketing strategies to promote the UK’s leading firework brands (Standard and Black Cat), and also oversee product development and engage with regulatory bodies – especially in relation to our Tier 1 COMAH (high risk) site operations and firework manufacturing.
What is it the company does?
Black Cat and Standard Fireworks are the oldest manufacturer of fireworks in the UK; we’ve been in business since 1891! Not only are our fireworks of the highest quality and 100% compliant with strict UK legislation, we are on hand every step of the way to take care of the whole manufacturing and sales process – from our innovative product design right through to direct store distribution and order management. Exceptional customer service is at the heart of what we do. We enjoy a great relationship with our loyal client base of both supermarkets and independent retailers, who come back year after year.
Give us a brief timeline of your career so far – where did you start, how did you move on?
In 1997 I started my career in merchandising as a field team leader, which led on to working for Canon, where I was national account manager and increased sales by 16% to achieve over £40m per annum. I then went on to help define the mobile phone shop relaunch project for Tesco, which developed sales from £600,000 to £1.7m. I joined Black Cat in February 2008, as commercial manager, at a time of significant change. I was responsible for creating and implementing company sales and marketing strategies across multiple channels, and managed to reduce operating costs by £200,000 (-15%). As a result, the business saw sales increase by an impressive £1m (18%). This led me on to become general manager and vice president in 2009 – where I am now.
What do you believe makes a great leader?
I’m a firm believer in enabling my teams to have full ownership of their roles, and the accountability that comes with it. By encouraging our people to work across departments and get a handle on the challenges each team face, I feel that you can create a workforce that thinks and works in a collaborative manner. They will consider the impact of their actions on others, which not only benefits the employees themselves, but also our business and customers.
What has been your biggest challenge in your current position?
My biggest challenge, and proudest achievement, is helping to turn the business around in 2009, as mentioned above. This resulted in the company delivering its first profit in over five years and creating a stable platform for its long-term future – which I am happy to say is still in place today.
How do you alleviate the stress that comes with your job?
I’m currently trying to create ‘free time’ in my daily routine to encourage more open thinking, and I recently became a father - so spending time with my family is really important. I also love skiing – being on the slopes is one of the only times I can truly switch off.
When you were little, what did you want to be when you grew up?
A vet or a zookeeper. I’ve always loved animals and wanted to work with them when I was growing up. To this day, I still enjoy learning about the diversity of the wildlife on our planet; understanding how they evolved and the complex nature of their social structures. I also like how I know where I stand with an animal – there are no false pretences!
Any pet hates in the workplace? What do you do about them?
Process for process’ sake! I encourage my teams to consider why they are doing a task. If they can’t see the value of benefit of it to their role, the business or our customers, then they should challenge its necessity – then make the decision to stop doing the process, or amend it so it adds tangible value.
Where do you see the company in five years’ time?
Black Cat is in the process of moving the business from its current site, where it has been since 1905! It’s certainly been a challenge to relocate a 44-acre high-risk explosive site, but the move will give us a great platform to continue our current growth and secure the next 100 years for the business.
What advice would you give to an aspiring business leader?
Constantly challenge what you and your colleagues are doing, and don’t be afraid of change. Just because it works, it doesn’t mean it can’t be improved.
What do you wish someone had told you when you started out?
Sometimes, it’s OK to fail! I have always been really driven to succeed in any aspect of my life. However, as I look back now, I realise I put a lot of undue pressure on myself to be ‘perfect’. Which, in reality, is not something you can attain - and most certainly not something you can maintain. As soon as I started to relax and not obsess on delivering perfection and trying to please others, I realised I could add more value by trusting myself and doing things differently.
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