Andrew Donaldson - James Donaldson & Sons

Michael Donaldson, Executive Chairman and Andrew Donaldson, Chief Executive are the sixth generation to run James Donaldson & Sons, taking over from their father, Neil who decided to take a step back from the business in July earlier this year. James Donaldson & Sons have been operating in Fife for 160 years. Today the group has seven subsidiaries operating from 31 sites across the UK, with more than 1,000 employees and a turnover of £225m.

THE OPPORTUNITY:

Mike and Andy received an E-communication from Entrepreneurial Scotland, outlining their event calendar for the upcoming six months and they both independently identified the ‘Preparing for the Future in Uncertain Times’ (May 2019) and ‘Equipping Leaders for Change and Growth’ (October 2019) as courses of interest.

Having worked with Entrepreneurial Scotland for a number of years, they were keen to explore future opportunities around leadership learning development aspects as they felt that Entrepreneurial Scotland as an organisation, offered some of the best courses to support this.

Following some in-depth discussion around the importance of investing in their own leadership learning and development, and in light of the fact that in April 2020 they were planning to take on new roles with increased responsibility, Andy and Mike decided to fly out to Boston together to attend both of the courses, by Entrepreneurial Scotland. They felt that this trip away together would also afford them a valuable opportunity to reflect on both themselves, and the business as well as an opportunity to learn and develop together as key players in their family business.

Andy comments, “I decided to take the courses to help build the necessary skills and confidence in anticipation for the new role in the business that I took on in April earlier this year. For me, this was about taking time out so that I could take a step back from the business and get that thought process in place so that I could transition and build a plan for the business going forward.”

Mike comments, “I joined the family business straight from university and all I knew was the Scottish timber trade, so this helped me get out of the bubble and out of the timber construction industry and broaden my horizons to focus on the bigger picture of the business.”

OUTCOMES:

Impressed by the style of teaching at Babson, Mike comments, “There was no exam, we were going for our benefit and you got as much out of it as you put in. I remember one of the first sessions we went to, the professor (Anirudh Dhebar) only put up 19 slides for the day, but we got to the end of the day and we were only on slide five. Anirudh said, I want to know what you want to know so let’s just have a conversation.”

Andy adds, “ We had ideas about how we wanted to run the business and where we wanted to take it and the thing that we’ve taken from this is that you listen to things and over the morning you discuss a lot and you can glean the parts of discussions that can be directly applied to you and your business. My reflections on the experience there, continue to influence the way we run our business."

One of the elements that Mike, and Andy found most interesting was the power of the diversity on each of the cohorts. Mike comments, “We were a really large business compared to some of the other attendees with the second-largest business attending having approximately 150 staff. Listening to the questions that the smaller businesses were asking, has helped us to understand what they were going through and allowed us to step back and look at where we needed to get into more detail with our business again.”

Andy shared a specific example of a lecturer on innovation, Professor Jay Rao, talking about the concept of monkeys, chimps and gorillas as analogies for the size and scale of businesses and how they perform in those modes. Professor Rao presents this model as a helpful way to understand how different-sized companies tackle innovation and what mistakes they make based on their size and challenges.

For example, with small companies (aka “monkeys”), Jay sees that: “innovation dies because of starvation. In a large gorilla, innovation actually dies because of obesity. They throw too much money too prematurely, and if you spend too much money too early, the finance people will expect very fast returns.”

Following their return from Boston, the brothers have adopted this model in their own business and created what they now call ‘Project Monkey' – a business strategy based on the concepts and strategies learned at Babson.

Andy continues, “I was always quite entrepreneurial, but this experience has emphasised to me that we are a 160-year-old business working in a traditional industry and people assume we don't need to be innovative or forward-thinking. Now I realise that if we want to continue to the next generation and the one after that, then we need to be a progressive business looking at everything from product innovation right through to how we can be a great employer.”

Mike adds, “We’ve had fantastic growth within the business over the past 10 years, the company has doubled in size, but we realise that there is not much more we can get in terms of growth now unless we innovate.

Andy and I are passionate about making our mark on the business and leaving our legacy and we have a 20-year window to achieve this and these courses gave us the entrepreneurial ‘kick up the backside' that we needed. It’s changed our mindset and allowed us to focus on that step change, which we plan to make over the next couple of years.”

Perhaps the most powerful example of the business impact generated from their experience was through their reflective account of a seminar which discussed Simon Sinek, which was all about realising 'What's your why'. When asked to note down their own personal 'why' on a piece of paper in class, Mike and Andy almost wrote the same thing. Their ‘why’ was to sustain and develop employment within the communities in which they work across the UK.’

Following this defining moment, Andy and Mike decided that whilst the company they had inherited shared their same beliefs and values, it no longer had a vision and mission that was in line with their beliefs, so they have subsequently decided to change both.

Andy comments, “Our new company vision is: ‘Securing all our futures; though employee happiness and an absolute focus on customer experience.’ It's very intentional that we ordered employees first and customers second. We realise that to get first-class customer experience, it’s about having the best, most loyal, happiest and most motivated employees.

“This all came out of a conversation that we had at Babson so this experience will end up impacting every single employee of our company and have a positive impact on them all. As a business employing over 1,000 people, that's quite a big impact."

Reflecting on the importance of investing in leadership courses, Mike said, “It’s so important to invest in leadership, not just for ourselves but for our team. We were keen to both do this because now we have a common language. If I’m talking about Optical Tri-dexterity – Andy will know exactly what I mean! It would have been great to have had more of our leadership team there.”