Karen Lucas, MD at Vikoma, East Cowes
Vikoma is a thriving business exporting worldwide from the Isle of Wight.
I was brought into the business three years ago to manage it, prepare it for sale and raise much needed investment. Key personnel were leaving and a strong management team was needed to achieve these goals and ensure Vikoma stayed on the Island.
As I began to talk to key people about the future, I found they were passionate about the business and wanted it to thrive once more. There was a lot of experience. We formed a management team and prepared our plan for the future.
The management team then bought the company with backing from like-minded investors. A year in, it was a huge compliment when their appointed non-exec director said we were a text-book case of turnaround.
As the team got more cohesive everyone began to play to their strengths, making us more effective. We dealt with historical issues and started to get improved results everywhere in the company.
So we're set to stay in East Cowes, securing over 60 jobs at Vikoma and working with many island businesses, continuing to build what has grown into a respected international company. Thank you team! And now we're developing new directions...
Reinvent Your Business For Success
Commentary from Dave Simon
One way to grow your business is to take what you already know to new customers.
Diversification can mean exporting to a new geographical market.
Or changing your marketing to attract different sorts of customers.
If your product, service or skill is new to the new market, you make a big difference. And that's often where growth, fame and money are.
“It is more profitable and advantageous for the trader to export his products to a distant land and take a dangerous route. In this way the distance and the risk incurred will give a rare quality and thereby increase its value. This is why the wealthiest and most prosperous merchants are those who dare to go.” Ibn Kaldun, a Muslim historian wrote over 625 years ago.
It's not what everyone wants. But for those with ambition, that's where the excitement is.
The answer is to reapply your technology and skills into new areas.
How? Often the problem is opening your mind. It takes a shift in thinking that makes new opportunities more obvious. And feel the challenges as exciting instead of intimidating.
Developing New Directions
No longer part of a larger group of companies, and with the support of our investors, Vikoma is pretty independent. The advantages of that have become clear. We can now reinvest our profits into our future. This makes us more resilient as we develop new products and new markets.
For instance, we used to be very focused on oil spill clean-up, but now we are making flood defence products. One of these – the 'Flood Guardian' flood barrier – is in use in Yarmouth Harbour to keep the car park operational at during peak tidal surges.
Another development has been diversifying our product range and rather than solely for emergency use, we now have products that customers can use in more routine operational ways to save time and money.
Improving Our Resilience
Our products have traditionally focused on Oil Spill, however we have been diversifying to ensure we don’t have all our eggs in one basket. The peaks-and-troughs of cashflow in contracting turnover makes it look very lumpy on the chart and is challenging to manage, so de-risking and working with a wider product range and a wider customer basis helps to even out the peaks and troughs.
And as we learn more, we'll probably discover new opportunities for new products. We think of it as moving more generally into environmental protection rather than being just oil spill technology experts.
My Learning Journey
I was Finance Director at Strainstall in Cowes for 16 years. Although I'd had good jobs before, I learnt so much there. I got more and more involved and began to take on Contractual, HR and legal work. We grew from 50 staff to 220, with turnover going from around £3 million to over £20 million. All of that has helped me here at Vikoma.
I also worked at Liz Earle for 3 years. They had a different form of teamwork, which broadened my people-management skills. I think that getting as wide an experience as possible is really useful. It prepares you for bigger and better challenges, which feels very rewarding.
I've always looked out for new opportunities, both for myself and the business I'm in. Ambition is very important – it drives us to do better and that's what makes businesses survive and grow. I think it's essential to be optimistic and have a can-do attitude. It’s important to have a plan to keep moving forwards and upwards!
Profit Makes Business Work
Without profit, we wouldn't have a business. The energy that makes businesses work would disappear, the investors would want their money back and jobs would go. Profit is proof of competence. It allows us all to feel confident in future hopes.
But profit is not a pot of gold to fritter away. It's the resource that builds the future. You have to keep a long-term view of the value of profit.
But it's not the only thing. Fun and integrity are really important, as Richard Branson shows us.
Passion Balances Risk
And having a passion for what you're doing is vital too. If you run out of steam, everything gets difficult.
I found myself giving a talk about leadership to some GCSE and sixth form schoolgirls recently. I encouraged them to understand that taking risks is OK. Don't sit on the fence – make a choice, try it out and if it doesn't work, do something else.
You need to feel passionate about something to want to take a risk to make it better.
The Island's Bright Future
I think we are at a turning point.
There's lots of good businesses on the Island at the moment. And we have a good opportunity to improve things. We've got a new MP and a new Council leader, and they belong to the same party. So they should be able to work together for change more easily than past divisions have allowed.
And the Chamber of Commerce has an understanding to work with the Council for the benefit of business. So there is more alignment of purpose nowadays.
My Recipe For Change
In my view, a long term goal for the Island is to improve the education system. Aside from University training, local business needs local youngsters to have a wide range of skills. These include manual skills, technical skills, common sense and employability skills. But schools seem not support those areas of training.
We would benefit from much more use of apprenticeships, internships and work experience placements. People learn by doing and inside a business is the best place to learn.
I benefited from the sandwich course format of training – study followed by a work placement and then study again. It made everything real, which is much easier to understand and learn from. Day release courses are another way you can have study and work hand-in-hand.
Although I trained as an accountant, I didn't go through the traditional University route. I almost designed my own training programme and then my career. I ignored a lot of conventional advice and did it my way. As I've said above, I got a width of experience and lot of practice in making difficult decisions as a result.
And from that, I think I was pretty successful quite young – Financial Director at the age of 26.
If I were Queen of the Island, I would appoint an Education Supremo to push some leadership into boosting practical skills for the workplace. I feel the education system is so disparate that a single point of leadership would help to turn this round.
Coaching Is Effective Management
Another skill I can strongly recommend is coaching. I've been coached and also been trained to coach staff. It is a management style that I would encourage everyone to adopt at appropriate times.
Not only is it effective, it is rewarding for managers. You are much more likely to get buy-in and action for ideas created by your team rather than those they don’t agree with or are forced upon them.