Always prepared to try something new
“What has always fascinated me is understanding how business works, and seeing how it could work better with IT,” says Richard Austin, co-director of KFA Connect.
“I love the fact that because of technology someone can take an idea and immediately start a business. But good IT will determine whether a company can manage growth and customer expectation. For example, manual processes are absolutely manageable when a business is taking ten orders over the phone at the start, but when suddenly there are 100 at the end of the day there are more issues which have to be addressed, such as the need to forecast stock.”
Austin started as a programmer at the age of eighteen at Whitman Laboratories, the manufacturing part of Estee Lauder. Then after joining Chase Manhattan, he started contracting. Over twenty years he fulfilled the roles of analyst programmer, business analyst, development and support manager.
“What I learned is not to be afraid to try something new,” he says. “It’s very important that you put yourself out of the comfort zone, if only because it means you pick up more experience more quickly, and witness first-hand different cultures and methods of working.”
He arrived at what is now KFA Connect as a business analyst, and the MD sent him up to Vodafone, their biggest customer. As time went on though, he could see though that the MD was losing drive and enthusiasm, and with Juliet Ward, who had become the account manager, a management buy-out was agreed.
One of the motivators was that the company has twenty-five people whose lives depend on the business. “We wanted to make it both stable and successful, and to do that we needed to add new business onto the platform of having a large corporate client,” says Austin. “There is always a risk that a large company can be acquired virtually overnight. If your customer is the acquirer, then they will probably keep their system, which is to your advantage. If not, then it’s whether you have some other eggs and more baskets to put them in.”
KFA Connect develop software which integrates sales order processing, logistics, management reporting, and e-commerce functions.
“Our goal is definitely not short term,” explains Austin. “We haven’t bought the company to build it to fifty people and then sell. We both enjoy being here. One of the things you see in business, and I find it shocking, is that companies get to a stage where they give different departments their autonomy and people become obsessed by having their own budget and lose sight of the goals of the business. We wouldn’t want to grow KFA Connect to a size where people look after their own self-interest and not the greater good of the company.
“I think if you are the owner of a small firm you still have to be attached to the work and the processes. I say to a prospective client that if they engage with KFA Connect, the team will be undertaking the work but Juliet and I are responsible for delivering the promise.”
Austin believes that even a small firm has to define each employee’s personal objectives and goals. “There has to be career development, even though if someone wants to be a manager there is probably someone in that post already. But really what they are looking for are additional responsibilities and status, so a company has to work outside traditional job titles,” he suggests. “Juliet and I run the company but essentially that’s because we bought it, and it doesn’t follow that the owners of an SME automatically know how to effectively manage people.
“If something goes wrong, your immediate reaction can be to say to the person concerned how could you have done that. Instead, you need to be level headed, and focus on putting things right. The person concerned hasn’t deliberately set out to do something wrong and won’t be in a good place about it, and the customer can’t be inconvenienced. It’s important then to have a complete debrief, to get everyone involved to talk through what happened rather than point the finger of blame.
“Look, things will always go wrong in business; it’s about coming up with the ideas to deal with problems and learning from the experience. It could be that only one or two people were directly involved with what happened, but they can be eight of us in a room discussing how best to deal with it.”
Every member of staff votes for the KFA Connect employee of the month (£100 of vouchers), and Austin is relaxed about people working from home to accommodate childcare issues.
“We want KFA Connect to grow because we have an ethos of wanting to be of use, of being helpful, rather than because we have a target of achieving x turnover growth, by a specific year,” Austin explains. “Of course we discuss and plan how to bring in new business and what else we can be doing for the customer, but growth will be a consequence of that, not the driver.
“We want a culture to propel the business rather than simply having a strategy. I’ve got two young children and I don’t want to drive myself into the ground by turning the company into something it doesn’t need to be, and miss out on them growing up.”