Remembering the wise words of a Troubleshooter

Many years ago, I had the pleasure of meeting the late Sir John Harvey-Jones MBE. Having boarded a plane on a business trip to Hamburg, I sat down to be greeted by a very eccentric looking man whom I immediately recognised as Sir John. He was easily recognisable due to his trademark moustache, wispy hair, baggy brown suit and eclectic tie.

For the younger ones who may well not have heard of him, he was a leading industrialist and former Chairman of ICI – a genial and genuine giant of British business, knighted for his contribution. He was best known for his TV series Troubleshooter in which he advised struggling businesses. He was the Alan Sugar of his day and his Troubleshooter series lead to a wave of reality business TV shows that would later spawn Dragons Den and The Apprentice.

After exchanging several niceties, Sir John immediately wanted to know all about me, my business, what I was doing, how I was planning to grow it and, before I knew it, I had been given a full appraisal (much to the amusement of my fellow passengers)! At the time my previous business employed about 25 staff, was turning over c£8 million and had grown rapidly but the margins were slipping. It will come as no surprise that I was considerably more interested in what he had to say but found myself answering question after question.

In a nutshell these were the four key things he said:

1) A small business that isn’t growing is actually dying.  

2) Before you buy anything for your business think ‘how does this make this improve my business for the better?’ and if it doesn’t, don’t buy it!

3) Cash is king – don’t waste it. Incentivise clients to pay early as opposed to trying to punish them for paying late.

4) As your business grows, it’s tempting to just recruit staff for the sake of recruiting. Set specific targets and don’t deviate except when milestones have been reached, only then recruit.

Anyway, as we disembarked the plane at Hamburg, I thanked him for his time and free advice and we went our separate ways. Five minutes later, I was waiting at the taxi rank when a stretched black Mercedes with tinted glass pulled up. The window wound down and it was Sir John.

"Peter, where are you going?" "The centre," I replied. "Hop in, I’m going that way." – and for the next half an hour we carried on chatting about business, life in general and his passion for helping small businesses, his time in India as a boy and his experiences as a Royal Navy lieutenant commander.

Anyway, we arrived in the centre of Hamburg, I handed him my card (he didn’t have one) and we said goodbye. As he was getting out of the taxi, he mentioned that he was coming to Bristol for a seminar in six weeks' time and I ought to come along. Very cleverly, I ended up paying for the taxi fare – he clearly practised what he preached! I went and, in the melee of people swarming around him, he saw me, came straight across and said "Peter, it was nice to meet you in Hamburg. Did you have a successful meeting and have you pondered over what we discussed?" – considering the amount of people he must have met, I was dumbfounded.

I often think about our brief meeting. In hindsight, everything he said he was absolutely right… all obvious things I know, but, if you are a business owner, it’s easy to forget them – and forget them at your peril!

For those who aren't familiar with Sir John or would like to reminisce, here's the link for a YouTube clip which shows him in action: