Scaling up: A change of course
Ben Blackburn is navigating a tricky transatlantic crossing. It’s a journey he has been forced into and he’s determined it will be a success.
The reason for his sharp focus on doing business in the USA is simple. He explains: “When 25 per cent of your sales have disappeared you need to find those sales elsewhere.”
Ben is the founder and chief executive of Burnley-based Blackburn Distributions, a leading supplier and partner to the supplement, healthcare and pharmaceutical industries since 2004.
His is one of a host of Lancashire companies that have ‘pivoted’ over the last 12 months, some changing direction because of the impact of Covid-19, others because of issues relating to the UK’s exit from the EU.
Ben’s business, which has grown its turnover to £21m and has 21 full-time staff, is in the latter category.
After spending a decade building up its sales in the EU, which amounted to a quarter of its ecommerce sales, it saw that market disappear almost overnight post-Brexit.
Its products were classed as food items, commercial carriers wouldn’t deliver them and then wanted a hefty sum to handle them, shipments were stuck in customs. The problems mounted.
That’s when Ben and his management team took the brave decision to “walk away” from Europe and instead to focus heavily on developing the US market.
It is about keeping an open mind and looking to build opportunities quickly
Blackburn Distributions, which has a fulfilment operation in Michigan, has now spent time developing a website aimed specially at America, as part of that pivoting of sales and marketing activity.
Ben believes the company’s size and the experience gained and lessons learned during its scaleup journey were massive advantages as it looked to change direction.
He says: “You do have a different mindset to things. Larger companies may have continued to push, we were not afraid to scrap what we were doing and walk away.
“It is about keeping an open mind and looking to build opportunities quickly. We are able to move fast and not be frightened to take that kind of big decision.”
The reprioritising of resources to the US market has seen its continual growth and development.
Blackburn Distributions now has plans to introduce new products, create more consumer awareness and ship larger quantities across the Atlantic as it builds partnerships with existing suppliers.
Ben says: “The US is a significant market, the regulations there are relatively similar, and we can work with all that.”
Lancashire-based business performance consultancy Cube Thinking has been working to support Blackburn Distributions and several other companies in the county with the pivoting processes.
He believes large organisations are unable to pivot because of their systems, adding “it’s a little like trying to turn an oil tanker”.
He adds: “New leadership styles have also come to the surface, with more inclusive teams open to new ideas. It is important not to forget the basics though.”
Amin Vepari is programme director of Two Zero, a scaleup business support partnership, led by Lancashire Country Council. He talks about “developing an elite mindset”.
He says: “During this pandemic what I have found fascinating is the mindset and agility demonstrated by scaleups who I speak to on a regular basis.
“I’ve come to realise this hasn’t just happened by chance. It’s a mindset which was developed long before Covid-19 and it’s an important factor in their rapid growth.
“Scaling businesses need to be driven by leaders who are flexible, adaptable and innovative.”
He adds: “A comparison which is often made is that of sport and business. Both involve teams with varied skillsets, leadership teams that need to be innovative, healthy competition, the need for an engaged audience and, ultimately, both are results-driven industries.”
But what separates the elite from the rest? Amin says: “In football, you can be a better team than your opposition on paper, but if you are not focused on the task and determined to succeed then the results are never guaranteed.
“Through the course of a football season, almost every team faces setbacks in the form of injuries, dismissals or even conceding a goal or two quickly.
“It’s here where a team’s mindset becomes vital. Their ability to adapt to diversity becomes a factor. Whilst an element of risk influences your decisions, it is the ability to respond quickly, effectively, and proactively that makes the difference in these situations.
“These values and qualities are already engrained into the fabric of scaleup businesses and while you always need a little luck, you can always influence the outcome of unforeseen situations by developing a positive, innovative and robust mindset.”
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