The family business that's getting fired up over technology

Northern Kilns’ Jen Cross shares how digital transformation holds the key to growth for the Lancashire-based SME.

With more than half a century of history, 12 people’s livelihoods and three generations of our family tied up in the business, it feels like there’s a lot riding on the decisions we make”, says Jen Cross, operations manager at Pilling-based Northern Kilns.

Alongside her brother, production manager Adam, Jen is the third generation of her family to lead the business which makes pottery kilns for industry, education and home crafters.

Together with their father, managing director Adrian, Jen and Adam have steered their 12-strong staff team through the dual trials of the pandemic and Brexit.

A now-or-never opportunity

“There’s no question that the last 12 months have been tough. Like a lot of businesses we had to stop production during the first lockdown”, Jen says.

“That said, there have been some unexpected positives, too. We’ve been blown away by an explosion in demand for home kilns as more people discover the satisfaction and mental health benefits of throwing and firing their own pottery.

“And Brexit means some continental kiln makers stand to be affected by increased border controls.

I try not to dwell on it, but
there is pressure in sustaining and growing a family business

“Altogether, it means we’re at an exciting juncture for the business and we have on our hands a real now-or-never opportunity to take kiln production to the next level.

“This strategy will hopefully enable us to build our nationwide market share and take on more staff here in Lancashire. Longer term we’d also love to move to more suitable, purpose-built premises.”

Digital: Key to growth or expensive mistake?

To achieve the family’s ambitions for increased productivity, Jen says her first task is to streamline internal processes and iron out any delays and inefficiencies: “We’ve made great use of technology in our office-based operations but communication with the workshop is still paper-based.

“To realise our plans for growth, we have to digitise wherever we can. Glitches and hold-ups that are manageable now could cause major headaches when we’re operating at a larger scale.”

Despite her vision for improvement, Jen admits to feeling daunted by the challenge of introducing new technologies. She continues: “How do we know which tools will unlock the potential in our business and which might be expensive and time-consuming mistakes?

“Although I try not to dwell on it, there is pressure in sustaining and growing a family business and we’ve got to carefully consider our options.”

Laying the foundation for good decisions

To help her navigate this digital transformation, Jen joined Evolve Digital, an online programme designed and delivered by leading academics at Lancaster University Management School (LUMS).

It’s based on research by LUMS professor Steve Kempster into how, when driven by strong leadership, new technologies can help family-run businesses be more secure and sustainable for future generations.

LUMS has been selected by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) and Innovate UK to deliver Evolve Digital, which is part of a national research study. The outcomes will inform UK government policy on the needs of small, family businesses.

Jen is part of the first cohort of business leaders that began the threemonth, fully-funded programme in autumn 2020. She says: “I presumed Evolve Digital would simply teach me how to choose the best technology for our business.

“I was a little surprised when the first sessions went a lot deeper, encouraging me to get under the skin of our family leadership style and business strategy.

“But it became clear that we are getting to grips with the fundamental principles on which we can make good business decisions in future, whether that’s about digital or any other change.”

Learning to lead with confidence

So, what was the reception to Jen’s new found insight back at Northern Kilns?

“Dad and Adam have been very supportive of me taking the time out for the programme. Being away from the office is a sacrifice but I have come back brimming with plans so they can see it’s an investment.

“We are fortunate to have a really close and positive wider team, too, who get behind improvements. That said, the leadership techniques I have learned so far were a confidence boost when I stood in front of our whole team to set out our ambitions for growth.

“In three words, I’m feeling optimistic, positive and empowered and ready to work with dad and Adam to maximise the potential of new technology in the business.”

There are Evolve Digital cohorts beginning on February 10, 2021 and at the end of April. The sessions will be delivered online over three months, for around 15 hours per month. Evolve Digital is fully funded by BEIS and Innovate UK and places are available to eligible businesses.

To find out more, and to register interest in joining the programme, go to lancaster.ac.uk/lums/evolve-digital

The expert's view

The Evolve Digital programme is based on research by Professor Steve Kempster, Lancaster University Management School’s professor of leadership, learning and development. Steve says: “The pandemic has made it clearer than ever that if we don’t shape the digitalisation of our businesses, it will shape us.

“For some companies, that perhaps didn’t have a strong focus on technology before, this shift can be really tough, and in family-run businesses in particular it can bring emotional as well as practical challenges.

“It means grappling with issues like ‘who has the power to make the final decision?’ and ‘is it riskier to make a change or stick with the status quo?’. There is a great deal of pressure on leaders: no one wants to be the last generation of a family business.”

The key to successfully implementing new technology, says Steve, is in leaders first knowing themselves and their business. He continues: “Evolve Digital is first about building leadership skills – courage, conviction and strength of character – in our participants and then supporting them to think strategically about their business objectives.

“This grounding in knowing themselves and their business provides a solid foundation for assessing new technologies – or indeed any future change – gaining buy in and leading implementation.”

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