Monday, 16 April 2018

“Business is fun, but not funny”

Ruxandra Mindru, SELA Cohort 2017

It’s not everyday that you get to meet the CEO of a multi-million pounds business and yet recently, all SELA cohorts got this exact chance.

Graham Royle, CEO of the GRI Group, founded the highly successful firm in 2001 and is currently providing for Unilever. His formula is behind brands like Fairy and I Love.

Throughout his talk, a few things became obvious.
  1. As a CEO, you have to understand the manufacturing side and listen to your engineers. Mr Royle slipped in multiple snippets about daily work in all his factories, explaining processes pulled straight out of “How it’s Made”
  2. Scalability is key. To grow GRI, he bought smaller businesses with no growth plans and immediately worked fervently at growing them, increasing offering and covering demand.
  3. Speed. Mr Royle greatly admires the Asian market and the sheer speed at which they move. “People there have three phones and can’t talk faster in all of them”. He credits the massive success of Eastern economies to this willingness to do things immediately, to move quickly, to see things happen. He applies this strategy in his business, by purchasing new expensive industrial equipment as soon as the need for it appears. The faster you grow, the faster you earn.
  4. Be brave. During the market collapse of 2007, he did not fire his people; he didn’t reduce business; he didn’t protect the income he had. On the contrary. He kept things rolling, he worked harder and the end of the recession found his business stronger than ever. Time and time again, he dazzled peers by taking the big decisions fast and effectively.
  5. Listen to the people doing the work. Mr Royle often saw how long hierarchical chains lead to the small issues never being fixed. He wants them to be fixed. He built a relaxed work environment, so that anyone in the company feels comfortable approaching him with any concerns or ideas they have. Similar to Toyota’s “Stop the Line” idea, if anyone in the factory knows how to make the processes faster and more efficient, Mr Royle wants to know about it.
We got to play with some of the Personal Care products he brought along (I “borrowed” a bit of raspberry-scented hand cream), as he explained the development, branding and pricing of each. He showed us the drawing of the internal mechanism of a liquid soap pump, a masterpiece of engineering.

As a Computer Scientist, I rarely have any physical materials to play with (outside keyboards), while colleagues from Materials Science get to work with glass and metals and Aerospace build their own small planes. For me, learning more about products I use daily is almost like finding out the trick behind a magic number: it only makes the whole thing cooler. For example, the reason clothes feel softer after washing is due to strings of lipids being formed over the fabric by the detergent. Same goes for hand creams. White shirts don’t get whiter, they get covered in a substance that acts like an optical illusion, making them seem brighter. It’s brilliant, it makes me feel sad I didn’t like high school chemistry more.

Mr Royle ended by giving us some advice on how to tackle the leap into industry. Most importantly, he told us to be outspoken and brave in taking responsibility. Not in a loud annoying way, but rather in such a way as to earn the attention and respect of the higher ups.

All the cohorts are headed towards summer internships, year placements or full-time jobs. Getting to meet and talk to one of the most powerful CEOs of British industries was the additional boost of insider knowledge we all needed at this critical stage in our careers.

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