Alex Ingham, the managing director of workwear company MI Supplies explains how he went from leaving college with no qualifications to a £3 million yearly turnover with clients including Sainsbury’s, Royal Mail and Aldi.
Tell us about the details of the company?
MI Supplies are a workwear company protecting staff in workplaces with safety clothing, footwear and industrial workwear. We were founded in 2005 with no stock, customers or money. I had worked for three large blue chip organisations in the industry for over 15 years after I left college early with no qualifications. I wanted to offer a more bespoke, boutique offering with the customer experience at the heart of our work. My passion for the products and customer service prompted me to want to run my own business. The vision of the company was to grow organically every year —which we have been doing for 13 years—ensuring we keep customer service and experience as our number one priority.
How much investment did the company need to begin and where did it come from?
I was given £10,000 as an early inheritance from my Dad which was instrumental in allowing me to get the business up and running. That was spent in the first week. When approaching the big four banks, three all said there wasn’t a viable business. Natwest was the only one to support us with a small overdraft. The first initial investment paid for our stock, the pre-payment on our premises’ rent and the purchase of a second-hand car which was used for deliveries in the first few months.
What marketing did the company employ to maximise exposure?
Within two weeks, I had joined a local networking group which gave me great exposure to new contacts, customers and suppliers. A number of them are still working with the business 13 years later. After that, a very traditional route was taken for generating exposure and customers: simply phoning companies up and knocking on local business’ doors to promote the company and ask if they would take a chance on us. A large number of these first few ‘door knocks’ still buy from MI Supplies on a daily basis 13 years later.
Talk about the company’s growth trajectory.
The company has generated 12 years of successive growth, from £192k in the first year, to an estimated £3m turnover for the end of 2018. We have recently announced Project 2020 to drive revenues to £10m by 2020. The company has been in profit throughout our existence. We have continually re-invested in new systems to drive the company forward and do “more with less”, with faster and less human interaction with day to day tasks to keep improving service and efficiencies. The biggest challenge has always been keeping cashflow working for the business when there are repeated re-investments.
How important is an inspirational figurehead to a scale-up company and how has your leadership style and flair got the most out of your staff.
I feel having a responsible, ethical leader in the business is of huge importance. The business needs to live and breathe the ethos of the people at the top. We try our best to ensure we look after customers, suppliers and employees in the best possible way. We try to pay on time every time, we are transparent in our dealings with customers, and we always look to introduce more benefits to help our employees, such as private healthcare, profit share, etc. People we deal with need to have trust in who they are dealing with, and being the figurehead of the business brings the responsibility to basically be responsible.
My leadership style is definitely democratic and coaching. I love to see our team grow and improve, as well as make their own positive decisions. The only way that can work is by placing trust in your staff and by being democratic with decisions when need be. You have to be mindful that a lot of people will very possibly know better than you, and have better or more well-informed ideas. You need to embrace that, as you’ll achieve more with teamwork than by just having one person dictate everything. I’ve realised over the years that there are more important things in life than work and that helps me to stay calm in a crisis, not allowing frustrations to blow up. I’d like people to want to deal with us all at MI based on how we come across.
What would you say to scale-up companies looking to build their company to exit?
If you want to exit, and you want a decent sale from it, your business is worth a lot less if it’s just you. You need the company to have the ability to grow and work without the owner. Run your business like a franchise. Ensure it ticks along and grows based on the systems you have implemented. Can your business operate for a month without you being involved? If not, you need to put changes in place.