Mark Plant Image

Mark Plant

Associate, Board Member,

Mark Plant - Lloyd-Davies Associate - Turnarounds

Mark has a rich background in sales and in turnarounds, A man who was there when Microsoft launched Excel in the UK and has refocused many organisations that found themselves in challenging commercial situations.

You're bound to learn something from an hour in his company!

Interview October 2023: Don Phillips

“Our paths crossed a while ago when you were delivering a turnaround job and you have had many roles across industry, how did you get into ‘the game’ and did you have a plan at the start?”

I’ll tell you how I got in. Was there a plan? no!

I started off doing ‘normal stuff’, I worked for a business learning how to programme, then one day the entire programming team and systems analysis department left. We were working for a small engineering company in Coventry and Massey Ferguson came and hired the lot, leaving me and one other. So I got promoted quite rapidly, but all I had in this engineering company was a mass of disgruntled customers. I was asked by the head of finance to go out and talk to the customers, calm them down and ask them what they wanted but to make sure we set realistic expectations….. This was my first exposure to sales and it all started from here

I then moved to another two companies in sales roles.

“What qualifications did you have to undertake these roles?”

Two ‘A’ levels in Maths and a trial in the second row for England at Rugby Union!

But the break was being headhunted into ACT that became Apricot computers. I helped set up the new software team and that went very well, I then led the business development on international sales and that also  well. But then I discovered the joys of politics in a company. Apricot was very political and my boss became ‘persona non grata’ with the board that ultimately led to them shutting the business unit down.

However,  I had been approached by a well-known PC manufacturer,  who had a new system that they wanted to launch in the UK and Europe. They were very excited about the potential and sold me a great vision. They had apparently identified me as the best person to do this so I added 20% to my salary and then doubled it and asked for that. They said yes!

But having joined the product that had been sold to me as complete and a great networking solution turned out to be a graphics workstation, a great graphics workstation but certainly not the breakthrough in cost effective networking that I was sold. Sales were bordering on non-existent. My new boss had made commitments to the board and we were not hitting the targets. I went to see him before going on holiday to Canada, essentially to ask if I had a job to come back to. He said yes but it might not be the one I currently have. He then called me on Christmas eve whilst I was still in Canada and told me I was being let go. The challenges faced were handled badly and the way they reshaped the business did not work. The gentleman in question ended up leaving the business,  emigrated to New Zealand and ultimately committed suicide, which shows the depth of effect that a business can have on someone.

I was fortunate in that I had been approached by a family run headhunter telling me that a software company was interested in me and after three interviews they told me it was a major global player  Another eight interviews saw me being hired as the head of Sales and Marketing with a brief to completely review the sales channels in the UK.

In many ways it was a bizarre political situation, as I was given a budget at the UK level and then was introduced to the COO, who made it clear I was working for him and not the UK MD. He asked if I had the right budget to turn the UK around, I said no I needed ten times the budget, he said done, I said put it in writing and he did.

I reviewed the whole channel of 250 resellers and 8 distributors and then took the decision to terminate all contracts, which we did in one day. We then selected two distributors and introduced a new programme targeted at profitably growing our business and implementing agreed working practices and a new  operating model. The result of this was that over the next 19 months the UK went from one of the worst performing regions to the best performing.

“Is this where you decided you enjoyed turnaround work Mark?”

Yes, Yes. when I left  I decided to concentrate on turnarounds, I’ve done hardware, I’ve done software, I’ve done distribution and corporate sales 

“I notice you have done several platform as a service companies”

Yes, one of those was an arbitration and mediation job.

“I’ll come back to that, but I have a couple of questions. Having started in a technical role and ended up in multiple ‘dynamic’ sales roles, do you have views on what makes a good entrepreneur and what makes a bad one?”

I think it's critical for anyone starting a business to know what they are good at and what they are not good at. I have seen so many people who have developed a superb gizmo and believe that is the hard part, and then think automatically that they can run a business. The number of people who have no commercial knowledge is frightening, it really is.

“Not wishing to lead you, but does that not lead to permanent challenges in start-ups to get them across the chasm from a good idea to a commercially viable business?”

Yes it does, so many organisations I go into have no idea on the commercial aspects at all. I’ll give you an example. I went to work for a company at the behest of the four investors who had jointly invested £3,5 million into the business. It turned over £19,000 per annum, and had a ‘burn rate’ of £26,000 per month.

My first recommendation was to close it, but they said no because they did not want a failure in their portfolio. They said can you turn it around?I said give me a month and I will tell you yes or no. So I dug deep into the business, its product and its clients  and eventually said yes.

The business was being completely mis-managed with a number of,  at best,  dubious financial dealings.  I challenged the founder as to the relevance and viability of the product and he pointed me to a major international pharma business who had been a ‘long standing client’

So I met up with the director at this business  who welcomed me with open arms and explained that they did indeed use the product and enjoyed the support that they received including the two engineers who spent three days a week with him and had benefited from the development work these people had done. But felt as he was using the platform for a very different purpose than it was intended, he could not be sure of ongoing support  and was therefore planning on moving off it. In addition he did not see how the current fee structure of £295 per month made the platform viable.  When I told him that I was moving the business a lot closer to the way he used the platform  and that we were about to implement a business model that meant his costs would be £40,000 per annum and it would be payable quarterly in advance. He was surprisingly delighted as he could see a future for the business and his use of the platform.

The ‘entrepreneur’ really thought his views were right, and it went beyond commercial incompetence to situations where we had employees complaining of bullying, multiple threats of lawsuits initiated for breaches of privacy on data scraped from the internet, to a situation where we received a legal challenge from an American client for a breach of contract that the president had already conceded in writing. I managed to overcome all of these issues but I have to admit it was a very challenging time and I was glad to see the end of the legal problems.

“I have often felt that putting teams together is one of the hardest things in business, you must have learnt a lot about how to do this through these challenging situations?”

In turnaround situations the process is always the same. You go in and the first priority is to get costs under control. This is not a time to focus on growth and the next priority is to get the team on side. My approach was to  make sure you talk to people a lot, be open and always follow a policy of being honest and having integrity. I will of course get asked ‘is the business going to survive’ and I will answer ‘I don't know’ until I have understood the situation fully. I will often be brutally honest with people, but integrity is vital, and I will be open that I have been put in place with the brief to try and find a route to success.

You do get ‘funny’ situations, I had one gentleman come and see me three weeks into an assignment and tell me he was on a salary of £65,000 and the owner of the business had offered him £30,000 pay rise or 10% of the company. When I asked him to show me this offer he said it was verbal, which the company does not have to honour. His response was to make , in his opinion,  a very strong case as to his value and contribution to the business. I advised  him quite simply that based upon what I had seen he was probably not worth the £65,000 he was on. He left inside a month!

“Can you give tips on getting teams marching forward on a common agenda”

Again an example would be when a major VC  put me into a company that cleaned data centers. Most people were blue collar and a good team but on the edge of open revolting against the owners.

The first thing I did was change the culture, some of the complaints were that the Managing Director would not let people into his office and there was a specific dispute regarding pay with the employees believing they had not had a pay rise in four years and the management believing that the between 1p and 4 p per hour pay rise recently implemented was good.

I implemented an open door policy, held open meetings with each group and frankly got a grilling. But I wanted to listen, I wanted to understand what a plan might be and I wanted to have the chance to grow the business. We left those meetings with all but one  person wanting to come on the journey.

Communication, ongoing communication and integrity are the key.

“So let's talk about motivation for yourself, when do you decide a job is done and its time to move on?”

Oh that's easy, when I get to the point of delivering my contract I go to the stakeholders and discuss what the plan is next. If it's a plan that involves change or growth then I think I am the right man. If it's a plan that is ‘business as usual’ then I will ask them to employ the person I have been developing to operate the business and appoint them as MD.

“Which engagements have you derived most satisfaction from?”

My involvement in re-structuring the channel for the major software business and delivering a complete turnaround in performance was immensely satisfying But I also love turning smaller businesses around and delivering growth. A situation such as a syndicated loans platform I got involved with who felt their UK operation was underperforming. I interviewed the whole team who were all ex-bankers. A specific situation helped me understand our issues, we had a Global Bank as a client and we had been talking to their UK operation for quite some time and they had never bought anything. The account manager took me in on the next “client” visit and I asked the direct question as to why they had not bought the platform. The bank was surprised at the question as they had been very happily using a licence that had been shared from Germany, and had not realised they could buy a licence in the UK and benefit from local supoport. The account manager had simply never asked the commercial right question.

This approach repeated multiple times saw us stabilise the business and then grow it rapidly to almost £2 million ARR within 12 months .

“This brings me to another area, you look like you have been involved in all the sales activities of direct sales, major account sales, business development, channel sales and target account sales, what different skills are needed?”

A good example was when I joined a PC and peripherals manufacturer. I was hired on an interim basis  to address the usual problem of underperformance.  The products were great but we were simply not selling enough. They had a large sales team but there were two in particular that were of interest. John and Mark. John was extremely organised, he planned every day in detail, always called people back, would go the extra mile to help a client with a problem and regularly provided product updates to the client base.  He was quite quiet, very calm in difficult situations and totally professional.   Mark was an extrovert, he was exceptionally good at talking to people he had never met, was very comfortable “cold calling” , he had a relatively good understanding of the products but was able to identify needs and solutions for clients. Mark also became bored if things remained the same for too long. 

When I joined John was being used to find new business as he was regarded as good at relationships and Mark was managing a number of large clients because he had sold to them in  the previous twelve months.

It was very obvious that these two were in the wrong roles, I initiated a switch and it was one of the best decisions  I have ever made. John was phenomenal supporting and developing our existing clients and Mark was one of the best door openers and closers that I have ever met.  As important they both loved their new roles.  

Often success comes from matching skill sets to the task before you and being willing to implement some change of responsibilities for the greater good.

“Interesting, when entrepreneurs are working with their product or service, how much do they need to worry about how unique the capability, how much IP they have, or can they build a business on their products and services and sell hard?”

Many entrepreneurs want IP because they have watched dragons den and the message can be that you need IP to have value. But if you have a product or service that you understand, understand the benefits it delivers, you understand how to bring it to market and can build the services around it that will make it appealing you can run a very healthy business.

But the trend at the moment is you need IP, the ideal is both IP and the service offering.

“Another area I was wanting your comment on is as you have been involved with venture capitalists and business finance, what advice would you give to entrepreneurs who are thinking they need finance and wanting to approach the finance markets?”

Make sure you need it before you go for it. Sometimes it is seen as a necessary step in the growth journey, it is not. Understand that venture capitalists don't know how to run a business. They know how to buy a business, invest in a business and how to sell one. But to run a business, they rely very heavily on the businesses management.

Additionally my advice is not to expect them to be your friend because they won’t be, That is not to say that they will not be supportive, they will just have their own agenda 

My best advice is don't go down the VC route unless you need to.

“Do you think there is any capital where they could be your friend?”

Possibly business angels. If you are looking for seed or pre-seed then a business angel who knows your sector or would like to get involved a little is a great thing. But bear in mind it's a recruitment process, you need to make sure they fit your culture and they are few and far between.

I would also say that , whoever your investor is , be honest with them, share the good and the bad and don’t try and hide anything – it will ALWAYS come back and bite you. 

“ Final question, what do you see as the potential of the LDA and Cohesion platform?”

For me it's in the local government area where they are looking to stimulate economic activity and the combination of the knowledge and experience encapsulated in playbooks along with access to coaches and mentors who have faced some of the situations that the entrepreneur has faced. It could be very powerful.

The challenge, as ever, is getting the first area to take the challenge on.


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