Managing Directors; Owners by Rupert Merson

Relief for growing pains
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The Independent Culture

Rupert Merson is not being unreasonably modest when, in the introduction to one of these two companion volumes, he questions whether there is "really room" for another entrant to the crowded market for business books. After all, as any air traveller knows, there is no shortage of works in this category: biographies and autobiographies of business leaders vie for space alongside consultants' analyses of the challenges facing key industries, while "how to" manuals battle with theoretical treatises on the nature of work. And yet the market is not as saturated as all this activity might suggest.

There is a need for sound, practical guides to business. Moreover, as Merson points out, there is a lack of material specifically targeted at growing businesses - the darlings of ministers that are supposedly driving the economy. Just as there are many books focused on the workings of big businesses, there are plenty devoted to the hows and whys of starting a business as well as admiring descriptions of entrepreneurial success. But there is very little targeted at people attempting to develop and expand businesses that are perhaps already established but still young.

Thankfully, Merson goes a long way to filling that gap with these books and their predecessors, Finance Directors and Non-Executive Directors, both also published by Profile. A partner with the accountancy firm BDO Stoy Hayward, which has focused for longer than most firms on advising growing businesses, Merson combines sound practical advice with a lightness of touch that should win him many readers.

A quotation displayed prominently opposite a cartoon depicting two joint managing directors eating each other alive provides some idea of the tone. "There's a fundamental difference between running a big business and running a small one. I've done both and should know. In a big business you spend all your time trying not to take decisions - that's the best way of protecting your backside. In a smaller business I take 30 key decisions every day," it says.

But he is not just an accountant trying to defy his profession's image by tossing out glib one-liners. Having grabbed his readers' attention with witty generalisations, he has plenty of real help to offer those who, as he puts it, are currently - or who are hoping to be - "struggling with the role" of managing director.

For example, in examining the role of the new managing director, he points out that one of the biggest issues confronting firms as they attempt to move from start-up to growing business is the ability of the top team to adapt to the change. "The role of the boss at the helm of a growing owner-managed business changes dramatically as the business grows," Merson writes. "What worked last year won't necessarily work this year. And preparation for next year may involve pulling levers that weren't called for this year."

But in dispensing his advice, he does not just stick to a single line. In the same chapter he goes on to look at what one writer has claimed to be "four tendencies that work for leaders of smaller companies but which become Achilles' heels when they try to manage a larger organisation": loyalty to comrades, task orientation, single-mindedness and working in isolation. And then he draws on other material to challenge the extent to which this assertion is valid. In other words, unlike the readers of the traditional best-selling business tomes, Merson's audience is expected to think and come to its own conclusions. But then if one accepts the old adage in education that the person who is helped to work something out for himself is likely to learn more than the one who is "spoonfed", the effort is likely to be worth it.

Merson's down-to-earth approach is, if anything, even more valuable in Owners. This is a particularly useful guide because there is a good deal of confusion around the role of owning a business. As Merson stresses at the outset, the role of the owner is different from that of the director - whether finance, managing or non-executive - though it also contains elements of each of them. Indeed, he adds: "One of the reasons why the role of owner-manager is so difficult is that the two activities that are thrown together as owner-and-manager get in each other's way." While the reader is left musing that it is little wonder that the two roles are separated in public companies, Merson is explaining why the roles are so contradictory - and also giving some indication of why so many businesses fail to move from start-up phase to growth.

At the outset, the owner's and the business's agenda are essentially the same. "But as the business develops a life and agenda of its own, a tension between the two will develop," writes Merson.

Owners who are serious about growth fit their agendas to those of their businesses. But many others are not prepared for the necessary sacrifices - and may refrain from getting the most out of their businesses by opting instead to enjoy the fruits of their labours.

Through exploring such tricky issues in a non-confrontational but honest way, Merson is doing all those involved in growing businesses a big favour - and as such is worthy of whatever time they can squeeze from their busy schedules to read his books.