Business Essentials: A victim of its own success seeks the personnel touch

As legal firm STL grows, it needs a more structured approach to managing its staff, says Kate Hilpern

In 2002, STL Group was a small family business with 20 employees working out of an open-plan office. "It was easy for us all to help each other out and we were ticking along nicely," recalls chief executive Alan Thorogood.

In 2002, STL Group was a small family business with 20 employees working out of an open-plan office. "It was easy for us all to help each other out and we were ticking along nicely," recalls chief executive Alan Thorogood.

But suddenly things changed. Work started pouring in and the legal services firm has gone through a period of rapid growth. "We're up to 58 staff at the moment and we really need some guidance on how best to manage the culture changes as the company gets bigger," he says. "I want to ensure that we continue to have a motivated, fulfilled workforce who can provide a premium service to our customers."

He gives two examples of the new challenge he faces. "People are now asking me at job interviews, 'What's the career path at STL?' That was something I never thought about before - progression just seemed to happen when someone was doing well.

"Meanwhile, employees who were here already have found themselves unable to call on people they had previously because we are now split across several offices. When everyone was in one big office, you could correct someone at a moment's notice, but that's no longer possible."

Although STL was formed in 1974, the company only really took off at the start of the new millennium, says Mr Thorogood, after a change in legislation. "Part of our service is providing property searches, and environmental reports fall into the category of these searches. In 2000, the Law Society recommended these reports for every single property transaction, and because we were developing cheap, easy-to-read reports, we went from selling none of them to 400 a day."

Another service provided by STL is personal local authority searches. These are carried out by visiting a council in person and gaining access to data from public records, rather than writing to the authority. The services have become popular due to their lower cost and faster turnaround compared with standard council searches.

In addition, the firm provides costs drafting and company searches. But property, says Mr Thorogood, now forms 70 per cent of all its business.

The IT system was first to feel the strain of the growing volume of business, he says. "But we've sorted that out now. Communication with clients also took its toll, so we have decided to set up a call centre to deal with this effectively."

Sales and marketing is another business function that he has decided to develop. After employing the services of a local PR company, STL has a new website being launched next year and a new employee coming on board who will focus on innovative sales methods. "My sister, who has many years' experience of account management at Abbey National, has joined us to oversee this area."

But people management, says Mr Thorogood, is an area where he still needs advice. "We have applied to become Investors in People [the national standard for good practice in training and development]. But we want to know what else we should do. Things like creating systems around management and motivating staff happened organically before. But when you're growing, you need structures in place."

www.stlgroup.co.uk

WHAT THE EXPERTS SAY

Ben Fletcher, professor of personal and organisational development, University of Hertfordshire

"STL has a management problem and not a 'culture' or 'people' one. The business has developed by serendipity and not design - fortunate but not sustainable. It must tackle the haphazard structures that were allowed before.

"It needs to develop strategies and objective systems in many areas. IT may be sorted out now, but client communication could resurface again as an issue. Family appointments may be 'known', but they also distort sense and need.

"People management can help, but it cannot replace objectivity and process, which seem largely absent. The company is vulnerable to the random management processes it is not controlling.

"Good culture is the consequence of good management and not of good intent. Culture evolves gradually or as a result of catastrophe. There is a catastrophe waiting to happen here."

Angela Baron, organisation and resourcing adviser, Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development

"STL has a classic change dilemma. There is a point, usually when the headcount reaches 50-plus, when small companies need human resources systems to manage effectively. The trick is to adopt systems that keep all the positives about being a small business and amalgamate them with the opportunities of being an expanding business.

"STL is a family firm with family members being put into key roles. It needs to hold on to that cohesion but not to the extent that new recruits feel family will be favoured.

"It also needs to adopt communication and knowledge-management systems that enhance the free flow of information and create social networks, fostering a sense of co-operation.

"It is very hard to manage all the factors contributing to corporate culture, but if STL can identify the core values that have shaped what is good about the firm, that is where it should concentrate its efforts."

Julia Woodford, consultant, The Work Foundation

"In common with heads of many successful organisations, Mr Thorogood has seen his role change from 'running' a small family business to 'leading' a larger company - requiring a more strategic approach.

"While updating the IT system is a positive step, he seems to have missed the vital need to have a clear vision for the organisation based on market intelligence, and the requirement to bring his staff with him - through robust communication and consultation.

"Often, employees hold many of the answers, and their involvement is critical. Cross-functional working groups can help generate a feeling of mutual support, together with practical solutions for culture change, while improving communications. But don't discard good practice.

"STL is still relatively small, and at this stage, Mr Thorogood may wish to maintain the informal 'feel' by implementing lighter structures for workforce planning, career progression and knowledge management, rather than rigid systems."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
Books should be for everyone, says Els, 8. Publisher Scholastic now agrees
booksAn eight-year-old saw a pirate book was ‘for boys’ and took on the publishers
Life and Style
Mary Beard received abuse after speaking positively on 'Question Time' about immigrant workers: 'When people say ridiculous, untrue and hurtful things, then I think you should call them out'
tech
Life and Style
Most mail-order brides are thought to come from Thailand, the Philippines and Romania
life
News
i100
Life and Style
tech
Voices
Margaret Thatcher, with her director of publicity Sir Gordon Reece, who helped her and the Tory Party to victory in 1979
voicesThe subject is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for former PR man DJ Taylor
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Ashdown Group: Treasury Assistant - Accounts Assistant - London, Old Street

£24000 - £26000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Ashdown Group: Business Analyst - Financial Services - City, London

£50000 - £55000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Business Analyst - Financial Service...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + OTE £45K: SThree: At SThree, we like to be differe...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + competitive: SThree: Did you know? SThree is the o...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

Confessions of a former PR man

The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

The mother of all goodbyes

Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions