Business Essentials: How can a round-the-clock manager go about getting a life?

The owner of a hire firm needs to know how to spread the load if he is to stop working all hours, finds Kate Hilpern
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The work-life balance seems like a distant dream to Vincent Jay. The owner of Rapid Hire Service, a 10-year-old company employing five people, works 70 hours a week and only goes on holiday for an absolute maximum of 10 days per year. Even then, he often cancels or changes his plans at the last minute because of work priorities, and he always takes his mobile phone with him. Little wonder he wants to know how to get a life.

The work-life balance seems like a distant dream to Vincent Jay. The owner of Rapid Hire Service, a 10-year-old company employing five people, works 70 hours a week and only goes on holiday for an absolute maximum of 10 days per year. Even then, he often cancels or changes his plans at the last minute because of work priorities, and he always takes his mobile phone with him. Little wonder he wants to know how to get a life.

Rapid Hire Service, based in Hayes on the outskirts of west London, is a hire company specialising in power tools and equipment such as ladders and scaffolding. Sales and repairs are the secondary functions of the business. "We began trading in 1993 and have grown organically ever since," says Mr Jay. "But despite expanding at a relatively slow pace, we do always seem to be very busy, which is why I work so much."

Mr Jay's role involves managing the shop, solving any problems that arise, juggling the cashflow and overseeing and chasing the finances. There are four other members of staff: a full-time driver, a full-time fitter, a part-timer who looks after the administrative side of the business and some of the accounts, and a part-time driver. "They work long hours too," he says, "not as long as me, but they're still pushed and often have to work overtime."

In the evenings and/or on Sundays, Mr Jay focuses on the future of the business. "During the day, I find myself dealing with the day-to-day side of things," he says. "But we want to expand, so I try to take time out to step back and consider where we want to take the business and how we'll achieve it."

Among the obvious solutions to Mr Jay's problem is to hire more staff. But as he explains: "We don't need any more full-time staff. There isn't one clear-cut, specific role that we need another person for. Instead, we need a bit more help with the accounts, a bit more help with repairs and a bit more help with testing and running all the equipment when it comes back. That makes it difficult.

"I don't think it works to have a lot of part-time people because there would be a lack of consistency, and I don't think it would work to get in temps because you need to know our business well to be productive."

He does take on temporary drivers from time to time, he says. "But we tend to get one who is really good, then another who costs us money and slows us down. Recently, we had someone who had a crash they didn't tell us about, and many don't know their way around."

So what about delegation? "It sounds great in theory, but in practice, I find it hard," admits Mr Jay. "In any case, all my staff are already fulfilling their roles."

He believes his strengths include being well organised, self-motivated and capable of planning in advance for the sporadic nature of the firm's cashflow. But his main weakness, he says, is that he had no management experience before setting up Rapid Hire Service.

Rapid Hire Service, 020 8561 8830.

WHAT THE EXPERTS SAY

Alexandra Jones, senior researcher, The Work Foundation (the research and management consultancy)

"Mr Jay has the classic problem faced by many small firms: how do you expand in a controlled way? This is not so much a question of achieving a work-life balance as of getting the professional advice needed to manage the expansion of his business. At the moment he's doing the work of two people, and using his evenings, weekends and holidays to focus on the company's future.

"Employing an operations director might help here as I am presuming he already uses outside financial and accountancy advice. That would free up his time to focus on strategic decision-making rather than short-term delivery of the business, and in this way he would maximise his own personal efficiency.

"The alternative would be to employ (possibly from an agency) a good business development professional to concentrate on this area, while Mr Jay continues to run the business itself.

"Critically, he needs to be more hands-off in his approach, otherwise nothing will change. Perhaps asking his employees what they think needs changing might be a good starting point."

Paul Baker, business coach, Action International

"Mr Jay faces the common dilemma of time being the most precious resource for the business owner. The key to freeing up time is getting a greater contribution from team members.

"Working longer hours may not be the answer. Look instead for ways to improve efficiency. Rapid Hire Service could consider training all its employees to perform different roles. A multi-skilled team is better placed to cover the varied workload as demands change.

"Remember that 'Team' means 'Together Everyone Achieves More'. So how does Rapid Hire Service get its employees working together?

"Start by ensuring that people understand what the company's there for - attitude is more important than aptitude. Train them to do a job. And then trust them to do it. Trusting your team is the key to successful delegation. Provide incentives and rewards based on results.

"Next, look to introduce systems. These run the business. Your team runs the systems."

Rebecca Clake, organisation and resourcing adviser, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development

"Additional resources for this business are essential. Mr Jay is preoccupied with dealing with operational issues, and spending time on planning - essential for the business's future - is being neglected.

"To help the business - and his work-life balance - Mr Jay is going to need to let go of the reins a little and be prepared to delegate.

"He could consider taking on a trainee with an appetite for the day-to-day activities that are using up his time at the moment. He might think about approaching local training colleges or universities for possible candidates.

"He shouldn't assume that a traditional workforce of full- time staff is the only way to achieve consistent standards of customer service. The performance of his employees will be linked to effective people management and development.

"MrJay should also consider a short management programme, such as the CIPD's Introduction to Management course, and look for opportunities to make contacts among other small business owners.

"This will give him fresh insights and help to build his 'management toolkit'."

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