Business Essentials: 'We don't just mind the shop now. Can our workers deliver the goods?'

An old-style shopfitter has upgraded to become a project manager. But it needs to sweet-talk sub-contractors

Barlows has been a shopfitter in the traditional sense of the word for the last 130 years. But the Sheffield-based company restructured last April and it now plays a very different role. "We want to know how to communicate this change in culture and vision to the people we hire to do work for us," explains its managing director, Lee Walker.

In essence, Barlows has shifted from being a contracting-based company to one that focuses on project management. "We now oversee the entire life cycle of a building from a retail perspective," explains Mr Walker. "That means the customer comes to us with an idea and we design it, deliver it, project- manage it and also maintain it when it's finished."

He admits that Barlows isn't necessarily cheaper than its competitors, just more cost effective. "Our differentiator is that, because we manage the whole process, we are able to reduce the time when the store is closed, sometimes by up to 50 per cent. From a retailer's perspective, this is important, because they have to close their store during the process. So if a shop has a revenue of £50,000 a week, we can ensure they have £100,000 coming in that they wouldn't otherwise, just by doing the work two weeks faster than you get with traditional methods."

Communicating this culture change has been one of the firm's main tasks, says Mr Walker. "It's been really important that our people understand the link between their individual job roles and our new business objectives."

To ensure that everyone understands where they fit in, Barlows has held team briefings and a series of workshops. "It's worked well. Whereas in the past, people tended to see customers as a problem, they are now really focused on customer outcomes and ensuring the store is closed for the least time possible."

Mr Walker's next step is to get this message across to his sub-contractors - the decorators, floor layers, joinery companies and so on. "Internally, we have a captive audience because our employees are stakeholders in our business. But with our supply chain, which we are heavily reliant on, it isn't as easy."

Indeed, the workshops held for this group of people haven't always taken place due to work commitments. And when they have happened, they haven't been so effective.

The sub-contractors are largely owner-managed businesses that rely on Barlows for 10 to 20 per cent of their workload, explains Mr Walker. "This makes it much harder to get them to care about our objectives to open these stores quickly. But if they were to buy into our vision, we would undoubtedly reduce the time a store is closed even further."

Ultimately, says Mr Walker, it feels as though these sub-contractors hold all the cards. "So we want to know how to capture the hearts and minds of our supply chain."

www.barlowgroup.co.uk

WHAT THE EXPERTS SAY

Vanessa Robinson, Strategy and Organisation Adviser, The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development

"As more companies rely on outside staff, the traditional psychological contract between organisation and employee can no longer be relied on to elicit motivation and superior performance. So Mr Walker needs to find other ways to engage with his sub-contractors.

"Effective communication is the key to ensuring the success of any organisational change. Mr Walker needs to broaden his message beyond merely demonstrating the link between the roles of individual employees and the new business objectives. He must illustrate the key part played by the sub-contractors and the 'what's in it for me' factor. Financial, and non-financial, incentives may be needed.

"Having worked out what the message is, he must ensure it reaches its intended audience. Brief workplace-based sessions could be the solution."

Neil Bullen, Head of Management Consultancy, Tuner & Townsend

"Barlows faces a common problem, but one that can be tackled using three elements.

"First, actively work with the sub-contractors, accepting that you may have to go beyond the halfway line in the early days. Clear leadership and a consistent demonstration of 'how it should be done' are vital in initiating a sense of purpose and direction.

"Second, a compelling case for the sub-contractors to change must be created and communicated. Consider measures such as increasing the workload for the best sub-contractors, introducing commercial incentives linked to performance improvement, or 'investing' in their business through, say, joint training.

"Finally, deal with resistance. Give them a chance, but there is no basis for a long-term relationship with those that don't share your vision. Be prepared to end those relationships, allowing others to take their place."

David Pendleton, Business Psychologist and Chairman of The Edgecumbe Consulting Group

"Barlows understands its customers' needs and the need to manage change effectively. It does not seem so clear about the needs of its suppliers - merely what Barlows needs from them.

"The firm should talk to its suppliers by phone or face to face, not email. It will probably hear that the suppliers need a measure of certainty about future work and would like to gain in some way from service improvements to customers. They are more likely to attend workshops positioned as 'How we grow our businesses together?', rather than hinting at their place in Barlows' future.

"There are three key principles here. First, people do not resist change, they resist being changed. Second, involvement increases commitment. Third, the best partnerships are based on mutual gain."

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