My Biggest Mistake: Steve Shirley

MY big mistake was being too innovative. That might sound odd, but what I mean is that you can be so intrigued by technology that it becomes all-consuming - especially if you are from a science background. What you might miss is that customers are not so interested in it as they are in their own problems.

FI Group started as part of the emancipation of women that was going on in the Sixties. The 'distributed office' techniques we were pioneering then were aimed at women who wanted to be able to pursue active careers at the same time as bringing up children. We were trying to take work to where the people were - particularly women.

From that start we became a company with a particular style. In the 1970s and '80s we established trusts on behalf of our staff, and in November 1991 we sold a controlling interest to the employees. Because the shares held by the workforce carry double the voting power of others, we have a truly empowered organisation.

The company, which now employs 1,000 and has annual turnover of pounds 30m, was also innovative in its organisational structure. For example, we were a pioneer of what is now known as outsourcing - the idea that a company needs only a core of managers, and that the workforce does not have to be directly employed. This meant that labour could be a variable cost; we could have indirect labour and attract skills in order to add value in ways other organisations could not. And there were innovations in computer science, administration, design, sales and marketing.

Because I did not have any training (I left school at 18), nobody told me that there were things you could not do. Sometimes I think ignorance can be quite a management strength. I built up the company after starting out with just pounds 6 in capital, and it has been very successful.

But it would have been easier if we were not ahead of our time. That was a mistake. The idea of the distributed office, based on telecommunications, is only really coming of age today. Thirty years after we started, it is still considered newsworthy that computers and telecommunications are as important to Britain's future as were the resources of the past, such as iron, steel and coal.

I have just spent the past year as master of the Worshipful Company of Information Technologists, the 100th City livery company, and believe IT is key to the future of London. In an effort to deliver a clear message that telecentres are part of modern working, there will be one on our float in the Lord Mayor's Show on 13 November.

Innovation is going to be vital, and it is not just something for universities. But to innovate too far ahead of the market is difficult - and it can be expensive to try to change market attitudes.

FI Group was viewed as a social phenomenon. Its unique culture delivers exceptional value and long-term commitment, which gave us visibility. People knew us for the way in which we operated, rather than what we did.

The lesson is that sometimes you have to make a leap, but most of the time you have to move steadily and steadfastly to serve your customers. It is a balance between the excitement that the scientific discipline gives you, and the pragmatic approach of business.

(Photograph omitted)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
Ramsay Bolton in Game of Thrones
tvSeries 5, Episode 3 review
News
peoplePair enliven the Emirates bore-draw
Arts and Entertainment
tv
News
Britain's opposition Labour Party leader Ed Miliband (R) and Boris Johnson, mayor of London, talk on the Andrew Marr show in London April 26
General electionAndrew Marr forced to intervene as Boris and Miliband clash on TV
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

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
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