Running a Family Business - Interview with Tom Kirk, MD of the Francis Kirk Group

In this interview on The Logros Show – in association with The Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce – Lee Dinsdale talks to Tom Kirk who became the 5th generation Managing Director of the Francis Kirk Group of companies – based in Denton, Manchester.

The FK Group are a global manufacturer and distributor of a wide variety of products, ranging from fasteners and tooling to clothing and PPE.

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Interview with Tom Kirk, MD of The Francis Kirk Group – The Real Sound of the City.

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Lee: Good afternoon this is the Logros Show and we are live from Ibiza. I’m delighted that we have a guest again over the power of zoom and his name is Tom Kirk, how are you doing? Let’s just set the scene, whereabouts are you today? I’m in Ibiza where are you?

Tom: I’m in Majorca.

Adapting to Change

Lee: Okay I wanted to invite you in because you are fifth generation of a family run business called the Francis Kirk Group and we are going to be hearing what it is like to be in a family business. You have been involved in something which is current for everybody and that is manufacturing PPE. Firstly though can you introduce yourself?

Tom: Yes, I am very lucky. I am fifth generation in a family business. We first started in 1868 and over a period of 153 years have gone through many ups and downs and lots of challenges. I think I can say hand on heart nothing quite like the last six months and that’s something that the whole world and UK can argue is something that no business has ever planned for. As a business we are predominantly fastenings and fixings and we range across single source solutions so that we can give our customers a chance to provide everything under one roof. It means we diversify, we change and it means no day is the same so it gets things exciting for our staff and our employees because no is not a word we use.

I think I can say hand on heart nothing quite like the last six months and that’s something that the whole world and UK can argue is something that no business has ever planned for.

Lee: What has been the most direct impact of the covid crisis on the business?

Tom: The biggest direct impact came in the middle of March when suddenly we could all see a downturn in any industry due to the government talking about lockdown and what that would entail and what was going to happen. No business has ever seen anything like this so it was then a case of trial and error and see what was needed to make not just a family business but any business survive through these difficult times. We saw 90% of our business completely die away but 10% of our business grew massively and that was the PPE side. This is a service that we have always offered to our customers but suddenly customers were coming to us, not on a daily basis but on an hourly basis. We had to make a very quick decision and work out what we were going to do – were we going to rely on our standard business for the next two weeks, two months or were we going to try and become a PPE supplier to our regular customers? That’s what we had to do in the end to be able to, not just survive but also to offer the service that is still to this day what our customers thank us for.

Lee: How quickly did you make that decision?

Tom: Not even overnight, I received a promotion from one of our suppliers and I pushed it out to our customers. It was a kind of reactive phone call from there that one of my biggest customers rang and said I need to meet you; I need you to help me. So it was literally was a half to one hour process.

Lee: There has been quite a few businesses who have been offering one service and then had change forced upon them. Even here at Unity Radio, we deliver a lot of face to face workshops for young people across Greater Manchester. Within a week we had changed everything and we were delivering on-line activity so the Unity Radio business in itself has changed considerably as well.

Tom: Being reactive is the best way. I’m very lucky being in a family business because the decisions fall on me but I have a fantastic team around me in the office and they actually support me with those decisions. So we can be reactive to situations to be able to say well if we need to diversify let’s do that but also, if we need to change the process of what we are doing, decide how we are going to do it to best suit the situation.

Lee:  What would you say to someone in business who is thinking, it’s not working here and I need to make another decision because times are tough?

Tom:  As long as things have been thought and spoken about and dealt with in the right manner I think, as I mentioned to your earlier Lee, anyone that has not made a mistake in business may not be pushing themselves hard enough.  A mistake can be learnt from so don’t be afraid to diversify and move into different areas because in three or five years’ time you can always look back and say it was probably one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

Running an Established Family Business

Lee:  What is it like to be involved in a fifth generation family run business?

Tom: Ever since I could walk and talk it’s something I’ve wanted to become involved in. My father was fourth generation obviously, my grandfather third generation and for me it’s an honour and privilege to What would you say to someone in business who is thinking, it’s not working here and I need to make another decision because times are tough?be able to say I’m fifth generation. I’ve got the sixth generation and in school holidays he loves to come in. To me it’s all about making the family proud. It’s the biggest challenge I have ever had to do and it’s a difficult one to try and explain to anyone outside of that exactly what the stresses are.

Lee: Often people in family run businesses have a pathway and some may say it’s made a little bit easier for you than for other people. How do you counter that? What pressures and stresses do you deal with?

Tom: You’ve got to look at it at where you pick the business up from, what they are doing and what you then add to it and where you take it. I was very lucky as our business was fantastic when I came into it, but with pen and paper. My biggest challenges over the last fifteen years has been to bring it into the 21st century so that we can be e-commerce based. People’s lives have changed and the last five months have proven that and the younger generation don’t want to speak over the phone any more. They just want to be able to click and collect. That’s why Amazon is booming. It’s a case of facilitating those options to be able to say actually we can diversify so much to range from the all different generations out there. Some aren’t internet savvy and still want to rely on sales people working over a telephone all the way down to the click and collect generation.

Lee: What have you learnt most about being in a family run business?

Tom: Communication is key. I don’t describe the business as a family business just because its family owned, I describe it as such because everyone in our business is part of our family as well. I think it’s important to communicate to everybody, not just to myself and my family, but to everyone in that business to say look, this is where we are going and this is what we are doing and to make sure that either everyone buys into it, or if they don’t that they explain fully why they don’t believe in what we are doing.

Lee: How hard is it when you potentially have a bit of an argument and then you have to go for Sunday dinner? How hard is it to separate that?

Tom: I’m very lucky because I’ve got a fantastic relationship with my father and never had an argument over business. That might sound really stereotypical but it’s the truth. We get on so well and we both have lines and boundaries that we both understand to the point where seven years ago he did sit me down and say, you know what, we will have a fall out one day so I think it’s time that I step back and you step forward. That is the way it has to go. I think if anyone is involved in that next stage in their family business communicating and working with the generations is the most important thing to make sure that there is a smooth transition.

Lee: I guess succession planning and passing on to the next generation is quite a challenge for some people; they don’t want to let go, or they wonder – when are you ready to take on that responsibility?

I think if anyone is involved in that next stage in their family business communicating and working with the generations is the most important thing to make sure that there is a smooth transition.

Tom: It comes back to the old adage of respect is earnt and not granted. The biggest challenge in any business is getting the respect of the key members in that business. Getting respect of the family generation is going to be the hardest and also allowing the younger generation to actually take those strides forward is a little bit like taking the nappy off and letting the baby run wild because you are still seen as the little one.

Lee: What would you say to people who are involved with the family business but have not yet fully committed and are thinking about their options? What advice would you give?

Tom: There are one or two ways of looking at this. Either you are a long time in the family business so gain experience, look at what the big bad world is like and then use your experience to come into the family business to better your knowledge. Or actually embrace it from an early age. Learn all about the business, learn every single nook and cranny and learn where the weaknesses are and how you can best increase your productivity within that work place.

Selling PPE during the Pandemic

Lee: I do hear of people in family businesses where they go off and get some experience elsewhere and then come back a bit more enriched as well. In terms of PPE what kind of products have you been selling that people would recognise?

Tom: The four main items that we were approached for were hand sanitiser, face masks, nitrile gloves and aprons. All the highly sought after items at the time.

Lee: What is the best seller?

Tom: Initially, for the first three weeks it was hand sanitiser, but nitrile gloves have been the most popular.

Lee: Is that gloves for people who work?

Tom: The way that the virus has gone it’s from domestic to commercial. Everyone has sought after the product so I couldn’t put my finger on one exact industry.

Lee: Do your manufacture the product from your own site or do you bring it in from somewhere else?

Tom: We bring it in from other places. Our core manufacturing is the fasteners and the tools.

Lee: How are you seeing demand at the moment for products?

Tom: It’s slowing down now.

Lee: Do you think that’s because it’s flooded the market with product?

Tom: Initially manufacturers couldn’t produce fast enough so demand was higher than supply. After a while suppliers have got up to the demand levels so it’s then a case of what I call the bigger boys or the professionals in the market to pick up the PPE area and that’s what they specialise in. That’s why they will still be demanding the products and the people that diversified will have the smaller demand now.

Employment Opportunities

Lee: One of the things we always like to ask business owners is about employment opportunities. We are in a crucial time where people may be changing employment or sadly losing their roles, can you enlighten us on the employment opportunities that you have?

Tom: I’m a great believer in never say no to anyone. A coffee is a coffee and a chat is a chat. I’m a great believer in you don’t know what hidden talents someone has and if anyone wants to contact me and say, is there an opportunity, is there a role then as a family business there could be a role because there is a lot of hidden gems and talented people out there. I touch upon one of our young apprentices, a young girl that we have at the moment who is an incredible asset to our business and she is still only seventeen years old. She has been with us six months and the changes that she has already brought to our business are fantastic. If anyone that wants to push themselves or enquire about something, I’m more than happy to have a conversation with them.

Lee: Where would they go in terms of your website etc.?

Tom: If they go to www.franciskirk.com we have a contact form on there. There is also a telephone number there if they don’t like to use the form, it’s very simple.

Lee: Similar to us here at Unity Radio you do a lot of work within the community, you work with Francis House. Can you share with us the work that you do across Manchester?

Tom: It’s great the fact that we are a business and I work with Andy Burnham’s Mayor Advisory Panel to, not influence anything but speak about different problems that are happening within the community. I also joined the covid situation on Tameside and sat on the advisory board to say how are things affected in Tameside? You have got to give back to those around you to make sure that the community is actually benefiting from what you are doing in that area.

It’s great the fact that we are a business and I work with Andy Burnham’s Mayor Advisory Panel to, not influence anything but speak about different problems that are happening within the community.

Lee: We did a project with eight young people from Tameside which was working with the GMCA and they came to Media City to do some radio project work – it was fantastic. In terms of employment do you get involved in apprenticeships?

Tom: Yes and we try to take one or two a year on just to learn. What I’ve learnt is that actually the younger generation can educate me a lot more on the technological side of things. That’s certainly what’s happened over the last six to nine months within our business. I’m learning new things and what that’s allowed us is getting involved in new industries like personalised clothing and printing presses because we now have the technological nous to do that side of stuff.

Personalised Clothing Industry

Lee: Tell us about the personalised clothing.

Tom: We have got the embroidery machines and the heat sealing presses. We’ve always done the commercial clothing and now we can use that commercial clothing to put on a company’s logo, a charity logo etc. and we have the staff in house that can do the art work and graphic designs to be able to design these type of things. Again it’s a new industry and new road that we can go down.

Lee: You’ve obviously encountered some challenges recently in losing 90% of your business and having to pivot into a new world. What are your main practical tips after running a business over the last fifteen years?

Tom: What I’ve always believed in is understand what your strengths are and understand what you can do that the competition can’t. Make sure that you communicate well with your customer base. I think everyone understands that your customer base is your opportunity but what else can you do with a customer that you are not already doing?

Lee: Okay that’s great. I have a question from Thomas Hornbuckle who is a partner at Afford Bond. His question is what are the biggest challenges you have faced in the past few months and have there been instances where you have not had the support from the professionals around you that you expected to have?

Tom: It’s a great question and I am probably going to answer this slightly differently to the majority of people out there because I’ve been very lucky. The biggest challenge over the last few months is the uncertainty in not knowing what was coming next – it was a case of having to be reactive. Did I have the support from the professionals around me? I have a fantastic team around me so everyone stood by me and helped on the day to day business side of things. At the same time it was a case of the powers that be down in London were all having to react in the same way as any business and it was a case of goal posts were moved constantly and you had to focus on aligning yourself with those goal posts and make sure that you were doing the best for your business at that time.

Achieving Excellence

Lee: I just want to finish off with the last question because the show is called The Logros Show – Achieving Excellence. What is your view of achieving excellence or being the best version of you, how would you describe it?

Tom: I think there are two angles to look at. The main angle and one that I always believe in and always tell my children is treat others how you would always wanted to be treated. That is from a personal concept. In terms of a business concept as long as you are doing your best then I believe that you are achieving excellence in your achievements. There is no point putting a ceiling on someone because they can smash through that but also they can get highly demotivated if they don’t get anywhere near that ceiling because it’s by far well away from what they could physically ever imagine achieving. As long as a person pushes themselves to the most of their ability then I believe they are achieving excellence.

There is no point putting a ceiling on someone because they can smash through that but also they can get highly demotivated if they don’t get anywhere near that ceiling because it’s by far well away from what they could physically ever imagine achieving.

Lee: Great, thank you very much. What does the rest of the year look like for you?

Tom: Well, who knows? Normally I would be able to tell you but it’s one of those let’s wait and see what happens. Let’s see what the next two to four weeks bring. Hopefully we get back to a little bit more normality and we can wave 20/20 goodbye in a good way, we take the last quarter as a positive and we go into 2021.

Lee: Any chance you might be staying in Majorca?

Tom: As much as I would like to say yes, probably not, no.

Lee: Well thank you very much and enjoy the rest of your day.

Article Transcription by Terry Capostagno 

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