Apprentice plumber to entrepreneurial professor – FEO co-founder David Hall’s Elevenses slot
Maxims from David Hall gave a new dimension to the series of Elevenses interviews during Humber Business Week.
From “When you get all the ducks in a row, the numbers take care of themselves”, to “Businessmen are not necessarily entrepreneurs and entrepreneurs are not necessarily businessmen”, and “Managers make the company work by working in it, leaders make the company works by working on it,” simple, astute explanations abounded.
The only person best known for his purely corporate reception by Paul Sewell, David stood out for his more than 40 years as an entrepreneur compared to the careers of other guests dominated by sports, law, media and politics.
But he radiated experience as he interacted with his audience at the Aura Innovation Center and with the interviewer – his close friend and a recipient of some of his wise business advice.
Now based in East Yorkshire, David was born on a municipal estate in York. He learned a lot about religion in school but not much about reading and writing, with the result that for him it was a day shift to earn money and a night shift to get an education.
A career counselor told him he should go into construction because he was “a big boy.” He became a “hopeless” plumber apprentice, but his first mentor on the job felt there was more.
David said: “They said I had talent but they didn’t know what it was so they sent me to London for vocational guidance when I was 18 or 19 and put me through a series of tests.
“Apparently I was suitable for three jobs: journalist, lawyer or business consultant. I couldn’t spell and I didn’t feel like walking around in a wig, so I thought I’d become a management consultant, but I wasn’t sure what it was.”
He worked with companies and business gurus around the world and earned a professorship at Curtin Business School in Perth, Australia. and make a spectacular difference to the profits of some large organizations.
His relationship with Terry Bramall, the man behind Keepmoat, started when he worked at a construction company and for about 25 years David helped him grow the South Yorkshire business and sell it for around £750 million.
David said: “It was theory and practice coming together. Keepmoat became a great company because of its clear strategy and its mission to restore the community. All our competitors were builders, but we introduced ‘partnering’, we were happy with customers and local authorities wanted to do business with us. “I’ve worked with three great companies—one that can outperform the competition not five or ten percent, but two or three times over a ten-year period. My favorite was Keepmoat.”
He founded David Hall Partnership and trained start-up and growing companies. It was a collaboration with colleagues – about 120 of them – and clients, but while making a BAFTA-winning TV series for the BBC, Winning, David realized he no longer wanted to run a business.
There was double disappointment when BBC top executives took home the tickets to the glittering ceremony and David’s attempts to sell the company came with a lot of pain.
He said: “I couldn’t sell it because my name was on it, so we went for a management buyout. They wanted me to stay, but I wasn’t sure how I would feel if it worked or not. It took about three years and I felt guilty. It was very painful.”
Placing his early academic challenges in the dim and distant past, David wrote five business books, but one of them was also misnamed.
He said: “Hallmark was the first book. A smart title, but some of the others weren’t so smart. ‘In the Company of Heroes’ was probably the best book, but everyone thought it was about the war, so no businessmen bought it!”
The latest book, Telling Tales, was published last year after David teamed up with a former journalist on a creative writing course and encouraged him to write a series of blogs that grew into a compilation of business anecdotes and case studies plus some key messages on how to succeed. achieve and eliminate failure.
David said: “You have to separate strategy from management meetings because short term problems blow the strategy away. If you do the right things you get the strategy right, the culture right, the people right and the customer service, all ducks in a row, the numbers take care for himself.”
He also looked at the problems of his school days and the potential benefits across the board that could come from a better approach to vocational training.
He said: “About 85 percent of people do work that they are not suited to just make money. Wouldn’t it be great if everyone could get the chance to get good vocational guidance to find out where he or she would fit?
“The level of career guidance is still about telling the big boys to think about a career in construction. I would give good professional guidance to everyone and I would get people in the organization who have the ability, the will and the drive to manage professionally for the benefit of everyone.
“I don’t criticize managers because it’s not their fault because when someone gets promoted to management and the role models aren’t there.”
But in other areas there has been a significant change: “A step has been taken to determine where a company wants to be in three or five years. It was 10 years when I started, but one of the biggest companies I worked with had a three-year plan with three things – like getting the right people on the bus in key positions.
“When I step into a company, I think I can manage it. I like that people often come to me with hope and I like to help them grow and develop.”
Questions from the audience delved into some issues surrounding training and strategy, as well as inviting David to reflect on future plans.
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He said: “I will continue to do what I love to do. Helping companies. I don’t think I’ll be writing any more, but I’ll be selectively picking some companies. As you get older you can choose who you want to work with and that’s a nice place to be.”
And doubt yourself? “Maybe one day someone will find out I’m a plumber! Self-doubt isn’t a bad thing as it keeps you grounded, but I do remind myself that I’ve had about 40 years in Keepmoat and other companies where they’ve done really well.