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You are here: News » Archived News » 30 years in technology: 121 with Phil Jones MBE

30 years in technology: 121 with Phil Jones MBE

Phil Jones MBE

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Business Connect last interviewed Brother UK managing director Phil Jones MBE in 2018. Thinking back to those heady days of reliable supply chains, unrestricted trade with Europe, quietly simmering superpowers, who would have thought the world was about to plunge into a global pandemic, witness war in Europe and geo-political turmoil resulting in major oil and gas price hikes and massive disruptions to global supply chains? To top it all, since then the UK has come good on its pledge of isolationism from Europe, with all the ramifications (some would say good as well as bad).

Back in 2018 we chatted to Phil about Brother’s 50th year milestone in the UK and covered both his journey with the business and the business itself. Six years later we are delighted to help celebrate Phil’s own 30th year milestone with Brother UK, although this time we are against a backdrop of economic and geo-political upheaval following world events that have had a massive impact on the office technology industry in the UK.

We started off though with a review of Phil’s personal journey with Brother UK.

Phil – lovely to catch up again after such a tumultuous few years! Congratulations on your 30th year at the company – please can you share that journey with us?
“It all started in Bracknell, Berkshire in 1994. I used to work for a dealership that sold Brother fax machines. One day the Account Manager from Brother came up to me and said they had a job opportunity coming up for a south-east sales rep, and would I consider applying? I did and luckily got the job starting in March 1994. With the Brother HQ being in Manchester, I worked from home on a tiny table in my lounge which was a technology story that we all know today – I had a modem, an early laptop, and a bag of change to keep in touch with the office when on the road in my white Vauxhall Cavalier – the default car for salespeople back in the day. 

“Monthly sales reports came via the post printed on computer paper, and I dialled into the office on a Friday with my 512kpbs modem to access our VAX computer system to see what orders had been placed that week (you must be of a certain age to remember those times). It seems incomprehensible compared to the way we work now. I was asked to re-locate to the North-West in 1995 following a promotion and have never looked back.”

That brings us nicely to our next question – you had worked your way from Sales Rep to Managing Director fairly quickly, how have you reconciled your senior role with colleagues that you once reported to?
“When I became Sales Director in my late 30’s, there were people here that had certainly worked here longer than I had, were older than me, with more industry experience. It was difficult at first, as it can lead to tension when someone feels that they might be more qualified for the role than you, I found the best way to overcome any awkwardness was to engage in dialogue.

“By sitting down with people, asking them to tell me how they would like me to work with them and being open about how to get the most out of each other’s strengths. Just having that honest conversation meant that colleagues felt heard or could articulate any issues to overcome or work on. Even now, when someone is brought through the business rapidly as a rising star, it’s important to coach them through the process, ensuring that uncomfortable truths are raised comfortably, it’s so important to be human about it all and allow that conversation to take place.”

Would that be an example of how HR within Brother UK supports such rapid growth within the business?
“We have all sorts of development pathways within the business right now and we have evolved them over the years to continue to ensure they are fit for purpose. We have pathways for management, new managers plus leadership development. In addition, training that people can access to help their progress and career through the business even thinking ahead to future positions.

“However, the application of learning is the important thing here. You can train anybody, but if they choose not to apply the learning, in the scenarios that they are put in, all that they are is well trained. What we really need is people that take that learning and begin to do something with it using their new skills/knowledge to turn into competency. In any organisation, including our own, the mentoring/coaching part of training is as important as the training itself.

“How do we make sure somebody is using that training to better the situation for themselves, the company, and others? Whether that be tackling problems, people development, having challenging conversations or strategy development. We do not leave this exclusively to OD (Organisational Development – Brother’s version of HR) to organise, we encourage senior figures to coach good behaviours wherever possible. The leadership team needs to set that tone of course. Never forget – people are always looking. They are looking to observe your behaviours, looking to see if you live the values, your demeanour, everything about you as a person. There is a lot of non-explicit observation going on and behaviour-forming based on your behaviour.

“This means you must hold yourself to the highest possible standards you can, because the moment that you do not, you give permission for others to lower their standards. That can be exhausting. We are all only human and have good days and bad days, but I think when you lead a large organisation you need to pay special attention to how you are personally viewed.”

Brother UK Innovation Suite Red Wall

Leading on to company culture, what areas of your organisation’s culture mean a lot to you?
“We are lucky here in that we have 140 people. It is a lot easier to build and maintain our culture across 140 than say 14,000. It means I can know my 140 colleagues well. One thing I have realised is that the small things are the big things. When somebody is experiencing what they feel are large events or changes in their lives, you need to pay attention. Make sure you note these things. Every week I am briefed by my OD team on everything going on across the business – good things, birthdays, life events, performance management issues – you name it, I want to know those things. I want to engage with everyone I meet on these small points (or large points depending on the nature of the news). These touch points become especially important when it comes to developing deeper relationships with people.

“Our culture is about making everyone feel more inclusive, because when you make people feel more inclusive, they give you more discretionary effort and tend to stay with the company longer, because they know they are cared for and feel valued. That in turn reduces costs of recruitment and sickness absence which any business should be interested in.”

Are the values and culture of Brother UK the same as the International Brother corporation? How much has your culture been developed by yourself over the years in your own leadership role?
“I think a lot of what we work with here in terms of cultural direction is quite personal to me albeit heavily influenced by collaborating with Japanese colleagues for so long. We have 40,000 people globally in the larger group spread across multiple countries and regions. There is an over-arching document called “The Global Charter” which directs our decision making plus ethics and is adopted everywhere. Then each local business generates its own values relevant to its local cultures. One thing I think is quite unique is that the company is still very caring. After 30 years with the business, I know a lot of people from our senior executives right the way through the organisation, and one thing that I find amazing is the ability for those senior Japanese executives within the business to remember the smallest details.

“Having a good memory when applied as an element of our culture works best on the personal level. It is about remembering people’s stories, in the business, and the background to those stories. I can walk around the building and meet with so many people that I have worked with in some cases for 30 years and we have seen each other’s families grow-up, have shared adversity or can laugh about good times. We also have newer people here, including apprentices who have only recently joined the organisation, where I rely on my briefing processes to give me the information that I need to have meaningful conversations with them.

“Other businesspeople often ask me ‘How can I recreate this culture within my company?’ In response some of the key questions back are ‘How much time are you personally scheduling to walk the floor? Do you have a formal briefing process coming in directly to you? How are you valuing time spent with your people?’

“Once you do make the time to listen, chat and engage, it is important to factor in those informal observations about your colleagues, it can inform much about your overall performance. Many leaders do not understand that the emotional side of leadership is as important as the functional side – the ability to create strategy, practice great management, for example. It is then about your ability to be sensitive to situations and then be sensitive within that situation with somebody else, and I have found that to work ever so well for us as a business. That level of empathy is especially important, and many people struggle with it, particularly men. We have this broken image, that we must be strong and authoritative as leaders.

“Most of the time though, people want to see the vulnerable side of you. Yes, I can be that ‘Admiral on the Bridge’ when we need authoritative leadership – particularly through challenge – but most of the time I just focus on being approachable and delegating well. It is about how you apply your leadership styles against different scenarios.”

Line of Brother Printers

In what way has Brother UK adapted to recent ups and downs of the UK economy?
“I think many businesses in the past year have had a troubled time of it. The government have been talking up the economy saying how well it has recovered from the pandemic and after BREXIT, but it is so obvious talking to other businesses how difficult it has been, especially in the technology sector. The dynamics of our economy, post-pandemic, are still being felt quite severely within certain sectors. This is primarily down to a huge uptake in demand within certain industries when the pandemic started, followed by a huge downturn in demand post-pandemic, particularly as supply chains finally caught up. It’s not exclusive to the technology sector.

“For example, Do you remember trying to buy a new car during the pandemic? It was so difficult. Delivery schedules for new vehicles were measured in years due to shortages in computer chips. There was a gold rush for garages to buy back vehicles from customers on PCP agreements, put them straight back onto forecourts with huge mark-ups. Now supply chains have finally caught up, there are a vast range of challenges for the sector – over-stocks of vehicles, changing consumer buying habits with the cost-of-living crisis, massive changes happening in the marketplace due to technologies such as electric vehicles and a lot of cash tied on forecourts. The bicycle and fitness industry are in a comparable situation. Huge demand followed by low demand has led to real problems being experienced by manufacturers and independents.

“This is a time that as a leader you need to be really sharp. It is so easy to fall into a false sense of security, which many people did. During the pandemic we had this enormous demand for goods with a tightening supply chain, and the economics of that meant prices were high. We were making increased profits during 2020 alongside many other sectors. There was no need to price promote, discount, or apply many other marketing activities that naturally eroded the margins. Now we have returned with a corrected supply chain back to where we were pre-pandemic everyone is over-stocked, and unfortunately due to the cost-of-living crisis and raised interest rates which were used to slow down inflation, suddenly we don’t have the consumer confidence and the footfall to drive the economy in the way it needs.

“These things do come in cycles, however this one has been particularly difficult and has required a lot of time, attention, and resources to successfully navigate through it.”

How closely has Brother followed its short and medium-term business plans since the pandemic?
“Let us talk pre-pandemic to contextualise post-pandemic. You’ve got a globalised supply chain which is predictable and works incredibly well, even given its huge complexity of assembling something containing several thousand components, put it in a box, on a pallet, in a container, on a container ship, through a port, across the seas to another port, through customs, to go on a truck, to go in our warehouse, and from there be ultimately sent to a home or business. Nobody thinks about that supply chain until it does not work. A bit like no-one thinks about your boiler at home – until it doesn’t work.

“The global supply chains all became broken and unpredictable. Factories and ports that could not open, containers and ships all in the wrong places globally. This drove up the price of shipping goods via containers everywhere. On top of this the UK hit the BREXIT button. UK ports had massive issues with new red tape, duties, import and export costs were not 100% clear. European HGV drivers, warehouse staff and low-cost labour left the UK. We were in a mess – with global supply chain issues on top of all the problems associated with BREXIT.

“I think all the recent turmoil has taught us to seek that predictability again. We added on at least two weeks to our supply chain model post-BREXIT, however, we now have additional geo-political factors, in particular the problems in the Red Sea extending that by another two weeks. We have the main shipping lines applying huge surcharges per container due to re-routed ships. Just when we thought our import costs had stabilised back to a pre-pandemic level, they have just doubled again due to a geo-political situation outside of our control.

“My point with all this is that you must stay sharp. You have to have good people around you. With all the turmoil I have felt challenged in the last few years, however, I have been here for 30 years now, and my message has always been the same – ‘Don’t panic!’  I’ve had the confidence to steer the ship through some very troubled waters on multiple occasions, but I think the uncertainty will continue for at least 2 to 3 years, and not just in our business but many others will need leaders who can think in terms of geo-political issues and the resultant impacts on their businesses.”

How much importance would you put on having strong cash reserves within a business to accommodate the increasing impact of geo-political events?
“I remember, pre-pandemic, the government and the Bank of England saying there is way too much cash on balance sheets, and this was one of the issues about UK businesses not using that money effectively to buy equipment, machinery, plant, or capital expenditure to make our economy better. Any economist would say that utilisation of cash was important, however, having a buffer of cash reserves has been key to taking us through the issues over the last 5 years. That has meant, even through Covid, we did not need any government support – we paid our own people their full salary, through the whole period. I realised we were in a slightly privileged position to do that. Internationally, the Group had good cash reserves. Japanese businesses plan for a rainy day all the time.

“If you are a business that runs very tightly on its cashflow, disruptive events become significant. Suddenly, when containers are two weeks late, and surcharges are added, plus other unexpected payments are due, it causes additional financial pressure. Many businesses cannot pass on those extra costs due to fixed supply contracts which leads to margin and cashflow pressures, possible overdue payments and for some, failure. Many businesses live month by month, or quarter to quarter, and this must be so stressful for them. This is not poor management but a result of the past few years of total uncertainty. Many, many businesses have now exhausted their rainy-day reserves and are struggling just to survive, particularly small and micro businesses.

“I think what we do with our economy over the next 5 years is going to be critical. How do we get back to the building blocks of a good economy?

“If you look across the UK business communities now you can see, we simply have not got enough start-ups. Also, let us look at the UK – the two sectors that are currently struggling are technology plus transport and logistics. Two sectors doing well are hotels (tourism) and construction. You could argue that construction naturally fuels growth, however, look at the many construction projects that are funded by overseas property investors looking to speculate in the short-term. I really do hope that however we end up after the next election, we create and commit to an industrial strategy that really helps re-build the economy on firmer foundations.”

Brother UK External Fascia

When we look at Brother UK we see an office technology supplier, but what are your primary areas of business as a global group?
“We have a wide product portfolio as an international business. Our parent, Brother Industries Ltd, addresses multiple business domains. These include a huge sewing business covering domestic and industrial applications. We also create machine tools – phone cases in Asia for some of the world’s most popular brands are made using our machine tooling, the group also owns Domino Printing Sciences in Cambridge specialising in high volume industrial marking. Brother’s portfolio is expansive which makes it very resilient as a global organisation.

“In the UK we market the office technology devices that Brother manufacturer. These range from all-in-one printers for home-offices, right the way through to specialist labelling devices used by tradespeople such as electricians, and printers in GP surgeries issuing prescriptions. Take a stroll down any high street or through an office and you will see our devices there. Sitting in the background, whirring away, helping those businesses run. From a single store estate agent, or a high street retail chain with eight hundred stores and complex printing or scanning requirements, we have hundreds of thousands of customers and devices in the UK.

“We go about our business in a disciplined way putting a lot of emphasis on customer satisfaction, being personal and creating long-term partnerships with our channel partners. Over the years this has built our market share, so we are now either No.1 or No.2 brand in every market place that we compete in. It puts us as a significant player in the technology hardware space. I am proud of that. When I joined the business 30 years ago, we had nowhere near the market share that we enjoy today. In those days we were a minnow with only 1% or 2% share. Today we are either the number one or number two brand in every segment we compete in.”

How do you view Brother UK in terms of how it is seen as a brand?
“One thing I will say, even though we are already a significant brand, I like keeping the mentality of being a challenger brand. To not take anything for granted. Markets can change instantly in this space. Someone can bring out a much better product, at half the price, put it in every store, and suddenly everyone is buying that product, and you are not selling anything anymore. You have got to retain that ‘sharpness,’ and that is one thing that I hope people will say about our company – that we are never complacent.

“Customer service is paramount. I am particularly proud of the fact that PC Pro readers have voted us “Best Printer Brand” for over 10 years running considering all elements of our specs, prices, value for money and support. We look to retain customers for life as much as possible. I often get letters from customers who have been buying our products for decades, starting with typewriters, then fax, printers, or labelling devices. It really is lovely and testament to the engineers who develop our technology.”

So, 30 years at Brother UK. How was that celebrated – did you get a watch?
“Funnily enough, all employees enjoying long service milestones receive a financial gift from the company. It was a little strange, as it is always me giving that gift to a colleague. I did use my long service award to buy a watch which I have on today! Somehow, it is fitting to mark that length of time. The business is very dynamic, and the irony is we do not often have time to celebrate our successes. We are very results driven. There is no time to stand still. We never take anything for granted. We reset every month, every quarter, every year. It may surprise people that we have to find 40,000 new customers every month through our activities.

“We must have an exceptionally good sales and marketing machine, which is my background. It is a relentless activity needing focus, discipline, and a talented team of people across the whole company.”

What are your plans for the future?
“My objective has always been about building sustainability within the business, and I do not just mean environmental sustainability – that is massively important. I mean long term financial sustainability too. The story behind this business is that sewing machines were made on this site from 1889, and so you feel like you are just the guardian of this story before handing it on to someone else. And although my role in this journey covers 30 years, Brother UK has been here for 56 years. More than anything, what I want for this business in 10, 20, or 30 years, is for people one or two generations down from me to feel the same passion in keeping this business going. It is why we have put so much effort into our apprenticeship programme to develop generational talent from our local neighbourhoods.

“It is the people that are so important, they make the difference on how we build relationships, provide support and work together as a team. I am lucky to work alongside them, and they have been one of the key reasons for staying at Brother UK for so long.”

Phil Jones MBE seated
Phil Jones MBE, managing director, Brother UK

You can follow Phil Jones MBE on LinkedIn and X : @philjones40
For more business insights and thought leadership articles visit Brother UK’s Spark Blog
You can follow Phil Jones MBE on LinkedIn and X : @philjones40

 

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