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 Business advice forged by the fire of experience

 

 Frances Wright became a business advisor by mistake; or rather, by mistakes – many of them – which she had made when she was running a community radio station in the nineties.

They were the typical mistakes most business owners make. Since then, Wright has seen the same situation in countless other businesses – constant crises, high turnover of staff and customers, and miserable, overwhelmed business owners. They all stem from pretty much the same causes, she says: an over-focus by the owner on one part of the business to the detriment of other crucial areas, and the inability to standardise processes, and uncontrolled growth.

Some business owners muddle on and stay small; some fail, give up and go back to working for someone else; some learn, become good managers and grow successful businesses. Wright, however, decided to study what she did wrong and made it her life’s work to help other business owners avoid making those typical mistakes.

Today, Wright runs her own consulting firm Trinitas in Johannesburg, holds a BSc in production technology, an MBA and a PhD. Among other things, she is one of more than 300 highly experienced and qualified mentors that Business Partners use to advise its business-manager clients.

Part of what makes Wright a sought-after mentor and advisor is the fact that her extensive studies have been grounded in the real world. It was inspired by her own five-year struggle of trying to run the radio station. Her degree in production technology was done part-time through the Production Management Institute while she was working for a marketing consultancy, allowing her to form deep insights into the alignment of the marketing and production abilities of businesses.

It is this alignment that business owners most often get wrong. Excellent product or service levels without equally strong marketing leads to stagnation. More often, the problem is that the marketing efforts are too strong for the production capacity of the business, leading to loss of quality, unhappy customers and eventually a bad reputation.

Although Wright is one of the rare business advisors who can do highly specialised consulting in both the marketing side of a business as well as the production side, she approaches her clients first and foremost as a generalist. She finds that too often business owners waste money on specialist advisors instead of bringing in a generalist to take a holistic view of the business first. “When you have a headache, first go to a GP, not a neurosurgeon,” she says.

But Wright warns business owners not to confuse a generalist business advisor with strategy consultants. One of the biggest mistakes that businesses make is to pay too much for strategists. Through her PhD, she has gathered strong evidence that the money spent on strategy experts do not lead to greater business success. What does make a difference, she says, are advisers who help business owners implement strategy through practical guidance and nuts-and-bolt advice.

Wright says the content of her work is conventional, proven business knowledge, but she has developed her own working method. She always starts with a general diagnosis of the business or “audit” of the business to see in which of six main areas the business needs work: production, supply chain and logistics, financial management, human resources, marketing and communication, and technology (not just computers, but any machinery needed in the business). Quality control and good administration runs through all of the areas.

Each of these areas is of equal importance, says Wright. A business needs all of them to run smoothly if it is to thrive. The aim of Wright’s interventions is to guide the business owner to systematise and standardise the processes in each area, with more practical detail than theory.

Wright says she does not find it difficult to sell her services to South African business owners, but a frequent challenge for her is the impatience of business owners who want to see immediate results of her interventions. Sometimes it takes a while for the improvements that she helps bring about in a business to work its way to the bottom line.

A more common problem is that when business owners do reach out for help and advice, they use service providers that are immediately available, but who are not necessarily qualified for the job. Accountants, for example, may be suited to help set up financial controls, but are out of their depth when it comes to production.

Wright says it is crucially important for business owners to use properly qualified advisors. She reckons an MBA is a minimum requirement to give a mentor the holistic knowledge needed to analyse and guide a business.

When it comes to affordability, Wright believes that business mentorship can always be tailored according to the budget that a business has available. “A single hour of consultation to a struggling, cash-strapped business can make a difference,” she says.

Wright finds that, despite business owners’ reputation for being a hard-headed bunch, they are generally eager for good advice. “Unfortunately, in male-dominated a manufacturing industry there is still certain level of resistance against taking advice from women,” she says.

But this does not stop Wright from loving her job. She finds the variety of industries that she gets to explore through her work fascinating. And then there is the deep satisfaction of seeing businesses reach their potential. “It’s like going into a house and cleaning it up,” she concludes.

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