Neil Laughton is a former Royal Marine Commando and SAS officer turned businessman. In the early 90s, he founded a design, construction and office furniture business which grew to a £40m turnover and sold to a FTSE 100 company in 2011.
Neil, 58, has been voted one of the top 30 Inspiring UK Entrepreneurs and is now a full-time business consultant and leadership coach. Alongside his business interests, he founded the Penny Farthing Club and has led multiple Guinness World Record expeditions all over the globe, including piloting a flying car from London to Timbuktu and circumnavigating the UK on a jet ski.
I had left the military full-time and, looking for a fresh job, got involved in a sales and marketing organisation called City Group, where I managed to get a role for an office stationery equipment company.
After a few years of doing pretty well as a sales manager, there was a problem. I realised that stationery, office equipment and printing would only really get me in front of middle management. I really aspired to work for more senior level CEOs.
It forced me down the decision-making path and a change of industry. I cast around and decided upon the construction industry, one dealing with big numbers and challenging projects, and was introduced to David King. He was managing director of a commercial outfit called Stanhope Interiors, whose parent company had just built Broadgate in the City of London.
David was an inspirational, dynamic character. I immediately liked him but he had reservations about my lack of experience. I knew he was looking for a sales and marketing manager and so I told him I would work for two weeks free of charge. If I cut the mustard, I told him, he could offer me a job.
Having secured the role, I helped to launch and promote our business with David to the key players – architects, project managers, construction engineers – anyone who had an influence in the industry.
I would organise a bi-weekly cheese and wine event where we would organise 15-minute presentations to as many influencers as possible. I had joined the company with a £900,000 annual turnover and, after 18 months of a really successful strategy, I was pleased to discover we had an order book of £15m.
I thought things were going swimmingly well. I held David in high regard, had learnt about strategy and pitching for big projects, while he had a really good way with clients, instilling them with confidence that we would be a good partner.
However, David asked me into his office early one Monday morning and handed me my P45 without much of an explanation.
I had helped to build the business but my experience ultimately led me on the path to an entrepreneurial career. I’m not short of confidence and, in 1994, I set up a furniture design and commercial interiors company from scratch and took it to a £40m turnover.
What I see now in business leadership is that there has been a big shift amongst the senior people, who are now assessing whether they want to be working in a company with a culture not aligned with their own personal values. I see lots of different start-ups and it’s exciting for lots of people, but they still have to go through a difficult learning experience.
If you are a senior person running a business or a company director working in somebody’s business, the responsibilities of a commercial leader for me are four-fold.
Firstly, you have to set a clear vision, you then need to get the right people employed on your team, be able to set a good company culture and, finally, you have to learn to delegate and let others be able lead.
For those who know me, I am first an adventurer and a business entrepreneur second. To have a fantastic adventure career, and at the same time running businesses, being able to delegate has certainly been the most important aspect for me.
For more on business leadership, public speaking and Neil's adventures visit www.neillaughton.com
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