Interview with Nigel Griffiths, Chair of the Business Council, Cardiff Capital Region.
The end of 2020 saw Cardiff Capital Region appoint Nigel Griffiths as Chair of the Business Council, to work with the CCR Cabinet and Economic Growth Partnership in helping focus practical support and drive measurable improvements for businesses right across the region.
In the first of two insightful interviews, Nigel shares with us his experience of early life in the Swansea valley – and the lessons learned in a stellar career that’s seen him build, lead and divest enterprises in many sectors, including Technology and Business Services…
“In many ways I had the classic working-class upbringing shared by many people of my generation – born into a mining family in the close-knit community of Ynysmeudw, where my parents, grandparents and wider family instilled the importance of hard work and gaining a good education. It was a very happy childhood, including the regular Miners Fortnight at Trecco Bay and the Miners Gala in Blackpool – and yes, we really did leave the doors open in Ynysmeudw, being regularly in and out of each other’s houses. It was a warm and supportive place and my own family took a great deal of time in giving me the important things in life. That may not have included too many material possessions, but I could already read and write before I went to school, thanks to my Uncle – a highly intelligent man, widely versed in the classics, who invested a huge amount of time with me after suffering post-traumatic stress from taking part in the Normandy Landings.”
“The importance of hard work and education”
“My parents and grandparents put our education first, determined that their children wouldn’t go underground – and I’m thankful that of the 380 children in my school year, I was one of the 16 who managed to get to University. That single change in life direction really came home to me when I got to spend one day down a mine as part of an audit. Simply walking around the mine was the most exhausting day’s work I’ve ever done!
“Luck as well as judgement”
“People point out that I’ve had a successful business career doing many different things in different sectors, but to me I think it’s taken more than a degree of luck and opportunism. I did a Law degree but didn’t really want to be a lawyer. For a while I was interested in joining the RAF, got to the Officer Selection stage, then decided it wasn’t for me, so I joined the Inland Revenue but knew within a week that I’d made the wrong decision. So much for career planning! I waited until the following September to join Ernst & Whinney (which is now EY) and that’s where my career really started. Ernst & Whinney was full of exceptional people, the classic Oxbridge employer. I was the first Polytechnic graduate they had employed – I found out later that they thought I had more confidence than the others because of my time at the Inland Revenue – and I genuinely felt that most of the people there were much more accomplished than me. But I’d taken a 50% pay-cut to leave the IR, I had a mortgage to pay by now, so I simply couldn’t afford to fail.
“I suddenly had a skill – and a differentiator”
“I passed my exams at the first time of asking, got promoted quite quickly – and then good fortune smiled on me. I played chess at the time and by pure chance, a friend of the family showed me how to play on an IBM twin floppy drive computer. I had to format a disc to do that and the following day at work my Senior Partner asked if anyone knew how to format a floppy disk. I said I did – and immediately became the IT expert in the team. I quickly understood that this was the chance to create a differentiator for myself, so started to get my head around things like word processing and spreadsheets, long before Microsoft came along.
“I knew I had a skill – a different type of skill – and the timing to acquire that couldn’t have been better. During my three-year training contract the method for delivering accountancy practices completely changed in a very short space of time: in year one we had a single PC in the office and a large team of typists; 3 years later, everyone had a PC and there were no typists. I realised that there was money to be made in this IT goldrush and got myself in the Management Consulting team, helping clients choose IT systems, which was good fun as it meant poking your nose into all parts of their business and not just the Finance bit. I got the concept of Business Process and that’s been core in my subsequent career.
“The concept of Business Process has been core to my career”
“Once I qualified, I worked for a remarkable man called Ieaun Griffiths, who later became CFO of the DVLA – and he pointed out that I needed some real-world experience. I was playing rugby with a guy in recruitment who had a job available at a business called Catnic, the steel-based building product company now owned by Corus, then owned by RTZ. They were looking to roll-out a new system, which my rugby team mate said would be right up my street. He was right – I made a name for myself there, rolling-out the IT, which was great as it took me out of Finance and got me a place on the TQM team – employing the theoretical concepts of efficiency, process management, statistical process control, lean manufacturing and all the other methods geared to improvement. I really enjoyed all of that, working on practical projects with grown-ups who had been there and done it, listening to how they had dealt with things like running the shop-floor or resolving pay disputes. It was a great experience for a young guy like me – and it got even better. The company was expanding fast, including getting involved in building projects in post-reunification Germany – where they asked me to set up a business from scratch. Germany was a wonderful experience, where I learnt how to put together a team, shape the product, work out the market proposition and deal with a different culture (in Germany for example they have very little regard for packaging, seeing it as superfluous and wasteful, whereas here in the UK we tend to have everything beautifully packaged and branded().
“I learnt how to build a team, shape a product, create a proposition”
“Catnic was a joy, but then my old recruitment and rugby team mate got back in touch and told me that BBC Wales were looking to create a new Commercial Division – and would I be interested in putting in the new system to make the BBC more commercial? It sounded like good fun and I knew it would make my grandmother proud to say that I worked at the BBC – and it proved to be a tremendous time, putting in a top-end Sage product called Tetra, working with a fantastic team that included an exceptional boss called Jim Brown who went on to run TV Centre; and TIM Griffin who progressed to run Dell in UK/Ireland as well as Senior roles in Asia Pacific, he is now MD of DCC Technology. At the BBC I learned that being a leader is not about being ‘The Boss’, but about allowing a team to succeed, giving people the right conditions and environment to show what they can do. It was an amazing experience – and then luck intervened again…
“My role was being outsourced and I wasn’t interested in going with it. I started to look for other opportunities and spoke to the guy who ran the Sage Enterprise business who we had commissioned the BBC system from. He asked if I was interested in running his 200-strong Professional Services team. I said I wasn’t and would rather run my own show. So he offered me a dealership. Gave it to me on a plate. And that became Fifth Dimension Systems.
“Going from zero to 100 people, doubling in size every six months, hitting £10 million turnover in four years”
“Again it was all a case of happenstance, I contacted Geoff Thomas an old EY colleague to join me and – in the current parlance – we smashed it, by taking what in hindsight appears an inspired and farsighted decision but in reality was good fortune: we decided to back the very first Microsoft product set in our market. None of our technologist competitors would touch it because it didn’t work, but as accountants we didn’t know that; and by the time we started selling the software, Bill Gates had fixed the problems and we suddenly had a tiger by the tail, pioneering the Microsoft suite in the UK. Our first deal was a half-million pound contract and from there we doubled in size every 6 months, going from zero to 100 people very quickly, from a start-up with a phone and a laptop to a £10 million turnover in 5 years. It was a brand new industry that didn’t even exist when I graduated and because we didn’t have any concept of failure we ran a mid-market IT company like a professional services company – and it worked. We backed ourselves, we were courageous, we made acquisitions that we couldn’t really afford – and in a way, for two accountants, we did everything wrong: not worrying about risks, not looking at any downsides. And that’s really what an entrepreneur ultimately needs – courage. I gave up a very good salary at the BBC because I could see and feel the opportunity. I was fortunate to have been exposed to an incredible new sector earlier than most – and realised that if I wrapped that up with the lean thinking, zero defect, right first time concepts that I’d put into practice in consultancy, I could back myself. A bit of luck, a bit of judgement, being in the right place at the right time – and being prepared to make that leap.
“Every company is different – and every entrepreneur is courageous”
“Every venture is unique and the last company I helped run and divest – Certus – was a different story with a similarly happy ending. Certus provided the IT support for FD Systems and Paul the owner had ambitions to develop the company. His partner didn’t share that ambition, so I bought into the company and Paul’s partner left, then we took it up a few levels by serving bigger customers in larger markets beyond Wales. I went into Certus with just one ambition – to sell it – and saw that goal as my job, achieving it in February 2019.
“Lessons learnt so far along the way? First and foremost, have an endgame. At my first company I had no endgame in mind; and as I’ve got older I realised that every business should have it – even if you don’t sell, it makes you run your business in the best possible way. Work out a strategy to succeed and get the right people around you to make that plan work. The second lesson is something that entrepreneurs tend not to talk about: the importance of having and continually nurturing your own emotional courage. Entrepreneurs can fear failure more than anything; and that can get in the way of success. And a final lesson that’s very personal: I’ve learned over the past 30 years that I enjoy helping businesses who have potential do even better than they could imagine. That’s very enjoyable for me – and making that happen is a huge part of my focus for the next few years as Chair of the Cardiff Capital Region Business Council.”