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My business crush: Not Satya Nadella, but it could be


I was planning to write this column about Satya Nadella. The Microsoft chief executive is widely credited with driving a global rejuvenation of both the morale and results of the original tech player.

He talks about helping every individual and company on the planet achieve more, and has everyone a-buzz with his mantra of wanting his business to be full of learn-it-alls, not know-it-alls. He’s the real deal.

I’ve spoken to people five layers down at Microsoft UK and they love him. I sat recently in a room at Lords Cricket Ground with some of the great and good from British business and swooned as they did. My colleagues have teased me mercilessly for having a bit of a business crush on him.

But when the time came to put finger to keyboard, I realised I didn’t want to write about Satya. No, I wanted to write about the business support services sector. Doesn’t sound very sexy does it? Name some of the best performing companies in the sector and it doesn’t really get any better: Veolia (don’t they do rubbish collection?), Rentokil (they kill cockroaches?), BunzlSegro, Intertek (who?).

The truth is that this sector, these companies, are as close as I come (in business terms) to unrequited love.

I spend my life working with senior execs to help reinvent their businesses, yet (while they may not capture the imagination) the movers and shakers of the business support services sector are the original transformation heroes.

They were dealing with commoditisation and crumbling business models when digital was a Casio calculator.

They mastered convergence long before Sky expanded to broadband, mobile, and TV production. They’re brimful of real purpose, when others struggle to move on from staid and self-serving statements of commercial ambition.

Take Bunzl. A nineteenth century paper manufacturer, they became industry giants in the cigarette papers and filters market. But that market started to deteriorate in the 60s and they were forced to reinvent themselves as a supplier of tapes, plastics, and IT services. It didn’t work. The new businesses failed to replace the revenue generated by the old one. As the decline worsened in the eighties they were forced to try again, but this time they started with their original offering – and built a business handling outsourced paper needs.

Using what they then learnt about distributing disposable products of all kinds, they now operate thriving businesses in food hygiene, food distribution, vending, and contract cleaning.

It may not sound as sexy as a Microsoft Surface Pro, but there’s a lot to learn from Bunzl.

To reinvent themselves in the face of disruption, they went back to their roots. The answer lay in starting from a business they’d always known and understood – paper. If only more businesses had the integrity and self-awareness to do the same when faced with the need to reinvent themselves.

Rather than grabbing close to hand revenue source, the answer lay in finding the overlap between customers’ needs and their own skills and passion. This surely is the only successful model for innovation in the modern world.

Ultimately, their story is about learning. On a corporate scale they tried stuff, made mistakes, learnt from those mistakes, and figured out how to win. What’s evident is that experimenting and learning is the only way to make meaningful progress in an uncertain world.

Looking at the above, maybe there isn’t as big a difference between Satya and the services sector as I first thought. And if it can work for both a tech giant and a hygiene services business, maybe more businesses should dial into that formula.