Harvard Business School and the UK entrepreneurs’ experience

Inner City 100 has sent its winners to Harvard Business School, we find out how they fare

Sometimes, knowing the right questions to ask of your company is as important as the eventual decisions made.

That’s certainly been the experience of Harry Beharry, founder and managing director of Atlas Property (London), a company offering a range of property services.

When Beharry, who had never had formal business management and leadership training, returned from Harvard Business School it was with more questions than answers. Three weeks at America’s grandest educational institution got him re-evaluating facets of his already successful business. The offer to attend Harvard, a renowned breeding-ground for business leaders, came from Inner City 100’s Entrepreneurs’ Fund, which is co-financed by the London Development Agency. It awards training grants for some of its winners to attend Harvard’s courses each year. This year Beharry, whose company came top of 2003’s pile with a five-year growth rate of 10,496% and Meeta Bhagwanji, director of Brent-based jewellery wholesalers BCPMS (Europe) were the beneficiaries.

The intensive course for experienced managers ran for three weeks from February to March, and featured the case-based learning Harvard has become associated with, having introduced the concept to business education in 1925 to illustrate the complexities of business analysis and decision making. Following a discussion about a specific company’s conundrum, attendees are faced with the CEO concerned, in person or via video link-up, to hear how the problem was actually dealt with in reality, and the outcome of their decision.

“There was a lot I can apply,” says Beharry. “I am re-examining my strategy, what it is, how it can change, and the new markets I can go into. Plus, I now know exactly what I want from my accountants and how it should be presented.” The issue that struck him most was that of succession. He has always hoped Atlas Property would pass on to the next generation at the right time. But he’s aware that while the first generation may take a company from rags to riches, by the third generation businesses often disintegrate or are broken up.

The course, he says, has helped him make decisions concerning who should take over and how other members of the family can be utilised. “I’ve got children and will pass the business on, but will need to set rules on how shares will be allocated, particularly if somebody marries in and deserves to be brought from the periphery to the centre. My son Gregory, 25, works with me now, and if he is good enough he will take over the CEO position. Prior to attending the course I had nominated him, but he needs 10 years of experience.”

His son has already attained a degree, but Beharry is encouraging him to take further business education as well as courses related to Atlas’s operation, such as architecture and law. Beharry is thinking long-term as a result of the Harvard experience, and hopes his son will be able to take on the running of a bigger business than he has the skills for. Because the business has always had ready cash, Beharry has not familiarised himself with the nuances of finance, although he now has a grasp of how financial ratios work, the value of the assets of his business, and how to calculate the return made on those assets. Unfortunately, accounting is not an area his son shows interest in. So when Atlas, which employs 25, reaches a certain size it may require an experienced FD.

Somebody with more answers is Jamie McGrattan of Glasgow-based McGrattan Piling, a three-time Inner City 100 winner. He’s attended Harvard twice, the first time in 2002, and the time since has enabled him to reflect on what to change and add. Driving steel construction-beams into the ground is a sophisticated business, and ensuring his company offers the best possible service has proved influential in winning tenders. “When I came back from Harvard I was anxious to make sure we had the correct processes and procedures, and the best computers, design-packages and pile-driving equipment.”

Like Beharry, McGrattan was surrounded by business leaders from every corner of the globe, with 17 countries represented, and says there were problems common to them all. “The most abiding memory was the problem every attendee had with communication in their business, irrespective of the size or the country they operated in. Getting joined-up thinking was difficult. Employees tend to isolate themselves, and don’t understand the impact what they do has on a colleague. They were resistant to sharing knowledge or opening up, and sometimes viewed necessary information-requests by colleagues as awkwardness.”

Consequently, McGrattan took his staff on a weekend residential course in the Highlands. He then asked them to say what was important to them. “You get a perception of people when you meet them and don’t get to know them properly.” He admits it may sound too touchy-feely for most owner-managers, but says the impact was remarkable. “There was a different ambience about the place. Barriers were broken down. The new level of understanding has impacted on productivity, but it’s slow and we haven’t yet gathered the full harvest.”

Expressing new ideas

The Harvard experience also made him think about the stifling atmosphere society and business fosters. “I like people to express creativity. The suppression of that is one of the biggest disablers in a company. We leave education and if we do what’s expected we get promotion. There’s a fear of expressing new ideas and being ridiculed by colleagues or the boss. We’ve got to empower people to come forward, even if what they suggest is not the best idea in the world.”

To achieve this, McGrattan has introduced an anonymous postbox; holds communications meetings with managers and relevant departments to brainstorm on processes, products, and marketing innovations; and bucks convention by encouraging an informal forum not governed by time.

He’s also become more willing to speculate to accumulate. As McGrattan knows, Harvard teaches that the job of the executive is to make decisions. There is never perfect information. Instead, the aim is to make reasonable inferences, quantify the risks and learn the cost and value of obtaining additional information. With that ethos in mind, the company is moving into a new area within its sector – mini-piling which is aimed at the burgeoning house-building market as opposed to the heavy industry his company has made its name in.

The company recently spent £55,000 on an industrial hammer, the first machine of its type, at a global construction exhibition. “We’ve enjoyed a great deal of financial success over the years and have what I describe as a war chest.” In addition, McGrattan has set out his targets in one-year and three-year business plans, with turnover expected to rise by 22% and 50% respectively – another thing Harvard promotes.

Like Beharry, succession is an issue McGrattan has come to ponder. “Because I was instrumental in the company’s success, I couldn’t walk away and expect it to endure.” Since the course, he has involved some senior people in the business in charting its future, and is sending potential successors on a part-time MBA for strategic thinking, accounting and marketing.

As with Beharry, Harvard was a business-changing experience and McGrattan admits it put the part-time MBA he once did in new perspective.


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