The Whitworths milling business is perhaps unusual in that it has been the family business of two families but it is certainly going from strength to strength. The second generation of Georges expanded the business both organically and by acquisition, opening a second mill in Peterborough, and diversifying from milling to grocery products like dried fruit, and then into other sectors, some related (like bakeries) and some not (like the motor business they bought because it was the cheapest way to run their vehicle fleet).
The speed of growth was so fast that Martin George, the third generation of the family and now the Chairman, was drafted into the business rather earlier than expected. “Our family has always believed in giving the younger members of the family the chance to develop their own skills and successes elsewhere before they come into the business – it’s all about confidence. When my father died I felt ready to take it on, but the Trustees of the family trust held a majority holding of the shares and decided to run it themselves. It was a very difficult transition, and it’s really coloured my own views about how important it is for family firms to think through the whole succession and handover process very carefully, and understand all the implications. I would like to envisage one of my grandchildren doing what I’m doing and I’m sure my grandfather wanted that too.”
Martin left the business temporarily, when he was appointed Chairman of Leicester City Football Club, which allowed him to prove his managerial skills and build some important new relationships, in particular with advisors and bankers – relationships that have stood him in good stead over the years when he has needed to act quickly with the entrepreneurial spirit that he has repeatedly demonstrated.
When Martin eventually re-joined the business in 1992 the business needed to refocus and Martin set about a back to basics shake up which saw a renewed focus on milling and a desire to be best in class.
“My strategy is simple: focus on what you do best, invest in the future with the best new technology, and invest in people – both inside the business, and the partners you work with outside. We have an amazing network in our industry, and many of them are family businesses, just like us. They have the same long-term view and the same values. That combination is very powerful. Our customers regard Whitworths as being a world class operator, and we have grown to such a degree that only one company in Germany is producing more flour than we do in Europe. They are indeed bigger, but not better.”
“We say it is more difficult to retain excellence than it is to attain excellence; that is our ethos. We cannot allow our standards to drop and our people know that as my Grandfather used to say a good name goes a long way and a bad name goes a sight further!”
And Martin is clear that having a family member on the board is desirable, and indeed his son, Michael, is very much involved in the business now, but more important is the continued success of the business and the welfare of the families who work within the business
The business strategy may have evolved over the years, and the technology has certainly changed out of all recognition, but the same qualities that made Whitworths a success in the past are still underpinning its progress today: the ability to take the long view, while at the same time making bold decisions quickly in the here and now, to capitalise on new opportunities.
“This is especially important when it comes to acquisitions – we were able to move very fast when it came to buying the Carr’s milling business last year. That’s the sort of business we are – agile, adaptable, and always aspiring to be ahead of the game.”
And the strategy is clearly paying off with results to last April being the strongest ever, of which Martin is rightly proud.
And will Martin ever hang up his boots? Unlikely “work is my centrum – everything that happens has the business at the centre, even if I am shooting or on holiday or out a business event Whitworths is at the heart of it all. The fact is I get my biggest buzz out of what we’re doing now and continuing to do it.”
This piece was featured as part of the PwC Family Business Survey and has been reproduced with their permission. Find out more about the survey here.