Simon Hunter is the third generation of his family to run its clothes business, Hunter Apparel Solutions. Simon, who was awarded Best Overall Director and Best Family Director at this year’s the Institute of Director’s awards, discusses how he had to save the business, and how he made his first profit at cub camp.

Were you always destined to take over the family business?

No, quite the opposite, in fact. My father was insistent that we – I have a brother and sister – shouldn’t join the family business, as he thought the clothing industry to be so hard to make any money in, even though he’d done very well for himself. He encouraged us instead to pursue other careers: accountancy, law – anything other than clothing.

But, when I was finishing my accountancy course at university, my father changed his mind and suggested that I should give it a go in the family business. He wanted a university graduate with a financial background, and after I joined as head of sales the business began to grow by about 20-25% each year.

I also decided to join the Institute of Directors (IoD) and study to become a chartered director. I guess I didn’t want it said that I’d just got the CEO job because I was the son of the boss. I wanted unequivocal external recognition that I deserved the role. I really applied myself to the educational aspect of the IoD course and got an awful lot out of it, and it has been very useful in my career since then.

How has your family firm changed over the years?

My grandfather Francis opened a tailor’s shop in Belfast in the 1930s. In 1952, it relocated to Londonderry, which was then world famous for shirt making. My father entered the business when he was 16 and became managing director when he was 20. He built up the company to be a sizeable successful clothing manufacturer, which at its peak had 250 operators and sub-contracted to five other factories.

When I joined the business in 1996 it still principally made shirts, but I then went on to transform it into a designer and supplier of all types of professional work clothing and personal protective equipment (PPE), because I saw that it was vitally important for us to diversify from just specialising in one product.

There were 64 shirt makers in Londonderry in my grandfather’s time, but the industry had already begun its decline by the time my father joined the family business. There were only a handful of firms left by the time I joined, so it was pretty clear that the shirt making business model wasn’t long for this world.

Today, we’re unusual in that we’re a small firm that has developed proprietary technology platforms which make us hyper-efficient and therefore more profitable. The business is still managed from Northern Ireland, where we also retain an R&D operation, but the bulk of our production is located in Asia, Eastern Europe and North Africa.

We have only survived because we dramatically changed our business strategy.

How important is having courage in running a company?

I don’t think you can expect to run a firm for long unless you’re courageous. You need a different attitude to risk than the average person. The fear of failure, the sense that every day the fate of the business rests on my shoulders, is one that excites, motivates – and frightens – me to work extremely hard.

What’s been your biggest achievement?

Winning the Best Overall Director of the Year at the IoD awards was a big moment for me. I wish I could have bottled the feeling I had when my name was called out. It was an absolute thrill beyond belief.

I’ll always be proud of saving the company; just after I took over the company’s reins our input prices for raw materials and labour rocketed, but we had fixed contracted sales prices. The global economic recession was just beginning, so it was a real baptism of fire for me, particularly as the firm was heavily in debt at the time, so it wasn’t in a good position to cope with these pressures.

But within 18 months I had managed to turn a heavily indebted firm that was also losing money into a very much more profitable firm with cash in the bank. I learnt to cope with adversity, but boy did I have to learn fast!

When have you needed to be brave?

When everything seemed to be going wrong, both in our sector and in the global economy, and the firm was heavily in debt I had to negotiate the sale of a company division that we owned which was making heavy losses. It’s no exaggeration to say this part of the business was going to kill us unless I managed to sell it. But the business environment was extremely harsh, and I had absolutely no experience of negotiating a deal of this scale. Nevertheless, I managed to crack a deal to sell it to a rival, which not only staunched the losses but also injected a substantial amount of cash into our business.

What’s been your biggest mistake?

I wish I had implemented incentive-based pay more quickly, because to create a growth-oriented company you need to motivate your employees by making clear to them what they could earn by higher performance. When I took over, our bonus and pay had always been handled informally, and I just didn’t have any experience of motivational pay structures back then. But I quickly came to understand their importance.

Also, it took me a couple of years before deciding to strip the business back to its fundamentals. Appointing Padraig Canavan as chairman was a big step forwards. He was from outside the family, and had run a global technology company, and his experience and global outlook were very important for me in helping change the business. For the first time in the company’s history, every employee was given an equal voice in stating what the values should be, and from those we redrafted the company’s vision and mission.

That helped to change the company’s culture significantly. I would have done it much quicker if I’d realised earlier how positive that would prove to be, but it came as the result of me doing the IoD course and being mentored by Padraig.

What’s the secret of running a successful family business?

I think you feel more emotionally involved in running a family business. Despite my father’s insistence that we pursue other careers, my brother is a director of the firm, and my wife sits on our board and is a senior manager. We’re all determined to work together to continue the legacy we were handed. There’s also some family pride in being an employer in a small city like Londonderry and in what we’ve achieved.

Before coming to work in the family business I worked at Seagate, a US technology company. It gave me the insight and experience of how to run a tech business, and I have applied some of that learning to make our firm different. I could say with, my hand on my heart, that we’re like none of our competitors.

Is entrepreneurship nature or nurture?

I think the bias has to be towards nature. My father tells a story of how when I was a boy I was given £5 to take to a Cub Scout camp. I spent £4 of it before I went on sweets to take with me, and then I came home from camp with £15. He says that’s proof that I’ve always been an entrepreneur.

What’s the next step for your business?

We’re at an interesting point. We’ve invested heavily in new proprietary technology over the past 15 years, and other firms have now approached us about franchising our technology. That is very interesting to us. Although I’m really passionate about clothing, I love the technology side of the business too. We’re working through the strategy now, but I think there’s huge potential for us in that. Also, we’re doing a lot of interesting things in ‘smart’ clothing and intelligent textiles.

Do you have any heroes?

I have to thank my grandfather and father for my opportunity to run this company. Richard Branson’s story is inspiring, but my day-to-day mentor is our chairman Padraig Canavan. He has a quick brain and is very stimulating to be around. He sees the world differently from others, and so really adds value to our board. Also, my enjoyment of the IoD course was due in no small part to Peter Martin, who ran the course. Learning was interesting around him.

What tips do you have for those who’re just starting out?

I would recommend doing the IoD’s chartered director course to anyone who is looking to be a business leader. There’s more to running a business than simply the numbers, and the course teaches the all-round skills required to be the head of an organisation.

For those taking over a family business, I’d say there’s nothing more emotional than the issue of transferring control and ownership from one generation to the next. It has the potential to be very destructive if it isn’t handled properly. We tried and failed to do it several times, which was a painful experience for everyone involved and hard for the business. Eventually it was resolved quickly and easily, and the reason for that was that we found the right adviser. Now, I can see the reasons why we weren’t able to get it over the line on each of the previous occasions. In time, it’s something on which I’d like to mentor other family businesses.

To find our more about the company visit the Hunter Apparel Solutions website

For more inspiring stories from small and brave entrepreneurs visit our Small Business Stars hub

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