The clock was rapidly running down for Mark Wilson
He had to catch a plane to the United States in a couple of days. He was in the middle of a tour of duty around the North Island judging for the Registered Master Builders House of the Year and was now in Hamilton on his phone doing the scheduled half-hour interview for this article. He was also in the middle of building a new showhome, completing a move into his new headquarters – a bespoke showroom on Auckland’s North Shore, launching a new decorative concrete panel business, and all the while managing the rapid growth of his core business, the architectural design company Masonry Design Solutions (MDS), which has large, high-end projects on the go around New Zealand and Asia.
Wasn’t he feeling a bit like the proverbial blue-arsed fly? Not particularly.
“Even though we’re busier than ever, for the first time in a long time I actually feel in control,” says Mark. “If I thought back to three or four years ago, going away on a trip for two and half weeks like I’m about to do, the stress levels would have been out of control. But I’m actually thinking, ‘why have I not got a big list of things to do?'” Mark jokes about the fact that now the business has the people and systems in place, he actually feels a bit surplus to requirements!
Established in 2002 and run by husband and wife team Mark and Linda Wilson, MDS has built an enviable reputation in architectural design, established strong working relationships with consultants, building contractors and planners, and created an impressive portfolio of work. Mark has worked in architectural design, construction and construction management for 30 years and is an architectural judge for the Registered Master Builders House of the Year Awards. His reputation and that of MDS have been hard earned and are intertwined – a benefit in some ways but potentially a hindrance if Mark wanted to reduce his involvement or exit entirely.
It’s a classic Kiwi story: the founder becomes so central to the business, with every operational detail orbiting him, it seems the business might fall over without him at the centre. This in turn creates a problem with business valuation and limits succession or exit options for the owners. It also limits growth. “We were doing well, but we were in a zone where we couldn’t see the wood for the trees; when you’re right in the middle of something you often don’t see what needs to happen,” says Mark, adding “…we were after some form of growth but also wanted to create an exit plan and look at ways to reduce workload.”
Mark credits Hayes Knight director Brendon Cutler and his team for helping them clearly identify their business and personal goals then create a strategy and an action plan to get them there.
Brendon says the overriding goal became, “how do we extract Mark from the business while continuing to allow the business to be successful and grow”. Once the goals were established, says Brendon, we developed a plan of what the business would look like under a new structure.
“We undertook a review of the financials, restructured how the owners took their remuneration, looked at cash flow and developed a cash flow forecast, assisted with bank finance and structuring that finance appropriately, and then set up regular monthly meetings with Mark and Linda.”
The thought of extracting himself from the centre of the business made Mark nervous on two fronts: being a self-confessed control freak he had been reluctant to delegate, hence the 16 hour days; and he was unsure how to decouple his reputation in the market from that of MDS – would clients still expect him to be at their fingertips as they had become used to?
A key part of this transformation was the staff. Mark and Brendon made a real effort getting the tight MDS team to understand what they were working towards and getting their buy-in. They tightened up internal systems – reporting, KPI’s and identified personnel that would be key to the success of the changes, eventually appointing one as general manager.
“We’ve got some very long-term staff, so didn’t want to exclude them from the process,” says Mark. “They are right into the changes Brendon helped put in place. And even the long-term clients who are used to just ringing me, are now ringing the office instead. We are a boutique business where a lot of work is referred, and it was a huge concern for me that we might lose some credibility, but the other guys in the team are looking after the clients very well.”
So does Mark feel MDS is now set up for the future and growing as a result of the new game plan?
“Definitely. For the first time we set some projections and targets – something I was very unsure about – some optimistic targets, which I was pleased to see we’ve actually hit. It’s also about knowing where we’re at. Before, we knew we were making money but we didn’t really know our exact position. The comfort level we have now is huge. Obtaining funding for other projects now is also easier because the bank sees that Hayes Knight is involved, and everything is clear,” explains Mark. “It was about having someone create a process for us. It’s been fantastic really. It’s probably the biggest fundamental step we’ve taken with our business in a long, long time.”
Brendon says a key reason MDS has progressed so quickly is the owners’ attitude. He says they saw they needed to change and were very keen to improve what was already a great business.
“Mark and Linda were definitely up for the challenge and have managed to tick off a number of goals already. A key word here is accountability. We can meet as many times as we like, have the best laid plans, but it’s all about implementation – at the end of the day, they’ve got to do it.” And ‘do it’ they have: Mark and Linda have diversified, starting a separate business to import and sell high-end decorative concrete panel products. They have invested, building a new headquarters on Wairau Road that also serves as a showcase of their work. They have hired, taking on new staff to support the growth plan. And critically, the owners have stepped back from the coalface, raising their eyes to opportunities they previously had no time to consider.
“I was also starting to get a bit stale, but am excited about the future,” says Mark. “The domestic market is critical, but I’ve also been working with clients in China for a while now and I’m keen to explore new markets and opportunities there.”