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Turning crisis into growth: a family engineering consultancy's story

Electrical Safety + Becky + Charlotte

Electrical Safety advise and train industrial and commercial organisations and utility service providers on electrical safety. They have an enviable client list.

Rebecca Frain, Managing Director, and Charlotte Milne, Project Coordinator, discuss how they tackled a critical period in their business and have transformed how they operate.

"We were in a difficult place, and we’re now going through this period of growth. All achieved in just a month or two.”

Electrical Safety UK clients

Setting the scene

Says Becky: "We are a family business. My father Michael ran it for 12 years, and I was an administrator here, involved mainly in developing the training side of the business."

“But over two years ago a family crisis surfaced. Mike’s wife, my mother, was diagnosed with a severe degenerative health problem that required a lot of time and focus from my dad. He needs to be there for her, yet the business needs to be run. Both roles are very much full-time jobs."

 “With a family business, this comes out of the blue and can even put a company in peril. There wasn’t an obvious succession plan, and no-one was stepping up to take the job on. Time went by, and something needed to be done. Eventually I stepped up to take on the role myself.”

Electrical substation

The issues

Says Becky: “We used to run our business on lots of spreadsheets. It was time consuming, error-prone and the spreadsheets were created by different people, not all of whom were always in the office. It got to the point where I could only do financial planning on Fridays, because the person maintaining that spreadsheet was only able to bring it up to date that day. By our Monday meetings it was out of date again."

“Some of our jobs are very complex. Multiple engineers work on the same job, and one client might have 10 or 15 jobs running at the same time. So it was very hard to manage it the way we were doing things.”

“An engineer entering their time had to look down a list to see which job number to allocate to it. There was nothing to prompt or verify if it was the right job, and often the list was out of date. So the wrong number could easily be entered. We had to cross-check every posting afterwards. It took so much time.”

Says Charlotte:

“I was Project Coordinator, but I was constantly having to switch from projects to administration, so it was hard to manage things properly."

“We had no real processes to follow. We pretty much operated on an as-and-when basis. When work came in we added it to an engineer’s list. The engineer would prioritise their work without any objective method to guide the decision. It made it hard for us to plan and track”.

Becky:  “Engineers did their work without having to consider the financial side. Engineering and Finance were like two separate organisations. There was an artificial divide that no one intended, which meant that job decisions were being made that had all sorts of implications that each side was completely unaware of. For example, sometimes an engineer would be working on a project and inadvertently keep on working past the point of approval and funding. There wasn’t any system to set off an alarm."

“There are actually two sides to our business: Consulting and Training. They need different processes. You simply can’t give a proper level of focus to the two elements using dozens of scattered spreadsheets. And it would take me hours to decipher all the spreadsheets to know the relative profitability of the two groups. Meanwhile, we constantly had to spend so much time searching for information."

“Billing was often late. When part of a project was completed it took time and effort to pull together all the costs and times and check for accuracy. There was very often a delay of two or three weeks before the invoice was sent out, which of course hurt cash flow.”

Electricity pylon

The turning point

“So here I was, young and with no engineering credentials, heading a team of experienced engineers with strong characters and tremendous knowledge, all used to deciding on resources by whoever shouted the loudest. They are a great team, but it was a big challenge. And this was a company with no processes and dozens of fragmented spreadsheets. One of which only functioned on Fridays. No, not easy..."

“I took some advice from an ex-MD of another company. It became crystal clear that we needed a proper system. We spent a year researching alternatives. There are all sorts of products out there. Some were CRM systems lacking a time recording element.

"Eventually we chose Synergist because it integrated all the main elements we needed.”

Electrical flash test in the lab

Electrical spark test in the lab

What happened next

“We worked with Magnifeye [part of The Agency Works team] for the implementation, which was very good. We did it on a fast track. Most of the training was done for us online, which worked well for us. At the end of that we did request one day of training in person here to tidy up any loose ends. Tom came to do that, and he was excellent. So we were up and running really quickly.

“I can’t believe how much of a change it made for us in just the first month alone. We’re now two months in, and we’ve seen all the following changes:"

1. Time saved.  With Synergist we’ve cut out the equivalent of two administrative jobs right away. Charlotte now focuses 100% on projects and she’s raising her game to become our Project Manager. We spotted the potential in her, and she’s really risen to it. Before, she was held back by endless admin.

And things were slipping so much that we were planning to hire another admin person. There’s no need for either of those admin roles now. As for me, it’s released more of my time so I can now focus on the bigger issues.

2. No repetition.  We only have to enter information once now, and the information is prompted and logic-checked where possible, so it’s far more accurate.

3. Acceptance by the team. One member of the team found it a bit difficult at first. But suddenly the light came on. Now you wouldn’t suspect there had been a barrier there because he’s all over it now!

I think he suddenly saw how much the extra information helps both him and the company.

4. Costings.  It's helped us to cost jobs better. Previously we wrestled with very complex spreadsheets to work out the costings, and that’s all been replaced now.

5. Obsolete spreadsheets.  We've dumped so many spreadsheets! On the consultancy side we had one for each job, and several for sales planning, and one for tracking forward actions, and one for costings.

And then there were the spreadsheets for monthly reporting and financial analysis. And then those on the training side too. In total I bet we’ve abandoned over twenty spreadsheets.

Arc flash

6. Scheduling.  Our jobs are scheduled properly now. No more need for people to yell louder than other people...

7. Phases.  All our work fits into phases now. There’s no more risk of engineers working beyond the funded segment. And it also means that clients are clearer on progress and job status. 

We don’t need to negotiate with clients for stage payments any more – it’s all crystal clear from the outset and backed up by the data.

8. Mobile use.  The Synergist mobile app is great. One engineer in particular loves it! He’s on the road a lot, so it makes it easy for him to check jobs and enter time wherever he is.

9. Integrating the financial side.  The financial implications are now part of our meetings with engineers. We’re all going in the same direction at last. Everybody benefits.

10. Targets.  We're much better at set ting targets now because it’s backed up by data. Before, it was all a bit top-down, and not always realistic enough.

11. Cash flow.  Before, cash flow could be horrendous. After only one month of using Synergist this has been greatly helped.

The 2-3 week delay in invoicing has disappeared. It’s so much easier to get the data so we can bill it.

Arc flash protection

12. Decision-making.  Before, the clear divide in the business made it difficult for the team to make joint decisions. A lot of discussion and of ten arguments occurred with no solution.

You can’t blame anyone because the trust wasn’t there for the spreadsheet results then, and with good reason. That’s all solved now. We love the reliability of the data and the decisions made are now generally the same from the entire team.

13. Client conversations.  When we have an issue we speak to the client and show them the data. It makes it so much easier to resolve.

14. Purchase invoices.  Supplier invoices are all fully tracked now so all costs are allocated properly. There’s far less risk of something slipping through the cracks.

15. Company positioning.  We compete against some very big firms out there. So naturally we want to present ourselves as a bigger company than we are. We punch above our weight.

With our new system this makes it much easier. We have all the information and processes that clients want, so it gives us more credibility, more status and more confidence.

16. Growth.  We've been very lucky as a business being able to pretty much sit back and wait for business. But this was always worrying and of course never sustainable for growth.

Now, when we’re scheduling, we see that a phase is coming to completion, so we check our capacity and approach the client to propose a new phase. We give them a deadline on the decision to guarantee early completion. We have the confidence in the data to be able to do all that. It’s working well, and we’re already looking to hire more engineers.

17. Job profitability.  Many of the new improvements are as a result of us now seeing the profitability of each job. So much flows from that. And we can now see the profit margins of the two sides of our business. It’s even prompted a restructuring of our business in some ways.

Electricity pylons

Summary

  • "The transformation has been amazing!"
  • "Were in a difficult place, and we’re now going through this period of growth. All achieved in just a month or two."
  • "It has revolutionised how we run our business.”
  • "It's given us new confidence in what we can achieve."
  • "We used to focus on trying to make spreadsheets work. Now we focus on making the business work."
  • "It’s an exciting time going forward. And that’s not a phrase you might have heard me say very often before this turnaround.”

“Is Synergist good value for money? Absolutely. It’s saved two admin people for a start, so that’s £30,000+ saved before all the other gains are even looked at.”

Credits.  "We’d like to particularly thank Jay Neale and Tom Hirst from Magnifeye / The Agency Works. Especially to Tom who has endured our phone calls, emails and silly questions. They took the time to understand our business yet got us up to speed in such a short time.”

Electricity substation

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