Interview – Martin Norbury

Episode Overview

I recently managed to catch up with Martin Norbury whilst he was on a trip to Singapore. Martin has a lot of experience as CEO of very big companies. He now runs Advocate and is also the Chairman – Asia for Dent Global (Daniel Priestley).

Transcript (Click To Open)

Pieter: Hi there. It’s Pieter, and you’re listening to the Build A Better Business podcast. Today I’ll be speaking with Martin Norbury. Martin is an ex-CEO and now known by his clients as The Scalability Coach and he helps business owners exit from their business. Martin was actually in Singapore at the time of our call and unfortunately we do have some sound issues, but hopefully you will still get value from this and maybe we’ll get Martin back for another call at a future date. But, yeah, have a listen, Martin’s a very wise man and I’m sure you will get a lot of value out of this.

So, today I’m here with Martin. Martin, how are you?

Martin: A little bit tired but feeling good. I’m actually talking to you from my hotel room in Singapore at the moment. So we’re just looking at new offices out here, so I’ve come out here for a week and, yeah, so I landed this morning UK time, obviously seven hours different so, yeah, it’s catching up with me now.

Pieter: Okay, yes. It sounds very exciting though so-

Martin: Yes, it is.

Pieter: I’m sure we’ll get onto that. So my aim, as you might know, with the podcast is very much have it as a vehicle of helping people to build better businesses.

Martin: Yep, cool.

Pieter: A lot of people spend a lot of time sort of chasing the marketing and chasing the clients and chasing this, but fundamentally the structure of the business, the business itself is not very healthy, not very well set up-

Martin: Yes.

Pieter: Anything like that. So as far as your business is concerned, tell us a bit more about what exactly it is you do, how you do it and how you help people to build better businesses and grow what they do?

Martin: Okay, so our business is called Advocate. What we do in our business is we work with around 15 to 20 clients at any time. What we do is we run a sort of a programme, which is our own proprietary system, with them and it helps them scale their business to a level where they can exit the business, and that exit can be one of three different levels.

So the first level of exit is what everybody wants, the big sale where they get a few million in the bank account, the Porsche on the drive, the new house, all that. The entrepreneur’s dream in some ways. So that’s what people normally come to us for. And the reason they come to us is because they’ve normally been running their business for quite a while and can’t see an end of it, and actually they’re stuck in a rut, or they’re in a fog, or they’re on the ferris wheel, keep going round and round in circles, and they don’t know what to do next. So we wrote a book called I Don’t Work Fridays, which was an outline of how to scale your business but not be a slave to it, which is what the subtitle was. So that’s when they come to us.

Strangely, once they’ve with us they go to what they call the second exit, which is either they want to grow the business massively because they feel more confident and they feel more aware of how to do it. Or, they actually want to keep the business running but semi-retire from it because then what they can do is they can then earn the money coming into the business and have the freedom of the business, which is everything the entrepreneur wanted on day one.

So our role really is to hold their hand, guide them through the challenges and tribulations of running a business, because it’s not easy and it’s not easy because there’s no-one out there really to tell you what the basics are. Our background is running lots of different companies from small twenty, thirty thousand turnovers, up to a few hundred million turnover, and by doing that we get to see a lot of what happens in a business. And, the key steps really, we liken it to having a chess board, our job is to get the right pieces on the right place before you can play the game. And most people are in the middle of the game but the pieces are all over the place, they don’t know what they should be doing. So that’s what we do, that’s how we work with our clients.

Pieter: And I suspect, to continue your chess analogy as well, because we find this as well, that sometimes people are halfway through the game of chess, but some of the crucial pieces are still in the box. They were never unpacked in the first place.

Martin: Yeah, absolutely. It’s not any reflection on them at all, there’s no formal education of how to run a business. Business has multi-faceted ways of doing it from a sales, financial, marketing, admin, operational, IT, and everybody picks it up as they go along. And what they’re constantly doing is they’re trying to catch up with where they should be, or where they think they should be, at any one time. And what would be really nice, rather than running to catch up all time, is someone just to say, “Hang on a minute, rather than looking …” you know. I use the concept of if you ask a child to tell you what it’s like to be an adult, you get some amazing stories. Ah, it would be great, you can boss everyone around, you can do this, you can do that.

And that’s what a lot of entrepreneurs are when they’re trying to run a bigger business, is they’re looking at it from the wrong end, they’re looking at it from down up, rather than working with people looking at it from up down, and go actually, what you’re going through is just normal business, it will never change, you just need to get used to it, get on with it and focus on the key things that are going to drive your business, not the things that you think are going to drive your business. Your head, as Emma Mills would say, the head is on the dirt all the time, and it needs to be out of the dirt. I can’t remember what the second bit of Emma’s conversation is. There you go, out of the dirt and into the clouds, and that’s true, that’s what the business owner needs to do. They need to look at the business from a business perspective not from a doing, or even a marketing perspective, but they need to look at it from how a business should be run.

Pieter: Yeah. That sounds really good. Do you work with any particular sectors, particular businesses, or is it very much the business owner you focus on, rather than particular businesses?

Martin: Yeah, we’ve never niched. We’ve worked, I think, with over 57 now different types of businesses and some of the most eclectic collection of businesses you can imagine. But it is, yeah you’re right, it is that the owner type that is the person, so they’ve been … Generally, they’re people that have been running a business for a while, they feel as though there’s no way out, they’re constantly doing that, they’re probably losing a bit of touch with the reality of the family and their life in some ways. And they either want to do something to stop that virtual pain, in some ways, or they’re going to exit it their own way and they come to us and say, “What can we do?” We split, we work with them for a minimum of a year, actually 15 months is our minimum contract and our first 3 months is all education. It’s all about what do we need to put in place in business to execute on doing what you need to do.

I think lots of businesses have the vision and the mission, and, “I want to be this”, and the classic, “I want five million in five years”, all this comes up. But not many people know, “Okay, if that’s what we’re going to do, how do we execute now to do that? What type of team do I need? What sort of measures do I need in place? What’s the business going to look like? How’s it going to operate? Who does what, when, how?” All those sorts of key things need to happen. And that’s what we do, that’s what we help our clients with. So it is generally the business owner that we work with and, of course, their management team as the business starts to grow.

Pieter: I think it’s also … I mean some of the businesses that I know that you work with, I think one of the things that’s real value that you bring is your experience, having worked with much larger businesses. I mean almost to a certain extent, proper businesses, as we would say, PLCs and everything. You bring a different perspective to the sort of general perception from a small business owner’s perspective of, “I’m just here doing my thing and trying to do it better, and hardly ever look up from the ground.”

Martin: Yeah, and there’s … both of them have their challenges. You know, I was fortunate enough to run my own business for six, seven years and sell it, and then go into the corporate world and then go through into the CEO role. And realising that what the CEO corporate needs is the entrepreneurial spirit, and what the entrepreneurial spirit needs is a bit of the corporate resilience, and structure and planning. And there needs to be a mix between the two and it’s very difficult, I think nowadays, for entrepreneurs to get across that chasm between the world of entrepreneurialism and corporate. And sometimes they’re not the best person to actually do that because they are very much, “Hey, let’s just roll our sleeves up, let’s get stuck into it, let’s create the magic, let’s do all these wonderful things.”

And you can do that up to a certain size and a certain level of business, but after that that doesn’t work anymore. You can’t keep doing that because normally it’s the entrepreneur that saves the day by, you know, getting the next sale in, by creating the new product, by developing something, by working late. And, of course, when you’ve got a bigger business, there’s too many of those things that need saving and they can’t do it on their own anymore and that’s when it all falls apart, unfortunately.

So, yeah, having that experience of big business, or larger business thinking means that every time I … One of my clients, who are now a client of ours, they were a prospect and they booked me in for a call. It was about 18 months ago and it was, actually I was on Clapham Junction train station, and we had a half an hour call and straight afterwards, probably about three or four months later I spoke to them, and they said, “Wow, what you told us on that call, meant everything to us because actually it was what was about to happen.” And they thought I was some kind of mystic clairvoyant. I just know that what’s happening next in the business at that stage because I’ve seen it quite a few times before. So I can help from a pragmatic view, not from a looking, “Oh, I think this might work” view, but from a real, yeah, pragmatic view.

Pieter: So, as far as your own business is concerned, what do you use, what process do you go through to make sure your business keeps getting better, that it stays healthy and, to a certain extent, sort of … I always think really good businesses seem to be under almost really good control, but it’s just slightly ahead of people and therefore it keeps growing and keeps running. So what do you-

Martin: [crosstalk 00:10:31] what the question was about. So, yeah, in our business we’d implement what we suggest to our clients because, I’d say for some … for us, it’s second nature really. So the first thing we do is we make sure that anybody who works in our company understands what they need to do, what good looks like and what they’re responsible for. We also make sure that we get all the values and that in the business … The first thing we do with all of our clients is we take them through the values exercise, because I’ve seen too many companies that expand without core values or rules or understanding, and when they do that it sort of becomes a very dispirit organisation with people thinking and feeling different things. So we get that done.

There are only 10 or 11 key processes for any business on the planet, so we make sure that all of those are documented. We use tools like Trello and Slack. When a client comes on board, there’s a whole 15 step process that we do internally and anybody can pick up any element of that. And it’s just on a Trello board and it goes from left to right and is all check-listed, so the only time it would never work is it you didn’t use the Trello. So what we’ve done is we’ve created a really great system using Trello and now we just get people to use the Trello which creates the great result the other end, which is, you know, an important part of it.

We obviously don’t over-produce, so we know exactly how many clients we can work with at any one time, so we have a sort of waiting list of people that say, “Yeah, we’d really like to work with you.” And we say, okay, well at the moment we’re between … well, I think about 18 clients at the moment, maximum will be 20, we don’t want to go any higher than that and we’d rather work with the right people. We interview our clients and we set them a charter of what they need to do for us before we’d agree to work with them. And not because we’re arrogant or anything along those lines, it’s purely because we want our clients to get the best results, so they have to be the clients that we can work with. So we have to go through that sort of process as well.

Pieter: Yeah, I think that’s probably one of the first really important things business owners forget. Because we all set up our own businesses because we want freedom and choice, but we immediately then forget that we also get to choose who we work with. And there is an element, I suppose in the early days, and unfortunately for some people that carries on, where it’s very much a case of well, we just need business. And I think that’s okay if you’re selling widgets that you just need to ship out, then that’s fine, you sell them to-

Martin: But there’s no relationship though, is there really?

Pieter: We’ve got a client who we were on a webinar with him delivering it to his customers in the financial sector, and he used the phrase where he says, “When you take on a client and there’s that close relationship, you always have to ask yourself the question, it’s not so much do I want or need the business, it’s more do I want them in my life?”

Martin: Yeah, absolutely.

Pieter: Because that’s what happens. It’s not that when 5 o’clock comes, or between 8 and 5, it’s all nicely partitioned and compartmentalised off, it’s basically in a business like yours where you’re working with someone for 12 months or 15 months, they do become a part of your life for over a year.

Martin: You have these weird things where, you know, most of our clients say … I think about 15% of our clients are under the year, but most of them are over a year, if not 2 or 3 years. You have it sometimes … I was walking through Singapore airport today and I saw this really nifty thing on a sign, and it basically says if you have a problem with our service, WhatsApp it to this number with a photograph. And I immediately thought of like three clients I need to write them an email to send them that. I’m walking around, you know where … I think Bruce Willis said “Also I see dead people”, I see clients everywhere I go. I was in a restaurant with my wife and we’re chatting away and something will happen and I go, “Ah, [Fossistotts 00:14:09] could use that.” So you are constantly with them, so you have to like them otherwise you’ll be grudgingly be doing stuff you don’t want to do and I don’t think, you know, I didn’t start my own business to do that. I want to work with the right people to get the right results for them.

We are producing some online stuff soon for people that want to understand a bit more, but don’t want us to go through a programme. Because, you know, our program’s 22,500 a year so it’s not a cheap programme for a new start-up or entrepreneur, but for a business that’s got a 7 figure turnover, that’s wants to be an 8 figure turnover, it’s ideally positioned. And that’s generally the companies that we tend to attract.

Pieter: You mentioned that you’re in Singapore at the moment-

Martin: Yeah.

Pieter: So, what are you focused on at the moment? What are busy with? What’s your big focus?

Martin: Yes, so going back to what you said about how do we keep ourselves … You know, so part of our month is working outside the business, we basically have a management meeting where we look at what’s going on in the world, looking at what our clients are doing, and we look at our processes and we look at how we can improve it. And part of that was with an organisation you’ll know quite well, called Dent, run by Daniel Priestly, and Daniel and I have worked together on a few things. He actually wrote the forward to my book. And at a meeting he was talking about his office in Singapore that was … had a leader out there, but that leader had moved on and done other things so the office had been sort of not running as well it could do for about, you know, three or four months. And we came out here in December for a bit of a holiday, and saw the opportunity out here and, you know, based on the fact there’s always more than one way to skinning a cat, I hate that expression but it’s the only one I could think of, we spoke to Daniel and basically set up a JV.

So we’re now running the Asian, not just Singapore, but the Asian office for Dent. So I’m chair of Dent Asia. I’m out here with him, next week he’s here and the city leader for Singapore, setting this one up again, and then we’ll start looking at the rest of Asia. As well as doing that, we’re also looking at our own office and setting up our bit out here as well so we can have two countries operating.

Pieter: Oh great, that sounds really good.

Martin: That’s why we’re out here, basically.

Pieter: Yeah, sounds really exciting. So, just before we close, you’ve mentioned your book, I Don’t Work Fridays, which is very much a theme and I really enjoyed it. I’ll give you that one as a fourth one, so other than your own book, which we’ll link to in the show notes, three business books or three books that you think business owners should have on the shelf, and not just have on the shelf, but actually read and study?

Martin: Yeah, okay, so my most read book, and it’s not actually about business so much but about the way we look at the world, is Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey. And I must have listened and read that at least half a dozen times, if not more. I would listen to it probably on a yearly basis.

When I was thrust into the world of being a CEO, which was back in the early 2000s, and there wasn’t this raft of information from other people like myself helping, so I turned to things like the Harvard Business Review and periodicals like that, to give me some understanding of what … And through that I also read another guy … Obviously got a bit of jet lag coming, his name’s gone … Jim Collins. Jim Collins is a phenomenal guy, I actually saw him in London this year at an event. He basically writes books based on research of large companies and he compares companies to each other. So takes two airlines that were at the same position at a point in time, and then he’ll look at one that’s 15 years later, massively doing it, and the one that’s not, and he’ll say what was different. And he’s got four books out, How the Mighty Have Fallen, Good to Great, Great by Choice, can’t remember the last one. All four books are just phenomenal. They gave me a sort of blueprint of what business was about and how, I suppose, structure of business, how to look at a business, what things to do. So it looks very much from a top down level, not from a bottom up level. But, it includes understanding from a bottom up as well, which I think is good.

And there’s a book coming out by, I believe, a person I’m talking to now, which I had the privilege of reading copy probably about two or three weeks ago. And the simplicity of it and the way that it allows business to structure what they do in the business, I thought was really well done. So I would recommend people reading that when it comes out as well.

Pieter: Thank you very much, that’s very kind.

Martin: You can put your own plug in now for, and everything else. But, no, it was a nice read, it was a simple read, but it was a system or a methodology that would help people grow their business through the business working for them, rather than them working for the business.

Pieter: Yeah, because it’s very much like you said in your business, you guys use Trello and it’s a case of, well, if you start here you move along, and as long as you do that, then you get a predictable outcome at the end of it. And I always remember, I in a previous life I was an electrical contractor, and one of the guys who I did my training with initially used to be an electrician doing repairs on aircraft, commercial aircraft. And they always had the thing that it doesn’t matter how long you’ve been in the job, you are not allowed to do a single piece of repair without the checklist and the book next to you. Everything’s documented and you can’t do anything from memory, and I just think for business both, like you said, the culture and everything, but the systems as well because just like if you don’t have the right foundations and culture in place, you end up with a dispirit group of people. If you don’t have the right systems in place, you end up with 10 or 15 different systems, depending on how many members of staff you have. So, it all ties together.

Martin: Which as the business grows only makes matters ten times worse, you know. I think people look at checklists and they think it’s very basic and toy land and Janet and John type thing, but I was on a BA flight today for 12 and a half hours, at least 30,000 feet or whatever. Now imagine the pilot as he’s 10,000 feet in the air going, “Oh, blast, we forgot to put fuel in.” There’s not a lot you’re going to do at that point. Your plane’s going to come down in a catastrophic event, because of the checklist. And, no, businesses aren’t life and death, but what you should do is you should treat your business as seriously as you would do that plane taking off, because your customers are trusting you to deliver something to them. And they deserve the fact that you’ve got enough things in place to make sure they get a really good, consistent result. And if you’re not doing that, then I would say you don’t care enough about your business and your customers to put these things into place.

I know it sounds a bit harsh, but I remember listening to Michael Gerber when he said, “If your business is not doing well, it’s because you don’t care enough.” And there was a little bit of an event, there was a little bit of, “Oh, that’s not very fair” and I first I thought, “cor, that’s a bit harsh” but actually I realised, you know that’s true. If your business isn’t doing well, it’s probably because you haven’t read the right things, you haven’t gone out and tried to do the right things, you haven’t found out the right, you haven’t spoken to the right people, you sit there and in some ways let it happen to you. And that’s generally the people we don’t work with because, you know, we want people that want to make it work and will do everything they can, they’re resourceful, they find a way. I think that’s the key thing.

Pieter: Okay. Well, thank you very much for your time. It’s late in the evening where you are so you have to try and get your clock ready for next week and get over the jet lag.

Martin: Yeah, I’ve got a meeting at ten o’clock. I normally get up at five o’clock anyway, so that’s going to be quite interesting tonight, and I’ve got a meeting at ten o’clock and I’m just trying to work out, do I go out for a long walk now and try tyre myself and go to bed at four o’clock in the afternoon? And then, of course, I’ll be waking up at midnight your time. Or do I just hang around until it really is quite late and then go to sleep? But have to wait and find out.

Pieter: Where can people find out more? Where can they reach you?

Martin: I’m on LinkedIn, so Martin J Norbury on LinkedIn. The book’s on Amazon, I Don’t Work Fridays. Twitter, I Don’t Work Fridays or Martin J Norbury is on there as well. So there’s lots of different ways. I don’t tend to let people on Facebook, that’s only for people I’ve actually physically met, rather than people that I just know because I think Facebook’s slightly different. But, yeah, there’s lots of ways. If Google the name, pretty much the first two or three pages are about what we’re doing and what we do.

Pieter: Great, well, I’ll put links to all that in show notes as well. And again, thank you for your time and good luck with everything out in Singapore.

Martin: Thank you very much and thanks for the invite, and hopefully it’s been worthwhile.

Pieter: I’ll speak to you soon.

Martin: Cheers, mate.

Pieter K de Villiers

Pieter K de Villiers

Pieter K de Villiers is slightly obsessed with systems. The systems and process automation he builds for small businesses are transformative, to say the least. Pieter is a Co-Founder of Barefoot Digital and the Amazon best-selling author of “Barefoot Business: 3 key systems to attract more leads, win more sales and delight more customers without your business killing you”.


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Pieter K de Villiers

Author: Pieter K de Villiers

Pieter K de Villiers is slightly obsessed with systems. The systems and process automation he builds for small businesses are transformative, to say the least. Pieter is a Co-Founder of Barefoot Digital and the Amazon best-selling author of “Barefoot Business: 3 key systems to attract more leads, win more sales and delight more customers without your business killing you”.