Photo: Florence Charvin

Do you have a relationship with your business? In many ways it’s a bit like a marriage – sometimes you love your business intensely, sometimes you’re a bit shirty with it, struggling to connect, bored, wanting to freshen things up or, in worst case scenarios, desperate to walk away. If it’s time to take a closer look at your business and get it really pumping in 2023, take heart – the solutions might be more straightforward than you think.

Haylee Wrenn and Michelle Fowler are both Hawke’s Bay business strategists working across New Zealand to redirect, reinvigorate and recharge business owners who, from time to time, can’t see the wood for the trees. 

Haylee, an award-winning bookkeeper and accountant whose online coaching service Business 180 is turning businesses around daily, focuses on numbers, profitability and mental health, while Michelle’s background in luxury goods marketing, sales and web design puts her firmly at the intersection of brand experience and business success through her highly regarded consultancy, Halflight Studio. 

Haylee Wrenn

“A healthy thriving business is a company director who can smile, who has time with their family and can sleep at night knowing they have money in the bank to pay all the bills,” begins Haylee. “It’s a happy team of employees who feel valued and wake up each morning excited to be going to work. And it’s a client who enjoys interacting with this business – who feels they’re more than just a number. It’s offering them a fantastic experience too.” 

But businesses get it wrong, and there are the challenges wrought by Covid-19, ballooning expenses and plummeting profits to take into account too, she says. “Times have changed and so have people’s spending habits,” cautions Haylee. “What once worked really well is no longer bringing in the same returns. And there’s that old mentality of ‘this is the way we’ve always done it so why change?’ to break through too, which can be evident in many struggling businesses.” 

Miranda Smith can attest to that. 

The founder and owner of Miranda Smith Homecare, a Hawke’s Bay private homecare provider for the elderly and highly vulnerable, with offices nationwide, has – like so many businesses – struggled with staffing over the past two years. “We’d been advertising on Seek, TradeMe, running Facebook ads, radio campaigns – we’d tried quite a few different avenues that had always been successful for us in the past, but just weren’t bringing in the quality applicants we were used to,” she says. “With the squeeze on hospital beds and dementia units, demand has continued to grow for our type of tailored service and it was really heartbreaking for our team to have to decline essential care solely because we couldn’t find the staff.” 

Sure, expensive job ads had worked before, but Miranda sensed there must be another way. Firstly, she addressed her pay rates. “It was important to us to acknowledge the hard work our existing carers put in – and attract new ones – by upping our rates for all carers to above the New Zealand living wage.”

Then, one morning, she composed an email. “I sent it out to anyone on our database who had resigned or retired from their role within the past two years. We knew many of our accomplished carers had only stepped away because of the pressure they’d been under over Covid – additional protocols, extra hours, sometimes living-in with clients instead of going home to their families to minimise infection risk. So I reached out to them, letting them know that if they had any desire to come back and pick up a few shifts, we’d support it. We stressed there was no pressure at all, no obligation, but we would love to chat if they were interested. The phones began ringing right away.”

Michelle Fowler

It was an experiment, but it worked. Michelle Fowler says businesses need to be more open to trying new things, whether it’s the way in which they attract staff or appeal to new clients. “Break out of the box!” she says. “You might try something different with your marketing to create attention and make your business memorable. As an example, if you’re an electrician then you could create a social media campaign or letterbox drop series called ‘Lightbulb Moments With…’ and feature great nuggets of advice from cool local business owners you work with.”

A strategy is also vital. “Get yourself a roadmap,” she advises. “For some it’s not about growing their business and developing a large team, but about building in more time, flexibility or more income for the same amount of work. This is often best supported by someone to guide you through these next steps and challenge you to think differently.”

Haylee agrees. “Create a strategic plan for the next five years and tie this to your business plan each year. Clarify your vision for the business and talk to your team. What is the purpose of your business and why do you exist in the eyes of your customers? How long do you want to be in the business for – is it time to consider an exit strategy? When do you know the time is right to move on to your next challenge and if you do, what will happen to the business? Are you building an asset to sell or have you bought yourself a job?”

Barry O’Sullivan, group director at TUMU Group has, with his business partners, made some big calls in this regard, selling the retail arm of the business in 2022. Six building supply stores and their frame and truss plant are now under Fletcher Distribution Limited, owners of Placemakers and Mico plumbing stores. 

“Our diverse portfolio of businesses were historically weighted towards building supplies and timber processing and manufacturing, but the group also has interests in property development and property development financing. We recognised our brand was largely associated with the TUMU building supplies stores, however these accounted for around 10% of our investment portfolio. The sale of the stores was a strategic decision to allow us to invest and grow other areas of our business and seek new opportunities,” says Barry.

TUMU also set up a group advisory board with independent members to challenge their thinking and help guide their strategic direction, and recruited their first ever marketing and communications manager. “We’d always maintained a relatively low profile, but recognised we needed to invest in our brand, position ourselves as an employer of choice and attract more growth opportunities.”

Looking in from the outside, Hastings Distillers had survived everything Covid chucked at them – closures, shipping and freighting challenges, vaccine requirements. But co-founder David Ramonteu says it wasn’t as straightforward as it seemed. “Without international tourism, our turnover was down, and as the cost of living began to rise, our local clientele weren’t visiting as often. With a limited pool of locals here in Hawke’s Bay, we needed to find new ways to invite them in.”

He and his partner in life and work, Kate Galloway, turned to their staff for ideas. “They had some really great ones – we started with events, running a launch party for our Barrel Aged Negroni product in September with a DJ, canapés and the idea that we could deconstruct the negroni and people would taste and understand its component parts. It was a successful night, and now we have another event in the calendar for the Art Deco Festival – a tribute to Ernest Hemingway called ‘Death in the Afternoon’.”

The distillery, much to the relief of millennials everywhere, established a presence on Instagram to help promote new products and special releases, and then the team moved their attention to the space at the rear of the tasting room to create a refilling station for its core products: the East Block 200 and Albertine gin, and the L’Opera bitter orange aperitif. Now, customers can bring their bottles back for a top-up and receive a $10 voucher towards a drink or nibble for their effort. “Better for us, and better for the planet,” says David.

“Talking to your team, finding out what they like about the business, and what they think would be a good move is a great idea,” confirms Haylee. “It also helps to have them onside when you need to make big changes in the business. With a solid team, anything is possible.”

Michelle applauds the distillery dipping its toes into the social media space, as developing and using communications channels wisely is key to business success. “Think about building a ‘brand’ rather than just a business,” she advises. “A business is transactional and the exchange of cash for goods and services, whereas building a brand is building something that connects, serves and engages. You will find it easier to strategise, promote and sell when you have that connection, loyalty and a bigger vision.”

Other recommendations for a refreshed business from our experts include simplifying your business. “Everything from internal systems, to your website to communications with customers,” says Michelle. “I see so many businesses that have overly complex designs and processes. Keep it clear, concise but easy.”

Have a chat to your accountant and get a really firm grip on what the numbers are telling you. “If your accountant says that you are doing fine and not to worry about it, find another accountant,” says Haylee. “It’s critical you understand the numbers so you can make decisions quickly.”

Extract yourself from the day-to-day business as much as possible. “It’s essential to give yourself time to work on it, not in it,” suggests Michelle.

Also, “plan a holiday to get away from the business for a break. If you don’t take care of yourself then how can you take care of your family or your business?” asks Haylee.

Finally, both Michelle and Haylee say building relationships is a wonderful way to invigorate your business. “Always keep an eye out for opportunities to collaborate,” suggests Michelle. “Are you an interior designer that has an email newsletter or blog? Look to feature a flooring expert or the home of an artist, showcase upcoming local events or share a recipe from your favourite restaurant.”

Haylee adds that collaboration can also support a business owner’s mental health. “We need to remember, I think, that there is more than enough work for us all – every business has a personality and some customers won’t suit every business. Value yourself, your team, your skillset and share knowledge with others in the same boat. It creates support systems that work.” 


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