Business that grows its own

17th October 2003 at 01:00
The Government has told small firms that they must train staff or face extinction. Francis Beckett profiles the boss who has been telling ministers this for years

One moment Shirley Woolley is the receptionist at a car-parts company in Birmingham, the next she is its co-director along with her husband. In small and medium-sized businesses, she insists, you must turn your hand to everything. The idea of multi-tasking may sound like the latest piece of jargon from the official management manual, but for her it is a necessity of life.

That is one reason she is so keen on training. Staff need to be well trained if they are going to have to do everything. "Many SMEs (small and medium-sized enterprises) are confused by the plethora of initiatives on offer, the constantly changing titles of courses, the various funding streams," she says. But not her company: she sits on so many committees that only a training buff could remember all their acronyms. She also gets together with schools and colleges and runs a training centre in a business with only just over 100 employees.

She is fluent in training-speak, and initials roll off her tongue as though she was brought up with them. It all adds up to the best training structure Britain has had. She interprets the world of training to other SMEs who are not yet fluent in it.

"It is not possible for a small company to ignore the need for training, unless you're going to go out constantly and buy in the new skills, which is disruptive to your company and does not show an attitude to the development of your workforce," she says. "The people we train are very loyal, hard working and committed, but probably only because we have shown our commitment to them.

"Everyone in the factory on a machine needs to be their own quality inspector, their own logistics expert, to be able to follow written instructions rigorously, to be a team worker as well as part of a process-improvement and problem-solving team.

"We do as much training here as we can. In the learning centre, I can run certain courses like health and safety, meeting skills, problem solving, process improvement, factory organisation, teamworking, and I'm going to be doing a refresher course on team briefings. We do a lot of training on the shop floor as well."

They also achieve economies of scale by running courses with other small companies. Mrs Woolley teaches a supply chain development programme for 10 companies. That way they can take one person from each company on the course. Small companies can spare one person for a day, but they can't have 10 people tied up on a course at the same time.

For training they cannot provide themselves, the company calls in a training provider, generally a local college. But, as often as possible, the course is taught in the company's own training centre. They work with Walsall College of Art and Technology, Matthew Boulton College, City College, the University of Birmingham and the University of Aston.

Occasionally, neither of these approaches works. "We had to update all of our spot-welding team and we couldn't find a college or a training provider who could do it to a high enough standard, and we ended up going to the machinery manufacturers," says Mrs Woolley.

Frederick Woolley Ltd was founded 68 years ago as a woodworking company by Shirley Woolley's late father-in-law, and the company became expert in the use of metal during the Second World War. These days it makes components for cars. If you have a new Mini, it will probably have some of their parts in it. "Our main customers are the first-tier suppliers to the large motor companies," says Mrs Woolley. "The motor companies really only assemble the parts now. What used to be a metal-bashing company is now a precision engineering company."

The firm's founder died 44 years ago, and Mrs Woolley's husband Robert took over the business. Mrs Woolley herself joined him 26 years ago. He still runs the business, and goes around his factory looking very democratic and approachable, with "Bob Woolley" sewn into his jersey in large red letters.

He does not intend to expand the company. Mr Woolley has rejected conventional managerial wisdom about how businesses have to grow or decline. He reckons his is about the right size.

But, just to stay the same size, it has to get cleverer every year. "The customer is constantly handing down difficulty and more and more processes for us," says Mrs Woolley. "The automotive sector was faced with a huge issue in the early 1990s called 'cost down'. Customers expected us to get costs down rather than go for an annual increase. Customers said, you will be doing this job for three years. In that time, you will become better, slicker, and you will be able to save money. So, during the three-year life cycle of the product, we expect the cost to go down. We have learned to call that cost out. We take cost out by higher engineering, reduction of waste, use of new technology, and training minds."

That means the company's people have to be better trained than ever before.

"We recruit for attitude; then we can train for skills," says Mrs Woolley.

They take on and train apprentices, and always have done. But now they need to go further. "Small businesses in the next two years have to face the problem of getting graduates," she says. And that is not easy. "We have to learn to talk their language and they have to learn what life is like in a small business. We have not had great success with it yet. The number of things one is expected to do in a day in a small business is quite bewildering for some graduates. Perhaps we have not found the right person."

They could end up nurturing their own graduates. They like, in Mrs Woolley's words, to "grow our own timber" and she thinks there might be potential for some of their current employees to get engineering degrees.

"We have some people here in management positions who came here as machine operators. Perhaps in another company they might still be machine operators, but here they have welcomed the training, and learned to use computers and other things they didn't think they'd have the confidence to do."

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