Belfast Telegraph

Why finding the right non-executive director can make all the difference

Braidwater founder and executive chairman Patrick McGinnis and his son, managing director Joe McGinnis, at the company’s Fort Manor development in Dundonald
Braidwater founder and executive chairman Patrick McGinnis and his son, managing director Joe McGinnis, at the company’s Fort Manor development in Dundonald

By Patrick Graham

Good entrepreneurs know the power of networks and the need to surround themselves with the right people. When faced with challenges, they will seek out the opinions of those they trust most - their teams, mentors, investors, former colleagues and even the competition - as sounding boards for new ideas.

This doesn't mean 'yes' people - in fact, quite the opposite. As companies grow, so too does the need for input from experienced people outside the company who can validate ideas, challenge opinions and strengthen governance.

We have helped more than 100 of our investee companies find the right person for their business, including RiverRidge Recycling and Braidwater here in Northern Ireland.

There's no exact science to finding the right non-executive chairman for a high-growth company, but there are some common themes.

Many entrepreneurs have had limited experience of working with non-executive directors, occupied instead by the day-to-day ups and downs of running a business, or constricted by the costs of making the appointment.

So, when a person joins a company as its first non-executive chairman, it's important they can immediately demonstrate an ability to offer support and guidance, without trying to run things.

It's a delicate but important balance.

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Finding someone with first-hand experience of growing a business, usually within the sector they operate, is critical.

The chief executives I speak to tell me they want advice from someone who carries the battle scars of business and has come out the other side - with ambitions to help others succeed.

When a high-growth company gets this right, the rewards can be significant.

Our investee companies are already experiencing the value that a non-executive can bring, both to the aspirations of the business as well as its bottom line.

Joe McGinnis, chief executive of Braidwater, says the addition of chairman Mike Stansfield, former boss of David Wilson Homes, has given the Derry-based housebuilder "a wider perspective and a more strategic approach".

"The standard approach locally is to do more and do it quicker, focusing on current activity," he adds.

"Mike has brought a greater emphasis on building more long-term value in the business and a focus on making the most of opportunities and resources.

"He has constructively challenged our thinking in a way that wouldn't have happened previously, as we can be focused on the day-to-day running of the business.

"The fact that Mike has expertise in the sector has been extremely important. He is from a different locality and the experience and perspective he brings has been invaluable."

Of course, most entrepreneurs are emotionally invested in the business they have built, the jobs they've created and the goodwill they have generated among customers.

They are rightly protective of that.

So when we are helping a company find a non-executive chairman, we encourage entrepreneurs to think about three attributes of a successful relationship.

Firstly, is the chemistry right? It goes without saying that personalities have to be a good match.

Secondly, does the candidate have the requisite sector experience as well as the ability to speak the language of an investor?

Non-executives are often the bridge between the entrepreneur who knows their business and the market inside out, and a generalist investor like ourselves.

And finally, have they considered the leadership skills of the non-executive?

They must be able to see the bigger picture and understand the roadmap to getting there.

The challenge most entrepreneurs have is how to access these people.

Knowing this, Business Growth Fund has created a talent network that consists of more than 2,500 of the UK's most successful business people that provide support to investee companies, primarily in non-executive chairman or financial director roles.

We'd like to see more experienced businesspeople joining that network as non-executive directors have a huge role to play in the continued evolution and growth of high-quality companies in the region.

Belfast Telegraph