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Unprecedented with Dean Hallam

Published 26th April 2021

At Unprecedented, we had the opportunity to speak to Dean Hallam, Group CFO at Simpatica Group Ltd, who spoke to us about how the pandemic has affected him, his team and Simpatica.  

A background into you and your business?

The group centres on a manufacturing base in Derby that makes electrical assemblies (the clever electrical parts that make our customers’ products work) on a contract basis, serving a broad spectrum of industries and markets but with a significant presence in Med-Tech, audio/visual, and green energy. The group has a number of subsidiaries that focus on technology solutions and product development in their particular marketplaces, supported by the central manufacturing capability of the Derby site. We employ around 140 people and currently turnover just under £20M.

Define leadership and what being a leader means to you.

Leadership, to me, is about sharing the vision of a great place that we all (the company, employees, customers, business partners etc.) can aspire to create and benefit from, and then having the passion and commitment to influence those around us to follow and contribute to this vision.

In doing this, a leader brings their own passions, skills and commitment so that the combined whole moves towards this vision with gathering momentum. This mentality can be applied just as effectively for grand-scale strategic leadership/change etc. as it can for a successful outcome to a short-term project. Once you passionately believe in something, you are already halfway to achieving it.

Who are your Leadership role models/inspirations

I have never considered a single role model but, instead, have taken inspiration from a number of people that I have had the pleasure of working alongside over the past four decades. Some are sadly no longer with us, and not all were perfect examples of leaders, but each had something that clearly had a marked effect on me.

Perhaps one of the best leaders that I have come across is Paul Tranter, ex-CEO of Pera Technology. He had a great ability to motivate large numbers of people to move in one direction and to passionately believe in the common cause. He is worth checking out on LinkedIn, where he regularly posts his brand of infectious optimism and inspiration.

What would you like your Leadership Legacy to be?

I would like people to say that whatever leadership role I had at the business, I worked for. I want them to say that I always left the company/department/division etc. in a better place; more motivated; efficient; valuable and happier than when I found it.

What are the “non-negotiable” behaviours that you expect you and those around you to live by?

Respect and honesty to all those I/they work with, both inside and outside the business should always be a given. But most of all, they have to passionately believe in what we are trying to achieve and care about its success. If an individual’s values or goals are significantly at odds with this then, really, they would be much happier doing something else and are neither doing themselves nor the business much good by being there.

What impact has Covid-19 had on you?

Obviously, the lockdown has placed severe restrictions on what we can and cannot do in our personal lives and, like everyone else, I suffered the disappointment of cancelled holidays, events and not being able to get together with friends or family for long periods.

For me, it has been particularly difficult as my son works in Switzerland and I have been unable to see him for over a year now. However, fortunately, we have had no serious illnesses in our family and I must be grateful for that. We have also made the best of what we can do and, like many, I embraced home-based projects such as completely re-landscaping my garden - Alan Titchmarsh eat your heart out.

On the work front, apart from three weeks last April, I have been going to work (all of our staff are considered key workers) rather than working from home like many. So at least I usually knew what day it was and could see life beyond the walls of my home.

What impact has covid had on your business?

Nothing like the impact that was first feared. We are a manufacturer and, as stated above, much of our product is for the Med-Tech industry, including products used in cancer stem cell treatment and, more recently, products directly used in COVID-19 laboratories, which is why our staff were classed as key workers. So, it was important that we stayed open in order to continue producing such vital supplies and it was also very important that there was a sense of leadership and responsibility from company directors in ensuring that our staff were kept safe in such circumstances.

As CFO, I had to devise a financial plan to get the business through a worst-case scenario (a prolonged shutdown) and put in place the levels of financial support needed. As it turned out, we were only shut down for 3-4 weeks in April, mainly as a result of supply chain disruption (from China). We furloughed our staff from the end of March but were able to bring a large portion of them back by the end of April. The rest returned in waves as business picked up, until eventually, we had all of our staff back. Overall, we have had a good trading year considering the difficult circumstances; far better than expected.

Where were you and what were you doing when you first realised that Covid-19 was very serious?

I was actually down the pub with friends, watching my team, Forest, lose at home (again!) to Milwall. After that round of fixtures, the football season was postponed. I thought to myself “no football, this must be serious”.

Are there any people within your support network who made a big positive impact on you as a Business Leader during those early weeks/months?

I would like to mention my bank relationship manager, Tom, and his support team at HSBC. Tom was very quick to contact me at the start of the pandemic not only offering to help with putting in place any government-backed support, but also offering the bank’s own support measures and assuring me that they would be with us each step of the way throughout the crisis. He summed up the bank’s supportive stance when he said that we were good customers before the pandemic, and we will be good customers afterwards and, as such, it was vital to support us through it. Getting that kind of positive message from a key stakeholder early on in the crisis is a tremendous confidence boost.

What was your internal comms strategy at the start of lockdown? Has that changed in Lockdown 3.0?

At the start of lockdown, our approach to internal comms very much followed the national trend, which was keeping two meters apart during meetings, only meeting when absolutely necessary etc...etc. 

However, by the time we were in lockdown 3, all COVID rules in our workplace had been tightened up in line with Government advice. In terms of communications, this meant meetings (including board meetings) were held digitally (Zoom/Teams etc.) and severe restrictions on visits to the site from externals were put in place. Fortunately, we have a web-based HR system that allows us to communicate with all staff via their preferred device. 

What have been the Unprecedented decisions you have made? Those where there was no playbook. 

Certainly closing the business for most of April was unexpected, but it was forced on us due to a temporary ban on supplies from certain far east countries. However, we managed it well and were able to return (in part) by the end of that month.

The word pivot was used Unprecedently in May/June. What have you done to innovate or differentiate you or your business?

We didn’t need to fundamentally change, differentiate or innovate our business. We were fortunate that demand for our products remained high throughout the crisis. For us, it was making sure that we could all work within an environment that was as safe as possible, that was in keeping with the Government advice and instructions whilst also continuing to perform as we had done prior to the pandemic for the benefit of our customers.

What were the 3 biggest (or best) decisions you made in 2020?

  1. Deciding to get back to production quicker than first expected. This enabled us to get vital supplies to our customers, which helped their businesses as well as ours.

  2. Quickly putting in place a financial plan to ensure maximum liquidity during a very uncertain time and securing the necessary funding support to enable this to happen. As such, we were one of the first SMEs in the East Midlands to secure a CBILS loan and I was contacted by the press office of the Prime Minister and Cabinet Office to share my experience (no doubt they were looking for good news stories at that time).

  3. Continuing to invest in our future. It is so easy during times of uncertainty and harsh trading conditions to cut back on non-essential spending. One area that tends to get hit is R&D. During this period, we continued to work with customers, and potential future customers, in the area of new product development. This is a crucial part of our business strategy that ensures the pipeline and contracts of the future.

What remain your 3 biggest challenges?

  1. The supply chain is a challenge. Global digital companies have done very well during the pandemic, and continue to grow, consuming vast quantities of electrical components. Similarly, automotive companies are increasingly switching to producing electric vehicles. The demand for electrical components has therefore never been higher and is likely to increase. This market squeeze can lead to uncertain or extended lead times which continues to be our greatest challenge.

  2. New product investment. Although our strategy has included working with certain companies on new product development, the pandemic may have caused many businesses to delay or reduce their spending in this area. The impact of this may not yet be felt but, at some time in the medium term, we could see a dip in new products required to be manufactured in certain sectors.

  3. Getting back to a sense of normality. Obviously, as lockdown ends and restrictions gradually disappear, we need to help our staff through their confidence journeys.

How have you (your business) coped from a mental health/stress perspective? 

We have had individual cases and circumstances that have required support from our HR team, but, fortunately, not too many. Actually being in the workplace has certainly helped. On the whole, our staff have coped extremely well and we are all very proud of what they have achieved during these unprecedented times.

Looking ahead to 2021 what are your predictions for the economy? For your sector?

I think there will be an initial surge later in 2021 as pent-up demand/savings/frustration unleashes itself on the economy, which I hope is good news for those sectors that have really had a hard time.

After this relatively short bounce-back period, I would expect a gradual return to normality. I think growth in future years will be restricted to some extent by the financial burden of paying for the huge debt that COVID has caused. However, there are opportunities to gather pace with the technology that certain sectors could exploit. For the sectors that we serve (Med-Tech, green energy, audio/visual, digital warehousing) I think the future is certainly very good and we should continue to see these grow.

At the beginning of 2020, we were in a talent short market. What is at the top of your "people strategy" agenda for 2021?

I think our focus will be on getting back to normal working practices in a way that makes our staff feel safe and confident.

Fast forward to 2050...what would you say to your future self...That you did well or badly in 2020 to learn from.

I think I would say that when faced with enormous adversity I didn’t panic or make knee-jerk reaction decisions. Instead, I carefully and deliberately came up with a plan to get us through the crisis and out of the other side, as well as getting things to move back to our long-term goals. I then implemented it and came out the other side with a strong, well-positioned business.

By the way… by 2050 I will be 84 so if I actually understand any of that by then, I will be happy!

What advice would you give to those entering the workforce today?

We live in a very fast-paced changing world. Even without global pandemics, the challenges facing us are far greater than those that I faced when I entered the workforce. Having said that, the exponential growth in technological development brings opportunity like never before for those who have the vision to use it. 

The Pandemic has caused many of us to reassess what is important in our lives. In what ways have you recalibrated your own priorities and goals.

I am in the more senior years of my career and the pandemic has certainly made me consider a greater work/life balance as I go through the next 5-7 years, even perhaps going part-time in the not-too-distant future. That said, the pandemic has also highlighted how important experienced leadership is when such events happen. As such, I think I would always want to help those who follow me by some means of an advisory role or Non-Executive Director roles, even after retirement.

If you have enjoyed this blog, and would like to learn more about Dean, you can connect with him on LinkedIn. Alternatively, to learn more about Simpatica, you can find them on LinkedIn or visit their website.

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