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Unprecedented with Simon Palmer

Published 26th November 2021

At Unprecedented, we spoke to Simon Palmer, Managing Director at The Ombudsman Services Ltd, who spoke to us about his career journey so far and his advice for those budding Entrepreneurs, MD’s, CEO’s in business today.

A background into you and your business?

I was born and bred in the East Midlands in the wonderful sporting capital of the UK, Leicester. As an LCFC season ticket holder since the age of 6 and despite living all over the UK and Overseas I have always come back to watch most home games over the past 40+ years (say no more to reveal my age!).

My career background is one of hard work, and trying hard to develop my capabilities in the things I have enjoyed rather than disliked. Easier said than done because I was fortunate to join British Gas East Midlands (as it was) in 1986 as a spotty 16-year-old (revealing my age) on a clerical trainee programme.

I remember my father dropping me at the door of HQ on De Montfort Street in Leicester with a face like a wet weekend in Skegness. I really did not want to go to work but in hindsight, I was really lucky that I was able to start my career in such a well-structured environment where development was always available.

“Qualifications do not define what you can become!”

I started in the week that GCSE (O Level) results came out and had been predicted to get 8 O Levels. I was a teenage boy who wasn’t interested in school. I became disillusioned and preferred playing football rather than revising! When my O Level results came out, I only managed to get one in Mathematics.

However, the requirement for the role of a Clerical Trainee at British Gas East Midlands was a minimum of 4 O Levels. To this day I can remember being invited into one of the offices to meet Mike Yeates (General Manager for Trainees) in the Customer Account Department. He gave me the biggest rocket in a very traditional style of leadership, explaining that I had taken someone else’s job and let myself down.

Maybe today it would be frowned on but it was what I needed and he went on to support me as I completed a Business Studies course over the next 4 years, to get a base for the rest of my career whilst also gaining experience around British Gas. Subsequently, I went on to become a qualified accountant, but I think this early lesson taught me so much about being the best you can be in whatever you put your mind to and that my schooling did not define me!

I loved my time at British Gas and during my role there we became BG Plc, and then onto what it is today, Centrica etc. 36 years later, I ironically find myself working within the industry I started having had an interesting journey in between.

In my twenties and early thirties, I worked at some great local organisations such as Sears, Express Dairies – Arla Plc and Samworth Brothers. My career was through the finance route which is where I met the CEO of Macildowie, James Taylor in his early days in recruitment.

I was lucky enough to work for Sears in Retail when all of the major footwear brands were based in Leicester. I also worked at Olympus Sport where I was involved from an accountancy perspective in the deal that sold the business to Philip Green and Tom Hunter. I worked in the Management Accounts Team with great mentors in Keith Phillips and Peter Foot – some of the stories would make your hair curl. Mr Green’s management style was rather unique but he was my first experience of meeting an entrepreneur! 

It was very clear as I got more experience that I was not your traditional accountant. So I set about developing a more general management career.

Finance for Non-Finance Leaders

As I considered the areas that I needed to develop to become a successful business leader. I realised it was vital that I understood what made up a great leader and where had I seen behaviours or styles before that fitted with my own personal values but also then how would I develop?

I had worked under some truly great characters including two female CEO’s where I was their FD. Their empathy and style to motivate but also engage through openness struck chords with my own values. Supplemented by reading articles or biographies on leadership, I also embraced opportunities in the businesses I worked in to go and spend time with colleagues in all departments be it in Buying, Merchandising, Warehousing, Transport or on the shop floor of Retail. There is no replacement in my opinion for working with colleagues from all areas of a business from all types of backgrounds because it is invaluable in really appreciating the needs and wants of colleagues.

Not everyone is driven by financial rewards. Development, status, security, recognition and compassion are all equally as important to others.

Typically finance professionals are very diligent, detail orientated and precise whilst also being taught through the various bodies that we study that governance and risk are important. Hence a lot of excellent finance professionals make great number twos to a CEO or MD as they are trusted and balanced in making decisions.

However, it was very clear to me that I wanted to stretch myself in different ways and was fortunate that I was given the opportunity to work with an MD at Shoefayre (a business within the Co-operative Group) working on a turnaround. Lyle Finlay was a 6ft 1 strong-minded Irishman who had the most incredible retail eye but was also a big personality. I worked closely with Lyle devising the strategy, developing a leadership team and leading the turnaround as Chief Operating Officer before he left to join TK Maxx. Whereby I was given the opportunity by Paul Hewitt (CEO – Specialist Retail within The Co-operative Group) to become the MD, to complete the turnaround and find an exit for the business.

I led that for 18 months and for lots of reasons it was one of the highlights of my career – the team were great, we turned the business around and despite not being successful with an MBO, I led the sale (supported fantastically by Gareth Iley and Mike Reeves – Clearwater International CF) to Shoezone. 

Whilst not a natural extrovert this experience showed me areas of a role I would want to go on and develop which laid the foundations for the next 20 years of my career. Having a finance tool kit as I describe it is invaluable. I would encourage all finance professionals to come out of their comfort zone, to use their insight on the numbers, to work in the business with the different types of skills that exist be it buying, retail, warehouse, IT etc. as it is so much more rewarding.

I never envisaged becoming entrepreneurial but I really enjoy devising strategy but not the theory more tangibly how can you move a business forward or develop an opportunity in the marketplace. So I have spent a large part of my general leadership career in PE, Family-Owned or running my own business.

“Learn as much in failing as you do succeeding but don’t live to regret not trying.” 

Having completed 2 MBI’s, led 2 PE-backed businesses, a trade sale, 2 buy and builds with successful exits to PE, 2 administrations and 2 start-ups the raft of emotional experiences with highs and lows that this brings definitely defines me.

Being involved in all of the above, I’ve learnt that having strong family support is critical. My wife has been so patient and supportive. Being a CEO or MD is generally quite a lonely place but also all of these adventures have brought success and failure. The role of NED’s or in most of these cases the Chairman has been hugely important in providing counsel, support and challenges to ensure that where possible success is delivered.

Furthermore, having a great team helps and I have worked with and led some great individuals with unbelievable experience and insight in their chosen fields. Learning to lead buyers, designers, operators, warehouses, transport, HR, programmers, and international colleagues requires lots of different skills. But also to be working with different stakeholders be it banks, funders, family owners, boards and NED’s stretches pulls a leader in so many directions.

Having led a Suffolk-based PE-backed business through a turnaround via administration and subsequently having to put a business I acquired in the North East through a similar process, there are periods of my career where I learned so much about resilience and being uncomfortable.

Both businesses had great people inside of them and the impact on them and their lives were so difficult to lead through especially as both organisations were big employers in the area they were based. Trying to stay strong and positive as everyone is looking at you (as CEO that’s part of the job) but also dealing with the scenario’s, managing the stakeholders and ultimately the personal impacts too, make these periods of my career so defining.

What advice would you give to those in business today?

Be yourself, be genuine, be open, and be honest as generally, people will understand if you’re upfront and do not be afraid of showing emotion. I have shed plenty of tears in front of my teams at steps along with the above and also on subsequent roles, not for show but because that is me!

Surround yourself with talented people you can trust, people who will challenge and fill the gaps in your blind spots. I have several individuals that I recognise and try wherever I go to ensure that the business I am leading is not left exposed due to my development needs.

My final one for budding Entrepreneurs, MD’s, CEO’s or Founders would be, don’t be frightened of asking for help or reaching out for support. It’s not a weakness to need help. A great Chairperson or NED can make so much of a difference. So ensure that you have the right support around you, whilst also using coaches or mentors. This has been invaluable in my path so far and I continue to lean on others to learn.

How has your career journey influenced what you are doing now?

I never envisaged working for an NFP until I was hopefully building a NED portfolio. However, just over three years ago I was introduced to The Ombudsman Services Limited. I remember thinking that it sounded like a very legalistic stuffy business which would not be a great fit for me or them… how wrong could I be!

It is a business based on the edge of Warrington. Made up of the vast majority of local people, salt of the earth north westerners from the area, performing an important service for consumers in the Energy, Communication and Parking Sectors.

The Ombudsman Services Limited independently resolves disputes between a service provider (so the energy or communication companies e.g. BT, O2, Centrica, Scottish Power to name just a few) and a consumer (business and individuals). If a consumer has had an issue with a provider but after 8 weeks has not had a resolution they have the right to come to bring their dispute to The Ombudsman who will then collate the facts from both parties and make an independent judgement – we are all about fairness and trust!

What impact has covid had on your business?

We have the challenge to transform our operating model which we were mid-way through in early 2020 to make the consumer journey more straightforward. The pandemic has made us re-evaluate the way we will operate both for colleagues but also the consumers and service providers.  

Understanding consumers and the impact of the pandemic has and remains part of our role so being able to listen, learn and modify our capabilities are very much at the forefront of our plans. Vulnerability off the back of the pandemic and ensuring we are all accessible across all areas of consumers remains a priority but has become ever more increasingly important.

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

Internally I have appointed a new leadership team with all of the Directors starting their roles in 2019 so bringing a talented team together remotely has required a very different approach. The pandemic has seen us spend lots of time doing virtual events whilst being supported through a fantastically experienced leadership coach who has worked with me and my teams for the last 15 years – an experienced business founder Gaye Morris has been hugely supportive during this period.
The team have been exceptional in learning to work together whilst Jo Jepson (Director of Purpose) has been massively influential in helping me in engaging all of our 500+ colleagues through a very thorough wellbeing led engagement programme. We have run virtual team events, Town halls, guest speakers, small gifts and well-being advisors to assist with supporting individual colleagues with their challenges but also ensuring that they are in a place to support the consumers and service providers we deliver the dispute resolution service to.

We have had to be flexible throughout and were able to mobilise our whole business to work from home within 48 hours, setting up a daily communication programme for all colleagues. We meet daily as a leadership team, we agree on the key themes, plan activity and have multiple channels where we share news, provide support/activities, guidance and accessibility to provide help/support.

We are immensely proud that during the pandemic we have gained recognition as a ‘Great Place To Work’ which we have been working on over the past three years. To have achieved this status with the level of increase in our overall score delivered during these challenging times is a credit to everyone inside the business and puts us in the Top 50 GPTW for businesses of our size!

As a business that exists to provide impartial decision making for consumers, we have to work hard at our accessibility. This remains one of our biggest challenges. Over the past 5 years we have introduced digital channels and now are working on simplifying our journey for all consumers through a human-centred approach.

The nature of our work means that we are usually dealing with dissatisfied consumers, so their wellbeing and mental health are areas we continue to strive for and learn more about. As you would expect this also means preparing our colleagues with the right skills, tools and support are equally critical.

I believe a key component for any organisation is setting everyone up for success and recognising the strengths of a business and individual strengths are our focus to building capability. That is not to ignore the areas that need support or development but it’s a mindset to look at the positives and develop a culture based upon core values – ours are balance, empathy, courage and openness.

Values should not just be words. They need to be ingrained inside any business and you have to live by them consistently. For The Ombudsman Services Ltd, we have been working really hard to build them into all of our routines and ways of working etc. 

Final Thoughts

On the theme of Unprecedented or exceptional leadership, my advice or overarching theme would be to know yourself and learn how to use your strengths whilst surrounding yourself with people better than you especially in the areas that maybe are blind spots!

Most organisations or businesses that are successful are based around people. Creating a culture that enables them to be the best they can be in whatever sector or space a business occupies will increase the likelihood of success!

If you have enjoyed this blog and would like to learn more about Simon, you can request to connect with him on Linkedin. Alternatively, you can learn more about The Ombudsman Services Ltd from their Linkedin page or website.

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