Parkinson Lee Executive search are delighted to be sharing a series of interviews with Business Leaders from across the region. Each month we will be publishing “an interview with…” highly respected Executives.
Our twelfth interview is with Tony Strong, CEO at Adare SEC. Throughout his exceptional 36-year career, Tony has a proven track record as a participative leader, delivering business transformation and cultural change, raising productivity, reducing costs, improving quality, increasing customer service performance and enhancing overall business/shareholder profitability, in Private Equity, Public Sector and Global Corporations.
Adare SEC are customer communication (CCM) specialists for banking, insurance, financial solutions, business solutions, utilities, retail and public sector. The company provides multi-channel customer communications that drive higher value customer relationships. As a result of their offering, Adare SEC were recognised as three-time UK IT Industry Awards 2022 Finalist, earlier this year.
In this interview, Tony has given an insight into his 36-year career, how he’s achieved his career goals and how he continues to inspire and get the best out of his teams.
Interview with Tony
Can you give us an overview of your incredible 36-year career?
I left school at 16 with only 3 GCSE’s as I spent most of my youth as an amateur boxer and didn’t focus too much on my education at that time. I then began a 4-year engineering apprenticeship as a Fabricator/Welder in a Chemical factory called Laporte in my hometown of Widnes. I completed my HNC & HND engineering qualifications.
I then took on my first leadership role as Engineering Team leader before moving to Shift Production Manager. During this time, I studied and gained a couple of leadership/management qualifications. With a wife and four young children to provide for, I realised I needed to up my game to compete with the graduates that were coming into the business. I was fortunate that the company sponsored me in studying part time for a Business Degree with Manchester University. After four years I finally qualified with a First Class Hons in Business and Management.
I then left Laporte in 1998 and joined Lubrizol, an American Speciality Chemical company. I joined there as Production Manager before becoming the General Manager of the Bromborough site and then on to the UK GM of multiple sites across the UK. Lubrizol also invested in me and sponsored my MBA, which I received in 2002. I was headhunted for the role of UK General Manager in 2005 at Cargill (Cargill are the largest family-owned business in the world), I visited a number of their Grain & Oilseed sites during a 6-month induction travelling around the globe visiting every continent.
In 2009 I had a complete change in industry when I was headhunted to join Communisis in Liverpool as their General Manager. CMS was a completely different world to me, a Communications business. They were having some challenges at the time and wanted to bring someone in from outside their industry. This along with my role at Lubrizol, became two pivotal points in my career. I started as their Transactional Mail Business GM and quickly became their MD for their whole Produce Division. I was responsible for all aspects of this division which meant responsibility for >80% of the group’s turnover, covering all aspects from Production, Sales, Client Services, Technology.
I had always had the ambition to either own my own business or become a CEO one day. That was never going to happen at Communisis, as the CEO at the time, only recently left when the business was sold a couple of years ago.
Therefore, I had a call from a business in a similar space who were looking for a new CEO – I joined Parseq in 2015 as CEO. I was with the company for just over 2 years and during this time we divested part of the business and grew the remainder from c£20m to £48m. Following this role, I was asked to help establish a Commercial Function at Trafford Council selling services to the private sector to help provide additional revenue for the council. It was during this period, that I was approached by Opus Trust Marketing to join as COO, a role which I did for 4 months before becoming the CEO.
How have you set and accomplished your career goals?
For me there is no silver bullet for success in business. It comes down to hard work, dedication and commitment to your goals and aspirations. In my earlier years, I was driven to provide for my family, nowadays it’s for the success of the business and the legacy for our colleagues when I eventually hang my boots up. I think its possibly linked to my boxing career, I never, liked getting beat. To be successful you need to want to be a winner in business!
You’ve held managerial positions since 1986, how have you continued to inspire and get the best out of your teams?
To me, life is very simple, treat people how you would want to be treated yourself. I love nothing more than seeing colleagues develop, gain experience, and grow. I believe in being a very open book. Our employees run their own successful lives outside of work, making financial decisions, running the local football team, or scout/guide group. I encourage all our colleagues to bring those ‘life skills’ into the workplace and not to be constrained by a job description in order to help our business grow. Fundamentally, I see us all as Managers of our Business!
In 2009, you became Managing Director, part of the Board of Directors at Communisis, was that a significant point/ achievement in your career?
I had a lot of success at CMS which helped me moving forward, but also my earlier experiences at Laporte/Lubrizol & Cargill where all significant steppingstones and fantastic achievements in different ways. I genuinely believe that I have made a difference and had an impact on a lot of people over my career and that is one of my proudest achievements
You joined Opus Trust Marketing in 2018 as their Chief Operating Officer for 5 months, before taking on the role of CEO in 2019. How has the business transformed in that time?
I joined OTM as COO but quickly became their CEO. As the leader of the business, I immediately changed its name, from Opus Trust Marketing to Opus Trust Communications, as I thought it didn’t reflect who and what we were and was also confusing for the market. We are a Transactional Communications Business not a Marketing business.
Can you tell us more about your role as CEO and your long-term vision for the company?
We are privately owned by Peter De Haan. Peter & his brother Rodger previously created the SAGA dynasty. Peter is our chairman and owner and I work very closely with him. My role as CEO is to ensure that we grow our business in a very ethical and sustainable way. As CEO I am charged with enhancing and delivering significant shareholder value through our various services.
My long-term vision is for us to become one of the largest Transactional Communications organisations in the UK. When I started with OTM in October 2018 we were employing 130 people and turning over £26m. Today we are employing c500 and turning over £120m. We are now the second largest Transactional Communications provider in the UK.
This success has been driven by a combination of strategic organic and acquisitional growth. This growth has been achieved in under 4 years, whilst simultaneously dealing with 2 years of the COVID pandemic and the current significant economical headwinds. We have just completed H1 and our results show us ahead in revenue, operating profit & EBITDA terms.
In recent years, there has been a number of significant challenges to overcome, with an unknown global pandemic, Brexit, supply chain issues and with a potential recession looming, how have/ do you continue to proactively manage challenges?
Through our acquisitions we have been able to drive considerable cost saving synergies by consolidating and integrating our operational footprint. This strategy combined with our sector specific approach has, in most instances, left us reasonably well protected against some of the pandemic and market forces. We provide communications on behalf of clients in the Public Sector, Finance, Utilities, Insurance, Health, & Debt sectors as well as many others. Therefore, statutory notifications on interest rate changes, public sector messaging, energy price changes, health sector communications have all been required over this difficult trading period. We were also courageous and continued with our acquisition activity throughout the pandemic.
Can you share some of your greatest achievement in your career to date?
That’s a tricky one as there have been several highlights throughout my career operating in different roles. From a personal perspective probably studying for 7 years, whilst working full time, travelling around the globe and raising my family. Anything to get out of changing nappies!
From a business perspective, I am particularly proud of what we are achieving now given the challenges over the past few years and the growth we have been able to attain. I had significant success and growth during my time with Lubrizol & Communisis for very different reasons. Being earmarked as the next Global Operational Vice President was a high spot. However, I would have never disrupted my family and moved them over to the States.
With a highly successful, nearly four-decade career under your belt, what would you say has been your most valued learning experience or advice you’ve been given?
During my sporting career I was given this quote by a great friend and mentor to me.
There is a tide in the affairs of men, which taken at the flood, leads to fortune” – “Omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and miseries” By William Shakespeare…”
My friend was basically saying opportunities don’t often come around, but when they do, grab them with everything you have…
My other one would be the simple basic principle, driven into me by my parents, “Always treat people how you would like to be treated yourself”
Outside of your profession, what are your greatest loves and hobbies?
My greatest loves are my partner Sue, my children, grandchildren, and my dear friends. Outside of work I love live music, (used to be a drummer in a band), travelling, good food & wine and my bolt hole in Betws-y-Coed where I escape most weekends. Oh, and Manchester United of course (now we are playing a bit better).
For more information on this interview or to discuss how Parkinson Lee could assist your organisation in hiring an Executive or Board Level appointment, please contact our Managing Partner, Lee Bhandal on 07590 529 274 or firstname.lastname@example.org.