Josh Mathias of Hythe Group: “Build communication throughout your business at all levels”

Build communication throughout your business at all levels. If you are hiring amazing people with brilliant ideas and different views, you should be using them. This helps your team feel part of the journey, builds huge amounts of motivation and gives you an insight into the business from multiple levels. As part of my series about […]

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Build communication throughout your business at all levels. If you are hiring amazing people with brilliant ideas and different views, you should be using them. This helps your team feel part of the journey, builds huge amounts of motivation and gives you an insight into the business from multiple levels.

As part of my series about the “How To Take Your Company From Good To Great”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Josh Mathias who is MD of The Hythe Group, which includes Hythe Marine, Hythe Building and Hythe HOSMU. Josh first joined Hythe Marine, aged 22, when it was a small business operating from a workshop near a dockyard in Hythe with just 5 people. After throwing himself into the trade, he became driven to steer the commercial side of the business and to build relationships in the defence sector.

After a year studying marine conservation in the Indian Ocean, he returned in a commercial role and developed new revenue streams. Over ten years he’s overseen the formation of three arms of the business: Hythe Marine, Hythe Building and Hythe Hosmu, and will soon drive the formation of a fourth, Hythe Bio.

His business ethos is to nurture talent and to give workers the autonomy and confidence to realize innovative ideas and add value to a company.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

One of the hardest times was in the early days of my career going from ‘one of the workforce’ to management. It wasn’t hard time, as in the company was struggling. It was a hard time personally because I had to change my working relationship with the team. People management is at the heart of the trades industries and so it was a battle. Not only was management a new role for me but I was also much younger than the team. The workers on the ground knew me as ‘one of the guys’.

When managing a team and a business, you have to look beyond just the performance of the business. For example, they would look to me to ensure they had a safe job and a growing career and so I had to change my mindset from looking outward — with a focus on the performance of the business to inward — with a focus on team welfare. That was a big shift but it was one that made me the manager I am today.

I never once considered quitting because I loved the challenge and the self-development. My drive was the future for the business and the people in it. There was a solid foundation and I was confident that, provided I developed as an individual and surrounded myself with good people, I could build it up. And I was steering the way!

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?

The one event I will never forget was a Sponsorship Day, which we host annually, and consists of a golfing tournament followed by speeches and prizes in the evening. It was my second time appearing at this event and I knew the drill: Someone high up in the navy attends and makes a structured speech for fifteen minutes about the year, the tournament, the charity the event is for, and the organisers. What I did not realise was that this year someone couldn’t attend from the Navy, and so I would have to do a speech!

I can talk to a hundred people in my workshop about our business and the future, without a raised heartbeat. But this threw me into a spiral. Within seconds of it being sprung on me, everyone was clapping waiting for me to get up to the stage. It was a complete flop. I talked for a minute — mumbling about one of my golf shots. I had the shakes and failed to thank anyone or talk about the business in any way! Everyone politely clapped at the end, but I still cringe.

The lesson I learned is when you are senior, never turn up to an event without a standard speech prepared; Always check with the organisers that you are not expected to speak; If you do not like public speaking, get out of your comfort zone and start doing it. In leadership it’s inevitable. Fortunately, I was among forgiving people, but I could have been perceived to have failed to honour the day, show respect to the necessary people and promote myself as a leader of the business.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

The Hythe Group is a group of three engineering companies. In all of them, the common denominator is that we support and build our people up. The group’s purpose is to develop businesses for people to grow with. The right people make our company — I believe strongly in that.

Any business can say ‘people are the company’, but if they aren’t the right people, you will have an uphill battle even if you are investing time and money into their development. If talent development is at the forefront of the businesses, the company rarely outgrows the people.

The second company in our group, Hythe Building Services, came about because two individuals in the marine workforce approached me with an idea: they suggested we move out of the marine sector and into the construction world because this would spread our capabilities. I liked the idea and told them to come up with a plan. Within 2 or 3 meetings the idea became a reality. So, it was our own team which created Hythe Building Services because I gave them the space to try a new idea.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

Develop your team and invest time and effort in recruitment. If you have the wrong people, no matter how much time and investment you spend, they will always be wrong.

Find people with the same values. It may be a more painful recruitment process, but in the long run the right people will stay. If you do not have a strong team, who align with the company values, you will never be able to take time out. You will grow toxic, micromanaging everyone. Inevitably anyone good will leave because they cannot grow.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

I am who I am today because of my father. In younger days when I first joined Hythe when it was a small shipping repair company, he helped me steer the business side. I was learning about the people and the industry and work ethic. He was never hands-on as he was in his 70s but he had been in business multiple times before so managing people was second nature to him. In his prime, he had 200 people working for him, so looking after 10 which was what he helped me with, was straightforward!

After work, I would meet my father for dinner three or four times a week. He would talk at me for hours about how he used to manage people, business and finances. I would relay scenarios and he would tell me how to resolve it. He would never tell me to do it his way — but would leave me to make my own conclusion. It’s extremely important to have a sounding board without being judged.

Today I still speak to my father daily for general chat, and often we talk about scenarios at work. He still comes up with ideas. He’s got a brilliant mind and can turn problems into benefits. His catchphrase is: “Once you know your problem you’re 50% of the way to solving it”. I would have loved to have seen him at work back in the day!

Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. The title of this series is “How to take your company from good to great”. Let’s start with defining our terms. How would you define a “good” company, what does that look like? How would you define a “great” company, what does that look like?

I read a book by Jim Collins called Good to Great and one of his opening lines is: “Good is the enemy of great. It is easy for people to settle for ‘good’ and this is why few companies become great. Can a good company become a great company and, if so, how? Or is the disease of “just being good” incurable.”

I would say Hythe is a good company, striving to be great. It shouldn’t be any harder to become great than it is to be good. A great company doesn’t have to be big; it just needs to continue.

So, my definition of a good company is ‘a company that could be on its way to being a great company’. To define a great company is having a clear leader, a clear strategy and focusing on what to do as much as what not to do, managing change, motivating people, creating alignment and ultimately converting choices into decisions.A great company will look like a well-oiled machine with all its cogs working together.

Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to lead a company from Good to Great? Please share a story or an example for each.

No one has officially defined us as ‘a great company’ and so we are always learning and striving to be a great company! My five things are:

  1. If you have the wrong people in the business you will never be great. You need to stand by your values and find people who fit with those. If not, the values are meaningless and chaos will be born.
  2. You need to inspire. To do that you should work out the fundamentals — direction, strategy, purpose, one key economic driver — and then strategize around those and align your team with them.
  3. Build communication throughout your business at all levels. If you are hiring amazing people with brilliant ideas and different views, you should be using them. This helps your team feel part of the journey, builds huge amounts of motivation and gives you an insight into the business from multiple levels.
  4. Make decisions. Think about them of course but ultimately you must make them!.
  5. Ask the right questions. “If we are asking the wrong questions, then ultimately the right answer will still steer us in the wrong direction. (Simon Sinek)”

Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. Can you help articulate for our readers a few reasons why a business should consider becoming a purpose driven business, or consider having a social impact angle?

The best way to explain this is from a man called Simon Sinek, who wrote a book about your purpose called ‘Starting With Why’. In one of his early chapters he writes: “Every instruction we give, every course we set, every result we desire, starts with the same thing: a decision. There are those who decide to manipulate the door to fit to achieve the desired result, and there are those who start from somewhere very different. Though both courses of action may yield similar short-term results, it is what we can’t see that makes long term success more predictable for only one. The one that understood why the doors need to fit by design and not by default.”

This resonates with me because I completely agree with purpose-driven business. It is a hard process and I found this task one of the hardest to complete. When I took the time to do it, I concluded my purpose was building businesses for people to grow with. I truly believe this exercise helps define your decisions and for me it creates an element of peace for every decision I make.

What would you advise to a business leader who initially went through years of successive growth, but has now reached a standstill? From your experience do you have any general advice about how to boost growth and “restart their engines”?

If you need to restart your engine, it means you have internal issues. So, look inwards. Use your data, and spot patterns of existing clients. Have you been communicating personally as a leader with all customer bases to ensure they are happy? If revenue is falling tighten cashflow. Review overheads and discuss management waste. Only after looking inwards can you decide if you need external support to generate growth. That’s when you could look at how the landscape is changing and adjust your offering to customers accordingly.

For example, one thing we did recently to boost our growth is to explore the petrochemicals industry. Marine engineering involves pipework fabrication and installation and these skills are directly transferable to the maintenance of a petrochemical plant so we can utilize our skills.

Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?

Work out your cash flow. This is the change in cash and debt balances across a given period. When you are growing you need to always be aware of this — the cash conversion cycle is essential.

If you allow clients to hold on to your money while you’re paying your suppliers on tight terms, your operational cash flow is affected significantly. It could be as simple as invoicing at the beginning of the job instead of the end or doing stage payments. Speak with your customers and get them to agree new terms and don’t be afraid of pushing boundaries. So, look internally before looking externally — what have you go and what can you improve.

Then, when it’s time to look externally you can think about changing your focus to target new industries where there is market activity. Traditionally, our focus as marine engineers has been fixing ships and air carriers used in the defense sector. But our skills transfer to other areas such as rail infrastructure and nuclear, where there is currently UK government financing. So we have started to branch out in these areas because our internal skills are transferable.

In your experience, which aspect of running a company tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?

A business is like a machine. All areas need to work together to turn the wheels. If note area doesn’t work, everything breaks down. But most importantly the biggest I focus on is getting the right people. Surround yourself with better people and don’t be worried about them being better than you- that’s what you want!

In my industry, nurturing workers to become managers is a challenge because among trades workers they are often seen as ‘one of the guys’ so they can find it hard to be authoritative.

We have brought through the ranks lots of highly qualified tradespeople with technical skills and experience but not necessarily management skills. But if we recruit managers from the outside, so much can go wrong because we are in such a specialized area with complicated compliance processes that take a long time to get to know. Every business has this challenge to some extent but in the trade sector, where there is a strong focus on practical skills rather than people skills, it is emphasized.

As you know, “conversion” means to convert a visit into a sale. In your experience what are the best strategies a business should use to increase conversion rates?

Reputation. We have relied on this the most to get our business. I make a point of emphasizing quality in our work and we have a no-expense-spared approach when it comes to getting workers up to date with the latest qualifications. For example, welding is a fundamental part of marine engineering work. So, anybody who completes welding activities for our marine part of the business not only gets a welding qualification but has to undergo training for a ‘Certified Visual Weld Inspector Status.’ In other words they are qualified to inspect each other’s work! On top level projects such as defense, precision is everything and it’s our reputation for this quality which has led to repeat business. Marketing is important of course, but you can’t beat first-hand recommendation to convert a lead into a sale.

Of course, the main way to increase conversion rates is to create a trusted and beloved brand. Can you share a few ways that a business can earn a reputation as a trusted and beloved brand?

Though your people. They represent the company all the time. If the people feel that they are part of the journey and, bleed the company colours, this will naturally earn you a reputation of trust.

Great customer service and great customer experience are essential to build a beloved brand and essential to be successful in general. In your experience what are a few of the most important things a business leader should know in order to create a Wow! Customer Experience?

Pick up the phone. Check in with your customers personally, get a response directly, without filters. Then use this as data and talk to your team about what’s good and what needs improving.

What are your thoughts about how a company should be engaged on Social Media? For example, the advisory firm EisnerAmper conducted 6 yearly surveys of United States corporate boards, and directors reported that one of their most pressing concerns was reputational risk as a result of social media. Do you share this concern? We’d love to hear your thoughts about this.

It important for companies and the leaders of those companies to be engaged in public debates and topics of the zeitgeist. It also gives a human face to the business, which in an industry like our which can be seen as very dry, is important! We have a blog and on it we feature our apprentices and the work they are doing, or interesting projects — we do our best to tell a human story behind our work.

One of the things I noticed last year, which I try to avoid on social media, are all the messages around what a horrible year it has been. It seems that companies are compelled to say it. I do agree that companies have been dealt a heavy blow and congratulate all that have survived and still fighting, but also there are a lot of companies that have thrived and are loving the current climate so it’s not all doom and gloom, but people seem to be afraid to saying positive things.

What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?

I think I’ve mentioned many above but to narrow it down to one I would say not defining a purpose before you begin!

Thank you for all of that. We are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

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