Episode 1 - International growth - what is the secret?


Welcome to Business Futures podcast, the show where we take an honest and challenging look at the technologies and people that are shaping business. I'm Emma Pownall, Datel's Marketing Director - and in this episode I've had the pleasure of speaking to one of our long term customers Barry Leahey, Managing Director of Playdale Playgrounds - about achieving international growth.

In this episode:

· The role of technology in international growth

· Why local cultures matter

· And why there is no substitute to building strong face to face relationships


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Tech is meant to make complex business operations easier and they don’t get more complex than getting into shape to export globally. I caught up with Barry and we discussed what it takes to turn a successful UK business into an international player…

Barry: Okay so Playdale – we’re a UK business, started in 1978 in South Cumbria. It’s actually the 9th Generation of the family, the Crowsdale family, and the 8th generation was renovating a local sports centre and the committee said we want to put some play equipment outside.

And they put some play equipment together for outside, successfully, and in the same year they did the same for 3 neighbouring villages and like I said, that was 1978, they did 4, and last year we did 1200 playgrounds. And there’s been a journey along the way, that journey has involved becoming a leader in the UK, recognised for quality, doing the Royal Parks in the mid ‘80’s and landing huge contracts on CSR projects for people like Pepsi, and in 2009 we decided we were going to go global.

Barry is very honest: his global expansion wasn’t just about growth – it was about survival.

Barry: And the global idea was diversification, it was to protect us from austerity in the UK – we were guesstimating that the UK market was going to slow by some 30% - its actually slowed by nearly 44% and we started looking elsewhere and we started to export.

And that journey has been an incredible journey, but we’re now in 49 countries. The export journey sounds glamourous, it was about survival.

Playdale is in a highly regulated industry and now in 49 countries.

Barry says there are two ingredients to global expansion. The first is legwork. There are no shortcuts to commercial success, and no substitute for meeting people.

Barry: We followed a very stringent process to actually find our distributors which has involved me personally being in 60 different countries in the last 10 years and taking some 600 flights and learning about a lot of cultures. And I think that’s some of the success that we’ve actually enjoyed because we’ve done the hard work.

We’re doing an awful lot out in Asia and it’s understanding what makes those people tick, understanding what’s rude to those people, what’s acceptable, what is normal business culture, normal business etiquette, and once you get your head around that, you start to work better as a partnership.

And don’t underestimate the cultural challenge…

Barry: It’s more of a culture, more of a mindset that we’re trying to produce. The first battle was the UK team. I have 110 staff that used to struggle when they found out that there was somebody calling from Wisconsin in the USA, and we had to explain to them that they speak English there as well as anyone else. And then it was India, and I do remember our Indian distributor replying to a questionnaire we sent to him. And one of the last questions we ask is ‘are you OK to communicate in English?’ and he pointed out to us ‘there’s more people speak English in my country than they do yours’.

The second ingredient to global expansion is technology - to inform decisions, cut commercial risk and keep better records.

Barry: We’ve been very structured. We’ve used UKTI as it was, Department of International Trade as it is now consistently during that process. We’ve utilised data where we can, looking at statistics and what is available out there to define which markets we were going to go to, and just being clever with data, interrogating data, keeping data, ensure you’re following up the right data. You’re running 49 distributors, you can’t have that in your head. We’re using CRM systems like anyone else is just to manage our international contact database. It’s a necessity for us.

Alan Simpson, Executive Chairman of Datel says the bigger you grow the more helpful technology can be in creating consistency.

Alan: The benefits of a truly worldwide ERP system is that it gives you control. You have one centralised system, you have common processes across your organisation in the world and consistent data.

And what does it globally ERP system have to do for all of our customers? Well it certainly has to handle the local legislations in the particular country. It's beneficial if they can report in the in the currency of that country, but also report in the currency of the parent company. And a big benefit is that all the data is in one system. So head office can analyse data locally or internationally as they require.

One of the most successful examples we have of one of our customers expanding overseas is a very large UK based flight comparison site. They started in the UK, but they've now expanded into Europe, over to the states and into the Far East particularly into Singapore. They are now using one common financial system which gives them the centralised global view of what's happening in the business.

But technology doesn’t just drive CRM and finance. Barry says it’s central to how the business sees its ability to respond.

Barry: We utilise technology more for our communication, we’re getting smarter in the communication tools we do, be it keeping people up to date with electronic newsletters, programming newsletters, making sure we’ve got regular content going to distributors and their onward customers. But yeah, we’re using tech to ensure that we’re effective. Because there’s differences: there’s efficient, and there’s effective. And I want to be efficient in the effective things that we do. and we’re learning to fail fast; we’re trying different things and we’re trying to push out different processes to our distributors out there.

So the first challenge was the culture and mindset of utilising being global, having the agility, having the speed, delivering customer service. But now our next challenge is developing our distributors, and trying to align our systems with their systems. Trying to align their forecasting with our forecasting.

We forecast through our CRM tools, they forecast through their ways, and it’s trying to utilise their data in our systems and explaining to them why we need that.

Connecting systems is one of the key objectives for businesses today – and it’s what integrators spend their time thinking about. Instead of working in isolation, it’s becomes a priority for whole supply chains to work together. In sync and optimised.

Barry: I think as customers as well we’re getting more savvy. And I don’t think we’re getting any easier, I think the solutions are getting easier to produce, but I think the customers are also getting more demanding because we know what’s possible out there. So where in the past we’d have accepted two systems don’t talk together, now I believe businesses, especially Playdale, we're looking for solutions and to have a partner that’s willing to work with you is worth its weight in gold, it really is. Because you can start to visualise and achieve some of those solutions that businesses want.

Datel’s Alan Simpson agrees. In a globalised economy, you have to be connected.

Alan: But what we're finding now is that customers want third parties also to be able to access data that's in that system. We've got one particular customer called Jupiter group, the grows fruit around the world and packs it then in the UK, to deliver to supermarkets in the UK. And what they want to do is capture information on the farms they've got in Chile or India or wherever it might be about the quality of the grapes. And then they want to store that not just in the ERP system, but in some common platform that third parties that customers such as Morrison might want to access. And this is where we're working closely with Jupiter and with Sage to implement what’s called blockchain technology, which gives a very safe and secure platform that third parties can access their data. And this is an extremely exciting and very groundbreaking work for us.

But Barry’s best piece of advice is still to get on a plane and make that human connection.

Barry: Do your research and get boots on the ground. You can do all the Skype calls and video conferencing you want, but you’ve got to get out there and experience culture first hand. And if someone can develop the technology that allows you to smell and appreciate the touch of palm on palm and shaking someone’s hand in their office then you’re on to a global winner there. 

My guests were Barry Leahy, the MD of Playdale Playgrounds and Datel's Executive Chairman, Alan Simpson. In this show, we’ve looked at global expansion.

In the next episode, we ask what Artificial Intelligence is really going to contribute to business, with Futurist, Matt O’Neill and Datel’s Director of R&D, Tim Purcell.

See you next time on Business Futures.


This podcast was produced by ModComms, a full-service marketing agency offering innovative approaches to client challenges. 

My guests:

Barry Leahey, Managing Director, Playdale Playgrounds

Barry is MD of Playdale Playgrounds, the UK's leading manufacturer of outdoor children's playground equipment, based from three sites in South Cumbria (UK). Pladale now have distributers in 49 countries covering 57% of the global population. Playdale have won 'UK Family Manufacturer,' the Federation of Small Businesses award for 'UK SME Exporter of the Year' and have been named 'Export Champions' by the Department for International Trade, and Barry has personally received an MBE for 'Services to UK Trade and Investment and Exports.' Last year, Barry was named IoD North West 'Global Director of the Year 2018' as well as 'Cumbria Business Person of the Year.' He was recently made an Honorary Professor at Lancaster University Management School as well as featuring in the Telegraph's 'Top 50 Most Ambitious UK Business Leaders' and inducted into 'The Manufacturer Top 100' people in the UK Manufacturing Hall of Fame. 

Alan Simpson, Executive Chairman, Datel

Alan founded the Datel in 1981 when affordable business systems were a new concept and businesses needed help and guidance to get started with them. Since then the technology has changed but Datel’s approach hasn’t. Alan prides himself on building a consultative and collaborative culture within the business that enables the team to get close enough to our customers to build long term partnerships.

Business Futures host:

Emma Pownall, Marketing Director, Datel

My team and I provide our customers with a range of events, guides and tools that bridge the gap between business leaders and technology.  From large conferences connecting customers with each other and the software world, to sharing customer stories that explain what is possible with the right business solutions, I'm focused on sharing how people and technology can support business success.