A true visionary

 

Nikki KingHailed as a ‘legend’ in the motor industry, Isuzu Truck’s Nikki King identifies the recession as the career-marking event that most stretched her planning skills. But she never lost sight of her vision for the business.

“Many times I felt like a third division goalie facing the entire Arsenal squad,” remarks Nikki King OBE, former Managing Director (MD) and now Honorary Chairman of Isuzu Truck (UK) Limited (ITUK), describing the impact of the recession. “It was horrific. Even though we’d predicted it back in 2007, the sheer size and speed of it was mind-blowing.”

Despite this foresight, and having written a disaster plan, the business was hit hard.

“We were on top of it as much as we could be,” says Nikki. “We’d already started targeting business that we felt was more recession-proof. But still, in August 2008 we were having the best year ever, with sales at 20% above a very aspirational plan. From the beginning of September we didn’t sell another truck until the following April. The change was that rapid.”

Crisis planning

With stock on a six month lead time from Japan, Nikki’s disaster planning became crucial. Although customers didn’t buy as many trucks, the company’s emphasis on customer service meant that the relationships were robust and enduring. In addition, they worked closely with manufacturer, Isuzu, to manage through the tough times.

So what lessons did Nikki learn? “You have to hold your nerve, remain focused on your vision – and take your people with you,” she says.

Robust vision

‘Focus on your vision’ emerges as Nikki’s mantra. “It has to be robust and achievable and you have to be passionate about it,” she remarks. “Without a vision of where you want to be in 10 or 15 years’ time, you can’t begin to write a strategy. You can’t plan a journey if you don’t know where you’re going.”

A self-described 'obsessive list writer' even before going into business, Nikki views herself as a natural strategist. With typical humility, however, she is quick to acknowledge that you need a strong team around you to implement that strategy.

Team work

“I’m very lucky in being able to employ and keep people who are a lot smarter than I am,” she laughs. “Every strategic decision has been made by the whole senior management team. Unless you’ve got everybody involved you don’t know how your strategy is going to work across departments. Put simply, if a strategy isn’t designed by everybody and owned by everybody, it doesn’t fly.”

That combination of vision and collaboration informed Nikki’s strategic decision to take her team through the recession in order to hit the ground running when recovery took hold. “We really didn’t want to make redundancies because we had some extremely talented people and we knew when the recession was over we’d have to re-hire. Plus our staff are like family, and families stick together. So senior management took a 20% pay cut and our entire team agreed we could suspend the 15% pension payments we made. That meant minimal redundancies and left us in a great place to make the most of recovery.”

Long-term focus

Having to respond to short-term business imperatives doesn’t detract from Nikki’s focus on the long-term. “I’m always looking ahead,” she affirms. “Even in the beginning when we were only selling a hundred trucks a year, we were always asking: ‘will this approach work if we’re selling 10,000?’ If it didn’t, we didn’t do it!

“If you get your strategy right, you rarely have to knee-jerk. If you’ve planned correctly, you know the risks and can deal with them. If you haven’t done that then you haven’t built a great strategy, have you?”

Flexibility

Nikki does admit that the ability to avoid knee-jerk reactions is often a luxury of private companies who aren’t answerable to shareholders. “I think one of the biggest detriments to businesses these days is market share chasing and shareholder value,” she states. “It means that people have to react on a short fuse to get the result shareholders want, and that can be short-sighted.”

That’s not to say that flexibility isn’t important. “Only your core vision should be inflexible. All good strategies have to have the capacity to be flexible. You need to re-visit them regularly.”

Guidance

With a library of external mentors, Nikki is never short of expertise to help guide her strategic planning. “I’m never afraid to say I don’t understand or I don’t know, because somebody will work through it with me.”

But self-reflection often took a back seat as planning for the business consumed her life. Whilst appearing on Channel 4’s ‘Undercover Boss’ didn’t give her a new perspective on the business, it did fundamentally change Nikki’s plans for her own life, leading to a radical new personal strategic direction and a major change for the company.

“From a business perspective, I’m pretty visible and hands-on anyway so there were no major revelations for me. But personally, it changed my life. I suddenly realised my work/life balance was completely out of kilter. I’d poured everything into planning the business and realised I also had to plan my personal life.”

Nature or nurture?

Nikki’s change in focus led to the 2013 buy-out of ITUK by Isuzu Motors Japan, and she stepped down as MD to become Honorary Chairman. However, her long-term, visionary approach continues – and not just within the business.

“I’ve just become Chairman of the Greenacre Academies Trust,” she explains. “We’re writing a ‘Skills for Life’ strategy, asking what skills we want our young people to develop, and then working the educational approach around that.”

This reinforces Nikki’s view that strategic skills are more nature than nurture: “If you have to learn to be strategic it’s that much more difficult. In fact, I’m not sure that it’s something that can be taught. It’s just something you can’t help but do.”

“I think it is vitally important for business leaders to mentor their staff and young people. I feel privileged to have had a great career and I want to pass on what I know to the next generation.”

Nikki King’s top tips for strategic planning success:

  1. Find your vision: have a clear vision for your business and where you want it to be in 10 years’ time.
  2. Work as a team: use your management team and external expertise to examine different options and understand the potential impact across departments.
  3. Be inspired: take inspiration from the business world. For example, I find Tim Steiner of Ocado is nothing short of visionary and that vision hasn’t changed since the beginning. Every time he speaks it’s relevant. Another example is Carolyn McCall. She brought a customer-service ethos to EasyJet at a level I would have thought was impossible. She also handled a major shareholder vote extremely effectively.

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