The chemistry of business

November 1, 2016

Lucy Armstrong is a tour de force in the world of business – particularly when it comes to the needs of small and medium-sized businesses.

In a career spanning 27 years, Lucy has worked in venture capital and private equity, and for the past 13 years, she has been chief executive of North East-based The Alchemists, a boutique consultancy focused on supporting fast-growing entrepreneurial businesses as they go through major points of change.

She has also sat on countless boards spanning business, political, social and cultural organisations, including NCFE, Tyneside Cinema, TDI, Northumbria University, Newcastle University, Business Bank, the UK Indian Business Council and the CBI, to name just a few.

As if all that wasn’t enough, Lucy has also found time to study for a degree and an MBA, adding to an existing degree in philosophy, politics and economics that she obtained from Oxford University.

Her jam-packed and diverse career, Lucy reflects, is largely down to her inquisitive nature.

“I’ve always been curious and I think there is something interesting in almost every experience you have,” she says.

“I find it particularly fascinating going around people’s businesses and seeing what they do well. Just as every human being has something special about them, so does every business. You’ll always see something and realise, ‘oh, that’s how’s that little bit of the world works’.”

Speaking to Lucy at her North East base – Vertu House at Gateshead Team Valley – is fast-paced and hugely enlightening. She answers each question with eloquence and gusto, and each opinion is garnished with scenarios, metaphors, quotes or anecdotal evidence.

First, I ask what she believes is the key to running a successful business.

She answers: “Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever who used to work in the North East at Procter & Gamble, says that a business needs to have a sense of purpose beyond just making a profit. I completely agree – companies need a culture and an ethos that all interested groups – shareholders, customers, the staff and even the bank and the accountant – can buy into.

“As a business grows, it’s then important that you plan and critique yourself. By writing down objectives, you have something to measure your actions against. Without that, human beings, by their nature, will justify in their heads that what they’re doing is right.”

Lucy was asked to head up The Alchemists in 2003 by a group of North East business leaders who recognised that while there was plenty of business support for sole traders and larger corporations, there was a gap in the market to provide a service that helped small and medium-sized private – mainly family-owned – businesses to manage change and scale their ambition without resorting to selling the company.

Lucy offers a helpful analogy to explain: “Larger organisations, whether a PLC or a hospital, operate like a dance in a Jane Austin novel. It’s very choreographed, it’s neat and tidy and synchronised. The businesses The Alchemists work with are a bit more like a disco – there’s a whole load of energy and vibrancy. There is some structure but it’s noisy and there’s a lot of people bumping into one another. But there’s also one dominant voice – the DJ – or in the case of a business, its owner.

“As a company grows, you have to build in more structure while trying to keep the energy and vibrancy. That’s what The Alchemists help businesses to do.”

Lucy, along with the business experts she headhunts especially for each individual project, works with private and family company clients across the country.

In the most part, this has centred around succession as a company owner steps away from the daily management of the company – but remains a shareholder – while the operations are undertaken by a management team.

“We help with recruiting the management team and putting in place mechanisms for those people to make decisions,” explains Lucy.

“We also assist the owner, who, as you can imagine, has been used to making all the decisions, move into the role of shareholder and instruct them on what kinds of questions they should be asking, how often they should be asking for information and what information they are entitled to.

Often the relationships between The Alchemists and the clients go on for many years.

“In succession, you can be dealing with very sensitive issues and we have to build trust,” Lucy says.

“We are always very clear with our clients that, unlike business coaching and mentoring which tends to centre around the individual, we will always put the business needs first. The result is that we often tell business owners things that are difficult for them to hear.”

Lucy also espouses the importance of looking at succession planning as early as possible to family businesses.

“The really clever families and entrepreneurs think about succession early on so it doesn’t become a problem,” she says.

“It’s a bit like driving a car: if you’re scanning the road, you can see potential hazards in plenty of time and do something about it. If you leave it to the last minute, it’s much riskier. You have to slam on your brakes and that’s when accidents can happen.”

Away from The Alchemists, Lucy continues to work on a variety of projects that centre around UK business. She is currently chair of the Enterprise Research Centre (UK) which is working with five universities, four banks, two governmental departments and one research council to build a body of authoritative data to determine whether government policies will help small and medium-sized businesses. She is also chair of the Asset Based Finance Association which looks to provide a reliable and high quality regulatory body for the sector.

Lucy has been a vocal Remain supporter and took part in many expert panel debates leading up to the EU referendum.

She continues to advocate the benefits of EU membership and the 48-year-old suspects she will be seeing fallout from Brexit for the rest of her working life.

“It’s going to be a very long process and some elements may take decades to settle down,” she says.

“Businesses thrive when there is stability and certainty. Smaller businesses have fewer resources to keep scanning the environment but they just have to get on with what they do best, not worry about things they can’t control and respond fast to changes that do arise.”

Given the theme of this issue, I am also keen to ask Lucy her opinion about gender equality in business.

“In my career, I have gone from absolutely the only woman in the boardroom to one of some. Do I think a 50/50 ratio is going to happen? No. Do I want to see that happen? No. I don’t like tokenism. I don’t want to believe I’m in a boardroom because I have two X chromosomes instead of an X and a Y. Similarly, I don’t think men want that either.”

Lucy also tells me about a conversation she had just days before we met.

“I was at Stiller [a North East family run logistics company] and we were discussing why there weren’t more women truck drivers. [Commercial manager] Matthew Spiller told me that he believed it wasn’t because truck driving was about being macho or strong – it’s actually now much more about administration and customer service. Instead, he said, women weren’t attracted to truck driving because there are very few places where a truck can actually stop and the drivers can have their lunch and go to the toilet. He went on to say that if we were really serious about attracting more women into logistics and distribution, then the infrastructure on major roads needs to be looked at.

“I thought that was fascinating,” Lucy continues. “It’s something I had never thought about. But of course – as we know – it’s much easier for a man to go for a wee by the side of a motorway than it is for a woman,” she adds with a smile.

The conversation at the logistics facility has clearly provided Lucy with something new to pique her interest. It has also added to her arsenal of anecdotes that I’m sure she will continue to draw on to inform, inspire and challenge those who come into contact with this formidable authority on business.