The art of leadership in modern manufacturing
by Luke Benton, Managing Director, MNB Precision
Working in a third-generation family-run business certainly gives you a unique insight into leadership, especially when you step into the shoes of your father as he stepped into his father’s before him.
For the past four decades, MNB Precision has been providing precision engineering solutions, predominantly for the oil and gas industry where we have built our strong reputation. From a very early age, my brother Elliot and I have been steeped in the world of precision engineering and witnessed first-hand the different personalities and leadership styles that have driven our business forward. When our Grandad, Bob Benton, established MNB back in 1980 with nothing but a couple of machines in his council house garage, he laid the foundations for what would later develop into an £18m turnover firm.
We’ve grown up with engineering in our blood. We’ve seen for ourselves many changes in the industry and we’ve had stories handed down to us from our parents, Mark and Lorraine, about what life was like in an engineering business before we were born. They and our uncle Neil took up the mantle and developed the business further, building on the foundations laid down by Bob.
Like most companies, MNB has been through good and bad times. We’ve seen successive governments come and go and witnessed major changes as the world has shrunk with globalisation. We’ve seen attitudes towards energy production steadily shift and considered the challenges of population growth and a rising middle class fuelling increased consumption.
We’ve borne witness to the changes in technology in all facets of life, but especially on the factory floor where we’ve both spent much of our lives. We’ve kept pace with advancing technologies as we have taken on the mantle of running the business and invested in making our factory smarter to meet the demands of our customers.
It’s been a rich and interesting journey and has shaped how we approach work, life and leadership.
Values and ideals are the foundation
Elliot and I took over the reins eight years ago and we quickly grasped the opportunity to make our own mark and lead the team to the next stage of growth. Our parents and grandparents had instilled in us a set of values and ideals that meant we understood that we must take our own approach to running a business in a constantly changing world. Their determination, vision and lust for learning inspired us and gave us a blueprint to work with.
However, these aren’t the only leadership traits and skills needed to run a business. Our family has the mindset that you need to do a job well and to the best of your ability. To do this, you need to earn your own stripes, which means that neither of us have been handed MNB Precision on a silver platter. Far from it. We have worked hard to gain the knowledge, skills and experience we needed to be trusted with leadership. That meant starting at the bottom and working our way up so that we understood every facet of the business: what it’s like to work on the shop floor, why it is important to have respect and tolerance within your team and an inclusive culture, why we must invest in the younger generations as well as valuing the wisdom of the elders.
We’ve been in the business when things have not been quite so rosy and it’s all hands to the deck to survive. At the other end of that scale, we’ve felt the challenges of rapid growth and all that this entails, especially in turbulent times.
What does this all mean for a business like MNB? This past year has been one of reflection for many people. We have taken a long hard look at our journey, where we have come from, how the company has developed, where we are now, and where we want to be in the future. It’s been a warts and all review looking at our trials as well as our tribulations. We don’t want to be that company that never learns and continues to do what has always been done. We want to be constantly innovating, proving to our blue-chip customers in our supply chain that being an SME is not a barrier when it comes to quality, capacity and ingenuity.
Are these all the elements that make a good leader? We like to think so. One thing we do know is that it is this willingness to be flexible and lead the business in new directions but based on solid foundations that has paid dividends. MNB saw sales rise by an incredible 76% over the last three years and that growth earned us a place in the Sunday Times Virgin Atlantic Fast Track 100. Yet it has taken a new form of leadership.
My brother and I have very different personalities. Elliot tends to be more of an old school authorative leader, like our father, and very skilled at managing people on the shop floor. My style is more collaborative, engaging with a range of different business partners. As MNB has grown, those two skillsets have complemented one another and helped us demonstrate strong leadership in a range of different scenarios.
We have grown up alongside the people we now lead and understand their challenges and their drivers. We haven’t been helicoptered into the business but know it like the back of our hands. Our staff respect our commitment and experience and that has made leading them both more straightforward and rewarding. They see first-hand the impact of any investments and innovation we’ve made on our competitiveness and the fact that turnover has grown from £3.3m in 2016/17 to more than £18m in the last financial year, which gives them faith in the strategic direction we take.
Our participation in the Aston Business School Advanced Services Group programme in 2014 not only helped us to look beyond selling products to offering expertise and capabilities as a service, but also taught us a great deal about leadership. The SME leaders in my cohort at that time were a diverse mix in terms of background, culture, personality and experience. It is clear that when it comes to leading a manufacturing business, one size doesn’t fit all.
It is reassuring to know that leaders can’t easily be categorised and it is just fine to break the mould. But what they all have in common are strong foundations arising from a core set of values, beliefs and ethos which gives them the ability to get results.
It is fine as a leader if you don’t fit the stereotype or feel that you have to have all the answers. An open mindset will in fact put you at an advantage. My brother and I can celebrate and exploit our differences at the same time. We can work in partnership transforming the business and pass on our knowledge to the next generation.
We are so lucky as a family business in that we can easily seek advice from precious leaders, discuss strategy over Sunday lunch and tap into decades of experience. We each take our own approach to leadership safe in the knowledge that what we share is the will and the wherewithal to drive the business forward.Back to News