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Embracing change is never easy, but that is exactly what Britain’s boardrooms are doing as we approach a new decade.

Despite the short-term political and economic uncertainties, big decisions are being made that will determine whether, and how, Britain prospers in the years and decades to come.

Directors are scrutinising their business models and harnessing new technology to improve productivity. Automation could help to make work more appealing to younger workers, who are demanding more freedom and purpose from employers.

We spoke to the leaders of 11 Top Track 250 companies at a recent round table and they all considered the digital transformation of their businesses to be essential.

Interacting with customers

William Macpherson, former chief executive of QA (No 94), the education and training provider, spoke for many when he said: “Technology is changing the way that every business is interacting with its customers, its staff and its suppliers. It requires us to re-engineer how our businesses work and poses an enormous challenge.”

Miki Travel, a Top Track 250 alumnus which provides travel and hotels for Asian tourists visiting Europe, is overhauling its IT. It is conducting a review to identify inefficient processes, and to automate repetitive tasks. “People don’t want to be stuck working at a computer all day. It’s tricky, but you must fit these roles to their aspirations,” says its finance director, Ingrid Cawood.

Some in healthcare are using technology to help them respond to changing market conditions. David Horry, chairman and chief executive of Converse Pharma Group (No 99), says the new five-year NHS pharmacy framework agreement sees revenues from medicines frozen. His company is working with its independent pharmacy customers to meet that challenge, and others.

“Technology will be an essential enabler as we meet the challenge of a growing and ageing population, increased regulations and the digitalisation of patient access,” says Horry.

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Improving engagement

A similar challenge is facing Justin Hutchens, chief executive of the UK’s largest care homes provider, HC-One (No 6). With more than 17,000 residents at 328 care homes, and 25,000 staff, Hutchens is tackling the well-documented shortage of skilled nurses. “I think there is a real opportunity to further professionalise the care sector,” he says, noting that his staff use a Facebook-style app to communicate directly with colleagues, which has improved engagement among all staff and management.

Jon Fisher, chief executive of construction aggregates firm GRS Roadstone Group (No 65), raised an issue that requires a unified public and private-sector approach, highlighting the UK’s commitment to net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. “Our sector contributes heavily towards carbon and we are working hard to reduce our footprint, such as making more use of rail rather than road freight,” he says. “But we need better dialogue with government so we get more joined up — to achieve the targets, the government’s plans for large infrastructure projects need to be matched by policies that enable us to deliver materials in the most sustainable way.”

Breadth of experience on boards was another common theme. “One of the biggest things I have learnt working with entrepreneurs and private equity is the importance of having a balanced board with balanced skills and operating style to improve decision-making,” says Steve Byrne from Travel Counsellors (No 85). “You then build your corporate governance alongside your culture, so people know it is all right to challenge those in authority, including the chief executive, and that encourages feedback, learning and improvement.”

Get the balance right

Simon Tray, global chief financial officer of MiQ (No 135), a digital advertising technology firm, agreed, but he warned against creating too many checks and balances that can slow companies down. He joined MiQ last year from a listed multinational and has seen the onerous effect that well-intentioned legislation can have on entrepreneurialism. “You need good processes but also have to get the balance right,” he says.

Maintaining good governance is also tricky. Bob Weston, founder and chairman of Weston Homes, is proud of the way his firm differentiates itself. “While everyone else tries to outsource, we look to in-source,” he says. “We manufacture, and we have an import and distribution business. It makes us very efficient and gives us our edge in the market.” He is now looking at keeping the right management skills in the business to ensure a smooth succession.

The risk of recession in the UK has prompted some companies to explore new opportunities overseas. One is diversifying its customer base from over-reliance on the UK, and exploring opportunities in Europe and Latin America. Another, HH Global (No 44), the marketing execution group, is winning significant new business in China, India and Japan.

Robert MacMillan, chief executive, says he has a problem: “Trying to find people who are proactive, interact well with clients and think differently is always challenging in markets that are new to outsourcing.

“As well as hiring locally, we are relocating existing team members from other countries.”

We’re confident he will overcome this challenge. All these companies are thinking long term and know what they have to do to achieve their plans. We look forward to seeing them succeed.

This article first appeared in the Sunday Times Top Track 250 supplement, published on 6 October.

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