Sean Ramsden: 'Here's what I learned from running a family business'

By Grimsby Telegraph | Posted: 26 Dec 2017

Having been named Family Business Entrepreneur of the Year at the Natwest Great British Entrepreneur Awards 2017 this past month, Sean Ramsden has shared his thoughts on what such an ethos means to him with Business Telegraph.

When you hear the words ‘family business’ it might bring to mind a slightly parochial “mom and pop” store or family-run restaurant. My own was founded as a grocer’s shop in 1940s Grimsby, and has grown into a leading wholesale exporter of British food and drink.

There have been a lot of changes since the Forties, both within Ramsden International, and the wider world, but I like to think the neighbours and customers my grandfather served then would recognise the same values they knew at our family business today.

We’ve tried to stay true to the same core principles, and over the past 20 plus years, I’ve thought a lot about what success looks like and what it means to be a family business.

Values that are important for families are just as important for businesses.

Every business should have a guiding set of principles that help plan for the future, deliver day-to-day objectives and help attract the right team members. Knowing what these values are also helps you make the right choices when you are faced with difficult decisions. In that sense, a family business is no different than any other, but perhaps you feel closer to these things when your name is all over the stationery, so it is more natural to define them as part of your strategy.

Read more: Award-winning Sean Ramsden on the entrepreneurial evolution of the family business

In a family business, it is certainly difficult to forget that everything you do in your working life, is also related to your family life. For me, that has certainly been one of the driving factors for wanting to bring the same positive values to the running of Ramsden International that I would treat family with.

The importance of living your values 

Roy E Disney, nephew of Walt and a senior executive at The Walt Disney Company, once said: “It is not hard to make decisions once you know what your values are.” We certainly find this to be true. Our core values are: respect, integrity, accountability, professionalism, collaboration and entrepreneurship, and we clearly define how these traits play out in our office, and in how we treat each other and our customers.

For example, collaboration. We believe each employee helps deliver first class service, and we encourage and support each other to get things done. Prioritising collaboration has helped us think of ourselves as “order makers, not order takers” – part of our unique offering is our ability to design the perfect range of British groceries for a customer, whether they have one shelf or an entire aisle to fill.

What further sets us apart is providing support for our customers all over the world to make importing British goods as easy as possible. We advise on logistics, compliance, re-labelling etc, and our team speaks 21 languages – this approach really helps us offer customised solutions for our clients, they aren’t simply picking products out of a catalogue.

Read more: The crowning glory for Grimsby’s grocery exporter

WH Smiths in Paris is a high-profile example of a customer taking a custom range of groceries from us, but the real testament to how well we’ve embraced a spirit of collaboration is the fact that 99 per cent of our customers would do business with us again.

Our values reflect the ethos of our family, and our company for the long term, and, as Roy E. Disney alluded to, remembering this is especially useful when faced with difficult decisions. They have always stood us in good stead and one of the things I am proudest of is our commitment to ethical trading – because integrity and accountability are at the heart of everything we do.

Value your employees like family – they are your greatest strength

Turnover for our family business hit £50 million in 2016, we have enjoyed 20 per cent growth since 2013, and we are primed for a post-Brexit world with growing demand in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. We are on course for a £60 million turnover by 2018. The company wouldn’t be in this position without my drive and insight, as well as the hard work of my amazing team. The welfare of my workforce and wider community in which my company exists are my top priority, and putting care, time, and effort into appreciating my employees helps the business in the long run.

Every workday is different for me. I might be negotiating a deal at the Shanghai food fair, at the British Embassy in Riyadh finalising a promotional campaign or drinking coffee in Ghana with the head of the country’s biggest supermarket chain. It would be easy to think of myself as a high-flying VIP, but I also know the backbone of my success is rooted in an often-overlooked town in one of the poorest areas of the UK.

One of the things I’m proudest of is the fact I’ve made Ramsden International an employer of choice in the Grimsby area by paying high wages and developing staff. My profile might be that of an export champion, but I am extremely passionate about creating jobs in the local economy.

I also believe in rewarding hard work. People spend an enormous amount of their time and energy at work, so it’s important for them to feel that their efforts are appreciated and properly acknowledged. This is why

I involve my staff in decisions about the business though our Employee Voice platform and why we’ve invested £600,000 in an office refit to provide the best working environment we could. This has resulted in an employee engagement score of 93 per cent, a great achievement for any business.

These lessons are likely applicable to any business – family run or otherwise, but I’ve certainly been grateful for the opportunity to apply them at a company that’s been such an important part of my life, and my family’s history.

Sean’s article was written initially for, the digital publication for ambitious SMEs.

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