A helping hand

Categories: People and Features.

What do an Irish dentist, a hairdresser, a wood-recycler and a retailer of handmade goods have in common? All of them have stronger and more successful Wellington businesses after they brought in a business mentor.

They can each point to better results in their business because a more experienced businessperson has helped them to see what changes they needed to make.

While they are all coy about revealing how much extra revenue and profit have resulted, each of them talks of improved performance, better structure, more confidence in what they are doing. In short, mentoring worked for them.

Defining mentoring isn’t easy. Generally in a mentoring relationship, a person with more knowledge and experience guides a person with less, but exactly how this is done is very much left to the mentor and the client.

Last year Business Mentors New Zealand says its 1,900 mentors helped 4,300 businesses and not-forprofit organisations, who paid a one-off fee of $150 for the service.

BMNZ is a community trust funded by major companies and government agencies, and run locally by chambers of commerce and economic development agencies using volunteers, usually experienced business people, as mentors. Mentoring is recognised as one way of helping local businesses to prosper.

Mary McBride is an Irish-trained dentist practising on her own in Tinakori Road, Thorndon.

“I saw an opportunity to be a sole-charge dentist so I set up there.”

“I had about 100 patients locally because I had delivered flyers advertising my presence in the area.”

She had worked in dental practices as a contractor but “found it difficult to work as a solo operator.”

She sought a mentor and got Miles Maitland, who used to run the Harcourts real estate chain nationally.

Mentors are expected to use their experience, insight and knowledge to help clients.

“I took on board what Miles said. I increased my prices. He made me appreciate value. Working smarter not harder.”

“One of the things I had to do was to get a structure to the business and that took some legal advice and some help from an accountant.

“I am touchy feely. He was more evidence-based. I go on gut feel. With his guidance I saw the patient list filling up and people coming back.

“I have now got more clients and more revenue, and I feel better about my business and my life.”

Mentors don’t tell business owners what to do, nor do they do the owners’ job for them.

Kelley Braddock, the owner of HeadStart

Hair Design in Kilbirnie, left school at 15.

“I fell into the job. I’d worked in salons since I was 14, and I had no skills as a business owner, but I’d been at it for nine years and had done all right. After nine years I was a qualified hairdresser with two salons, a husband and two kids.

“But it wasn’t enough. So I took charge of my future. My accountant didn’t speak my language and I read about being able to get a business mentor to assist, especially as I had opened a second salon in Island Bay while I was still working in the first one in Kilbirnie.

“Miles made me question what I was doing and why, made me realise that I needed more structure in the business, for example formal policies for staff matters which led to the development of employment contracts.

“Miles held me accountable for what I was doing to strengthen the business.

“I learned that I had to become a boss, and needed to take the responsibility for that. If I wanted to see results I had to make them happen.

“I now work much more on the business rather than in the business, although I am still doing a hairdresser’s job two days a week.

Another to get the benefit of Miles’ advice was Chris Northmore, the managing director and co-owner of James Henry Flooring, a small wooden flooring and wood recycling company in Upper Hutt.

“I was having board meetings on my own. I tried to find a business coach, but I didn’t like the business model that coaches use, particularly the high monthly fees. The company has 6-7 staff including his wife and himself. The factory and head office are in Upper Hutt and there also two contractors to lay floors, based in Tauranga and Masterton.

“Miles recognised that I was reasonably experienced in business. He never looked at the financials. I said that I wanted help in leading people and in selling and negotiating.

“Often I struggle with my time. Miles offered some useful techniques to help me use my time better.

“He sat on an interview panel and helped me pick a new staff member – a different and better person than the one I would have picked alone.

“I wanted a wise head. And I got one. He made a difference. A mentor is more informal than other forms of assistance – like an advisory board. He doesn’t hold you to account like a board should do. He’s there to assist, but it is still your business and your responsibility:’

Another mentor, Maree Smith, helped Made.it, a design store and gift shop selling clothing, jewellery, stationery, and accessories.

Two and a half years ago Made.it began as a co-operative of four creative people focused on making and selling locally made craft goods through a shop in Wellington’s Victoria Street.

Co-owner Elisabeth Neilson says their experience with a mentor made a big difference.

“We were struggling to break even. We were missing some important skills.