14 July 2021
How I Made it…with Jonathan Duck
Insight spoke to B P Collins’ client, Jonathan Duck, the CEO of Amtico, a company which crafts beautifully designed and skilfully manufactured flooring in Coventry and the US, with sales across the world. Jonathan believes that encouraging autonomy amongst your staff, knowing that you won’t have the answer to everything and being adaptable, are the keys to business success…along with a bit of luck too.
What has been your journey to becoming Amtico’s CEO?
“I started off as an engineering apprentice at the UK Atomic Energy Authority, which kindly paid me to go to university where I did undergrad and postgrad degrees. I then worked as a management consultant at Boston Consulting Group and went to business school in the US before joining another consulting firm, McKinsey, and then Bass plc, a drinks and hospitality group.
It was at Bass plc where Jonathan experienced first-hand what can be achieved when employees are given full autonomy. He explains, “Bass was taking a bet on people like me in their 30’s. It gave us the keys to one of their many businesses and said, ‘there you go, we’ll see you in a few years’ time,’ before moving you on to another job somewhere else. The spirit of a ‘can do’ culture and being given the space to prove your worth was brilliant.”
Jonathan left Bass after wanting to ‘have a go’ at investing directly in what he was running, so he joined a private equity backed property business, as the CEO of Access Self Storage. Back in 2000, self-storage was well established in the US but very much a start-up industry in Europe. Access was sold in 2003, and Jonathan then invested in and became the CEO of another private equity backed company, Amtico. It needed, “quite a bit of surgery at the time.” Over the past 18 years, he has been instrumental in its organic growth, with sales up from £75m to about £200m. In 2012, after two management buyouts, Amtico was sold to a larger US flooring company, attracted by its market position and strong financial performance.
What qualities do you think helped you to achieve where you are today?
Jonathan initially speaks about external forces, such as luck and being in the right place at the right time. His previous employers have also had a huge influence on how he manages his teams:
“I never forget that any business is all about the people and it’s your job to bring out the best in them. But there are different ways of going about it. You do come across managers who will just give orders and try to make all the decisions. This doesn’t work for me at all. I’ve been lucky enough to work at companies where you were expected to give every employee the power to work out what needs doing, maybe have a discussion about it, then let them run with it and make sure you get out of their way. It’s all about being human and devolving as much as you dare.”
When asked about his own qualities, which have helped him get to where he is today, he says, “Hopefully I am able to look at a business and diagnose what needs doing,” adding:
“I’m not an expert in anything. It’s just about knowing enough to realise the difference between good and bad and where the fundamental issues lie. As you get older, you also have to avoid becoming a prisoner of your own experience. You need to stop thinking that you’ve got all the answers, because you don’t. It’s all about giving the free spirits around you the independence to excel, sometimes with a bit of guidance.”
What is the best part of your job?
“I’m running a business that’s both good fun to work in and is highly successful. Amtico operates in the very entertaining world of interior design, where aesthetics and beauty are at the core of every product and where you’re dealing with architects and designers every day.
“There are many dimensions to this business, and I love the variety. As I look out my window, I can see a tanker arriving with a lorryful of industrial ingredients, about to be converted into beautiful flooring, after being designed and manufactured in our Coventry plant. Our sales team will build relationships with, and then sell to, architects, designers, end users and retailers. Then, of course you have the financial and commercial aspects, with Amtico trading around the world. When Covid is past, I’ll be back to travelling everywhere.
“Winston Churchill once said, ‘we want a lot of engineers in the modern world, but we do not want a world of engineers.’ Even though I trained as an engineer, I don’t think of myself as one. I find that a background in sales and marketing at FMCG companies helps when managing the Amtico brand. It was great fun working at Britvic in the 90’s, with the famous Tango “slapperman” ads, and at Bass Brewers with the “I bet he drinks Carling Black Label” campaign, including those iconic Dambusters ads.
“l also do a few other things on the side, which lend perspective. Until earlier this year, I chaired the CBI in the West Midlands. You get to see what other companies are up to, and are up against, and periodically deal with Government. I trustee chair the Mitchells & Butlers’ pension scheme, with pensions worth over £3bn for about 23,000 members. Finally, I invest in another privately backed self-storage company, so I haven’t quite left that industry behind.”
What is the hardest part of your job?
Jonathan reflects on Amtico now being part of a wider corporate group. “In private equity, you do get used to being the owner driver of your standalone business. When you’re part of a bigger company, you can’t always function quite like this, because other stakeholders are involved. You just have to adapt though, it comes with the territory of being part of something larger.”
“It’s also difficult when you need to go through any business restructuring, because it has an impact on people’s lives. But I hope this is mitigated by being straightforward and honest with those affected. These tough decisions are rarely the fault of the individuals involved, it’s rather the current business conditions and the sector the company is operating in. You have to respect the dignity of anyone being asked to leave.”
How have you contributed to Amtico’s success?
Jonathan jokes that they’ve all done terribly well despite him. However, for the first two years after he joined, “it was like being in ER. I had to act very quickly on multiple issues and be pretty hands-on. The business was still doing OK but it was in severe danger of getting left behind.”
The company then went through an “exciting” secondary management buyout in 2006, before the 2008 crash, “where banks were finding every possible excuse not to lend to you,” but since the trade exit in 2012, Amtico has enjoyed, “a stable corporate parent, which makes things a lot smoother.”
Jonathan believes he has been able to manage each unique phase of growth, using a different management style for each stage, adding that, “it’s so important not to shy away from the problems that need to be tackled, but how you go about it can evolve as the team around you finds its feet.”
True to his fervent belief in empowering his workforce, Jonathan continues, ‘it’s vital to be able to build the right culture, where authority is pushed out, where delegation is embraced and where micromanagement is avoided. It’s about knowing where you’re going but consciously not spelling out exactly how you’re going to get there. Set the goal together, then let your team work out how they’ll achieve it. That way, as business conditions change, your team will automatically react and adapt much faster than you ever could.”
How has B P Collins helped?
“We use Chris Brazier, (B P Collins’ employment partner) for advice on HR issues and Alex Zachary, (B P Collins’ corporate and commercial partner) for commercial contracts, GDPR, and other regulatory issues. B P Collins has really helped us, as a practical and trusted guide throughout a series of complex scenarios. Knowing you can just pick up the phone and instantly get great support makes my life, and my HR Director’s life, a lot easier.”
What are the company’s plans for the future?
“Simply to keep growing and carry on doing what we’re doing. After being founded in 1964, Amtico has grown from scratch to nearly £200m worldwide annual sales. And it’s the market leader in its particular field. The Company has also had only two CEOs in its entire history, so continuity and stewardship of that success is important. We typically grow around 10% every year, but at the moment, as we bounce back from Covid, it’s closer to 30%, so 2021 will be another record year. But we cannot get lulled into a false sense of security. Competitors are always looking to replace us, so we need to stay constructively restless.
“We believe we are Coventry’s largest manufacturing business, and the next step will be to add more manufacturing capacity. In the past decade we have shown that you can outcompete Far East manufacturing and re-shore production back to the UK as well as the US. With future investment we will be able to carry that national torch forwards.”
What challenges does your company face?
“The government’s support for the manufacturing sector in the UK could be stronger. In the US, building land is typically offered to manufacturing companies for free, electrical power is one third of the cost and government loans to finance investment have not only low interest rates but get partly written off after a few years. Other countries, particularly in Asia, are similar. Compare that with the UK, where you might deal with five or six government departments who end up passing you around and then cannot help you. The rhetoric sounds good but basically, you’ve been on your own. There are signs, however, that politically this might change, with levelling up and building back better. Let’s see.”
If you weren’t Amtico’s CEO, what would you be doing?
As a qualified Yachtmaster and private pilot, Jonathan muses, ‘you never lose a dream, it just incubates as a hobby.’ So it would have to be either captaining a sailing boat or piloting a plane for a living. They are both practical challenges, especially coming into a new harbour or airfield when the tide or crosswind are out to get you!
“At the end of your life, you don’t want to be saying I only wish I’d done this or done that; or would have, could have, should have. Steve Jobs hit the nail on the head when he said, ‘your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life.’ I would like to live by that ethos every day.”