Q&A: A Look Back at the Last Two Decades of Advanced Dynamics Through the Eyes of Malcolm Little
(Malcolm Little, Founder & Executive chairman)
May 2021 represented a new chapter in the history of Advanced Dynamics.
Indeed, we confirmed that our founder, Malcolm Little, was stepping away from his role as Managing Director, to be succeeded by Tom Smith.
Prior to that Malcolm had been the face of Advanced Dynamics for 23 years. He founded it, grew it, nurtured it, transitioned it, and built it into the thriving business that it is today.
With that in mind, it would be remiss of us not to speak to the man behind it, to chat through why he feels now is the right time to pass on the baton after more than two decades at the helm.
So, grab a cuppa and settle in. This is an epic!
Q: What Made You Want to Start Advanced Dynamics and What Was the Vision Behind It 23 Years Ago?
A: First of all, I never actually saw myself as a businessman or an entrepreneur. I thought I’d found my career home as a salesman. I enjoyed that. And even though I’m saying so myself, I’d say I was the best salesman in the company. It was a great place, and, indeed, a comfortable place to be. But, I’d had a couple of my friends start their own businesses and I wondered if I could ever do that. Advanced Dynamics all hinged on an opportunity that came from a previous employer. He rang me out of the blue and explained that three guys that I’d met whilst working for this particular company were looking for somebody to represent them in the UK, and would I be interested. The decision to do it was harder to say no to than yes, but I knew at that time that if I didn’t do this now – start my own business – I would look back and wonder what if. I do believe life shouldn’t have regrets. If you feel like doing something you want to do, you should do it to the best of your ability. And it was at that point I decided yes, it’s time to start my own business.
Q: Why Did You Want to Go Into This Particular Industry?
A: The industry that I was in was similar to a lot of people’s careers. I completed an engineering apprenticeship for a company that manufactures a wide range of machines, some of which were packaging machinery. I was planted in that bed and I stayed there. There was never a solid reason for me to move away from the industry that I knew.
Q: Was There Anybody That Inspired You to Take That First Step?
A: I took the question to a number of people. I spoke to my team, friends, and my original business partners about it. But, for me, it was always a drive inside me that told me that I could do this. Often some of the best life lessons that you get in your career are actually negative lessons, in that you see how it shouldn’t be done. They are what point you in the direction of where you want to be, and I knew I had to do this.
Q: What Were the Early Days Like as a Business Owner? Was It Everything You Expected?
A: If I had known then what I know now and the experiences that I’ve gone through, I wouldn’t have felt that I had the metal to get through it. It was very difficult. As a salesman, or indeed an engineer, you have a job to do. And you know when you have fulfilled it. When you find yourself building, wiring, selling, invoicing – doing everything – everything stands or falls by you. That changes the dynamic in a way that you can never be ready for. The first few years were difficult. I started my own business when the packaging industry was very saturated. We found ourselves having to take on very specialised jobs that weren’t easy to do. To coin a blunt phrase of mine which I’ve taken throughout my whole career, it was about arse up, head down, keep pushing. It was a drive to make sure everything was being done in order to keep it going, but it was very difficult. At times, I was working until midnight and every weekend. If anybody says starting a business is going to be easy, please point them my way! I’m happy to disabuse them of that notion.
Q: Was It a Very Different Kind of Pressure When You Started Your Business – Compared to What You Were Used to as a Salesman?
A: Very much so. As a salesman, you have the pressure to sell, sure, but once you have the order you can then relinquish that and pass it on to the wider company to be taken care of. When you are a business owner, particularly as an owner-operator in the early days, you do everything. There aren’t enough hours in the day. You find yourself going back to using old skills that you haven’t used for quite some time. You realise why you moved away from engineering because you’re a danger to yourself! I went through quite a few band-aids and burn plasters. I realised that I, or any of us, can freely walk away from a job, unless it’s a business you own. At that point, you can’t walk away. You have a responsibility to keep that business going. Early on I had people working for the business and at that point, I realised I wasn’t just responsible for me, but also for other people’s mortgages and livelihoods, you take on the pressures of everybody that’s working for you. It’s a very different situation.
Q: Did You Have Any Regrets During Those Early Years?
A: To be honest, I did. There were times at 12 o’clock at night on a company’s shop floor, with a night shift working around me, and I felt completely out of my depth. I thought what am I doing here, why am I here. There was never a chance of me giving in, but, on a number of occasions, I questioned what have I done and what have I created. I could have walked away from it but that’s not me. You have to have some metal inside you that, perhaps, you never knew was there. You have to be able to drive through problems. There’s the old adage, go to sleep on it. The were a number of times I went to sleep not knowing what I was going to do next, but that mindset allowed me to put things into place and come up with ideas to solve those problems. And here we are, 23 years later and it’s a very different animal. Was it easy? No. Was it worthwhile? Absolutely.
Q: What’s the Best Piece of Advice You Would Give to Someone Now That Is Wanting to Start Their Business Now?
A: Plan more than I did. That sounds really boring, but it’s true. You need to know what you need to sell to cover your costs, know what those costs are, and have a backstop if you’re not selling to the levels you need to. You have to have a plan and I didn’t have a detailed plan. We had a minimum plan and we kept up with it. A lot of the problems we had were technical difficulties, which has never been my strong suit. Everybody in the company now would say ‘keep Malcolm away from the tools’! But it is the boring stuff that can catch you out.
Q: What Are Some of Your Highlights From the Last 23 Years?
A: Something I learned early on is to make every success a highlight. In this position, there will be a lot of negatives so when things go well, learn to celebrate them. I have had many highlights. From the small orders in the early days all the way through to the Hallmark years, during which we sold massive amounts of equipment to Hallmark greetings cards. I think over three years we did about £8 million worth of business. Those are some of the happiest and fun years we had because it was like doing business with good friends. There were many occasions where we went to Germany with their customers. We’d have meals out, beers together, and we just made business fun. I’ll always look back at my time at exhibitions where you have a fun time, too. We’re blessed to have a tightly-knit team and we celebrate everything together. One highlight is still being at the bar at 3am with best friends and colleagues, celebrating those wins. They are the moments you truly remember. You don’t remember winning a particular order, you remember the people you shared that celebration with.
Q: There Have Been Multiple Transitions of Advanced Dynamics. Was That Always the Plan or Was That Done as a Necessity?
A: I wouldn’t say brought on by necessity. I would say brought on by opportunity. As you go along the journey of running a business, you will always have challenges. Some are problems where you have to change through necessity, but most of our changes have been done through opportunity. Similarly to when I started the business, it’s about not wondering what if, what should I have done at that moment, why didn’t we try that. The key thing is recognising an opportunity and always keeping your eye out for them. What you have now doesn’t necessarily mean that’s what you’ll have in a year, five years, or even 10 years’ time. That’s how we ended up with Advanced Dynamics in its current form. I joined with a previous business partner, Mike Essler. After some hard graft, we transitioned Advanced Dynamics and we’ve gone through something similar with Tom (Smith), who’s taken over my previous position as Managing Director. We met at an exhibition. We got on very well and in our first meeting we said, sooner or later, we will work together. Tom has been instrumental in the last five years’ growth. So keep an eye out. You never know around which corner you’re going to see a little gold nugget.
Q: Was It Tough to Be Able to Break Away From the Work You Were Doing With Hallmark in Order to Join a New Emerging Market?
A: It was a little bit different from that. We saw the writing on the wall. The business was very biased towards the printing industry – between 80 and 90% at that time. Advanced Dynamics had been through lots of changes in the previous 15 years but none quite as big as what it did between 2008 and 2010. It’d become quite apparent that lots of companies were shipping their production out to China. Hallmark did that, too, and that was a huge shock to everybody. Quite rapidly, we had to think about how we could reposition the business and what we needed to do differently. At that point, we’d found Pack Leader. That was a strategic plan, to find a supplier who’d be able to help take us into different markets. As knowing full well that the print industry was going to be going through some severe difficulties, we recognised we needed to spread.
Q: Did You Ever Find It a Challenge to Keep Up With the Industry as It Continually Changed?
A: I think our partnership with Pack Leader enabled us to achieve that. I must confess I wouldn’t want to look back at 2012 if we had not found Pack Leader, because we would be a very different animal. They are very much at the forefront of technology. They’re bringing in everything that’s new and we now have a range of machinery that covers a variety of industries and gives us a far broader customer base. In Taiwan, we’ve got the technology and the build quality that can go up against the Germans and the Italians, so that was a critical decision in our history.
Q: What Was the Biggest Change in the Industry That You Navigated Through? What Was Game-Changing?
A: One of the problems with the packaging industry is that it has been saturated for many years which has brought a lot of boredom and mediocrity. The game-changer has been selling from a cultural perspective, rather than a machine perspective. There have been lots of technological changes but that’s been available to everybody and every business. Three years ago, we looked at the way we worked and how we had been successful in a difficult marketplace and realised it was actually us and our people that had made the difference. We put that front and centre and put a lot of work into developing our culture, focusing on why we do it rather than what we do and how we do it. Everybody’s got a machine that will work to a certain degree. What they haven’t got is us, the way we work, and the way we supply our customers. That’s something that, no matter how hard others try, they will never be able to copy.
Q: How Did You Create That Culture?
A: When we look back at how we worked it became immediately obvious. If I could pick only one thing I’ve done well, it was to instill my way of thinking and my ethos throughout the business. We have a Yorkshire purpose. To translate that beyond Sheffield, it is to make a tangible, worthwhile, and meaningful contribution to all our partners and to do that with style, good humour, and grace. It’s that culture that made us successful and it’s at the core of everything we do. I believe a company’s purpose should be very closely aligned to the owner and leader’s purpose. My grandma once said to me, and this sounds like an apocryphal tale but I assure you it’s true, you’ll do all right in life if you just be riyt wi’ folk. And it’s true. It’s also about making the right decision at the right time. When you work with people – your team – make it as easy for them as possible to do the right thing. If doing the right thing for a customer on-site is potentially a bit of a risk, and they know they’ll get into trouble if they take that risk, they won’t do it. Without fear of failure though, your staff on-site, your team, will make a decision that they believe to be right. Therefore, they will also become leaders in their own right.
Q: Was That Culture Ingrained From the Very Beginning of Advanced Dynamics or Did It Come Later? If It’s the Latter, How Long Did It Take to Instill?
A: It was always there. For many years, we were much smaller than what we are now. We were a small team of four or six people. We lived and breathed the same air. We worked in the same office. We went out from that office into the shop floor to finish the machines. That culture was just a natural thing. It was only a few years ago, when we started studying it and thinking about an upfront culture, that we began looking at what made us successful. Our ethos is: because it matters. It matters to us, not our customers. Those words came out of a brainstorm after about 10 pints in Birmingham, between Tom (Smith), Matthew (Green), and myself! That was the first of the punchy lines that we put together. When you realise what makes you better, hone in on it. We sell 80% us, 20% machines. It’s by putting that ethos upfront, that’s what makes you stand out. So it’s always been there. But truth be told, we didn’t know what we’d got until about three years ago.
Q: What’s the Biggest Learning Curve Been?
A: Often, you take a while to realise what you’re going through because you’re so busy doing things. It’s only in recent weeks and months that I’ve looked around and realised what we’ve built here. We have built something special. As a business owner, you are so in the moment a lot of the time – I don’t remember most of my 40s – It’s a constant learning curve. The day you think you’ve got it nailed, is the day you’ve got it wrong. For me, growth in the last few years has been around realising that you’ll never know all the answers yourself because you don’t know enough questions to ask. It’s not what you know you don’t know, it’s what you don’t know that you don’t know that will catch you out. That’s why having partners who are good at the art of what’s possible is critical. There are lots of things I don’t know about and you need people who are specialists in their field: accountants, solicitors, other engineering companies, peers within the same group, peers outside that group. It’s keeping your ears and mind open to the things you’ve never even thought about before. That’s how you grow.
Q: You’ve Stepped Away From Your Role as Managing Director, Why Did You Feel Now Was the Right Time?
A: The first part of it is I can’t be here forever. How long will it be before I go? I don’t know. But unless you’re starting to plan for it you could be caught out. That’s something I genuinely never wanted to happen. We always have to have some form of succession planning. My mindset changed over last summer. We knew that we were going to hit what we have called Chapter One’s growth plan targets. That was a given. Over my holiday last year (I was one of the few lucky people to get away), I realised that Chapter Two would be very different. Tom came on board at the very start of Chapter One and grew massively. He joined as a young sales manager and rapidly developed to the board-level position of sales director. Over the last 12 months, he was looking after the detail, effectively doing the managing director’s job. The more we talked about Chapter Two, I had the realisation that it would be Tom that drove it, rather than myself. Tom and I talked at some length about the responsibilities he would have to take on in the MD role formally, as well as speaking honestly about him becoming a shareholder in the business as part of the MBO. I remember, at one of the final meetings, that I rang Tom to say you do realise this is your last chance to walk away. It takes us full circle because I know what I went through in my first year of owning the business. Yes, it’s a very different animal, but I genuinely do hope that Tom never ever has to live through some of the stresses and strains that I went through in those early years. However, I did say that this was his last chance to walk away. He asked me to explain why. As the owner, the majority shareholder in this business, you’re now responsible for everybody else’s mortgages – exactly as I talked about earlier – and that is a tie that you cannot break. I knew, in Tom, I had a business partner that would continue to grow the business, even when I’m gone and in the manner in which I would want it to be. It was a coming together of parts. There was my own mental position, in terms of being prepared to let go. There was Tom’s development in the business. There’s a clean break between Chapter One and Chapter Two.
Q: How Was Your Family About It When You Told Them About Your Decision?
A: I don’t have children. I have two cats and as you can imagine they don’t have much input to the business! Alison, my wife, has been with me right from the start. She’s shared the celebrations. She’s given me a shoulder to cry on. She’s always made it plain that she’d support me in every decision I make. She was immensely supportive.
Q: What Is Next For You in the Immediate Future?
A: I can’t imagine me ever walking away for good, but I will never hang around if I can’t contribute to the business. I feel I’ve learned a lot from running the business for over 23 years and I believe there’s still a huge amount of stewardship that I can offer – albeit from a little bit more of a distance. With that history and what I can do for Advanced Dynamics, I have wondered whether I could get the opportunity to share that, maybe with new startups or businesses embarking on growth. If I can provide some experience to people just starting out, I’d get a great deal of pleasure – even if it is just me saying have you thought about this or that. Maybe some further executive work would be interesting. Away from work, I certainly hope to go skiing a little more and go on a few more driving trips. It’s a fluid situation.
Q: What’s the Overriding Feeling You Have When You Look at What Has Been Achieved With Advanced Dynamics?
A: I have to be careful with this – I might get emotional! I love the place like a home. The people are like a family. I don’t like the word pride, but I am proud. It’s a fantastic place to be. And people love to be here. I am humbled by the support I get from my team. It’s a strange place to be right here right now for me. I still find myself sat by my desk thinking what the hell am I doing here. This was never on the cards. This was never in the script. and I’m very grateful for the opportunities that have come my way and the people that I’ve met along the way, as well as the people I’ve learned from and the people I work with. I’m so lucky and blessed to have gone through everything I have.