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What can a Non-Executive Director bring to a family-run business?

8 months ago by

​Across the food and agriculture industry, there are innumerable family-run businesses. Hiring a Non-Executive Director to help manage the business isn’t something that many will have ever thought of as an option. How can they make a valuable impact when they won’t ever know the business as well as the family?

The reality is, however, that it is often in precisely these circumstances that a NED can add the most value. At our recent event on the value of Non-Executive Directors, we heard from William Burgess, Executive Chairman of his family business, Burgess Farms. The farm has been in his family since 1898 and William is the fourth generation owner. He’s a huge advocate of hiring a NED and now even holds the position at other companies himself.

Imposter syndrome can hold you back

“Family businesses struggle to trust someone from outside the family,” explained William. “There’s also imposter syndrome on the family side as members are often worried that the Non-Executive Director will think they’re not cut out to run a business at all. But that’s not the case. Having a NED in the business not only raises the confidence of the family to go for bigger things, it raises the confidence of all the staff.”

William joined his family business in 1995, straight from completing his accountancy qualifications. “Confidence was riding high and I believed that management was just telling people what to do. But I quickly realised that people don’t like being told what to do.”

“The best thing we ever did”

His inexperience wasn’t the only problem, however. At the time, his father was the Chairman - he had worked in the business the longest after all. But the reality was that his Dad was a farmer through and through. He didn’t want to be in Board meetings, he wanted to be out on the land doing what he does best. As a result, these meetings were often disorganised and ineffectual, lurching from strategy chats to discussing the mess in the yard.

Despite William’s baptism of fire into the world of business management, it was he who recognised that they needed help. He made the call - what the business needed was a Non-Executive Director.

In came Bernard Cook, who, amongst many other senior roles, had also been in charge of Mr Kiplings’ exceedingly good cakes. He wasn’t cheap. And he would only commit to two days a month. There were, understandably, plenty of discussions about whether or not to go ahead. But they did.

“We have all agreed that it was the best thing we have ever done. We soon found ourselves on away days discussing mergers and acquisitions, which we had previously only ever thought were for much bigger companies,” explained William. “But with Bernard’s support, we went for it and in just three years we had quadrupled the size of the business. Something we would never have achieved alone.”

And yes, Board meetings became a far more structured, constructive affair with Bernard on side. The business has gone from strength to strength and has continuously brought in new NEDs as their objectives have developed and grown.

Further down the line when MorePeople came on board to help find a new NED for Burgess Farms, William added;

“What surprised us was the calibre of people willing to join us. Working with MorePeople, it turned out that some real industry big hitters wanted to work with us, despite our business being much smaller than the ones they were used to working at,”