What makes a successful business person? - Business Works
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What makes a successful business person?

by Michael O'Connell, owner, Jolly Wodgers Anyone can set up their own business, but if you want to be successful you will need to be tolerant, ready to work night and day and make huge personal sacrifices - as well as having a good business plan and being able to deliver it, says Michael O'Connell, owner of fancy dress company, Jolly Wodgers.

Michael, one of the fancy dress industry's most successful entrepreneurs, is someone we can all relate to and his story is something we can all learn from. From starting his own company at the tender age of 9 years old, helping his father and family selling football merchandise and food at top football stadiums, to firing his company's biggest client and later buying it in 2013, he has been through it all.

Never be afraid to make mistakes and try something different. All you have to do is ensure you learn from it and implement each lesson into your business strategy

I believe it's fair to say that my early years gave me a very good footing and understanding of business. Working on a stall at Arsenal for many years helped me develop a friendly sales patter and allowed me to practise and fine-tune various sales techniques. The most important skill I developed from working at Arsenal are how to deal with competitors. Over the years I've seen my designs copied (I created merchandise with Arsenal's style guide) and had to deal with quite aggressive competition. This meant I had to learn to create strategies to ensure my business interests not only survive, but also take the lead.

Always make sure you gain additional experience, no matter where you are in the business

At Columbia Stava, I found myself in a unique position. The company's IT systems were, by today's standards antique - functional at best. The company's MD liked my approach - by now I had developed a reputation for getting things done. Soon I found myself creating a small network of computers and training some users on the Lotus and Microsoft suites. The company was being pushed by its customers (the likes of Sony and Toshiba) to use EDI. I was asked to find a programme or package that could meet the company's needs, both now and in the future. I soon realised that it wasn't just software that was needed, but also a brand new structured network. In order to know how each department worked and what its needs were for any new system, it was decided that I would spend three months working in each so I could gain the required knowledge. I started with sales, then purchasing, production, dispatch and then finally into accounts. In just over year, I had suddenly developed a knowledge of every aspect of a company with a multi-million pound turnover.

Always push yourself; youíll be surprised at what you can achieve

One of the biggest challenges I faced was training all 30 users of the new system. The majority of staff were mature in their years and had used the old system and done things their way for many years. Teaching an old dog new tricks - to coin a phrase - is very difficult. By nature, as we get older, people become scared and fear new technology. I had been trained in every aspect of the software, enabling the company to assume responsibility for training its staff, saving thousands of pounds in consultancy days. I learnt a lot about people over the months ahead. The term 'handholding' means something special to me, some users picked up the new software easily, while others took weeks to grasp it. The satisfaction of taking someone from the verge of quitting through fear to being fluent with everything was great. The business and IT knowledge I had learnt and the skills I developed over the years changed me forever. I had experienced real pressure and long working hours - I loved it. Despite finding myself in a comfortable position, I now wanted a bigger challenge.

Pectel Group, a construction and environmental company in Basildon employing over 300 employees, were advertising for an IT and Quality Manager. They wanted somebody to manage their Novel network and also set about obtaining accreditations to the British standard BS EN ISO9001/2. I went for the interview and the General Manager was so impressed with me, he offered me the job. Within two months I was given the General Manager's job and was now responsible for the day-to-day running of the company. I soon realised I would require knowledge of employment law and so it was decided that I should go on an intensive training course in all matters concerning HR. As the company worked for clients like Parliament and Government on special projects, I soon had an office opposite Downing Street, as well as one in Wales and the Midlands. The company was growing and so was my role within it. One minute I was sat at a table dragging the company accountant over the coals for poor accounting and the next I was addressing 240 manual workers from a stage on their expected conduct at work.

Develop key relationships

I emerged into the fancy dress industry after a meeting with an old family friend, Roger Lewis, who sold jokes and novelties. I went to school with Roger's son. We began talking and he told me was looking to sell up. He said he only wanted part time work now and his children weren't interested in taking on his business. I started asking him questions about his trade and, in particular, his busiest periods. He said that 'Halloween' was the busiest period - yes, I thought Halloween was an emerging market, so I asked him if he would sell me the business. We agreed a deal and I spent the next six months working with him free of charge, learning the ropes.

At the end of 2004, Roger officially sold me his business. I knew I was paying a very large sum of money for goodwill and, despite spending six months getting to know a bit about the trade, I still had a lot to learn. I came up with a plan that had Roger staying with me on a one year contract. I wanted the customers to know and trust me - after all, what was stopping them going elsewhere? Their loyalty was to Roger not me. My plan was to have Roger keep the sale of the business a secret and to keep running the firm as if it was his own, with me employed as his Manager. I knew this way I would be able to get to know the customers, develop relationships and trust. I started the business as "Michael O'Connell Trading as Roger Lewis Wholesalers" - the same name Roger had used for years. Over the following months I got to know all the customers really well and was beginning to develop an in depth knowledge of how my and their businesses worked. It was working - customers soon liked me more than Roger, they loved the service and the extra lengths I would go to get them what they wanted when they wanted it.

By the end of the year, I had done it and the goodwill I had paid Roger for was now safe. I told the customers I was the owner - most, if not all, were now my friends. During this first year I had often smiled when a certain customer in South London teased Roger by calling him 'Wodgers' - I found it funny and loved the name. It was soon after that a customer asked me for a Jolly Roger flag, more commonly known as a pirate flag. I found myself saying 'Jolly Wodgers'. I loved it. I got onto Marks Clark the IP lawyers my father had used in his Tottenham case and asked for them to trademark the name and protect it as I wanted it to be my company name and brand. So, on the 31st August 2005 Jolly Wodgers Limited was formed.

You can overcome every challenge; donít be afraid to make big decisions

Taking on Roger Lewis Wholesalers and creating Jolly Wodgers had been relatively easy, given my previous projects. Three years into Jolly Wodgers, I decided to build a .com. I had a customer who I had helped build up to become an internet giant in fancy dress. Sadly the direction he was moving in concerned me, so I thought I should have something up my sleeve. Extreme Party Solutions was born as a front for the online retailer - it was working well. The .com though at Jolly Wodgers was now spending about half a million and so I decided to sell Extreme Party Solutions for a profit.

Another few years on and the .com which was called allfancydress.com was still growing, accounting for 50% of our sales and I was becoming concerned about the balance between credit lines and costs. But closing his account and pointing him elsewhere in the midst of a recession would also be extremely risky. I knew that if I stopped dealing with them, I would have to make staff redundancies as well many other cutbacks. Likewise, they were one Halloween away from disaster. The decision was made: the account had to go. I sacked my own company's biggest customer. Was I mad?

As it turns out, no I wasn't. Just weeks after, the company was hit by a Google algorithm change and suddenly lost its good footing. Matters took a further twist when the company was hugely affected by yet another Google change just six months later. Suddenly I wasn't the only one whose turnover had halved. Having cut such a large account from Jolly Wodgers books, I realised I needed to prop up its accounts as I couldn't risk losing anymore customers. Whether through retirement, poor management or competition, the bricks and mortar fancy dress shops that were the lifeblood of Jolly Wodgers were closing down sooner than I would like.

In 2009, I had formed my own import company making products for Jolly Wodgers. The problem was that the MOQs (minimum order quantities) were high and so I needed my competitors to take some of my product. At first they wouldn't buy from me because the goods were labelled as Jolly Wodgers and they didn't want to promote my company over theirs. Hence the 'Rainbow 7' brand was created.

I was facing an ongoing dilemma at Jolly Wodgers - branch out into retail or face the prospect that the business may, within a few years, run into jeopardy. I knew I couldn't open a shop or buy one that was near an existing customer as it would harm both them and Jolly Wodgers alike. Instead, I thought I would wait and see if any existing customers were looking to sell up. Within months the first prospect had arrived. Cloaks and Daggers had been in Hornchurch for more than 25 years and had a good regular spend with us. When the business folded I approached the landlord with a plan. He loved it and my first shop was going to open in weeks. Before very long, the shops were doing what they needed to do - order off Jolly Wodgers every week.

Good relationships are the key to success

It wasn't long before one of my customers approached me about selling. They knew I had taken over where Cloaks and Daggers left off - in fact most of my customers actually helped me with it, offering guidance and their assistance. With Jolly Wodgers offering such a good service and as their preferred supplier, they wanted to see it survive too. I subsequently struck a deal to buy my customer's shop and took it over within weeks. My third shop had just opened and I was already in negotiations to open two more.

In 2013, the founder of allfancydress.com (the company I had turned away) approached me. After lengthy talks, he asked me if I would consider taking the company on. It was a huge risk, but also an incredible challenge. By this time I had been in fancy dress for the best part of 10 years and I could see that this business needed a strategy. That was six months ago; my plans are now well under way. The company is not only back on track and stable, but is growing at about 30% per month as my plans take root. Halloween is up next - a challenge that excites me the most, stepping up from 1200 orders per week to 2500 orders per day takes some doing!

To me, a successful business person thinks outside the box, looks for emerging markets and trends; is not afraid to make decisions and weighs out the pros and cons using their own experience and knowledge of the market. You have to be driven, but know when you need to step back and ensure you gain the knowledge you need, either by going on courses or asking for others' expertise, for the sake of your business's success.

For more information, please visit: allfancydress.com

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