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unLTD Business Interview: Riding the rollercoaster

Interview by Phil Turner, unLTD Business Magazine

The Managing Director of Airmaster, Lisa Pogson, is a much-admired face on the South Yorkshire business community. A trustee for Children’s Literary Charity Grimm and Co as well as a former President of Barnsley and Rotherham Chamber of Commerce, she works tirelessly, not just to make sure Airmaster continues to grow, but for a number of other causes that are close to her heart. We caught up with Lisa to find out how she made it to the top in a traditionally male-dominated industry and what obstacles she had to overcome.

How did you get involved in this industry?

So, it started at 16. I began working as an apprentice in an architectural practice in Sheffield in 1985, working through various building/contracting type businesses (QS, Structural Engineers and a local SME Main Contractor). Then in the late 90s, due to the recession in the building industry, I ended up doing four years at Sheffield Hallam University as an administrator turned timetabler in the School of Computing and Management Sciences. It was a leap of faith going from a small business that had one computer for wages/payroll to a massive organisation like SHU. It blew my mind, as I’d got access to all these courses and learning; I had not left school with many GCSEs or anything, so had started going to night school, eventually doing an HND in Business Studies and then a Masters following that. I mean everyone thinks AI is this brand-new tool, but I can remember the Computer and Management Science School at Hallam were teaching AI back then, 25 years ago!

You weren’t a natural academic, then?

God, no! I couldn’t wait to leave school but the people that I met at Hallam just opened my eyes to lots of things. I enjoyed learning from the people around me and being able to apply

it there and then. It’s not necessarily the tutor or the facilitator, it’s the people you meet. In fact, I still find that today and it’s why I love being a part of things like 3D Connect (Andy Hanselman Ltd’s monthly networking and personal development sessions), Barnsley & Rotherham Chamber and Connect Yorkshire.

How did that lead to the opportunity at Airmaster?

Well, Airmaster was started 1992 by my brother-in-law, Richard Pogson.  He knew I had knowledge and interest in this industry, and he would ask me questions about tax, sub-contracting etc. For a few years, I helped him sort things like the wages at the weekend as well as general support then in 1995 I said he needed to get someone in because the business was growing, and I couldn’t carry on helping him in my spare time. He did bring someone in, his wife to be, but they got busier, so I kept helping with bits at the weekend and he paid me part time. Then in 2000, when I was working at the University and doing my Masters, he asked me to work full-time as Office Manager. It was very ‘old school construction’ in terms of attitude and internal processes at that time. Lots of HR things needed sorting, loads of things around processes were needed. It needed a bit more organising. Anybody that knows me now laughs about that, but at the time, I was very focused, very organised, colour coded etc. Richard’s wife Sara worked with me and by this point Tony England had joined as Commercial Director and was helping Richard run the business. I liked and respected him too and knew he’d help drive the business in the right direction; it was a great team, it grew quickly.

So why were you so organised then but not so much now?

Well, I became a mum! I was 39 and I wasn’t planning on having kids, to be honest. I was back at work within a few weeks which was probably not the best thing in hindsight, but at the time I needed to get back to work. My husband was a subcontractor so didn’t earn regular money and we needed my wage. I’ve always worked seven days a week from being 16, so the work didn’t worry me, but becoming a mum made me go: ‘Oh my God! I’m not a mum!’ It was the lack of sleep and fitting in a little one. I found it really hard to keep on top of everything – something has to give. It was extremely stressful. Work was busy. The 12 months after I had a baby was then the best and busiest time, we’d ever had at Airmaster!

So how did you end up running the business?

Mark Staniland came and joined in 2007 and in 2008 we had the best year ever. Mark was a really sales-focused guy who had a real passion for what we were doing. But long story short, in 2009 we were heading to the recession and crisis point, but we didn’t know it. We weren’t making as much money as we thought or capturing everything financially on the projects. It became really clear that some jobs we thought were coming in, were being stalled or put off, some people didn’t pay us quick enough, so it was a perfect storm. We could see we were going to run out of cash, and we sat down with all the staff, as a team, through the proper process, and said:

“We either have to make some redundancies or we do some short time working. What do you want to do?” 

The staff that were productive and out in the field mostly worked full time, while some people worked four days and others offered to work five days but only got paid for four. We talked to all the suppliers too and they were brilliant, giving us longer credit so we could trade through it. And we did. As soon as we had the money, we paid back all of the staff that had ‘gifted’ hours. I feel that stood us in good stead for when we did the EOT [Employee Ownership Trust]. Eventually we put in put in a cheeky offer for this disused pub and turned it into our office. I even remortgaged my house to help pay for it!  But it was a double dip recession, so I think that, as well as the move made Richard and Tony realise that they wanted to exit the business at some point in the future. 

We had a growth coach involved from Business Link called Richard Lukey and when that ceased to exist, he put us in touch with John Barnett to help work out the best way of growing the business in a way to be able to facilitate an eventual slow stepping out of the business and then a buyout. We were £4m turnover at that point, so if we plotted it to get to £5m, £6m then £7m profitable turnover we could make it work. We made a plan, and we smashed that target. Me and Mark became joint MD in 2016.

So, do you think sometimes businesses fail just because they don’t have a focus or a plan like you had at this time?

Well, from my point of view, there are always things you can control and things you can’t. We’re all winging it to some extent but I’m a firm believer in going with your gut and knowing your numbers. Andy, our FD, has our trust and secondly, he always aims to know the numbers. I’m a realistic optimist; sales-focussed people are brilliant, and it is what every business needs. It is important to be focused on all the numbers, what all the costs involved are but they’re not always in control of the end numbers.  It is really important to keep focused and help that process. Gareth Campbell, our Ops Director is great at that. 

So, we had this three-year plan and did it in two years; we grew from £4m turnover to £7m. So, it was like 'wow!' but what are we going to do now? We’ve smashed that target so what was next?  Richard and Tony did step out of the business for a while and we did well for a while, but then we had a really tough year in contracting and unfortunately Mark became very ill [Mark died in 2019 and it’s had a profound effect on Lisa] and so eventually, after looking at other options, the EOT became the logical route. The success of the business in the following few years meant we could start to afford to buy out the shareholders and trade successfully going forward and what helped lead to the EOT.

You’ve mentioned that running the business feels like riding a rollercoaster. What are the ups and downs now?

It’s the cycles you go through. Dealing with staff, cash and contracting, design, build and manufacturing on site; people have things happen in their lives and they need support. We lost two members of staff here and you get very attached emotionally. I know it can be a strength and a weakness of mine, but we really are like a family. And like all families, it can feel dysfunctional sometimes!

Then there’s dealing with external pressures like inflation and the peaks and troughs of the economy. Construction and manufacturing is always at the forefront of that – the metals market goes up and down constantly. Energy bill rises have hit manufacturing businesses really hard. All those cycles - economy, the effects of people’s lives have on the team - it all creates that rollercoaster effect.  We are riding the highs and lows. Sometimes it’s knowing when to get off, knowing when to say ‘I can’t control this.’ You could have the best six months ever but while everyone else is enjoying that, I’m thinking about what’s coming around the corner. I understand that can seem like a pessimistic view, but it is being aware of the ‘what-ifs?’ and having an eye on the big picture, wherever possible. 

Is that part of the skill of being a leader… not getting too high in the highs and too low in the lows?

For me it is, yeah, absolutely. Celebrating success is so important but you need to be always looking to the horizon and what’s coming around the corner. Things come left and right field (Covid for instance). Celebrating success is what we want to do more of as a business, being proud of what we do.  

You do stuff outside of your role at Airmaster, sitting on the board at Grimm and Co, you’re an ex-Barnsley and Rotherham Chamber President, for example. Do you ever feel like you are too busy?

Probably, yes. I don’t know why but I’ve got to always be doing lots of things. I’m a people pleaser to some extent, but I am inherently interested in lots of things. It’s my researching mind!

And I guess where education didn’t necessarily get the best out of you, you found value in employment. It must be important to you to be seen to be making a difference in the workplace?

I think that came right back from my first job/bosses and even my tutor at Rotherham College, Richard and Tony, all my colleagues now. Every day is a learning day. Lots of people have put their faith in me and trusted me to do a job so I feel grateful that I have had that chance and I want to pay that forward. I won an award recently for being a 'local hero' which someone else put me forward for and that really meant a lot, as it really got to the heart of what makes me tick. I was overwhelmed and grateful for that.

You’re a female boss in a male-dominated industry. I know it’s not something you particularly focus on, but does that mean you have had to adapt your leadership style.

Well, I’ve come across some pretty atrocious behaviour over the years from leaders in this industry - and not just from men! I think sometimes some women have felt like they needed to live up to a certain stereotype and I’m not like that. I’ve probably seemed a bit too fluffy at times, but if someone needs an arm around their shoulder then I’m the sort of person who will do that. And it takes some time to develop your style, doesn’t it? That comes with experience. I’ve seen younger folk more used to working under a more assertive style of leadership feel the need to mimic that. It is good to look at other leaders and role models.

Do you think your people skills are what make you a good leader?

I think I see a lot of strengths in people and seeing how they can develop and learn. But on the flip side, one of my weaknesses is that I have sometimes not dealt with things straight away and let them fester. I remember reading Richard Branson’s book years ago and he always prided himself on his people skills and getting on with his team, but he could never deal with the hiring and firing. I can relate to that! I find that really difficult, but I think, if they’re honest, a lot of leaders feel the same.

Thanks, Lisa.

Lisa Pogson was recently recognised at the National Federation of Builders Top 100 Influential Women in Construction Awards as the Local Hero – North East Award.

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