Small can be beautiful

12 January, 2007
Celebrating his family business' 150th birthday this year, Alan Stuart, MD of Stuarts of Buckhaven, reveals how a small business can cut it with the big boys
Page 13 
Our company, based in Fife on the east coast of Scotland, will this year celebrate 150 years of trading, with a Stuart still at the helm.
Founded by my great-great grandfather James Stuart, we began trading in 1857 and today have 16 bakery shops and three butcher's shops, all located within a tight radius of 15 miles. We barely touch wholesale and turn over around £3m.So how come we've survived so long? A major obstacle we've overcome has been in passing on the legacy to successive generations.I once visited a famous family firm and was introduced to young Mr So and So, well into his 60s. His 83-year-old father still came in every day and was completely unable, or unwilling, to hand over the reins. It's the Prince Charles syndrome: pushing 60 and forlornly waiting for Mummy to shuffle off this mortal coil.The second generation son is heavily influenced by the driven father and, in all probability, works even harder than him. He may feel trapped, especially if the business is all he's ever known. The ability of the senior generation to heap on feelings of guilt often tears the relationship apart and this can pass down the generational ladder.With Stuarts well into our sixth generation, we've managed to create a sound culture and understanding among all family members of how the business works. We've always referred to "the golden goose"; if you don't nurture the goose, she soon stops laying eggs. Staying small means we can react quickly to changing situations. When new laws or diktats emerge, I either choose to ignore them or I act on them immediately.As to modern management methods? Phooey! My fondest business memory was of my father attending a high-powered three-day seminar, surrounded by whizz kids from the major retailers. Peter Drucker, an economics guru in the '70s, gave out a stream of tactics that shafted the small boys, with no concern for business ethics.My father let rip, calling him a crook, a cheat and a charlatan. Mr Drucker asked if my father had been in business long. "120 years," he replied. "Well," said Drucker, "what a pleasure this is. I have never met a dinosaur before. I predict a similar fate for your business." Yah boo sucks, the dinosaurs are still going strong. Staying small hasn't meant standing still. From a couple of shops and a new bakery at the turn of last century, we now operate from a 22,000sq ft site, designed to enable our sixth, seventh and eighth generations to celebrate 200 years and more.But won't the leviathans of the supermarket world or Greggs, with its projected £1bn mega-baker empire, eventually grind us into the dust? I believe not. Just think about the birds in your garden.At the top of the chain, we have the big birds - the crows and the seagulls - who muscle their way round, scaring the smaller birds and picking up the biggest chunks of food.Next we have the pigeons and starlings - scared of the crows and gulls and making do with their leftovers. Then we come to the smaller birds, such as finches, sparrows and wrens, nipping around the garden to pick up crumbs that the clumsy big birds have left behind. But it's the smaller birds' songs that give me the most delight.So do I think they'll survive? There's not a doubt in my mind.



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