In October 2013 Brian was awarded The Richard R. Dilling Award at the 40th Anniversary Summit of AIM Global. The Award is considered the highest given in the AIDC industry in recognition of lifetime achievements that have furthered industry growth through significant applications and new technological developments.
Brian Marcel founded his company in 1982 with his late wife Liz selling bar code original artwork or Film Masters. The company grew rapidly and after five years pioneered the concept of providing a total solution to trackand trace solutions including hardware, software, wireless infrastructure integration and services.
In 1990, just after the Berlin Wall fell, Brian founded the International Bar Code Systems (IBCS) group in Eastern Europe and is still the region’s No 1 enterprise mobility solutions integrator.
Brian has been on the Trade Association Boards of AIM UK and AIM Global since 1985 and is an invited member of the AIDC 100 group, where he serves on the Leadership Council, formed from the most influential industry leaders internationally.
We asked Brian a few questions….
What was it that made you explore the Eastern European Market?
I think Eastern Europe is a very exciting market which a lot of people are scared about. In the early days I couldn’t borrow any money from the banks, in terms of overdrafts or anything because they didn’t understand the market at all, they were scared of it. I think they still are actually.
So, it was quite strange that I was actually able to get my profits out to the countries without any problems. It’s said that the Communists or the ex-Communist governments were very happy to deal with the West and allow them to take their profits out of the countries. Otherwise, I couldn’t have set up business there at all.
What prompted me to go to Eastern Europe is that my biggest supplier of barcode hardware had a direct sales force. As a result, they wouldn’t allow me to go to any of the big customers because they got them all tied up, which really annoyed me, and that obviously limited the amount of revenue we could do.
I looked for markets where they weren’t established, in fact where they’ve never even been heard of and I just thought that Eastern Europe might take off because Maggie Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and Gorbachev were having a little entente cordiale. Maybe the wall would come down opening up those markets and sure enough, it did in 1989.
Did you feel like it was a big risk at the time and how did you navigate that journey?
Well, I am a risk-taker because I’m an entrepreneur and you can’t be an entrepreneur without being a risk-taker as you’re going to make lots of mistakes in your life. You’re going to have huge failures. You’ve got to allow for those, accept and manage them. Everybody thought I was totally bonkers. To be fair, it took me 7 years before I got the money back.
I was able to make profits by doing other weird things out there. I sold bank note counting machines from the States, because the Ukrainian manufacturer of these machines had stopped making them. There was huge demand in Russia for these machines. Eventually the KGB took my business away and the manufacturers realising the market potential started dealing direct.
Then I found a company in England, a DIY company, I could sell domestic cable to which I had made in Russia. Well in Moldova actually because at that time Russia wasn’t a member of the London Metal Exchange, so their copper price, which was the main component of this cable, was half the price of the LME.
I could buy this really cheap and sell it in England and I sold containers full of this stuff until my factory, which was primarily all women, went on strike and 60 of them lay down in front of the train that was taking my goods to England and blocked it. This upset my customer, of course, because I was no longer a reliable supplier even though it was cheap. And then there was a war in Moldova and the factory roof got burnt down further causing delays. Then Russia joined the LME and that was the end of that.
I also sold cassette ribbons for typewriters and carbon paper. Ironic as while I was living in South Africa, I used to sell carbonless copying paper. I was always selling against carbon paper, but it saved my life in Hungary. These were the sort of things that kept me going till companies started to buy my barcode solutions as I say it took about seven years.
How do you deal with stress?
I’m not stressed at the moment and haven’t been stressed for a long time.
I think a lot of people get stressed. Well, obviously if they’re not being very successful and they’re running out of money, then they’re very stressed, and I’m not sure there’s a lot you could do about that. So, if you’re having extreme problems and I don’t know how everyone controls their stress, but I think you should try and manage stress on a daily basis.
I just take the view that I should manage deadlines and conflicts and try to anticipate things happening and prepare for them rather than be taken by surprise.
Another thing I advise people not to do is to have lots of assumptions about things. I find most of the time your assumptions are wrong and so you get yourself stressed for no reason at all because you made the wrong assumption. If you just pause a bit and don’t act as quickly as you want in other words, don’t overreact or react prematurely. Just stop, think and then act but based on what you can see, not what you assume and don’t assume other people are going to respond in a certain way because they may not. How do you know? It’s only your view, I’d rather wait and see.
Be a good listener, sit down and listen to people. Don’t jump in. Don’t put your own views down too quickly and react to what people do or say. It depends on the circumstances.
What do you think are the main tools for resilience and business when dealing with challenges?
You have got to believe in yourself and believe in your idea because there is going to be a lot of people who will tell you it’s a load of rubbish and that you can’t do it. Even as you go on your business, people will say that can’t do this, can’t do that, and so you should keep away from naysayers and negative people. Only have positive people in your life. That sort of challenge, you’re going to get a lot.
And then, of course, you’re going to get financial challenges. You’ve got to watch your cash flow and cash is king. That’s the name of the game. Everybody should be doing a cash flow forecast and cash reports. These could be done weekly, monthly, whatever suits you. If you don’t know your cash figures, you’re dead. You can make lots of revenue and even lots of profit but if you haven’t got money to pay your bills, you will be screwed.
What are the keys that people can use for planning for success in business?
Perhaps one thing I should have mentioned in the last question was passion. I think you must be passionate about what it is you do and then that will protect you from naysayers because you have such a strong belief.
I still don’t think you can run a successful business without a business plan and I’m staggered at some of the businesses that don’t have business plans, although they can be successful. Business plans help me because it gives me goals and makes me think about the goals I want to achieve and strategies of how to get there. They can help me figure out how to make people accountable given the deadlines. It’s on paper so I can see where I am and where I’m going.
Otherwise, it’s all in your head and it’s all muddled, and then it all gets on top of you because the longer the business goes on, there are so many things, so many balls to juggle. So then how do you keep track of those balls? The business plan ofcourse. As part of it you would also have a marketing plan, sales plan, operational plan and an everything else plan!
You need a good Managing Director who’s got an eye for detail who can execute your business plan, that’s basically his job. You can be the visionary or vice versa so ideally you need two of you.
What qualities are you looking for in the people you work with?
People are crucial. I’ve written a whole chapter about people, and I believe you should hire people who are smarter than you otherwise, how do you grow your organisation? Because you don’t know everything, and you probably never will.
Also, you haven’t got the skills to do everything in the Company, so you need people with complementary skills to you. Then you can clone them with your values and your skills. Interviewing skills are key and even my guys often do bad interviews.
A lot of people will instantly decide about somebody when they’re interviewing them after 30 seconds maybe because they have a ‘wet fish’ handshake. As a rule, you should always give them 30 minutes at least before you even start to decide about them because they’ll be nervous when they are being interviewed. I would advise people to go on a course on how to interview people and I don’t think people really understand how costly hiring the wrong person is.
Then keeping everybody motivated when you’ve got them, when you have your dream team, you have got to keep them motivated. You
have got to keep praising them, give them feedback on how well they’re doing, give them direction so they’re not floundering, measure their performance and give them targets.
Is that portfolio diversity something you would advise as a business principle?
I think the word “focus” is a business principle and then you can decide whatever that means for you. A lot of successful businesses aren’t focused as far as I’m concerned, as much as they don’t put all their eggs in one basket, and they are very diversified. And I think that’s fine if you know what you’re doing and yes, it does hedge against other things.
There’s actually no right or wrong way because there are so many successful businesses in both camps. For me, I preferred sticking to anything to do with barcodes but that was just me. The company I worked for in South Africa stuck to everything to do with paper, although they were different types of papers and all that.
Diversification is a difficult word to define but as long as you focus on what you do, that’s the important thing.
Let’s talk a little about your book. Could you explain why you wrote it and what you think it brings to people?
It changed really from when I started because the catalyst for writing the book was a trade association that I’m a member of, in the States, made up of the 100 most influential people in the industry. A lot of them are dying off and have died off, obviously because the industry started in the 70s. so they wanted me to write my memoirs to contribute to the history of the Industry for those following.
10 years ago, they started badgering me and I never did it because I thought I couldn’t remember half of it. You know, I can’t remember what I did yesterday, let alone 40/50 years ago, so I thought that wouldn’t work. Plus, I didn’t know how to write a book.
Somebody I met who calls herself The Book Professor, managed to persuade me to take some lessons and she taught me how to write this book. I wrote it over two years with her. It started off just as the memoir but she made me develop it into a life story to help entrepreneurs set up their own businesses by referring to my journey and putting in lots of business tools that would help people by putting in lots of mistakes and failures.
Most business books are a lot of hot air, they don’t give examples of real-world thing only theory. All of my stuff is practical and based on personal experience which I think gives it more credibility and perhaps a bit more helpful to potential entrepreneurs.
Values and family are mentioned a lot in your book. Could you talk a little about them? How have they helped you overcome challenges in your business?
My late wife of course was my partner and she was fabulous. It’s quite important to have women in your business because they have a completely different slant on things. Their insights are very useful and they look at things differently to you. She stopped me making a lot of wrong decisions, giving me a different perspective on things, especially with staff issues.
My brother did and still does my accounts, so he was very helpful especially when I was in Europe.
The thing about family is that you can trust them, and as long as you know they’ve got a brain and they’re practical, then they’re a great addition to one’s business. So, I would definitely always recommend family, but some people can’t work with their families and that’s understandable.
Tell us something interesting about you?
I currently run a I do quite a lot of mentoring, I’ve mentored lots of young people; I really enjoy it and it’s my current mission. A lot of them are black, funny enough, not by design, but by accident and my current mission is to try and change the UK PLC culture. I’m trying to get them to hire more black people, factoring on an upcoming meeting with the Institute of Directors. I’m taking a team of successful black influences along to strategize to see what we could do about it. So that’s quite fun.
But before that, I I have hobbies in golf, skiing and cycling in particular. I got myself a nice new bike which makes a huge difference as it probably shaves a couple of seconds off. I’m also a local counsellor.
What advice would you give anyone reading this?
I don’t take myself seriously, that’s for sure, and I don’t really care what other people think. I think that’s another important thing in business because you don’t want to be friends with everybody, you don’t want to be liked by everyone. Lovely, if you can be. I don’t mean you go out and beat everyone up. Too many people want to be liked and that doesn’t work in business. If you want to be liked, you probably won’t get the people’s respect, but you will be liked if you’re just normal.
Be yourself, is the advice I would give.
How can people get in touch or book you
Visit my Website at brianmarcel.net
There’s no doubt about it, the last couple of years have required more responsiveness in business than most. What can we learn from Brian’s journey that could help you in your business?
- You can’t be an entrepreneur without being a risk taker as you’re going to make lots of mistakes in your life. You’ve got to allow for those, accept and manage them.
- People are crucial. Brian believe you should hire people who are smarter than you… otherwise, how do you grow your organisation?
- You have got to believe in yourself and believe in your idea because there is going to be a lot of people who will tell you it’s a load of rubbish and that you can’t do it.
- Brian advises us not to have lots of assumptions about things. Challenge your assumptions and watch change happen!