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Career interview: James Guy, Sales Director; New England Seafood4th May 2022
We spoke with James Guy in the first few weeks of his most recent role as Sales Director at New England Seafood. A business with a unique and fascinating proposition in Consumer Goods. James’s career as a Sales Director so far has been spent in senior Sales positions most recently with Müller after tenures with GlaxoSmithKline and Premier Foods. In this interview, James gave us worthwhile insight into his experience of combining academic study with work, how his perception of success has changed over time and what about New England Seafood attracted him to his new role. Thank you for your time, James!
So James, you’re very new to a role at New England Seafood that sounds like an exciting move for you. How’s it going?
It’s good! It’s early days and I’m learning the people and the business and forming my own view of what needs to happen. This takes a lot of time and changes day-to-day. New England Seafood was formed about 15 years ago and it’s a very successful business with a strong entrepreneurial spirit that’s grown to around £160 million turnover. Now it’s at the stage where it’s ready to realign in terms of controls and operating principles, to get to the next stage of growth.
I suppose the job for me, is to consider how we do that without losing the uniqueness of the organisation and switching people off. That’s a massive job to do but it’s exciting and people are very supportive.
Can you tell us a bit more about your Sales Director position at New England Seafood and its history?
New England Seafood was privately owned until about 18 months ago, when it was acquired by an Alaskan organisation called Sealaska. What’s fascinating about Sealaska is that they focus on Alaskan heritage and sustainable businesses. Their 23,000 shareholders are Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian people. Their focus is on buying and acquiring the relevant businesses that have a fundamental bearing on making life better for Alaskan Innuits. It’s all about long term sustainability for people and planet, which is what really appealed to me. How can we create an organisation with a sustainable proposition that gives back to people and the environment in the long term? It’s really refreshing.
You’ve taken quite a traditional path through Consumer Goods in terms of your career. Why the move to this organisation?
There are multiple reasons. My career started in an Account Management role at Premier Foods, where I got my teeth into commercial and sales and understood the importance of execution. A big part of that is the requirement to bring people with you on the journey. Then my role at GlaxoSmithKline taught me how to be a leader. It gave me an understanding of how to lead with process and structure, and the importance of ensuring your organisation is successful and your people as well. Then, when I think about the move to Müller seven years ago, I was able to take those leadership skills and develop them further into soon working within a Sales Director role.
Müller have been on a transformative journey with their milk and ingredients business over the last five years. Dairy as an industry is hugely challenged, and the journey we took to fix the fundamental structural issues in ways of working was monumental. What I really took from my time at Müller was understanding how to take hugely complex industries such as dairy. Then simplify those complexes across your team, ensuring you’ve got a common goal and purpose to lead the team to fix it. The challenge really appealed to me; taking our organisation from a loss-maker into a profit generator, and I learnt so much about how to do business and how to bring people on a journey to success.
What had really excited me about Müller was the challenge of taking an organisation from a difficult position which needed to restructure and rebase itself, into a successful one.
I’d also embarked on an MBA at that time, which really enabled me to put all the theory I’ve learnt into practice, and suddenly I had greater clarity on why things had worked.
Amazing James! What were the next steps to your success?
When I looked at the market and which roles were available it was important to me that my next business had firstly a degree of entrepreneurialism, but also had the right foundations and DNA to be successful. Finally – and probably the most important part – it had the right values. I spoke earlier about how important people and planet are to me and when I looked at New England Seafood, it had the right DNA and the right balance. It’s well invested, there’s opportunity for me to develop, as the business grows, furthermore, it’s an intellectually stimulating category.
Fish is hugely complex and that really appealed to me; I didn’t want to go and work into another traditional FMCG business because I’ve walked that path and I know that that ‘small cog in a big wheel’ isn’t right for me anymore. I want to play a greater role in helping to shape future organisations and their teams to be successful.
What was the driver for taking the MBA? At your career stage I imagine it’s a significant time investment.
I’ve always wanted to do one. I started a PhD before going into FMCG, so academia interests me. However if I’m being brutally honest I’m just too capitalistic to be an academic! I wanted to make money and I’m too extroverted to be behind books. Over the years I’ve seen the consequences of my decisions and my reason for taking the MBA was wanting to deepen my understanding of why those actions and reactions take place. Rather than just assuming the answers. It’s taken everything I thought I knew and understood about business from my experience and gut feel and allowed me to put those theories into practice and eventually become a Sales Director.
For me life is a learning journey, and you can take learnings and lessons from everything and everyone. So, an MBA was a great fit. It’s taken me two years. The main take-away from it isn’t the academic learning; it’s the opportunity to spend a lot of time with people from various industries, different backgrounds, careers, demographics. I learnt more from those people than any textbook.
It sounds like a very worthwhile endeavour. How has your measure of success changed throughout your career?
When I started my career I saw the Sales Director position as the pinnacle, but now I look back that seems quite naïve and it’s not really a measure of success at all. For me now, success comes from the way my teams deliver, the way they feel and behave, their attitude and desire to want to be in the business. I know that sounds cheesy but the more time I’ve spent with people, the more I realise it’s those people that deliver the results for you, nothing more and nothing less. Success at Müller was ensuring my team was successful, and that continues into this role. The result of that might be that my career also continues to develop, but that’s a very much a secondary output.
As a leader and as an extroverted character, how have the last couple of years impacted you and your teams?
I think it required a real change; it was difficult for everybody. We quickly got to this position that the functional, everyday tasks could be performed quicker and more efficiently. Productivity initially increased, but when some of the more challenging conversations such as tenders, price negotiation or developing a long-term strategic agenda came up, they were really challenging and difficult. What that required was the correct controls to try and manage those processes, but it wasn’t easy.
I think there was a greater impact on individuals’ mental health than initially realised. We had to create moments of socialisation that didn’t exist previously. The only interactions were 45-minute Teams meetings and diaries were back-to-back. So, the ability to think and to do more than basic execution of tasks is still suffering. I do think the move to home-based working has been very positive overall for many. However I feel we must find a way to balance it out.
Seven was established in 2002, where were you working at that time? What advice would you go back and give yourself?
I was in my second year at university, studying Archaeology. I would tell myself “Give yourself a break!”. In my late twenties and early thirties, it was always about the next step and getting the bigger job. I have learnt that sometimes you take that big step, you fail. However when you do it can be harder to get back up again. It can be a good idea to slow down sometimes.
Thank you for your time and insight, James!
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