HIS & HERS ASKS DAVE THORNTON OF THORNTON & LOWE ABOUT THE CHALLENGES OF LAUNCHING A BUSINESS JUST AFTER THE CRASH, HIS PASSION FOR SUPPORTING START-UPS AND A ‘TYPICAL DAY’ AT THE OFFICE.
In the latest of our entrepreneurship features, we asked Dave Thornton, who launched his company just under a decade ago with the aim of helping organisations to bid and tender for contracts, about the biggest challenges and the biggest wins of his career so far…
How did the formation of Thornton & Lowe come about, and did you have any sense of trepidation about setting up a new business in 2009 just after the financial crash?
I worked in procurement for a large Housing Association. I noticed how a lot of SMEs who could provide a really good service and at a good price, therefore offering true value for money, could not bid and respond to our formal tenders well enough to retain or secure new business with us. After some initial supplier engagement events providing training to suppliers on what we were looking for, I saw a gap in the market and decided to start supporting a few clients bidding for other Housing Associations and Councils. This was successful so after about 10 months I had set up a website, had a few clients and was ready to risk it. I was not too worried as I could see the market growing, but my wife was! We had just bought our first house together and it probably wasn’t an ideal time from that perspective. To balance up the risk I wanted a small business loan to cover my wages and ultimately the mortgage. I was declined due to being a new business but also the financial climate, so managed to get a personal loan before leaving my employer, to give me three months wages just in case (and I did need it initially!).
Could you tell us a little about the mentoring side of your business?
After eight years in business and growing quite a niche bid management consultancy business, I felt like I had learned a lot. From my area of expertise on bidding, tendering, procurement and supply chain but also on marketing, sales, financial management, customer care and business growth in general. I had worked with mentors in the past and had benefited so wanted to share what I had learned.
Now myself and my business partner offer business mentoring to a handful of clients and we work closely with them to manage sustainable growth, improving customer satisfaction and operations. This started from a client request, which we have built on.
What does a ‘typical day’ at Thornton & Lowe involve?
There probably isn’t a typical day. I am often travelling to see clients, to monitor projects and presenting to new prospects. A typical day will always include quality assurance of our bids, checking the teams are happy, about 100 emails, and keeping a close eye on our sales and debtors across the four core divisions of the business.
How did you get into this field?
I worked in procurement in a Housing Association, so the other side of the fence than bidding, which is what our core business is now. I was working with our suppliers and saw what I thought was a gap in the market in helping SMEs to bid.
Please tell us about a career highlight:
There have been quite a few. Each win for our clients where I know we really went above and beyond to support our client to secure a crucial contract really makes all the hard work worth it.
What are the best things about your job?
Really being able to make a difference for our clients. It is rarely the super high value contracts as on these occasions we are a very small cog. However, working with a small or micro business and leading and driving them to produce the best bid possible which they secure ahead of larger competitors, the result being they have security of their business going forward and a platform for future growth, is so satisfying.
I also have a real passion for innovation and creating new products to get to market, such as our Tender Library Software, which has been a real success. When you know you have created something from a simple idea, developed it, marketed and built a business around it, there is a lot of satisfaction in that. It can be too easy to focus on the new things though and I do think it is important to keep very focused on the core of the business.
What are the biggest challenges of your role:
I do like to know what is going on and having control of how we speak to clients, how we email them, the tone we use, the style and the end product. When you then have staff and managers in place to control that I do find it difficult to keep my nose out! You don’t want to undermine someone who you have recruited for a position and you need to let them do their jobs, make mistakes and learn… or so I am told.
If our readers would like to forge a career in your field, what skills/qualities should they seek to develop?
An eye for detail and an ability to understand and explain complex information quickly. And importantly to be able to build up a rapport in order to get the information you need from a client, or any stakeholder. Project management and strong written skills are key.
What’s your best piece of career advice?
Dress for the job you want, not the one you have.
Is there any advice you wish you’d been given at school that you’d share with your younger self?
Don’t worry. You will try lots of things and some will work and some won’t. As long as you learn from them, find something you are good at and then importantly do everything you can to be best, you’ll get there in the end. This will involve a lot of reading, additional training, seeing how others do things and constantly pushing yourself to achieve.
Also, if you are applying for a job – really take it as a serious task. Write a tailored and personal cover letter directly relating to the role, develop your CV and experience for the role and think how could it be better and more relevant to the employer. I think you will notice your number of invites to interviews will rocket!
What are your plans for the year ahead?
We are launching an updated v2 of our Tender Library Software, which we are currently recruiting a new sales team for. This should all be live for August which is very exciting and should make a real impact on the market in the UK. We then also have our free tender alert service which will also be going live in August/ September. Providing SMEs free access to higher and lower value public sector sector totally for free! Users will also be able to quickly see who has the contracts now and who has been awarded similar contracts locally – so they can quickly assess the competitors involved. So an exciting year!
You may also enjoy: Successful local businessman John Hynes reveals how he built his company.