The Weekend Interview: Mel Hird The Voice Of Reason
It is always clear when you are going to instantly hit it off with someone. That was the case with Mel Hird.
Meeting to chat about the challenges facing small companies, especially those accessing finance for growth and how she has survived as a female in a traditionally male-dominated industry, we immediately started chatting, and as I am to discover, she is hot on soft skills like the ability to start a conversation.
From the moment Hird enters the restaurant where we are dining, she is open and talkative, but more importantly, in a way that exemplifies why she is so successful, Hird is a good listener.
And, if there was ever a company name that epitomised its founder’s philosophy, it is Fresh Thinking Capital.
The business is a funding provider “that gets to the heart of a company.” So, I ask why Mel and her business partner Andrew Walls set up the advisory company.
“The world of finance changed after the 2008 crash, and a new raft of regulations was introduced for banks, which led to business owners finding they could not have open conversations with their trusted bank manager.
“Wind the clock forward, and there are now thousands of funders in the market creating an unintentional minefield,” Hird explains.
The dynamics have changed, and SMEs don’t know where to turn. As Hird says, there is no clear path to help SME business owners navigate finance, and she recognises it can be a lonely world. “Even when they have navigated the right funding, the next step is to get corporate finance or debt fund advisers.”
She has, in the words of the cliché, been there and got the T-shirt but, more importantly, brings a wealth of experience to the table.
“In terms of understanding a client and their journey, we invest in long term relationships to fill the gap that was once occupied by the trusted bank manager.
“We sit down with SME owners to understand their issues, the business plan, and how they will steer their potential journey. Then we can match them to the market with the right funding at the right time.”
Hird has already alluded to the thousands of advisers saturating the market, so I am keen to find out what sets Fresh Thinking apart.
“Andrew, this for me is where the world is changing. What sets us apart is our experience. We all bring years of experience to the party: corporate restructuring, corporate finance, banking, private equity, debt finance, but,”
And here, Hird pauses for emphasis to make an important and relevant point.
Team Fresh Thinking
“At Fresh Thinking, clients have access to two entrepreneurs in Andrew [Walls] and me who have raised capital, bought and sold businesses, some to PLCs and two business partners who have also failed. That makes us atypical corporate finance advisers or debt funders.
“When we sit across from clients, we listen to their challenges. There is no one better to talk about the issues than people who can genuinely and authentically say: "I can relate to you, and here’s how I know, and connect and gel, through stories that demonstrate a deep understanding.”
“The one thing we are not shy in saying is ‘no’ to a deal, and if that means we don’t have the right experience, maybe don’t think we can deliver in the time frames or don’t have sector expertise, whatever that might be … we don’t shy away from saying ‘thanks for the opportunity, but it's not for us’. However, we have a black book of contacts from our networks who could help, and we are able then to steer them in the right direction.”
Hird is a firm believer that a quick no or yes in the initial stages is vital for a client to give them confidence. There is no one-size-fits-all approach with Fresh Thinking; instead, each deal is scoped around what is appropriate for a client.
From the moment we sit down to eat, it is apparent Hird lives by her key values. Everything about Hird is authentic. How many times do we hear the question what is authentic leadership? Well, a conversation with Hird, and it is obvious. When I point it out, she says that professional integrity and key values are engrained within her and the team. Trust and respect underpin everything.
“People who refer deals to us do so based on our service and deliverability and the way clients expect to be treated. Our phone contacts are always on, which means we can be contacted anytime. Communication is vital.
“That story piece around taking a client from A to B and feeling like we have done amazing things is about making sure the team work together.”
Deliverability is a word that keeps popping up during lunch, and I ask how Hird instils the right attitudes in her team.
“It is about investing in the softer skills. It is not about having a textbook conversation on what funding is available. It is about understanding a client’s businesses.”
Hird mentions the importance of her early career. Impressively, she was one of two school leavers who joined the restructuring team at Ernst & Young, as it was then, and, as she did not fit the graduate training profile, there was no set programme to follow. However, she did the same exams as the graduate intake but had the edge over those who had come straight from university with three years’ experience under her belt. She developed and recognised early on the importance of soft skills.
Anyone applying for a job with Fresh Thinking will have to demonstrate a decent work ethic, and Hird’s young team get the point about developing their soft skills.
“We want to nurture and train our teams they have the right work attitude, and so they still do exams, but what we do is get them involved in deals early on. They can see that to be successful is not just about doing the work, it is having the network and the trusted confidence to get work referred to them.”
One of the things Hird is introducing is the Fresh Thinking Network. The team are passionate about wanting to market those skills and build a network.
In typical Hird style: “let’s do it”, she told her young professionals. “Look, guys, a great idea; let's develop a point of difference and give something back.
“I look at my career, and I had some fantastic colleagues that sponsored and mentored me. I will always be grateful for the opportunities that I got. I am at an age now where we must do the same.”
For the second time, Hird pauses for effect.
“If I wanted a legacy, it would be we did this for the younger generation.”
The Fresh Prosperity programme paves the way for the next generation. In simple terms, it is an exclusive 10-month development programme, and Hird is ensuring there are opportunities for 50 young rising stars from whatever professional service line it might be.
Soft skills are at the core of the programme, alongside coaching and professional qualifications, all split between five specific workshops and five network events. Hird has a host of excellent business people lined up for the workshops: Jamie Jones Buchannan on getting into the right mindset and achieving, David Bunting on how to achieve the impossible, Tim Hyde on entrepreneurial thinking and Martin Wolstencroft on driving things forward. The network events are designed to demonstrate how to build business relationships and the questions needed to find out how a business is performing.
“It is about comfortably being able to get under the skin of a company to represent it properly. There is no point in raising funding if you don’t understand what the client needs.”
I venture to ask how all this fits in with a new post-pandemic attitude about working from home.
“We have tried to get the right balance with our team and ensure they can keep learning from us and keep listening to conversations and be in the thick of deals.”
“We also have the biggest crisis we have ever had in the UK in terms of shortage of labour. More people are retiring post-Covid, and Europeans have gone back to their hometowns, leaving the UK with a massive skills shortage.
“Until we start putting investment into people and skills in all the usual sectors and bring back certain sectors to the UK, we are going to have tough times.”
Both of us decline deserts opting for coffees which gives us just enough time to tie up a few loose ends, such as discussing her success in what has traditionally been a male-dominated sector.
To be fair to Hird, it is something I am raising, and she does not have any flags to fly and quite simply says: “I do not need to shout about anything. I just want to be known for what I am good at.
“I never wanted anybody to have an excuse to say it was about the quality of my work or the deliverability was ever in question. As a result, yes, you do work harder. It has to be a case of she knows what she is talking about, and I always wanted to have a position in my career to be respected for what I did and not being a female.”
She has batted that question firmly into the long grass, and it is certainly a case of Mel can be personable and fun, but at the end of the day, she is red hot at what she does.
It comes back to those soft skills. Hird can hold her own and be confident enough to be recognised as a businessperson comfortable in her own skin and to be known within her professional and social circles.
It's all down to that authentic leadership style she so adeptly demonstrates.
“It’s not about male vs female. It is about being truly yourself. If you are passionate about something and you are working in a particular sector that is male-dominated put yourself forward. Do not be shy about standing back or feeling inferior; if you are good at what you do, it will shine through, and you will gain respect.
“Hold your own without having to put it in someone’s face. If you can do it in a constructive way and represent yourself with nothing other than being normal, then that’s all you have to be.”
As I get up to leave, I start thinking about Kipling’s poem If,
used as a poem to inspire young people, and my takeaway from our meetings is that it could easily be replaced by Hird’s fresh thinking mantra on life.