Shannon Trueman is the co-founder of Melbourne-based consultancy Pearson Trueman & Associates, which works with large corporate and governments in areas like change management, communications and business analysis.
The former Smart50 member has annual revenue of about $8.5 million, although Trueman and Pearson have managed growth extremely carefully. Today she talks to us about why companies should constantly be measuring and improving their processes, the secrets of careful growth and why naming your business after yourself can be a blessing and a curse.
Let’s start with a description of what Pearson Trueman & Associates do, because there are a few facets to the business.
There are four main ones. There is analysis, which includes business analysis and business process analysis. Then there is communications, which is any type of documentation around an initiative or a strategy or a project and that might be brochures, it might be policies, it might be strategy documents, it might be procedures, any written communication. Then we do instructional design and that might be for facilitated learning or it might be for e-learning, depending on what the client’s requirement. And then we do change management around strategies or projects or initiatives.
Have you seen the sort of projects or strategies companies or organisations are trying to implement change since the GFC ended?
Look, I think probably for the organisations that we deal with, which are more corporate and government organisations, they are still looking at improvements and they’re probably getting more focused on how they can improve and particularly how they can measure success. Because unless you can give them something quantitative to say ‘we’ve moved from a sophistication level of one and we’re now at three’ then they can show that we’ve got something for our money.
For example, if we’ve reduced the time to process the application for a home loan - we’ve reduced it down from a week to three days in the turnaround time - then that’s a good experience for the customer and that can be a good experience for the bank because they’re going to be able to bill and get a commitment quicker.
Is that one of the big challenges though, finding the metrics for change?
Not really, I think it comes from top management. Top management have said ‘look we want to be able to say reduce the time to fulfil a loan’. And then it’s about working with the business and saying how can we do that? Where are the areas that we could look to improve and then going through and then quite often you’re getting your sticky notes out and your Sharpie pen, writing it and sticking bits on the wall and saying so what happens then, how can we do that, is there a delay there, how can we shorten the delay, are we double handling this? I suppose from our view, we’re sort of stepping back and able to see the big picture whereas the clients are working more at an operational level.
Is that a common problem that companies have – they aren’t able to step back far enough and miss the small things that add up to a big thing?
It’s normally the small things that turn out to be the big things. The other thing is while they’re good at articulating what they do, we always look at things end-to-end. So from when a customer walks in the door and says, ‘hey I have a need’, until when you fulfil the need. With most organisations, because they are broken into different departments, there is a different customer facing unit and then there is administration and then there is fulfilment, each of the areas can only see their bit and they aren’t able to say, ‘well what’s my hand over and where do I get it and where do I take it?’ And I guess that’s why they come to people like us, because we can see the big picture and we can articulate it clearly.
Is it something the companies don’t do regularly enough, get down into the nitty- gritty of their processes?
While they know what they do in one sense, if the auditors came through and give them a red flag, they’ll try to point to the document that shows how to do this process and quite often there is nothing or it’s out of date. So while a lot of our work is proactive, a lot of it is worth that we get reacting to the auditors coming through and giving them a red flag and saying you’ve got a year to fix it and they have to fix it.
It’s not a very proactive way of fixing, is it?
Not it isn’t, but lots of organisations don’t pay a lot of attention to that sort of stuff and that’s I suppose helps us have a niche.
Now, you’re inside these big companies everyday, and obviously your business has grown very quickly. Are there times when you see things and think, please don’t let that happen to us.
Look there is, and certainly around the way they don’t have processes documented and all that. Suzanne and I were very quick to make sure that we didn’t end up being the plumber with the spa that’s never been put in. We just didn’t want that. So we’ve been growing at a rate that’s sustainable. We could say yes and yes and yes to more work, but would that be the right thing to do build a sustainable business? No.
You have to develop the processes and document everything and do the procedures so that when you are getting bigger, you do have them there and you’re not reacting the way your clients do sometimes. So we have a found a balance that’s sustaining us.
In growing the business, the ability to say ‘no’ to work is important. Are there any other things that you have done to keep growth sustainable?
We’ve been very frugal in the way that we bring more people on. So we’re very cautious, I mean our bookkeeper says she can’t believe how we are so focused on how much money do we have, what are we doing, what’s our reports looking like? Because we have to do that, that’s the way we are and our advisory board keeps us honest. They’re questioning us all the time and that’s been good for us.
Are there time when you either could have put the foot on the accelerator or feel that you should have?
This is going to sound really sexist, but if you look at the way sometimes that when guys are doing stuff, they’ll just go for it. But we’re very cautious and it might be because we’re older. We made the decision that we don’t want to have any debt, we’re totally self-funded. We realise that there is good debt and there’s bad debt, but we still think that there’s mostly only probably bad debt. So we grow at a rate that we can sustain for us.
If someone came out of the blue and said ‘can you put on 40 people for this big project’, we’d have to look at it and really question what are the risks for us? And if they were big significant risks, we’d probably say no.
Well, it’s a good discipline to have.
In starting this business, I have for worked for companies that had chased growth and really done the wrong thing by their employees. Fortunately it didn’t affect me as much as systems engineers that had their wife and four kids, and his wife is going to the bank and there is no money in the bank because the directors of the organisation haven’t got enough money to pay people because they’ve been spending it on their luxury cars or whatever. That’s just for me a beacon to say that’s the way that we can never, ever work.
Any big challenges or mistakes you’ve made along the way?
I don’t think when you start a business you quite realise how much of a slave you are going to be to the business. And even our name – Pearson Trueman & Associates – while it’s flattering that people want to deal with Suzanne Pearson and Shannon Trueman, that means that even if you’re on a holiday, you can’t really put the business aside because it’s still dependent on you. Certainly that’s a transitionary thing but an image and branding change could probably be a good idea. So probably looking back, while we said we had to grow up and put our name on the business, perhaps it would be an idea to change it.
Does the name dictate how you run the business? I mean, there’s a lot you need to get involved in with running a business but there’s probably lots of clients that would like to see you face-to-face as well. How have you handled that?
We certainly always felt that if anyone is going to sell stuff for our business, it will be Suzanne and I. But yes, we do need help to do that because otherwise the growth remains at the same level. So that’s not sustainable. We could get sick, we’re getting older, we’re older than everyone else. So we certainly need to look at other people to help with account management and business development.
So what have you found has worked best? Do you guys go in at the start and then hand over to an account manager type? Or do you go in second or third meeting and do the big close?
Normally we go and do the selling and then once it’s sold it then moves into fulfilment. Fortunately because we’ve got a set of procedures around how we do everything it’s really strict, we appoint a lead consultant on the project and they are in charge of doing reporting and that comes through to Suzanne and I once a week. So if there’s anything that’s going on that they need in writing or hasn’t been communicated, it comes through in a weekly status report. See that’s where our procedures come into play.