Sudden loss of business meant company had to act to survive
"In a funny way, we had our downturn two years before everyone else," says Charley Stoney (centre), with colleagues Nicola De Beer and Libby Keeling. PHOTOGRAPH: PAUL SHARP/SHARPPIX
FUTUREPROOF: FMI:It may not have been the most auspicious of starts but for Charley Stoney, losing a substantial slice of business just as she joined FMI was not the disaster it might have been. Indeed if anything, the uncertain start has propelled the company to growth.
Stoney had just taken up the position as managing director with field management specialist FMI in 2007, just as the company was going through “a bit of a metamorphosis”.
At the time, it acted as a multiple franchisee for Texaco, in charge of up to 20 forecourts and shops around the State. However, Texaco had announced it was selling off its sites in Ireland. And, in a double blow, the company also lost its instore demonstrations business for Tesco.
“About €5.5 million was wiped off the turnover the minute I arrived. So I had to turn the business around quite rapidly. In a funny way, we had our downturn two years before everyone else,” Stoney says, adding that she decided to move the business towards the more traditional field management side of things, such as contract sales and merchandising.
But while it might have been a less than ideal start for Stoney, some luck was soon to come her way.
“The first thing that happened was that we agreed a deal with Topaz for 10 old Shell sites. We took those on and that kept us going for another 18 months.
“In the meantime we built up a reputation with Glanbia, UPC and John West.”
Back in the company’s heyday in 2006, turnover had been as high as €8.2 million. But, by quickly capturing a significant chunk of new business, Stoney managed the decline so turnover dipped to just €6.4 million in 2007.
It looked like Stoney was managing to turn the business around. But then the full force of the recession struck, and, while she had put a five-year strategy in place in 2007, out of necessity this became a seven-year plan.
“For us, it was 2009 that we really started to see things fall-off,” she notes. “That being said, we never veered off course, we never had to let anyone go, we kept things very, very tight and cut costs.
“Everyone was looking to cut margins and were putting things out to tender to get the best price,” recalls Stoney, adding that FMI’s reaction wasn’t to cut costs in staff, although it did have a pay freeze for three years. Instead it focused on the “peripherals”, such as marketing costs, newsletters, taking a stand at the RDS for jobs fairs, and stationery.
“We put a target on the amount of stationery staff could use and we promised a plasma screen in the boardroom if they hit it and they did, so I bought it! It was doing it with a sense of humour.”
FMI also had to adjust the cost of its offerings, which meant that, while the company held onto business, it just about broke even.
“It was all about keeping the good names we had, in the belief that when the good times come around that’s when you get your reward.”
The good times may not have reappeared yet. As Stoney notes, “we haven’t seen any increase in margins, it’s all about volume now”, but FMI continues to grow.
It reported turnover of about €13 million last year, and today employs just over 50 people, providing field sales staff for the likes of Sky Ireland and milk merchandisers for Glanbia.
Stoney says she was first attracted to the business because of the opportunity she saw for it.
“I wanted to do something a little bit more entrepreneurial where I could make my mark, she says, adding that growth remains on the agenda for 2013.
“We have targeted double digit growth again this year and there’s no reason to doubt that we won’t achieve it. But it will take an awful lot of hard work, sweat and tears!”
In this regard, FMI last week launched its new 24-person telesales business with two clients.
“It’s about extending our field service operation rather than replacing it,” she says.
And after that? Is FMI aiming for a trade sale?
“We’ll take the first steps first and scale it up – but we don’t want to scale it up too much that it becomes unsellable because it’s too expensive, says Stoney, noting that another focus is on developing the “next generation” of managers.
Beyond that, “who knows what will happen in the future?”.