Future Proof: Joe Aherne, CEO, Leading Edge Group
Lean times called for new ideas and a change of direction
Joe Aherne: “Our strategy was to align with universities and large organisations to give us a competitive edge.” Photograph: Chris Bellew/Fennells
It was a perfect storm of a maturing market and the economic downturn that persuaded Joe Aherne, chief executive of Leading Edge Group, to change tack. In the mid-2000s, demand for training in the six sigma methodology, in which his supply chain management consultancy specialised, started to fall.
“I set up the business in 1995 and it became very successful in management consulting in the area of supply chain management,” he says.
“In 2003 and 2004, it naturally declined. That market matured as a discipline, universities developed masters’ programmes and companies were outsourcing support services to the Far East.”
But as the requirement for six sigma training declined, another methodology was in the ascendant. The concept of lean manufacturing had been developed by Toyota and was growing in popularity as it transferred from the car industry to other sectors. “Lean has become popular across services as well as manufacturing in the last seven to eight years,” says Aherne.
“There are some books that popularised the concept in financial services and healthcare. I looked at lean and spotted an opportunity. About five years ago we decided to develop training programmes in the development of lean.”
At that point, no one was offering a qualification in lean methodology and so Aherne decided to create one.
“Our strategy was to align with universities and large organisations to give us a competitive edge. We came up with certification and got the Institute of Industrial Engineers in Ireland to certify it.” He says third-level institutions played an important role in developing its reputation. “UCC certified our initial programme and our programmes were incorporated as part of the post-graduate diploma in supply chain management. Then we got into the UK with the University of Kent and the US with the University of Denver.”
Through a series of meetings organised by Enterprise Ireland, the company was also introduced to the Canadian market, where certification was granted by the Canadian Professional Logistics Institute. Its online learning structure was a cost-effective model in Canada, Aherne says. “They have very sparse regions with dispersed population so online programmes like ours were a God-given solution.”
The nascent export business helped to subsidise the Irish operation when recession hit.
“We took a big drop in 2007. When you’re involved in the service sector, you’re the first to go in a downturn. Contracts were cancelled; we didn’t get any warning. The training element of our business declined rapidly as it was regarded as discretionary spend.”
The company was able to rely on cash reserves while developing the export business.
“Those years of deep recession from 2007 onwards was a very scary time personally but at least the company had no borrowings,” says Aherne. “We had a lot of reserves because we were successful before the downturn. If we didn’t have the Canadian market, we would have ended up with no reserves.”
Aherne is now looking to expand into the Australian market, an important education hub for the Far East. He hopes to replicate the model of third-party affirmation by partnering with a university or professional body.
The large Irish population in the country has helped him make useful connections. “I got introduced to the University of Melbourne through a connection, through the diaspora being very helpful,” he says.
However, he’s conscious it’s a very different market. “I’m finding out the difference between countries. With Australia it’s like dealing with a number of different countries. States are like fiefdoms, [you] have to commit to each to win business.”
To help with publicity, the company has embraced social media, with an active blog, Twitter account and YouTube channel. In preparation for entering the Australian market, it implemented an extensive Google Adwords campaign, search-engine optimisation and regionalisation of its website.
“The acid test was getting the first deal, and this happened quite quickly once we kicked off our online campaign.”
Aherne says the future is bright. “I would say our business today is much stronger as a direct result of the difficulties encountered by the recession. It gave us time to pause and reflect on our strategy and what we wanted out of the business.
“We’re the market leader in lean healthcare training in Canada and the target is the same in Australia. I’m an eternal optimist.”