This is a series of stories told by leaders in the Doncaster area (City of). These stories have been curated by me (Kurt Ewald Lindley) as part of a collaboration between Doncaster Council, Doncaster Chamber of Commerce, and other Team Doncaster members, to showcase not just the best of Doncaster but to inform the development of Doncaster’s Economic Strategy and
“make it the best place to do business”
This story starts with humble beginnings, a dedication to craftsmanship and a throwaway statement that could misdirect you from their passion and quality work. When I asked about the ‘Clarks’ journey I got this response from Paul Clark, son of Alan Clark the founder of what is now ‘Clarks Vehicle Conversions’ the UK’s number 1 welfare van conversion specialist.
“Its 3 idiots from Doncaster who have done ok”
I knew in the way this was said that there would be twists and turns in this story that would be great to listen too, learn from and explore further.
Oh and if you weren’t actually sure what a welfare van was, I liked this quote on their site..
“Take care of your transient workforce when in the most remote places. Offering a food preparation area, hand wash facilities, toilet and most importantly… a water boiler for a brew! The perfect conversion”
You had me at brew!!!
The Journey – Enthusiasm will only get you so far
Clarks Vehicle Conversions (CVC) started life in 1985 in a small workshop in Bentley, born out of a frustration felt by Alan (the father of the business) – “he could see an easier way” so decided to go it alone. 30 years on we have a thriving Doncaster business employing much of its 100 plus workforce from within a few miles of its various premises, something they are very proud of.
This was by no means a smooth and linier journey, some of which we will share here. In 1996 Paul (now a Director) joined the company along with Brett Harrop (also a director) and together they continued the positive growth of the company. In 1999 they went limited as they were making ‘too much money’ (well more than they had before). It was at about this point in our conversation that Paul expressed the following:
“organisations are born out of people with ideas, but there comes a point where you need business acumen”
I loved this admission – Paul sharing that yes, between himself, his Dad (Alan) and Brett they were doing great things. Yes they were growing year on year, yes they were doing more work. However, this seemed to be “more luck than judgement”. Was this humility or an honest appraisal of their success to this point and a concern for the future.
They were “running at a million miles, focused on product” and realised they needed someone sitting in an office thinking about the business – “we were just getting faster, perhaps not better”. It took around 10 years(2012) for this new ‘business’ focus to materialise.
Paul became Managing Director (more through his father stepping aside than through desire) and he recruited 3 middle managers to cover things like Commercial, Operations and Engineering. The next couple of years proved a steep learning curve and left Paul recognising his own strengths. By his own admission they weren’t in this role. He shares…
“its only your ego that stops you doing the right thing”
For Paul that was to step down – “I’m not right for the role, I’m not built that way……the organisation was built on enthusiasm and we needed to be more of a business”. So in 2015 Darren Lord was appointed as Managing Director to take the business to the next level.
“7 years on we now have a business”
My thinking is that Clarks was always a business, but what I believe this statement means is – thanks to the acquisition of the right people in the right places, playing to their strengths (not ego), they have a robust business that has stood the test. Not just that of the recent covid pandemic but also that of major rail disasters like ‘Potters Bar’ in 2002, which led to substantial change in policy relating to maintenance of infrastructure, as a consequence cut out a great deal of their work.
They now have a wider client base, are the one stop shop for Ford welfare vehicles and are trusted by the sector (leaders in quality). In addition they have created the ‘Clarks Academy’, growing young talent from within, to sustain the future success of the business.
Challenges in Business – Finding someone to trust
Outside of the financial challenges that may have occurred due to things like the ‘Potters Bar’ disaster, it seems one of the greatest challenges for Clarks was in finding someone to trust with a third of the business. Pauls shared that yes whilst personal humility drove him to recognise he needed to pass on the Managing Director role, it was trust that challenged him most. Finding someone like Darren was hard enough (and required some luck), trusting him (or this new way) was equally hard (but worth it).
Lessons for others – Leave your ego at the door
“Its lonely at the top”, Paul recognised that the relationships with those around him changed as he moved up in the organisation. His advice – “Surround yourself with good people so you are not alone…”
“Play to your strengths…I don’t need to be Managing Director (MD), shifting back into a Director role was the best talking to I have ever given myself”
Paul expressed, he never needed to be MD to be seen as successful, he just needed Clarks to be successful
Advice to a younger you (and the ones who didn’t choose so well)
“Don’t rely on a small customer base, in the past we just waited for the phone to ring”
The Legacy – social responsibility
When I asked Paul, what might be your legacy in shaping a better economic future for Doncaster? his response was:
“To be a responsible local employer”
This could mean different things for different people, but I saw in my visit was a positive culture, an authentic nature about the place, a happy workforce where time, people and relationships were seen as a real precious currency (not money)
The Call to Action – help others
I asked Paul “what’s your call to action for the business community”:
Pauls request – “if you know you can help others in growing their business do it“.
Your one ask of ‘Team Doncaster’
At first Paul was quiet on this point, but then an emotive narrative began to flow:
“We could have fallen off the edge at any point. How many new businesses fail in Doncaster and why, do we even know they started and failed. How many people with a great idea may fail because they didn’t know… (this didn’t know comment is far reaching)”
Its clear Paul wants the system (Team Doncaster Partners) to not only better support new business but to better find these ideas people before they start down the tricky path in order to meet them early with the right guidance.
Paul even mentioned an early identification system triggered by the Banks – once they knew of a new business perhaps they could tell the various Team Doncaster Partners these people existed and needed help.
“how do you help people who have an idea today, how do you stop them falling off the edge. Connect those who know with those who don’t have a clue”
I think Paul was openly making this remark in relation to himself. As at times they had felt they didn’t have a clue. They made it on the back of an idea, enthusiasm, craftsmanship and luck. Even when they became more business focused and appointed Darren, finding him seemed to be a bit of luck.
To use a sporting analogy – A good footballer doesn’t always make a good manager, play to your strengths and don’t let your ego get in the way of progress. Paul still to this day plays to his strengths, has surrounded himself with the right people to get the job done and invests in those at the beginning of their journey.
Paul is one of many who are making Doncaster the best place to do business. And its from his story and the stories of others that ‘Team Doncaster’ hope to create a robust, prosperous Economic Strategy for our City.
Do you have a story or know of a Doncaster Leader with a story to share for #DNBusinessTalks, get in touch here