15 November 2011

Shop talk

Andrew Churchill, 42, on life as MD of family-owned precision engineering company JJ Churchill

When the alarm goes, I creep past a sleeping household. Even though I clock in just after 7am, I am definitely not a morning person. I don't have breakfast – I'd have to get up even earlier. I read my emails and the FT over a cup of tea before the bustle starts. I've got my own mug – it's dark blue and it's been with me all over the world since my student days.

My grandmother was only 28 when she took over the family business. Her young husband was shot down during the defence of Malta in 1942. He had started the company on Christmas Day 1937, the same day his son was born and that son – my father – is still chairman and principal shareholder. So I'm always going to be Young Andrew to some people on the shopfloor.

They saw me grow up: my father's PA sometimes babysat me in a cat basket under her desk. But I am myself, not just the third Churchill. It's really important that I have not been in the business man-and-boy. My father and I are so alike we can finish each other's sentences. We would probably have torn each other's throats out if I had come straight into it.

Instead, I read chemistry at Oxford, learned Mandarin and headed off to China to negotiate joint ventures. I came back because I wanted to.

Today, my father is my sounding board. He doesn't want to do the day-to-day stuff but he has the experience of decades to draw on.

The danger of heading a family business is privilege not earned. You have to demonstrably bring something valuable of your own. For a while, some people said "yes" because it was me, not because it was right. It drove me round the bend. Now they cheerfully disagree and I am happier for it. Robust debate solves problems.

My son and daughter (9 and 7) are being brought up to expect nothing from the business – because it's not theirs – and with absolutely no pressure to become part of it. Even if one of them joined, I'd want them to work somewhere else for a long time first.

We are first and foremost a modern, advanced manufacturing business with our eyes on future growth.

There is no such thing as a typical day although when I am in, I always walk round the factory floor and spend time with the FD, sales and marketing department and the engineering manager. I work with several manufacturing bodies to try to inject sense into UK economic policies and training provision, particularly for apprenticeships. It's a moral conundrum. Does it bring immediate benefit to the business? No.

Does it bring tangential benefit? Yes. Can I weigh the two? No, so why try? Sometimes lunch is just a banana at the desk. But quite often, I pop over for a sandwich with my parents. It's a chance to chew the fat with my father offsite.

How do I switch off? I run long distances cross-country, I sing bass with the Bach Choir in Derby and I'm a foodie. I do about half the cooking – my wife humours me when I take over. The quid pro quo of the early start is leaving on time to be with my children. Often we go swimming. About six of us race while the youngsters play. I pretend I'm not competitive – but I like to win. I occasionally race my eldest; one day he will definitely be faster than me. And it won't rankle – in fact, I want it to happen.

  • Best advice you ever received? Don't get hung up on climbing the greasy pole.
    Do something you enjoy – you'll achieve more that way.
  • What makes you angry? Bad communication. Impoliteness. Oh – and poor grammar.
    A misspelled circular from school is red rag to a bull.
  • Last meal before the firing squad? Truffle omelette – but only if I make it.
  • Hero? Winston Churchill. Everything to do with his courage and drive and nothing to do
    with the name.
  • On your iPod? Baroque music – I like the mathematical precision and you can't drive
    carelessly to The Well Tempered Clavier.
  • Social media? None. I love technology but not as my interface to real people.

    Want to talk shop and appear in WM's new column? Email editor@worksmanagement.co.uk

    Annie Gregory

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    JJ Churchill Ltd

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