When Nick Gunn left his position as SVP of Global Corporate Services at Hewlett-Packard Enterprise to found The NiVACK Group, he did not do it alone. He started the company with his son, Charles Gunn. The name is also a family affair. According to Nick, he “made up a name using our initials. The Ni stands for Nick. V is for Vanessa, my wife. A is for Ash, and K is for Katherine.”
At The NiVACK Group, Nick Gunn brings his earlier experience and expertise at HP. In his previous jobs, he enjoyed the “resources, experience, and capabilities” provided by a worldwide corporation. Since he knows that not a lot of companies enjoy that kind of scale, he understands that he must bring his “enterprise-scale experience and strategic thinking” to help the smaller companies grow their profits.
Nick Gunn accelerates the transformation of business “because [we] look at where the small to mid-sized company is today, and [we] help them create a road map to get from where they are to their desired destination in an accelerated fashion.” The NiVACK Group ensures that their clients and partners avoid costly mistakes, and that they can learn from these mistakes, if they do make them.
As CEO of The NiVACK Group, Nick Gunn gives “Executive Advisory Services to Fortune 500 companies as well as some much smaller, privately owned enterprises.” He believes in the mantra, “Be the best I can be so that others can be the best they can be!”
Jerome Knyszewski: What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Nick Gunn: If there was a list of the most trusted professions, nurses would be near the top, along with teachers and firemen. Consultants, on the other hand, would be near the bottom — right above lawyers and politicians.
Consultants, or consulting firms, to be more accurate, are opportunistic and self-interested. Instead of solving their client’s problems, they’re unbelievably focused on getting higher and higher consulting fees out of each of their clients. One of the big 4 consulting firms even coined a phrase for this tactic. “Land and expand.” Their whole goal is to come into a company, identify 100 things that are going wrong, and sell the company on exactly why they should hire them to solve those 100 problems for $1 million each. That wouldn’t necessarily be a problem, but so many of these consulting engagements fail.
Why do they fail? There’s a few reasons, but one of the big ones is that consulting firms don’t assign their best people to work on your project. Why would they? Their best people are expensive. Instead of their best people, they assign the 22-year-old who just graduated from university and doesn’t know a single thing about business. They give that 22-year-old a playbook along with instructions to follow the steps in the playbook and try not to ask too many questions.
Now, the NiVACK Group is a consulting firm. Don’t get me wrong. But what makes us stand out is that our people have real experience leading world-class Procurement teams. With NiVACK, you don’t get a 22-year-old with a playbook, you get a well-versed team of Procurement professionals who have dealt with your exact problems first-hand. I personally work on all of our engagements and we have talented individuals with even more experience than I do who lead some of our accounts. We strongly believe that this real experience enhances the positive outcomes our clients see.
Our clients are also amazed by the family spirit we have within our team. The name “NiVACK” is representative of this. It’s an acronym that borrows letters from myself, my wife (Vanessa), my two sons (Ash and Charles), and my daughter (Kate). Yes, I got an extra letter because we needed another vowel!
Jerome Knyszewski: Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Nick Gunn: My tip is this: You have to put everything into perspective! Work is important, but so is family and your personal well-being!
Work-life balance is such a cliche and overused term. Tons of employees and employers pay lip service to the idea but don’t really practice it. I believe in hard work and dedication to the cause (whatever that means for each person), but not at the expense of everything else, like family, relationships, mental and physical health. Life is just too short. As I’ve gotten older, and hopefully wiser, I’ve witnessed colleagues and friends who have passed away far too early and I’ve never yet met anyone who said they wished they’d worked harder and longer.
People make personal sacrifices for work all the time. Late nights. Missing kids’ sports games. Working from the couch on weekends with the TV on in the background. We make all kinds of sacrifices and we don’t even realize they’re eating away at our lives.
And the worst part is that a company (any company) is just a faceless entity that consumes resources in order to meet its goals. We, as people, are resources to these companies, and we will be taken advantage of if we don’t put up some serious boundaries. It’s up to each of us, whether you manage others or you’re just fending for yourself, to balance the important things in life against work.
My kids played soccer growing up and I always made a real effort to watch them play, even during highschool when matches started at 3:30 PM. My work didn’t suffer because of this. In fact, in some cases it even improved. I would take a break for a few hours to watch a 3:30 match, and then I would log back on to finish any tasks for the day — feeling rejuvenated. I never once regretted doing this.
Work-life balance works differently for everyone and it’s not something that you figure out right away when you start a new job, but it’s important to find your own equilibrium and balance. This is especially difficult when it feels like you are so important to the company. You know the feeling, when you think, “if I don’t get this done everything is going to go wrong and there’s no one else that can do this.” But that feeling is nearly always wrong.
A mentor of mine helped me develop a perspective on this by referring to an old story. I won’t explain in detail, but the point of the story is this: If you put your hand into a bucket of water and then you take your hand out, there’s not a hole in the water where your hand used to be. The water moves quickly to fill the place where it used to be. If you remove yourself from matters and reclaim a bit of your life, the business will go on without you.
When Steve Jobs passed away people were convinced that Apple was over; but since 2011, they’ve invented like a dozen new iPhones and their stock price is almost 10x higher! The point of these two stories is to illustrate that your company can manage without you for a few hours or days… take a break!
Jerome Knyszewski: None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
Nick Gunn: There are many people who deserve some credit for whatever success I’ve had.
My working-class parents. They gave me a terrific upbringing and taught me so much. My wife. She has been totally supportive throughout my career, she’s a great mum to our 3 kids, and she keeps me honest and makes sure my ego doesn’t get too big!
I’ll always be grateful for a couple of co-workers, who earlier in my career, encouraged me to step out of my comfort zone. Katrina Stephens, a boss who taught me the value of creative thinking and how to be a great leader without being an A-hole! Tom Davis, a mentor, who always encouraged me to be introspective and a big-picture thinker. Becky Cornett, for pushing me to move from the UK to California and swim with the big fish. And finally, Chris Hsu, who trusted me to swim with the biggest fish of all, the C-Suite and the Board.
There were many people who helped me to be successful and they all deserve some credit, so I guess the story here is that no person is an island and we all need to bring each other along to achieve something meaningful.
Jerome Knyszewski: Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. The title of this series is “How to take your company from good to great”. Let’s start with defining our terms. How would you define a “good” company, what does that look like? How would you define a “great” company, what does that look like?
Nick Gunn: There are lots of good companies out there, but far fewer great companies. In truth, greatness is only fleeting, it doesn’t last forever.
Good companies do the right things the right way. They focus on creating a positive work environment for their employees, treating them with respect and dignity, and empowering them within an accountable environment. Good companies are customer-centric: they listen to their customers and they try to provide a positive customer experience. Good companies also work with partners and suppliers in a mutually beneficial manner.
But in my experience, the thing that separates good companies from great ones is that great companies always look to the future and push the envelope.
Great companies are proactive when it comes to their Corporate, Social, and Environmental responsibilities. They have genuine inclusivity and diversity programs for both employees and suppliers which are based on real capabilities, not some arbitrary guidelines designed to make them look good from the outside. They employ and develop great people and leaders. They take risks. They innovate. And they always try to anticipate the needs of customers, even before the customers themselves are aware of those needs. And, finally, great companies realize they are only as great as their employees! They create a mission for employees to rally around and they invest in employees so that they can deliver that vision.
That’s what separates the good from the great!
Jerome Knyszewski: What would you advise to a business leader who initially went through years of successive growth, but has now reached a standstill. From your experience do you have any general advice about how to boost growth and “restart their engines”?
Nick Gunn: If growth has stalled, seek external help. Don’t waste too much time trying to fix things yourself by guessing at untested solutions. Try to pinpoint the problem and please get outside assistance if it will speed things up!
“If you can’t name the problem, you can’t fix it.” This was some of the best advice I ever received and it came from Meg Whitman, my former CEO at HP and HPE.
My advice on seeking external help may not fix your problems right away, but it should be the starting point in understanding why growth has stalled. You have to know with absolute certainty why your growth has stalled before you start throwing a ton of money at potential solutions.
Jerome Knyszewski: Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
- Invest in the future when times are good. Don’t return all the profits to shareholders, but spend some on R&D and infrastructure modernization for instance. You won’t have the resources to do this as well in a tight economy.
- Spend every dime as if it were your own. Spending profusely during high growth periods can have negative effects in a downturn, especially on overhead expenses like real estate, events, and sponsorships which are not part of cost-of-goods-sold. These items are not easily variablized and they will quickly eat into your profit margin and your ability to generate demand in a downturn… always keep some powder dry when the rain comes!
- Focus. In a downturn, focus on your products and services that customers still want and try to offer creative ways for them to purchase. This might mean extending payment terms, offering discounts on future purchases, etc.
Jerome Knyszewski: In your experience, which aspect of running a company tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?
Nick Gunn: Attracting, developing and retaining clients is the toughest element of running a company. Having the best product or service is irrelevant if you cannot market to your potential clients.
The steps to create and convert your pipeline of leads differs across market segments and industries. For instance, as an Executive Advisory Consultant, it would be costly and ineffective for me to buy online advertising or do TV spots. I’m in a business where word of mouth is critical and relationship building is key. At my company, we focus our efforts on creating content and participating in forums such as this interview where we are able to demonstrate our thought leadership and build our brand credibility. We also work extremely hard to ensure our clients know we value them!
Jerome Knyszewski: Great customer service and great customer experience are essential to build a beloved brand and essential to be successful in general. In your experience what are a few of the most important things a business leader should know in order to create a Wow! Customer Experience?
Nick Gunn: Treat every customer as if they are your only customer. Guide them through the experience working with you and your company, and make them feel that you truly care about them. Do this by putting yourself in the shoes of the customer.
I used to run Procurement at a Fortune 10 company. That means my ‘customers’ were the internal business units within the company. For some items, like office supplies, these ‘customers’ would order items and then my team would facilitate the purchase of the items. In order to ensure the ordering experience was easy for my customers I put myself in their shoes. I sat down to order office supplies on our internal purchasing tool and guess what? I gave up after 20 clicks. It was just too painful. Why should I expect my customers to order something in my team’s system when they could order the same thing on Amazon in just 4 clicks!
As a result of that experience, my Procurement team modernized our purchasing tools, policies, and processes to create a better customer experience for our employees.
The other key thing to do is always pay attention to dissatisfied customers and turn them into advocates. If you don’t, they will create far more noise and negativity around your brand that will undo any good work you do.
Jerome Knyszewski: What are your thoughts about how a company should be engaged on Social Media? For example, the advisory firm EisnerAmper conducted 6 yearly surveys of United States corporate boards, and directors reported that one of their most pressing concerns was reputational risk as a result of social media. Do you share this concern? We’d love to hear your thoughts about this.
Nick Gunn: I am concerned about brand and reputational risk as a result of social media. Whether we like to or not, social media, or anti-social media as I call it, is here to stay.
The problem with social media is that regardless of whether you think it is good or bad, as a business you cannot ignore it. Most businesses need some form of social media presence, either to sell directly or to create brand awareness and establish relevancy.
One of the issues with Social Media is that it attracts bad behavior and nasty, vitriolic comments like bees around honey. People can hide behind the relative anonymity and distance to behave in a manner that they might not do when up close and personal. This can expose your business to potential commentary and narratives that you cannot control.
Also, Social Media “trolls” demand you take a position on everything. As a business trying to be politically impartial, you are now vulnerable to those who would say you are part of the problem if you don’t come out in support of the latest social justice cause. And remember your customers are likely from both sides of any social debate and it is not good for business to alienate either faction. These are difficult waters to navigate, but I still personally believe that most people don’t sit on the fringes of anything, they are in the middle somewhere and form the silent majority… These are the people your business should care most about from a social media perspective, the ones who don’t say anything.
Jerome Knyszewski: What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?
Nick Gunn: This one is super easy to answer. The most common mistake I’ve seen is that CEOs and founders refuse to ask for help. Let me tell you, getting help is the single most important thing a CEO or Founder can do. Get help!
This is the one thing above all else that business start-ups should do. Nobody can do everything and if they try, they certainly cannot do it well. The type of help a start-up needs will vary over time, but it’s good to start by reaching out to people, friends, mentors, etc., as this will pay dividends over time. Their advice is free and often very insightful. These are the people that care about you the most and the people who really want you to succeed.
Secondly, unless you are going to be a one-man band, get a business partner with complementary skills and experiences to you.
Third, trust and verify. There are a lot of places that purport to help start-ups. Most of them say they guarantee leads or revenue. Remember, if it seems too good to be true, it probably is!
Jerome Knyszewski: Thank you for all of that. We are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Nick Gunn: Simple… my movement would be about treating all people with respect and dignity, regardless of what walk of life, race, or political persuasion they belong to. We are all human beings, yet many of us choose to use our gift of being the most intelligent species on the planet to create fear and division and to hate. We should be using our “superpower” of intelligence for the benefit of the entire planet. Don’t hate people who are not the same as you, embrace the diversity and learn from it!
Jerome Knyszewski: How can our readers further follow you online?
Nick Gunn: The best way to follow me is to connect on LinkedIn. I’m active every single day and I love engaging with people on the platform.
I’m pretty easy to find on LinkedIn and Google, too. If you google me I’m either the first or second guy that pops up. I’m in a bit of a Google search war with another Nick Gunn. Actually he goes by Nicholas and he’s a really great top-ten charting musician. It’s been a battle, but one day I’ll permanently unseat him as the #1 Nick Gunn!
If you’re old school, or more direct, you can email me here. I’m happy to chat!
Jerome Knyszewski: This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!
Nick Gunn: Thank you so much for the opportunity to speak with you!