Friday 20 December 2013

2Inspire Network Business Profile: Michelle Henry, MD of HNS Signs

In this profile interview we meet the founder of HNS Signs, Michelle Henry, who used inspiration from her strong family ties to build a successful business in what has traditionally been seen as a male-driven industry. We were certainly inspired by her story and we're sure you will be too! 

Please tell us what is a typical business day for you?
I’m a big believer in ‘early bird catches the worm’ and I typically get in the office at 7am to catch up on my emails and other admin before the phones start ringing.
After a cup of coffee and light breakfast, I start planning sign installations for the next business week (this involves grouping all installation jobs into geographical locations and estimating time frames and distance between each.)
I then liaise with the team on the status of each project and organise dispatch dates, stock ordering and work force planning to ensure we meet targets.
From 10am onwards, I’m usually customer facing visiting clients and conducting site surveys. It’s not all coffee and biscuits, I’m usually making a note of dimensions, possible installation issues, DDA requirements etc. and then it’s lunch time.
Lunch is usually a networking opportunity to drive new business or at Property/Construction lunches but I always aim to be back in the office by 4pm to work on reporting my findings or work on quotes.
More coffee is needed as I scour through my emails and return calls and catch up with team before the leave.  I also get a little artistic time in before I leave as it’s a great time to get creative and put together artwork.
But as a hands on Managing Director, I always check with the team on the manufacturing side of the business and help them by rolling up my sleeves and fabricating signs myself. Who said it was a ‘man’s world?’
My world doesn’t end at 6pm though, at least once a week I will attend a business networking event usually National Association of Women in Construction, Women Working in Construction, Women in Business, or In the City Talks etc.). So home time is usually about 9pm.

What made you start the business and how did you get started?  It’s a mixture of fate and heritage! My grandfather was a signwriter and I’d make bedroom door signs as a child but still went to university to study Law. However after a brief spell of travelling and working for a sign company (which went into administration in 2010) and speaking to The Birmingham Children’s Hospital (one of their customers) convinced me to set up on my own.
I spent about £10,000 buying up the assets from my former employer (a fantastic bargain) and then did a Prince's Trust course to get a further £4,000 for cash flow. The Prince's Trust fast tracked my application and in August 2010, HNS Signs was up and running.

What would you say has been your greatest accomplishment in the business world to date? Tough question...I guess starting up in a recession and succeeding to grow the business in a typically man’s world. When I started, it was just me. I used to do all the site surveys and fit signs in the day, make the signs in the evening and type up the quotes and produce the artwork from home at night. I was working an average of 70 hours a week. Three years later and I have a team of 6 (includes 3 apprentices) and we expect to be hiring more staff in the New Year. I cannot begin to explain how good it feels to be able to offer people work in the current climate.

What has been your biggest challenge in business so far?
Competing against the big boys! We are only a small company yet we manage to punch above our weight. We have secured contracts with much of the NHS throughout the Midlands, we work with large construction companies and local authorities. We are able to offer services that our competitors cannot (for example traditional signwriting) and so many sign companies have become our clients.

What are your future plans for the business?  To conquer the sign world. I love my job and the challenges that it poses and I will not be satisfied until we are the largest sign company out there. I would love to work with more interior design companies. With a high proportion of sign companies concentrating solely on digital print, I am confident that we can offer interior designers something truly unique.

I plan to take on a few more apprentices and employ those who believe they don’t have a future or haven’t excelled in school. For me sharing my success and giving people hope and a better future is what really makes me happy.

We are currently working with Wolverhampton Homes and the Timkins Centre. The Timkins Centre works with young adults who have no qualifications and works to provide them with the necessary skills to find employment. Currently, I’m offering training in sign writing so they have both a learned skill but also work with their social landlord Wolverhampton Homes and deliver the signage for their homes. I’m also looking to employ 1 or 2 of them in the New Year so fingers crossed they work hard and are eager to work!

In 2014, I’m also hoping to make the sector more female-friendly and be a career options for more girls who have a talent for signwriting and would like to do a little more traditional work. At the moment the signage industry is male dominated and customers believe only men are good at installing signs, but I’m working hard to change that viewpoint with my trusty toolbox and drill.  I love turning up to a building, hard hat on, high visibility vest on and getting my power tools out.  I have a female apprentice too who lives digging holes and installing signs! 

If you had to do it all over again, what would you do differently?
Honestly – I wouldn't change a thing. As the saying goes “If it isn't broke don't fix it” and so far things are working well. Setting up HNS Signs happened so quickly, I didn't have time to think. Had I sat down and thought about it I probably would have talked myself out of it.

Why is it so important to inspire young women in particular to follow their dreams?
Although attitudes are changing, women still get a hard deal. The business world fails to believe that women have ambitions outside of the family home. This really annoys me. Women have so many vital skills to offer – skills which differ to and complement those of our male colleagues. Combined it can offer a well-balanced business environment. Which is why it is so important for women to follow their dreams. How else are we going to show the world what we are made of and what we can achieve if we let our dreams get trampled.

What advice would you give to somebody who wants to start a business in your industry?
Know your industry and know it well. I come from a line of sign writers. Both my great grandfather and my grandfather were signwriters. I made my first sign when I was 4 years old and have worked in the industry in both the UK and Australia. When I established HNS Signs, I knew very little about running a business, but I did know my trade. This really helped. It gave me a competitive edge as I was able to offer a variety of different solutions, and it instilled confidence in my customers. By understanding the trade I was able to learn how to run my business. Too many people start a business on something they know very little about.

I would also advise you to look for funding. Cash is King and you need a decent cash flow if you have any chance of surviving. There are many grants available and funding out there for start-up businesses, so don’t be shy, ask for help.  If you don’t ask, you don’t get.

Finally – if you say that you are going to do something, do it and do it at the time that you say you will. You are only as good as your word and if you let customers down they will go elsewhere.

What or who inspires you in business and why? 
My nan. She gave up teaching in the late 60's to run my granddad’s company for him. He was a fantastic signwriter but not so good at the admin and book keeping, clearly a woman was needed even then to manage a business! She had absolutely no idea about how to run a business – in her day that was something that women generally didn't do. With her natural organisation and numeracy skills, she mastered it. I once asked her how and she replied “by making mistakes and learning from them.”

I have many fond memories of her working and creating little jobs for me so that I could feel useful. She always seemed in control of everything and her staff loved her. The customers absolutely adored her and became her friends. She taught me the importance of building good relationships with your customers.

Both grandparents retired in 2000 and moved to Wales where they ran a Good Turn Scheme which helped the elderly and infirm. They never could relax!
When I phoned my nan to tell her that I was considering setting up on my own, she was fantastic. She gave me all of the motivation and encouragement that I needed. Whenever I had a particularly tough day (and there were many) I would phone her and within minutes I was reassured and feeling 100% better. She guided me through all sorts of problems and strategies. She has since passed on, but whenever I feel overwhelmed I just ask myself what she would have done.

What is your favourite inspirational quote? “Be the change that you want to see in the world” Mahatma Ghandi

Contact Michelle

Follow us on twitter @hnssigns

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