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JUGGLING AN SME BUSINESS 

We all know the last (yes, it is almost) three years have been challenging, difficult and testing but for Chris Pallett, Managing Director of Bespoke based in Telford, it’s been a ride full of more than its fair share of ups and downs. B4’s Richard Rosser interviewed a refreshingly open and upbeat business owner who thrives on helping others in need.

It’s what drives Chris Pallett, the ability to help others with their challenges. In fact, during COVID, Chris and his team provided free computing advice in the form of weekly videos, podcast episodes and relevant webinars to anyone who wanted it. “It’s a key part of my DNA to want to help customers with problems” explains Chris “and it’s why I set up Bespoke.”

Chris cut his teeth working for global IT giants ABB and then Siemens but, when he was asked to relocate to Nottingham by Siemens, he chose to bow out of the corporate world and use his redundancy to steer his own course and set up Bespoke. That was 19 years ago and it’s been a huge but rewarding change of course for Chris.

“My drive and passion is to help people and that mantra has followed as the business has evolved.

I get a real kick out of solving problems, sometimes problems our clients didn’t realise they had. For example, one business owner had two sites and was doing two completely different sets of accounts.  We gave him his Sunday’s back and it only cost him £500! Another had their photocopiers set on ‘colour copy’ as default so with black and white copies costing less than a penny and colour costing three or four pence, we were able to save the customer £15,000 per annum. These aren’t existing problems for the customer, but we discover them through getting to know our customers and it’s amazing how the small changes can often make huge savings. Whether it’s helping with recruiting relevant staff, opening new offices or driving efficiencies, we’re happy to help and do a great job.”

Chris and his ‘team’ have been in their current premises for five or six years now and started with just five of them….how things have changed. “An old business coach of mine told me to always have an empty filing cabinet to fill up with work for new projects – it’s something which helped his business grow. When I moved into these offices with four staff I put in enough desks for nine. When we went into COVID there were six of us but now we’re at eleven!”

Having just passed the £1 million mark in annual sales for the first time, Chris says the business will do £1.2 million at the current ‘run rate’.

Which is all the more surprising given the changes in personnel in the past year. If you’re reading this in your office, have a look around at your team. No matter if there are two, three, ten or twenty, how would you feel if over the next twelve months the only constant was you and every other person in your team was replaced. Chris has been through that exact scenario in the last year and has come out the other end stronger and more passionate about his business than ever.

“It’s been tough. Staff have moved on for various reasons – family, illness, opportunity – so ‘the great resignation’ has happened here for sure! There have been times when I’ve thought ‘is this for me?’ but I’m determined to keep the business growing and believe we’re now set for a good period of growth…despite the economic turmoil!”

You’ve got to hand it to Chris and it’s testament to his business skills that he has still managed to grow the business despite the events – both inside and outside of his business – that he has had to navigate. Add into the mix that Chris is a single parent of a two and six year old meaning that half of his week is dedicated to bringing up his children, then you have to admire his resilience, a word Chris embraces.

“It has been relentless and with very little time off over the last few years, I’ve had to build resilience in myself and the business. I don’t know how we’ve made it work but we have. We don’t have a local support structure so when I have the kids it’s down to me, but I love having them and being a dad. It has emphasised the need to get my work life balance right and being resilient as a person is as important as being resilient as a business – if we’re not resilient then we let our clients down. Self-development is huge for me. I know myself better in the last two years than at any stage of my life. I have a business coach and a life coach and I was having a conversation in May with my life coach Michael at the peak of our staff losses. He said it was a great opportunity to look at who we work for, how we do it, how we price it, who’s our target market? It was a great chance to reframe what we did and we took it…the business has definitely benefited.”

But recruitment, like for many businesses, has changed and regrouping has been incredibly painful and has stretched Chris to the limit.

“What we’ve seen in the market is that many people have delusions of grandeur when it comes to jobs – you do hear of people doubling their money by moving. We were having to offer positions during interviews sometimes, so no chance for references or background checks. We then had to deal with counter-offers. One candidate had a 50% pay rise and a training programme offered by his  employer who didn’t want to lose him – you just can’t compete with that and I don’t want to, the business would ultimately suffer.

“Recruitment has been very ruthless and very quick. You can’t sit on CV’s, you need to get candidates in and make an offer within a day sometimes. The recruitment process used to take 3 months but now it’s almost overnight. Any new recruits still need to get their feet under the table, know how we work and what our clients expect. But I’m very happy with the team and how it’s turned out.”

Chris’s ambition for Bespoke is to be a global, award winning provider of IT services 24/7. “Pre COVID we ran 9am to 6pm and then during COVID we went from 7am to 7pm, but the aim is to operate 24/7. We’ve looked at many different ways of doing this including outsourcing, off-shoring and more. We actually looked at outsourcing the whole business at one point because recruitment was such a challenge, but we now have a plan to hit our goals through developing the existing business.”

Bespoke did lose clients with the turnover in staff but that has been part of the re-set that the business has gone through, explains Chris. “I’m really happy with our current portfolio of clients. They get IT and it’s helped me to understand that that’s our target market. We don’t work on geography when targeting new clients, we work on mindset. I want clients who understand how IT can enable their businesses to grow, not regard it as a necessary evil. Although it’s hard to include on our marketing that ‘we’re looking for clients with the right attitude’, that’s what we strive for, people that want and need IT rather than begrudge it. The view I take is that tech is integral to any business and if you don’t get that, your business will slow down…it certainly won’t grow.“

Chris is a breath of fresh air. His challenges are the same that many of you who are reading this will face and through the turbulence of the last year, he admits that the longer-term vision for the business is something he needs to get clear in his own mind. “With everything that has happened, I’ve had my head down in the business but now I need to focus on our long-term future. We’re in a sector which is only going to grow and we’re good at what we do.

“Over the past few years, we have put a lot of time and effort into standardising how we do things, which I know contradicts the company name, but a lot of the foundation work is consistent across our clients and enables us to be more efficient when problems arise. We now need to build on that foundation.

“We also have the right mindset and attitude which I think is vitally important for everyone. If we look at the 2008 / 2009 recession there were those that put their heads in the sand and those that knuckled down. We’ll have the same for the next few years at least. Mindset is and will continue to be crucial – it comes back to resilience. Innovate or die!

“After recession, Brexit and COVID and now, most probably, another recession, there’s always going to be something and it’s just about being clear what you do and having a positive attitude about it, despite the noise. We’ve bounced from one crisis to another for so many years that we just need to get on with it and put our clients first.”

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