EP speaks to John Dixey about how he introduced an intrapreneur approach whilst European Chief Executive of Sara Lee
Now founder and MD of Zoot Foods Ltd. John has experience of both worlds.
John Dixey was the driving force behind the regeneration at Playtex and Wonderbra; brands under the umbrella of American giant, Sara Lee Corporation. The Wonderbra was an amazing success across Europe and the USA. It captured attention through clever advertising campaigns with a sexy and slightly cheeky tone. The iconic strapline ‘Hello Boys’ placed the lingerie on a near legendary level. However, John explains that this success didn’t mean it was all working perfectly behind the scenes.
“I was with Sara Lee for 23 years working in Australasia and in Europe eventually as European Chief Executive. I had returned from Australia to the UK to run the Playtex/ Wonderbra arm of the business and I was aware of the problems ahead. There was a ‘fear and blame culture’ and clearly there was a motivation problem. The business needed transforming very quickly for it to survive.
The job of changing a company where the people are risk-averse with un-cooperative departments is not an easy one. John hoped there would be some good people in place but a prolonged historical managerial style of instructions – implementation – reporting had created an organisation of followers.
If the top person left the rest may as well go home! How to ﬁnd the hidden talent? How to encourage them to express themselves without the fear of ridicule that they had previously experienced? Sometimes opportunities just present themselves.
At this time, the company was approached to provide £5000 for a group of 25 women who would wear Wonderbras whilst walking the New York Marathon to raise money for Breast Cancer Research. With the fund- raisers dream of creating a charity, John saw an opportunity to boost the conﬁdence of his teams and geteveryone working together in a fundraising capacity. He therefore allowed the new charity, Walk the Walk, to operatefrom within Sara Lee and access the full range of resources the company had to offer. John kindly helped the charity set-up and also got his teams involved in supporting the creation. By using internal capabilities and re- energising the workforce John saw attitudes positively change within the company and outside too. Many customers and suppliers became involved in the project and they formed a different and more positive view of the company.
My company mantra was “if this was my company and my own money, is this the decision I would make?” If the answer was yes then normally it was the right decision!”
The charity, Walk the Walk, became well known for their Playtex MoonWalk Marathons with over 15,000 people taking part in the fund raising activities each year. Over £100 million has been raised since the charity’s inception and The Prince of Wales has been the Patron throughout.
The involvement and success of this project demonstrated to the teams that things had changed. They had been empowered and could sometimes stray over boundaries, initiate change, use lateral thinking and take ownership of their decisions.
The Company management in particular had been challenged to become involved in areas in which they were not comfortable. Many of them rose to this challenge, becoming very innovative and creative.
Perhaps this was because there was no fear, as it was not perceived as their regular job? Importantly they adopted this can-do attitude in their everyday management thinking. John had also very quickly discovered who in the team were the creative, action-oriented individuals. Encouraging them would prove to bring big rewards.
“Giving your own people an opportunity to develop their potential by taking known and calculated risks is a certain way of drawing out the budding entrepreneurs within the company. Why are they not running their own businesses now if they have the potential? For whatever reason is it conﬁdence or circumstances perhaps they feel unable to strike out on their own – they could still be intrapreneurs! Regardless all your employees should be looking forward to potential changes that could improve their worklife, adding satisfaction and excitement to their jobs. This cannot happen if they are not encouraged to behave like an entrepreneur and instead, live in fear of making a mistake or being ridiculed for making suggestions and recommendations.
With this increased freedom comes increased responsibility and accountability on the individual. However my company mantra was “if this was my company and my own money, is this the decision I would make?” If the answer was yes then normally it was the right decision!” Not everyone can be an intrapreneur and many do not want it. Some want a simpler life doing their own job but hopefully a bit of excitement and reward on the way.
Some though, have that entrepreneurial streak and you need to ﬁnd them and bring out their potential. John admits that it may make those people more difficult if they can become possessive but managed correctly and conﬁdently these are the people who can contribute massively to the success of your business.
Having the opportunity to work together with the support of a main business is a strong approach for those with open minds. By using the resources of the overarching company, they can fast track into something proﬁtable with speed.
John encouraged his team to come to him with new ideas that were not necessarily associated with the company’s current objectives. Several of them were company funded and driven by the initiators into very valuable business growth. The initiators were always given the credit for that success!
John has taken many of these experiences and learning and used them to support his own business, Zootfoods Ltd, an entrepreneurial company with 16 product lines after only two years. “The focus is an off-the-shelf snack, sold at a fair price without the fear of buying something loaded with fats, salt or sugar. Our main emphasis is on No-Added Sugar snackfoods and we are now involved with Brakes and Bidfoods plus we are stocked in WHSmith, Enterprise Pharmacies and many more. We’ve accelerated quickly and have taken risks, but that is part of the entrepreneurial approach we needed.”
He admits that being an entrepreneur is far more stressful than being an intrapreneur as he does not have the resources and support of a large organisation but says that building his own is a little easier with his knowledge and experience behind him. He insists that as his company grows it will always on the lookout for potential intrapreneurs!