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A Family Business Driven By A Real Purpose

Family-owned communication specialist The Baird Group has revealed a fresh identity and a completely new name, as the 158-year-old firm eyes a £20 million rise in turnover, by the end of 2021.  Paul Andrews spoke to second generation Group CEO Fergus Bailie to find out more.

What began as a single printing company in Belfast in 1862, the newly-entitled Bailie Group – now headquartered in Leeds – has forecast revenues of £45 million in 2020, with plans to reach £65 million turnover and £5 million profit by the end of next year.   Bailie Group is a family owned group of agencies and consultancies with the collective mission to improve people’s lives by sharing knowledge.

As Fergus explains, “We want to make a difference. We work on projects which keep people safer, helps the UK transport system move effectively, connects citizens with social services in their local area, provide content channels for industries like the automotive sector and get equipment to the front line so it’s safe to use and train our military to be the best they can be.  Our Group mission is to create an entrepreneurial organisation of collaborative specialists. The companies are empowered to utilise technology and expert knowledge to create solutions which enable our customers to maximise their potential through intelligent use of information, content and data.  As a Group our purpose is simple: invest in ideas and people which make a positive difference and properties that inspire. We have invested millions of pounds into projects to enable our group companies to thrive and grow, whilst making a positive contribution to their communities.  Our intention is to continue with a programme of internal investment and acquiring companies which meet our philosophy and purpose, for the benefit of future generations.”

This is a family business with a real purpose, a purpose that is demonstrated each and every day.

Fergus is the Group CEO with a remit the oversee the overall strategic activities of the various operating companies.  He was previously Managing Director of one of them, CDS, taking over in 2010 at the height of the recession.

As Fergus adds, “Leading a business in communication during the recession could be seen by many as a challenge but learning from my father who instilled the fact that ‘nothing is as good as it seems and nothing is as bad as it looks’ I set about transforming the business and making changes.  Six years later the business had evolved to become much more diversified with a range of clients across the defence, creative and digital channels.”

Fergus is very open about the need to bring in people to meet the needs of the business too and as it grew recognised that he was becoming a bottleneck.  “The business was growing and we needed experts in areas of the business to help us continue to grow, experts with more knowledge and in-depth skills than I had so we started to create a collaborative group of specialists, restructured the business and empowered people in their new roles.  I was moving away from the day-to-day responsibilities having developed the board with external, non-family representation, plus more professional frameworks and this allowed me to take a step back and look at the strategic direction and future journey too.”

It was never a given that Fergus would join the family firm having finished a law degree and then qualifying as an accountant with PwC and spending a year working in the Mergers and Acquisitions team.  “All of my professional experience has stood me in good stead for this role but although I was aware of the family firm growing up, I only wanted to join the business on my terms, with my skills and not become the new boss just because I was the son of the owner,” he adds.  “To be honest, when I mentioned to Dad that I wanted to join the family firm I think he was more than a little surprised as I was carving out a good career of my own away from the business,” he continues.

So Fergus became the second generation of the family to enter the business working alongside his father.  His father had left school with no qualifications and joined a local printing business and took on the General Manager role of W&G Baird in the 1970’s.  The business was part of the BPC Group (The British Printing Corporation), one of many businesses within the group that was owned by Robert Maxwell at the time.  He was enjoying the role and out for dinner with friends one evening (who incidentally were to become the mother and father in law to Fergus).

The next day the phone rang which would lead ultimately to the creation of the family business.  As the factory was owned by an organisation with strong links to the British mainland it was seen as a legitimate target for the IRA and was bombed in 1971.  The call was to inform them of the bombing which took place during the peak of the troubles in Northern Ireland.  As Fergus explains, “Dad was left surveying the rubble and had to borrow portakabins and printing presses to meet the needs of the customers and set about relocation the business to Antrim.  The business re-established itself and the factory was rebuilt and staff relocated but BPC decided that the business was no longer for them and mentioned that they were looking to sell.  Dad asked them if they would sell the business to him and the rest, as they say, is history,” continues Fergus.

The business continued in the print sector until the late 1970’s and realised that the business model needed to change too.  As Fergus explains, “They essentially did the same thing as we are doing now, brought in new people, strengthened the board and started to acquire print and packaging businesses.  The introduction of the internet in the 1990’s further changed the supply chain management processes in the sector and it was then the decision was taken to move into a communications business, essentially to help clients maximise their return from content and data but retaining a small nod to their heritage with a print management business remaining.”

Clear roles and responsibilities have been created within the business and the fact that Fergus is based in York and the rest of the family in Northern Ireland provides physical space to work too.  “Dad was always clear that he was not going to be a backseat driver, looming over my shoulder, nor did he ever put any pressure on me to join the business,” continues Fergus.  “In fact, as I said before he was quite surprised when I said I wanted to join the family firm.”

“Dad stepped back and left me to get on with running the business and to be honest, our change of direction and the implementation of the new strategy to move away from the traditional print business helped our transition as we moved into more of a creative and communications space.  We work well together and have carved out clear roles which really helps.”

The business is on a growth path at present with Fergus looking to the long term. Many family firms plan for the long term with the leaders seeing themselves as stewards for the future.  Fergus is no exception as he is looking to the next 30 years, at the end of which he wants to be able “to look back and know that I have made a real difference.”

The Bailie Group – is a truly purpose-led organisation, undertaking projects that impact on society in general, making a real difference.  As Fergus explains, “We are always looking long term and never seek to make decisions purely on the quarterly financial impact.  I like to think twelve months, three years, six years – there is no exit plan on the horizon for me!” he adds.

This is an ambitious family business with strong growth plans, seeking to grow and acquire organisations which match their philosophy of ambition and making a positive difference.  They have a real sense of purpose and it shows in what they do.

As Fergus concludes, “We’ve always been driven by transformative change, which is why – 158 years after our business roots were laid – we’re trusted to deliver some of the most landmark communications projects in modern times.”

“Our mission, as we continue to grow, is to create an entrepreneurial collective of collaborative specialists capable of completing briefs that change lives. We don’t want to control the organisations we acquire – we want to empower them to utilise the technology and expert knowledge we can offer as a Group, for societal gain. I believe in putting experts in place, with a set of guiding principles and then helping them to be successful, rather than telling them what to do. I think this provides quite a refreshing change versus investment from private equity or venture capital routes, and this was one of the key reasons for the brand overhaul. We’re not just a faceless holding company, and the rebrand is just the start of us highlighting that. Creating a family culture that embraces everyone in the Group is a key pillar of our beliefs.”

We look forward to seeing the continued evolution of this truly purpose driven family business in the years to come.

Visit their website here to find out more


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