Decisions of leaders matter

Scaling-up is rarely a straightforward journey - decisions of their leaders really matter

The 50 scale-up leaders we interviewed as part of this project have diverse stories to tell, but there was a clear message that achieving and maintaining fast growth is not always a smooth process. Many interviews focused in on the key point that the decisions the leadership team take can make or break the scale-up process.

  • Experian found in 2010 over 34,000 business across the UK had the capacity to achieve fast growth, but fewer than one in five followed through on that potential.[1] This data highlights that while companies might have the potential, it takes strategic action to scale-up.
  • Experience in scaling-up is highly beneficial – your company is twice as likely to scale-up if the business has a previous track record of rapid growth.[2]

"Zopa was the first peer-to-peer online lending model in the world, but as the market developed we have worked collaboratively with companies that had similar ideals and ethics to protect the reputation of our industry."

1 Giles Andrews, CEO and Co-Founder, Zopa

From our interviews common roadblocks to scaling-up emerged, from an inability to raise growth capital through to not securing the right person for a crucial role in the business. The leadership of a company has the means to address these issues and set the business on the right path.

"Fast growth requires quick decisions – especially in sales. We made sure to empower our staff to make these judgement calls."

1 Henry Pepperall, Finance Director, Kelway

Importantly, there are many different paths to scaling-up; some leaders navigating their businesses through tough times before enjoying huge success, while others have had their ventures fail before using that experience to scale-up in the future.

"You need to embrace failure in order to have giant scale-up successes. As a serial entrepreneur, I've set up businesses around the world and seen markedly different cultural attitudes towards failure. In the US, creating a new business concept and driving it to success or not is a respected endeavor. In the UK, starting a business that is not successful is more likely to be seen as a black mark against your name. This needs to change to increase innovation and free up entrepreneurs to pursue new opportunities."

1 Ulf Zetterberg, CEO and Founder, Seal Software

Scale-up case study

Name: Ensafe consultants

Founded: 1995

Growth: Growing from £1.65m turnover to £5.3m in 4 years

The 33rd fastest growing business in the East Midlands, Ensafe consultants specialises in asbestos surveying, project management and training. Key to stimulating this fast growth has been the strong emphasis on staff training and expanding the business across different sectors.

Fast growth is not without its challenges and Greg Kirkman, Managing Director, credits an excellent senior leadership team, often promoted from within the business, and trusted external advisors in helping evaluate decisions and manage the demands of scaling-up.

This core leadership team was particularly integral when the company had to navigate the 2008 credit crunch. Excellent cash flow management and focus on the core operations of the business meant that Ensafe successfully managed this difficult period and is now looking to expand overseas.

Scale-up case study

Name: Plextek

Founded: 1989

Growth: Growing from £21m turnover to £32m in two years

Plextek is a leading independent electronic design consultancy that provides services across a range of sectors from defence to medical markets. One of the fastest growing businesses in the east of England, Plextek has had to manage some tight periods before achieving their scale-up ambitions.

Originally a pure consultancy, the dot com crash in 2001 highlighted the need to diversify the business to include contract manufacturing capabilities and commence numerous long term investments in technology. Similarly, the 2008 recession proved another difficult growth period, during which managing cash flow became a critical task. The company continued to make very significant investments in new products and during these tough periods self-belief that these would pay off was key to the business scaling-up today.

The business has returned again to a strong growth phase and Plextek will continue to spin out its various technology investments into separate companies to unleash the potential of these businesses. From past examples such as Telensa, and Redtail Telematics - which has just placed 19th of the Sunday's Times Tech Track league – the future is looking bright.

Scale-up roadmap

From talking to over 50 fast growth companies from a range of backgrounds this report has pulled together some of the key decisions and challenges they face in their growth journeys. Straight from the mouths of scale-ups leaders, this roadmap highlights some of the crucial questions and practical insights that can help your company scale-up.

Figure and caption

Scaling-up requires action and smart strategies on a range of different issues that can help a business grow. The next chapters aim to highlight some of the practical insights that can help your business scale-up and navigate fast growth based on the experiences of high growth business across the country.


[1] Experian, Tomorrow's champions: finding the small business engines for economic growth, 2010

[2] Experian, Scale-up Analysis, 2015

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