Kiwi Business Story: Laurence Sherriff at Align

Posted by The Icehouse on Apr 19, 2023 12:00:00 AM

Laurence Sherriff is the Founder and Managing Director of Align and an Owner Manager Programme alumni. 

This Kiwi Business Story is based on a podcast from 22 December 2022, and all figures quoted are from that time. You can enjoy the complete podcast here.

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Tell us about yourself and how Align began?

(Laurence holds University Degrees and a Masters, has worked overseas and returned to New Zealand to work at Transpower, before setting up Align. Laurence has a huge and active interest in boxing training and boxing charity work.)

I went to Transpower, worked there for about four years, still doing my Masters. It was a good job but I ended up not really liking big organisations and the waste that exists within them. 

So that's sort of what drove me to start up my own business and it grew to about 20 people. The first few years were really good, but then we had two recessions and I was diagnosed with bipolar. 

Everything turned pear-shaped. We were nearly bankrupt. I mortgaged my house and didn't take a salary for a year – it was a very, very dark time. Fortunately, I was supported very well by a few people. 

I was diagnosed, was put on to the right drugs, and then I started waking up again. It was strange, it was like consciousness was returning, and we rebuilt the business over the next five years – 20k by 20k. It was a very slow and long, painful, process.

Then we started winning some big government contracts and things came right. Now I've got 60 FTEs (Full-Time Equivalents) working for me, and contractors. Fingers crossed we'll hit about 100 FTEs within the next year or so. So no matter how bad it gets, there's always a light at the end of the tunnel.

What has been your biggest learning from building a business?

Not trying to do it all by yourself. Get help from a board, get help from advisors, pass responsibility on to employees, and encourage them to grow, and get help from networks. Otherwise you risk burning out and suffering, particularly in the consultancy game, which can be gruelling and tough and involves many casualties. 

How did you hear about The Icehouse?

I pitched an idea to The Icehouse about three years before – I also have a little software company and I learned about the courses then… and about three years later, I decided to do the Owner Manager Programme (OMP).

When you heard about the OMP were there any hesitations?

No. I did ring a few people up, and everyone raved about it, and I only heard good things. Since then, I've sent a few employees on the Leadership Development Programme, as well. 

We have an open invitation to all the senior employees, although I’ll happily put a junior employee through [a programme] as well. So there's an open invitation there to do it – they just have to be willing and keen.

What benefits have you found from putting some of your team on such a closely-linked programme?

It helps them to understand me and what I'm on about. You pick up new ideas and new jargon and for them to be able to understand that, is very useful, so it puts us all onto the same page. 

What were your key takeaways?

For me, it allowed me to look back at myself, and it gave me a very good idea of where we're at. It really reinforced the need to grow, and to keep on going, and since the course, we've really focused on growth. We've doubled our turnover, and had gross profits in the bracket of 50% to 60%.

I learned more about the analytical side, because I'm already quite strong on the cultural people side of things. I learned a lot about balance sheets! I also found the Zoe Dryden talk really interesting. She talked about intention versus an existential vacuum and that really struck a chord with me.  

Is there anything else you implemented from the programme?

The growth plan, which we developed during the course, was essentially a culmination of everything. I started putting that into action pretty much straight away. We’ve vastly improved our sales and business development systems – we really weren't very focused on that, and we’ve become a lot more organised and it's making a big difference to the business.

What does the future hold for you personally?

I'm actually at a bit of a crossroads at the moment. I've been doing this for nearly a quarter of a century now, so I'm at the point in life where I think I want to start giving a bit more back. 

I may be out of the business in 10 years’ time, and doing something new. I have a funny feeling it could have something to do with mental illness and helping people, with a focus on younger people. 


Topics: Owner Manager Programme, Wellington, Energy & Environment

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