Sarah Laurence is General Manager at the award-winning DCPower, a family-owned and operated business based in Palmerston North. DCPower services the Manawatu region and wider New Zealand with a wide range of forklift batteries and automotive, network power, deep cycle, solar and industrial battery services.
Location: Palmerston North
Business Type: Electrical Engineering and Services
Number of employees: 5
Current Business Situation: Balancing pivot of the retail side of business with accelerated growth of core operations
Relationship with The Icehouse: Owner Manager Programme Alumni
‘I love that Sarah puts all staff through the Strengths Finder straight away. This is a unique point of difference to other workplaces. Sarah and Darryl put a lot of trust in the team and this makes me feel valued. DCPower is the first company that I’ve worked for that goes above and beyond to look out for the team, which helps to create a supportive, safe and fun working environment.’ Stephanie Gilchrist, Administration Assistant
Tell us about yourself and why you decided to become an owner?
It’s probably not how I expected my career to turn out! I spent ten very happy years in the corporate world, working in sales and marketing at Toyota NZ. I had aspirations of breaking the glass ceiling and being a female GM in the company. So that was kind of my goal before DCPower evolved into what it is today!
How did you become the manager of your business?
Dad (Darryl) is the founder and was building up the business. When I had my first baby in 2009 my husband said, ‘Well, you’re not doing anything… Go help your Dad!’ So that’s how I got into the family business, as a volunteer!
It was very tough but convenient. I was lucky juggling motherhood and work because it was a family business. So the back office became a creche, and by the time I had my second child, my mum and I were tag-teaming the childcare. My Dad and I have complementary strengths and interests. He’s passionate about batteries and I’m passionate about business, but it’s been a journey.
At one point we had me, Mum and Dad, my brother and my sister-in-law at DCPower. However, it didn't take us very long as a family to figure out that this wasn't in the best interests of our family dynamic or the business. So we consciously made the decision to strip that down and have defined roles, which works very well.
How does 2021 look for you compared to 2020?
When COVID-19 hit it was a big shock for us – as it was for everyone. My parents were on holiday when the country went into the first lockdown, and they had 24 hours to get back while I was back at base with the team, thinking, ‘How are we going to deal with this?’
There are several different parts to our business, which essentially all revolve around our core strength, which is batteries, but the primary part of our business is motive power or industrial batteries, and reserve power.
These are used for things like forklift trucks, so when the grocery industry, for example, went into overdrive during lockdown, the distribution centres needed our services. We were deemed essential workers and our workload increased quite significantly. However, the flip side to that was that the other two divisions of our business, the retail store and the workshop, which service B2C, stopped functioning completely.
One-third of our business increased by 42% and two stopped. So that was a huge learning curve. We quickly pivoted to offer online trading but that in itself isn’t so easy when it comes to shipping and distribution because a lot of courier companies won’t take batteries – they are large, heavy, and need to be treated carefully. However, it did give us the opportunity to refine the website, and I don't think we would have done that had we not experienced the lockdown period.
What are currently your biggest challenges?
We’ve had to alter where we think we’ll be at the end of 2021. We came out of lockdown with a gross profit down by 51%, but I have a really positive outlook on the whole COVID experience. It taught me the value in planning and looking ahead, and remaining flexible. I also learnt a lot about myself and even what I'm not good at.
I have a lot of emotional attachment to the retail store. It’s not our million-dollar business, but it’s hard to let go of something that you have literally built with your babies at your feet.
I'm a big thinker. I like to come up with the ideas and throw them out there. So COVID gave me the opportunity to actually sit back and look at the data that was in front of us all along, and then make some sensible and practical decisions based on that.
We now have plans in place – a two-year and a FY30 plan. We have some audacious goals and want to achieve them, but knowing where you're going makes the path a lot easier.
What kind of support have you received from The Icehouse and are you looking to keep working with them?
Around seven years ago, a good friend told me about the Owner Manager Programme, and we also bank with BNZ, so The Icehouse came up a lot in conversations. I thought about doing an MBA, but the more I read up, the more I liked the concept of the OMP. I was part of OMP 49 – the record-breaker – the longest running OMP ever!
We had one session in February, and then went into lockdown, but the timing for that was divine. We had that session, got to know each other, and that was a saving grace. We were all in shock because of COVID, but it was comforting to be with a group of people all experiencing the same thing. We shared our challenges, how we were feeling, and what we needed to focus on. I can't imagine having coped with the situation without that support, perspective and reassurance.
Having the courage to take action was a significant thing for me, also to open myself up a little bit more and to involve people in the growth journey. I know the team appreciates that.
I like to have my Is dotted, my Ts crossed, and I like to have everything in place. OMP taught me that if I don't make a decision and take some action, I'm not going to go anywhere. And the team’s not going to go anywhere either.
The second big thing I’ve learned is that I need to take care of myself, otherwise I can't comfortably take care of the business. So I see a psychologist once a month, which is my time. It really does put me in the best headspace to make the right decisions and be the best that I can be. Having goals around your own personal health and wellbeing sets an extremely good example for your team.
What OMP also allowed me to do was put a microscope on the areas which needed a microscope place on them. There were programme elements where I thought, ‘I’ve got this,’ but that’s fine, because those are the elements where you can help your peers. You're able to share something that is valuable with other people in the room around the areas you’re rocking, and vice versa.
The OMP shines a spotlight on all areas of your business, and I really needed to focus on the importance of knowing your numbers. As an owner and manager you wear hats across the full spectrum of running a business. When I was at Toyota, I didn't have to do operations, finance or any of the other stuff, but owners have to be over everything.
So I’d look at a P&L every month and that was that. Following the OMP, I was able to use my new knowledge to identify some really significant gaps in our financial processes that had contributed to some really poor decisions in the past that were hurting the business. I changed our accountants as a result. I wouldn’t have had the understandings that I have now to make that decision if it wasn’t for the OMP.
Another significant revelation was the importance of networking. During the graduation event I had a conversation with Gavin Lennox (Icehouse Group CEO) who said, ‘I'll introduce you to such and such.’ I was quite taken aback and thought, ‘You can’t do that! I can’t take advantage of you knowing that person.’ He looked at me as if I was mad and replied, ‘But that's what this is all about!’ Those moments can change a business forever.
What advice would you give to other entrepreneurs who are struggling/looking for help?
Two years ago, I had no idea how much support was out there. So reach out to the economic development agency in your region. The Central Economic Development Agency gave us a lot of support and access to funding to help us develop and grow.
I’m part of a local mentoring group and I support young enterprise programmes, which is fantastic and allows me to pay back. One of the things that always comes up is that if you do the same thing day in and day out, then you can expect the same results. If you really want to make a change, then you need to take a step in any direction to make that change happen.
Running a business can be lonely. It’s so easy to catastrophise about things when you’ve got no one to bounce off. It's so simple to go to that dark place, but it’s easier to break through the nonsense and get to the root of a problem when you've got other people to talk to.
Follow the link for more information about DCPower and its range of products and services.