MORE THAN A SPARK OF AMBITION
Jacqui Hall has always been fiercely ambitious. Whilst working in a small hotel in Harrogate as a teenager she aspired to one day owning a chain to rival Hilton and when she moved to British Gas a couple of years later, Jacqui envisaged herself as chairman. Today, she is managing director at CNG – a company with an impressive growth story and looking to realise ambitions of its own and make a bid for the electricity market.
What lesson did you take forward from the early days in your career?
“I’m a very people and customer focused person. My first job working in a hotel drilled into me the importance of putting the customer first – particularly when you are working in a face-to-face environment and the reaction from the people you are dealing with is instantaneous. From there I moved onto British Gas – where I stayed for 13 years – and whenever I talk about what it was like to work there, I remember how great they were with their people and placed real value on staff development.”
Tell us about how you came to join CNG?
“I teamed up with Colin Gaines, whom I’d worked with at British Gas, in 1998. He was a real entrepreneur and in the midst of deregulation of the gas industry he had spotted the opportunity to set up his own gas supply business. I was invited to come on board and help develop a particular area of the business which was focused upon helping other suppliers to get into the market.”
Was that a risk – going from a massive player like British Gas to joining a company with only a handful of employees?
“I didn’t see it as a risk. When I had worked at the hotel there were only four employs so the eight or nine people that there were at time at CNG seemed like a large team in comparison! Plus, I’m very much of the mindset that if there is something that you want to achieve you just need to roll your sleeves up, work hard and anything is possible. I’ve always had ambition; if there is a goal to be reached then why shouldn’t I be the one to reach it?”
As well as ambition, is there a part of your character which you feel has been fundamental to your success in business?
“I’m a ‘can do’ person. I like to get involved, see what the problem is and work hard to find a way to get to the best solution all round. My background in customer service means that I always try and see a situation from the other party’s perspective.
I’m very much a people person; I care about people and I care about what I can do to help – in fact, I struggle sometimes to understand why others wouldn’t take this approach. It shouldn’t always be about one person needs to win and the other has to lose – I always hope to come away from a situation knowing that I did my best to come up with a way to resolve a matter which means nobody feels they have lost out.”
What do you look for in people?
“For me, it’s all about their attitude. I like people to have a passion, an enthusiasm – it doesn’t really matter what this is for as such – but they must have something which gets them fired up and makes them want to come to work every day and enjoy what they do.
There’s a grit and determination which you can see in a person; in an interview the potential employee is understandable nervous – scared even – you have to work hard to make sure that you see past that and help them into a situation where they can show you the best of themselves. For example, you might walk them around the workplace and from observing how they react and speak with other people – those whom they are not being interviewed by – you can get a feel for how they are as individuals.
We have great people who work here and in turn they themselves have been able to recruit and develop more great people.”
Was there any person who acted as a mentor or who you looked up to for inspiration?
“Colin was a huge inspiration to me and someone that I always turned to for reassurance or advice. The desire to continually develop and improve my own skills is something that I have taken forward from that; what best practice can we take from looking at other companies, where do we see good ideas happening and how can we make those work for ourselves?”
What do you thinking someone would say about you as a manager and a leader?
“I think that the most important thing when it comes to people is that you have to be honest. We’ve been very lucky with the people who have come on board but occasionally there will be someone who just isn’t right – or we are not right for them – and the best thing for both sides would be to help them find something that works better. However, I always have to make sure that I have done everything that I could do to help a person. You have to accept that not everyone is the same, or thinks the same as you, but you do need to try and understand them and give them the time that they need.”
What has been the hardest challenge you have faced?
“The toughest situation was in 2006 when we lost Colin and another significant shareholder in the space of a few days. Whilst we as the management team were dealing with a very personal loss, we were also conscious that we had to step up and take control of the business and that there would be a lot of people looking at us and waiting to see how we would move forward.
We did what we knew Colin would have wanted us to do and proceeded with a management buyout; that in itself was difficult due to the recession and the reluctance from banks to lend. However since then employee numbers have escalated – I’m proud at the sheer scale of growth that we have achieved; I think Colin would be proud too.”
You are looking to move into electricity – what is the vision for CNG over the next 10 years?
“Electricity is the big project for us presently – in the next 10 years we would like this area of the business to be around half the size of what gas is currently for us. We would hope to increase our market share in gas from the 5% that it is now to 10% which is about the peak of where we can realistically aim for. And we would want to double our workforce.
We are striving to be recognised as one of the Best Places to Work; not for the plaudits that this would bring but because it means that you are delivering for your people. That for me would be a real testament of what we are always aiming to achieve.”