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Talking point
Neil Ward, commercial director, Rowlinson Knitwear.

By Laura Turner

7 October 2016

Formerly a highly qualified banker and area director at HSBC, Neil Ward has extensive first-hand experience advising international businesses on their growth strategies. After working closely with Rowlinson Knitwear as its relationship director, Ward joined the schoolwear manufacturer as commercial director on 1 July. 
 
Laura Turner: What attracted you to Rowlinson as an employer?
Neil Ward: Thanks to my time with HSBC, I’ve had a close professional relationship with Rowlinson and the company’s MD, Donald Moore, for a number of years. This positive relationship was very influential in my decision to join the team, as were Rowlinson’s values and it being employee-owned (EO). 
 
LT: What are your views on the EO business model?
NW: EO businesses usually achieve higher productivity, greater innovation and are more resilient to economic turbulence, meaning Rowlinson is in a strong position to meet any challenges that may affect the schoolwear market. Essentially, employee ownership allows us to control our own destiny and share the financial rewards fairly. How Rowlinson treats its people, customers and suppliers directly contributes to its commercial success. EOs tend to have more engaged and less stressed workforces and we benefit from incredible staff commitment, which in turn impacts on customer loyalty and satisfaction. Our people participate in day-to-day decision-making and we’ve seen the positive impact on our customer satisfaction levels. It’s important to me that everyone feels inspired and has a real say in the business.
 
LT: How has Rowlinson’s performance improved since becoming EO in September 2015?
NW: We’ve seen a 13 per cent increase in revenues, 44 per cent increase in profits, and customer satisfaction has risen to 98 per cent. The results are a pretty convincing business case for employee ownership.
 
LT: How will you support Rowlinson’s ethic of investing in its people?
NW: We are uncompromising in this aspect of the business, so providing staff with professional development opportunities and career progression is all part of the plan.
 
LT: How do your key strengths align with Rowlinson? 
NW: Rowlinson relentlessly pursues the highest standards of quality and customer service. We receive excellent customer feedback, yet everyone is always looking for ways to be even better. I hope to use my experience working with a large number of different businesses to contribute towards this.
 
LT: What’s your leadership style?
NW: I’d describe it as ‘open’ and ‘fair’, which fits Rowlinson’s culture perfectly. My goal is to facilitate decision-making and support the entire team. Everyone offers ideas and is encouraged to take ownership, so listening is very important in my role. 
 
LT: What’s first on your agenda? 
NW: Meeting customers and suppliers and getting to know colleagues to learn as much as I can about the business. It’s a valuable use of time; nothing beats a stint in the warehouse or with our embroidery team to sharpen your focus on what matters to customers.
 
LT: And in the longer term?
NW: We’re currently reviewing our long-term business plans to align closely with our strategic mission, which is to become a great company to work with, and for.
 
LT: What are your initial impressions of the schoolwear market? 
NW: It has grown in recent years, but it’s my view that we need to prepare for increasing pressure on parents’ disposable income by ensuring we continue to deliver premium schoolwear to our trusted customers. Quality and long-lasting uniforms remain incredibly important to parents and schools alike.
 
LT: What do you view as areas of growth? 
NW: The pupil population is expected to grow significantly, so we will continue manufacturing schoolwear that is high quality, long-lasting and suits the pockets of parents. Low-cost uniform may appeal, but can prove a false economy if the garments don’t last. 
 
LT: What commercial issues are you particularly interested in at the moment?
NW: There is turbulence in the wider commercial world that is having a massive impact on businesses. We are particularly focused on the weakness of sterling against the US dollar and how best to mitigate price increases without impacting upon quality or service.
 
LT: What can we expect from Rowlinson for Back to School (BTS) 2017? 
NW: We’re improving quality standards even further and aiming to deliver an even better service to customers. We will not be adding new products this year, preferring to focus on what we do best. 
 
LT: What’s the next phase?
NW: We’ll continue to deliver premium schoolwear that offers quality, durability and comfort, matched by excellent service. In 2016, we delivered over 1,000,000 embroidered garments in 4-5 working days of order – even during BTS. Ultimately, we want to be the ‘go-to knitwear supplier’ for schoolwear that represents value and performance.


 
 
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