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Tue 2 Sep 2014 10:23 AM

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Building a BIZness: Q&A with Hazel Jackson

Since landing in Dubai in the 1990s, Hazel Jackson has built one of the most highly rated SMEs in the UAE – biz-group. Neil King finds out more about Jackson, her training, strategy and teambuilding company, and what it takes to be a great leader

Building a BIZness: Q&A with Hazel Jackson

When Hazel Jackson arrived in Dubai, she had just $700 in her pocket, a head full of ideas, and a hell of a lot of determination.

Coming to the emirate in 1993 to promote a hair removal cream for a UK cosmetics company, she soon saw opportunities to do much more, and year later launched a training school for sales personnel.

Over time, this developed into biz-ability, which gave rise to two further companies, biz-events and biz strategy. And so, in 2010, the umbrella company biz-group was born.

Offering companies training to develop employee potential, leadership, sales and customer services through biz-ability, Jackson and her team use biz-events to improve team performance through motivation activities, and biz-strategy to increase business performance through improved strategy, alignment and execution.

A constantly high-ranker on the Dubai SME 100 list (currently at number nine), as well as being named the best SME workplace in the UAE by the Great Place to Work Institute, biz-group has garnered a stellar reputation in terms of not only what it does, but what it stands for.

References to its biz-family and biz-culture point to the company’s core, with a Culture Manifesto outlining numerous key, positive points that Jackson and every other person associated with the group should stand by.

These include refusing to be afraid of passionate dialogue, starting each day with an ‘energized huddle’, and not holding back on rewards and celebrations.

Jackson herself has also won high acclaim – and awards – for her leadership skills, her vision for the company, and her contribution to entrepreneurship and entrepreneurs in the region.

We caught up with the founder of biz-group to find out more about the company, its culture, and its plans for the future, as well as what it takes to be a great leader.

2014 marks biz-group’s 20th anniversary. When you launched the business, did you ever think that this is what the company would look like two decades later?

We wanted to be the best. I am sure everyone says that, but we set out to do deliver solutions to our clients that could improve and impact their business. Today we might be bigger but the ethos remains the same, we deliver measurable improvements in business performance.

For example, I wanted to test my vision on our first client, a large English Daily Newspaper, where I worked with the classified telesales team, who were great but no one had trained them. In six months, we significantly increased sales volume and service. It was the springboard that started biz-group and is the reason we are here today.

You came to Dubai with $700. How were you able to launch biz-group with these limited funds? What compromises did you have to make, and what was the business landscape like for entrepreneurs?

Like all start-ups we had to take care of cash. I practised envelope accounting. This is a simple method for not getting into debt. Basically, all earnings went into one envelope and all payments were made in cash. At the end of the month, whatever was left I could spend, which wasn’t a significant amount because we were a start-up, but following this simple formula we have grown biz-group completely debt free for the last 20 years.

How did you structure the business in the early days, and how has this developed to become what we see biz-group as today?

I would say our first five to eight years were exploration. We had more questions than answers and we would say yes to everything. But essentially I would be out there hunting for opportunities and as the business has grown, over the last 12 or 13 years, I’d say we’ve had to become more selective, from the people we hire to the clients we work with, in order to grow the business. We slowly put together an amazing team that can support the business, while I travel looking for new products and solutions.

At which points did you realise biz-group had to grow, and how did you manage this growth? As the founder, how easy or difficult was it to hand over elements of control to other people?

It wasn’t easy but I recognised around five years ago that I couldn’t be out there looking for opportunities and keep an eye on all business functions. For this I needed a strong people management leader, someone to provide feedback, discussion and support. That’s when I hired Bev Mileham, our General Manager. I continue to play to my strengths and empower others at biz-group to do the same.

During these past 20 years, what challenges have you had to overcome – both personally and business-wise?

Dubai’s boom years - 2005-2008. During this period we faced one of our biggest challenges, the threat of clients preferring overseas suppliers to local talent. Local businesses began bringing in people from the UK or US to the region to train their staff. Since the recession the market has cleared and there has been an emphasis on using local providers. That’s been very good for everyone.

I was completely married to the business for the 12 years and it took a long time for me to find a life outside of biz-group. I wouldn’t state I have life work balance, because I believe work is part of life and not separate.  But for the last eight years I have had the joy of a strong personal relationship as well as still loving every day I go to work.  I consider myself very lucky.

Biz-group is one of the highest ranking companies in Dubai SME 100. To what do you ascribe this success?

We have built biz-group with the help of our team (past and present), who are all A Players and do their job without being managed. With the help of the team we have created a winning culture, we personally live the core values of our company and are transparent about the expectations. Our success is therefore a result of the team’s hard work and dedication.

Please can you explain more about ‘biz-culture’ and why it is so important?

Our culture is essentially who we are as people and as a business, they both go hand-in-hand. We fundamentally believe that companies don’t succeed, people do. We have high-trust levels and this has helped us enjoy a higher-than-average employee retention rate.

We are target driven and gear our team up with a profit-sharing scheme. Showing support for personal goals and ensuring firm alignment to core values is also very important to us. That’s the biz-group way.

What are the key things that team building, corporate training, and strategy can bring to a business? How important are they to small businesses and start-ups?

I would say it’s important to realise there is no one size fits all. There are best practices that can provide a greater chance of success.

From a team building perspective the key is to motivate, energise and build team spirit. Corporate training can fill the skills gaps and enhance people performance, which ultimately hits the bottom line. Strategy coaching helps SMEs to realise results through clarity and they have to learn to define priorities, simplify measures, set a rhythm of clear communication and ensure every person in the organisation is aligned.

What are the most common issues that companies come to biz-group with?

Mostly the companies need to improve performance.  Many companies want our help to build a strong, positive culture; others have specific soft skills gaps that need addressing, like improve customer service skills or help our team to sell more.  All of these performance gaps need managers and leaders involvement, so 70 per cent of our solutions will include training for managers as well as their teams.

What does it take to be a great leader? Is it the same across the globe, or are there certain traits that you need to be such a leader in Dubai?

Leadership is globally universal.  There might be some nuances in Dubai because of the great cultural mix, but great leaders need to value the intelligence and capability of the people in their team – understanding and using other people’s strengths rather than making it about how smart the leader is.

This requires lots of listening, asking questions and taking risks.  Making it safe for people to grow, stretch even make mistakes.  The best leaders are humble about their achievements, and turn the spotlight on the team.

What comes next for biz-group? What are the future plans for the company, and for yourself?

What’s next doesn’t just relate to us, it impacts the practise of training and development across the region. Increasingly companies want to justify and measure the results of training against business KPIs and return on investment.

This isn’t an unreasonable request, but the lack of accuracy in answering these questions has resulted in businesses cutting back on training budgets.

How do we tackle this?  Part of the solution lies in Axonify, the most exciting new product in the region which has the potential to fundamentally reshape corporate training in the Middle East.

Axonify is a web-based knowledge retention platform that combines the latest research in brain science and game mechanics. It is proven to drive long-term retention and application of learning.

Whether an organisation has 100 or 100,000 employees, Axonify personalises the learning experience for every employee, adapting to their performance and closing knowledge gaps.

From a functionality perspective it could not be easier, being an online tool means learning does not get in the way of responsibilities because training is delivered to any web-enabled device – phone, computer, tablet – in  daily in topics that matter most to the organisation.

Each burst of training takes less than five minutes a day and can be measured against employee and business impact.