Posted on Tuesday 21 December 2010 byUlster Business
Ulster Business talks to Noel Brady from Consult Nb1 about the art of brokering deals between companies, helping private sector firms tender for public sector contracts and advising clients how to get the best from their sales force
Some people are scared of networking, Noel Brady is definitely not one of them.
When I interview him on a cold November morning at the Harbour Commissioners Office in Belfast – where he is in the third year of his first term as a Harbour Commissioner – it is clear from his easy manner that meeting people comes as second nature to him.
Standing over six feet tall, with a shock of white hair and thick designer glasses, Brady is both a well-known and easily recognisable figure in the Northern Ireland business community.
Over a 35 year career split almost equally between the public and private sectors, the Belfast-born businessman has built a substantial network of contacts and gained wide ranging expertise that makes him ideally placed to advise companies across many business sectors.
An experienced managing director, the work he does for clients tends to fall into three categories: introducing companies to new partners or markets; business development and sales activity advice; and assistance in writing successful public and private sector tenders.
When Brady set up Nb1 six years ago much of his work involved helping companies coming into Northern Ireland from Republic of Ireland, UK and Europe for the first time to meet the right people and get embedded in the Northern Ireland marketplace.
But in the last three years his workload has swung increasingly towards the complex, detailed and often painstaking process of public sector tendering. Mostly the need has come from companies which have previously not been active in the public sector but which are now looking for new clients and revenue streams.
“Because of the state of the economy and its impact on the private sector many businesses that previously wouldn’t have bothered with the public sector now regard it as an opportunity. They are facing a situation where they have not developed the skills needed for public sector tendering. It’s a very specific and exact discipline and one that cannot be taught overnight but it is a skill that can be honed,” says Brady.
“It is a process that commonly people are not good at and one in which they make simple mistakes. Sometimes those mistakes in tendering can cost you your short listing place for a huge piece of business. I regard tendering as a process and I help people “unlock the process.”
Brady uses his extensive list of contacts to discover where and when projects might be coming up – anything from IT projects to town centre redevelopments, road building or hospital builds.
“A lot of my work involves research to establish where and when large projects will be undertaken in both the private and public sectors and when they are likely to come to market. The timing must be right to get in and talk to people and it also gives me time to find potential customers who are interested in these projects, ” he says.
“If the first time you become aware of a tender notice is in a newspaper or journal then I’d say there is a good chance that you will not win it. There will be competitors who have already been aware of the tender and started into the process at least six months before you. These companies will have a distinct advantage.”
Bidding for government work costs time and money, yet Brady says he finds many firms still take a scattergun approach – applying for all sorts of tenders without a good qualification process to properly assess those they should enter for and those which would be a waste of time and resource. Brady assists clients in establishing and implementing that process reasoning that if a company can reduce the number of tenders it applies for and yet still win the same amount of business – or more – then they will save money and the improved hit rate will instill confidence in their sales team.
While he acknowledges that public sector budgets will be reduced over the next four years, he notes that levels of spending remain high and there will still be substantial contracts to tender for.
“There’s a school of thought that says as public sector organisations are forced to find ways of saving money, they’ll probably reissue tenders to try to get better deals or to look at new areas to save money. I’ve a feeling there will be an upturn in the actual number of tenders in order to hit the efficiency targets – but it is going to be a heavily competitive market,” he says.
Being able to work with other companies in strong consortiums has already become a key facet in advancing through the tendering process, as it is unusual for one firm to be able to cover all aspects of a project that might require everything from IT to construction.
“Quite often I work with a client and we would conclude that we need other companies to form a successful consortium for a private or public sector project. My job is to find those partners, put the consortium together and then help the consortium prepare their proposal or tender,” says Brady.
“I encourage SMEs who feel they are not big enough to take on a contract to work with larger partners. They can get a good share of a large contract and also their name gets recognised as being able to take on larger projects. With a broker in the middle it is easier for companies to work together on a project.”
Having managed large projects on the IT-side of the civil service for nine years Brady then held senior management positions in ICL CFM and SX3 (now part of Northgate) before launching his own company Consult Nb1 in 2004. His client list includes many local, national and international names, in a variety of major industries.
The role Brady plays with many of his clients is essentially that of an extra director, bringing outside expertise in to a company that needs a fresh perspective to help fire-fight a particular problem, or provide a skill that is lacking on its board. While they might not be able to afford a full time director they can afford a consultant to provide that expertise.
“I try to bring an independent view, particularly to business development and sales activity,” says Brady.
“On other occasions there are issues in or between companies that need to be managed. These could be issues around a joint project or between executives and the board. Sometimes I am called in to mentor or manage those situations because of my experience. The objective is to reach an amicable solution which is acceptable to both parties and limits any further damage to relationships or the companies concerned.” While the economy was strong Brady notes that companies in many sectors were able to sit back and wait for new orders to come in – something that has changed drastically in recent times and exposed weaknesses in the way they operate.
“During the good times staff lost the ability to sell. People are now beginning to re-engage with face to face selling to customers and to sharpen their professional selling toolkit again,” he says. Despite his IT background and having embraced social media, he believes that the best way to win business in the current environment is face-to-face.
“Some people are over reliant on social media,” he says. “In my experience people buy from people and you have to be in the room to create the opportunity. For the major purchases in life – a house, a car – you always want to see the person you’re buying from. It is difficult to judge a person’s honesty and integrity over the phone.
“If I go in to a client’s office and it is full of sales people I often ask why they are here. Customers are not in the office, they are in the field. Sales people should be out there selling to customers.”
And he says he’s amazed by how many organisations don’t incentivise sales staff or don’t have a clear sales organisation structure or processes to identify opportunities.
“It never ceases to surprise me that there are some businesses where sales staff do not have an incentive scheme. I don’t understand that – why would a person sell more than their basic target if there is no reward for exceeding it?” he says.
While the idea of networking is sometimes maligned, Brady believes this is usually by people who don’t understand its true value or don’t know how best to make it work for them.
“I am absolutely against the concept of saving money by not attending events and opting out of business networking organisations. Yes, take costs out but don’t reduce business development and sales activity, because that is the lifeblood of the company. The companies who are out there aggressively looking for business and that incentivise their people to find business are the ones that will succeed.”
He adds: “Networking is a life skill. Some people like doing it and some people don’t. Those who don’t tend to make very poor sales people. Networking needs to be very focused and you need to treat your contacts with integrity. You can’t just use people and not treat them properly and still expect them to help you.”
That personal attention to clients is also reflected in the way Brady runs his own business.
“If you buy Nb1 you buy me, just me,” he says. “I use associates but I don’t employ people to take on work I’ve agreed to. I devote my personal attention to all my clients.”
More information about Nb1 can be found at www.nb1.co.uk.