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Bob Ingham, the 82-year-old who, with his brother Jack, turned Ingham Enterprises into one of the country’s largest poultry companies, is selling his business.
The Ingham brothers inherited the business from their father in 1953. Back then it was a farming operation, with 650 pigs and 30,000 birds. It didn’t take the brothers long to pivot their business, establishing a poultry processing unit in 1958.
By the time of Jack’s death in 2003, Ingham Enterprises had captured more than a third of the market for chicken meat. Today, the company turns over $2.2 billion a year.
The family is notoriously private, but in 2010 Robby Ingham told The Australian Financial Review the bond between the brothers was a key part of their success: “Their partnership was unique. They didn’t try to do each other’s jobs and that is the biggest thing to any partnership. You can’t micromanage.”
It’s a lesson emphasised by others LeadingCompany contacted this morning.
Dean Ramler is the CEO and co-founder of designer furniture company Milan Direct. He founded it in 2007 with the CEO of Kogan Technologies, Ruslan Kogan, a friend from high school. Today, Ramler works full-time at Milan Direct handling the day-to-day operations, but he and Kogan still make the strategic decisions together.
“I‘ve seen a lot of partnerships fail because two people partner with the same skill set. They then want to do same work, and there’s little extra value from the partnership,” Ramler says.
He and Kogan have completely different skill sets.
“I have a very strong background in furniture,” he says. “I was bought up from a young age in the furniture industry. Ruslan has a very strong technology background … he had good experience in online, and in dealing with China.”
The duo made use of their different strengths. From the day they started the business, Ramler and Kogan divided up the roles and responsibilities. “These have evolved over the years, but we’ve always been clear on who’s expected to do what.”
Complementary skills also played a big part in the success of iconic recruitment firm, Morgan and Banks, founded by Andrew Banks and Geoff Morgan. It was sold to TMP Worldwide in 1999, and the partners went on to form Talent2, a listed recruitment company that they are in the process of taking private.
“I couldn’t have been so successful on my own,” Banks says. “Geoff [Morgan] and I have a unique combination of skills.”
“It’s like a marriage … if you take away what a partner gives … you can’t conquer the world.”
The partnership between the two began in Australia 27 years ago, when Banks and Morgan worked at rival recruitment firms. After forming, it survived separation, when Banks went to New York to run the global operations of the rapidly expanding company.
The secret to their success?
“We can disagree about a topic but we never attack each other. We instinctively share that,” Banks says.
They work together to build agreement, or at least acceptance, before taking strategic decisions.
“If one was uncomfortable or cautious we would think it through. Geoff would say, ‘I don’t agree but will give it a shot’. The key is accepting he would get it right sometimes, I would get it right sometimes. As a team we did get it right most of the time. We have had our good moments. And we’ve had less comfortable moments, no doubt. But I’ve never experienced a feeling of being let down by Geoff.”
Morgan says their motto is simple: “If we don’t agree, we don’t do it.”
This is starkly different from the way Mark Harbottle and Matt Mickiewicz run their businesses. The founders of 99designs, Flippa, Sitepoint, and a host of other successful online start-ups, sharply divide responsibilities. And when they don’t see eye-to-eye, one will defer to the other.
“We’ve started businesses that both founders haven’t agreed on,” Harbottle laughs. He says it’s important for partnerships to decide who the boss is. “You have to divide up the roles. Say one person is the CEO and another is the COO. If it’s a technical decision, the COO has the last word. If it’s strategic, the CEO can listen to advice, but it’s his or her call.”
While working at Sausage Software eleven years ago Harbottle met Mickiewicz when he used the entrepreneur’s advertising services. At the time, Mickiewicz was working from his bedroom in Canada. The two met online. It didn’t take long for them to found the first of many businesses together.
“We weren’t friends. We didn’t know each other,” Harbottle says.
“He knew what I’d done professionally, and I saw what he’d done through the website. So there was a mutual respect. We’d dealt with each other professionally, so that built trust.
“Even though we were far apart we had the two ingredients: mutual trust and respect.”
A shoulder to lean on
By virtue of often bringing together leaders with complementary skills, business partnerships allow businesses to quickly punch well above their weight.
There are other benefits too.
“It was helpful when we were under pressure,” Banks says. “I am a great believer in two heads being better than one.”
Ramler says his partnership with Kogan makes surprises less stressful.
“Almost every week something will come out of the blue… As it is, Ruslan and I thrive on such challenges. We laugh, we know we can do it together. Without someone else, it would be stressful. But for us, we talk through it, it becomes a quick brainstorm.”
“It’s hard to go to family or friends for that … they don’t know what’s going on in the business as well.”
For all the benefits of partnerships, the fact remains that most business leaders go into it alone. Partnerships are hard to perfect, and when they go awry, can cause no end of heartache. They often end up in the courts, as the disintegration of the partnership between Facebook co-founders Mark Zuckerberg and his first venture capital backer and CFO, Eduardo Saverin, did.
Harbottle says he doesn’t go into business with friends or family.
“A lot of people go into business with their friends: I’m not sure that’s a good idea. It can work – I’ve seen it work – but my preference is for a business partner.
“Founders are hands-on people – that’s why it’s so important to find someone who complements what you do. The same goes for family … look elsewhere.”
However, Ramler was friends with Kogan for years before they started their business together. Even today, he says: “We hang out on weekends as friends; we don’t even talk about the business.”
Ramler says the biggest challenge he and Kogan face in their partnership is that they’re both “alpha-males.”
The two travel a lot together, sometimes spending entire weeks in each other’s company when they visit manufacturing facilities in China.
“Sometimes when you’re spending so much time together, you have heated discussions… We do have clashes every now and then. We can both believe it’s our way or the highway.
“At times, we’ve had to take a minute to realise we’re both strong-minded.”
Banks says it’s important to have a strong relationship if it’s going to withstand stress.
“I’m a student of behavioral psychology. I’ve seen every psych test known to man. When people are under pressure … there is a circle of elliptical behaviour people show... They slow down; they panic… people [get] frozen under pressure. Their judgment gets clouded and cautious. That’s when relations with other individuals get jostled, and where the fundamentals of a relationship become really important.”