As a part of our series called ‘Five Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became A CEO’ we had the pleasure of interviewing Callum Laing.
Callum Laing is the Founder and CEO of MBH Corporation PLC, an Agglomerate of 27 businesses across 5 countries and 8 industries with a combined revenue of over $100m ($MBHCF). He is the author of 3 best selling business books and has more than 20 years experience starting, building, buying and selling businesses across multiple industries and continents.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I’ve been starting and building businesses since I was a kid (selling homemade ice cream to bars and restaurants in Cambridge, England). Together with my business partner Jeremy Harbour we have spent the last 6 years working on a way for well-established, profitable, small businesses to come together to leverage their combined size to level the playing field with the big corporations. MBHCorporation.com is the product of that work and affords me the opportunity to spend time with incredible business owners around the world who are doing great work but are often constrained by a glass ceiling that keeps most businesses small and unable to punch above their weight. By bringing them into a PLC environment, but leaving the founders at the helm we are able to create a unique platform for investors to get access to the asset class of ‘small business’ but with the liquidity and transparency you expect from a big PLC.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
We have grown from zero to 27 companies in under 3 years, that means that every day throws up an interesting story! However, one of my favourites from this period was, ironically, when the first wave of Covid hit causing lockdowns around the world. This was obviously something we had not anticipated and yet the founders of the companies immediately came together on weekly calls to share how they were dealing with it and to support each other.
Because we work with mostly mature businesses, there was no panic, just a sense that together we could all get through it. We only had 12 companies at the time, but what became apparent is that small business owners are professional problem solvers. Every time we add another company to the group we typically add another 20 years of entrepreneurial experience. Those founders, or Principals as we call them, own around 60–70% of the PLC and are incredibly motivated to ensure both the success of their own companies but also the success of the entire group. Ironically, this massive challenge we went through, so early in our journey, has set the foundation for the success of the group as we continue to grow and expand in the future.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Many years prior to MBH, early in my career, I was a network engineer for the biggest Internet company during the late 90’s when the Internet was a very, very different beast to what we know today. I was responsible for onboarding a new Internet Service Provider in Italy. I was based in Amsterdam and was configuring the only gateway router for Italy, when I accidentally sent the wrong command. Basically I told the router to disregard all Internet traffic, so not only did it shut itself down, it also kicked me out of the connection. It took me half an hour to get our local engineer onto his Vespa and out to site to reboot the router and restore internet connectivity. For half an hour in the late 90’s the whole of Italy was completely disconnected from the rest of the world. And that was my fault!
Remarkably I kept my job and I learnt some valuable lessons about how to deal with employee mistakes — but I did get a lot of stick from my colleagues for many years!
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I’ve had many mentors over the years, as the Chinese saying goes ‘when the student is ready, the master will appear’. I have also had a huge number of staff over the years who have been absolutely critical in helping my various businesses grow from one level to the next. As you would expect over a lifetime those individuals come and go.
The one constant that I have had is my wife who has been by my side for more than 25 years. Through every up and down she has always been there, and I think being married to an entrepreneur must be even more challenging than being an entrepreneur! I am often asked what the secret is to a long term relationship in either business or personal, and I think it is having low expectations. I am constantly reminding my wife to lower her expectations of me! And so far, it has worked well ;)
As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
I have long been an advocate that small businesses are uniquely positioned to profit from the blind spots and biases of big corporations. Before working from home became the norm, my biggest recruiting tip to small businesses was to hire mum’s but give them the freedom to do the work when and where they wanted. Big companies didn’t have the foresight to do that and it allowed to us to tap into an incredible talent pool that was being overlooked because micro-managers wanted to have someone ‘at a desk’. That same opportunity exists now where big corporations focus on hiring ‘people like them’. Bringing diversity into your business isn’t just the right thing to do, it is a massive commercial advantage over those that are too short sighted to do it.
At MBH Corporation half our Board is made up of women and we have a board apprentice whose sole responsibility is to increase the number of diverse run businesses we bring into the group. Any entrepreneur will tell you that the best ideas often come from leftfield, so you owe it to yourself to bring diverse thinking to your business. As Steve Jobs famously said:
“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future”
As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.
A lot of people look at the size of the problem and get overwhelmed and do nothing. The key is to take action in the areas you control. Take a look at your team objectively, how diverse are they? What about the people you choose to meet with? The people you spend the most time with? If you’re wondering how to get started, go and offer to mentor, or volunteer to sit on a Board of a company that is the exact opposite of what you are currently surrounded by. And then do it again. Then encourage your senior team to do it. You will likely find that you get way more out of it then the small commitment of time you are giving up.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
You’ll get a thousand different answers to this question, but for me it is about trying to align the people in the company to the vision. To make sure that the majority of the people are all pulling in the same direction the majority of the time. That might sound easy, but the reality is that you are constantly making tiny adjustments, putting out fires, and trying to project confidence when you have a fraction of the information you would like. Whilst other executives also have to do that to some extent, they have their field of expertise to fall back on. A CEO must develop an awareness across all areas of the business.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
I think whether it’s an executive or an entrepreneur most young people have a desire to reach a level that they ‘answer to no one’. At the beginning of your career it is easy to think that is the case with those at the top. The reality is that as the CEO you answer to everyone! All staff, customers, shareholders, partners, community, the media. Be careful what you wish for…
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
Actually, I have been remarkably lucky to find an incredible team to work with which allows me mostly to focus on the areas where I can contribute the most value and have faith that they will not only deliver, but probably over deliver in all other areas of the business.
Do you think everyone is cut out to be an executive? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?
You might have a stereotype of an ‘executive’ in mind but the reality is that we are all different. Different values, different motivations, different communication approaches. People tend to look at those who are successful and try and work backwards from that, but it is easy to pick any two executives and show how different they are from one another.
I believe most people don’t really want to become leaders, but will often step up because they become frustrated with the status quo. Success in any endeavour involves making huge sacrifices. Giving up on a lot of what the people around you will consider ‘normal’. For most people the juice is not worth the squeeze. And there will be times for any leader when they question why they are doing what they are doing, but for whatever reason, those people that do step up have a drive that will force them to push beyond what others will consider reasonable. If you are someone that is driven to affect change, then you will want the most possible resources available to make that change. Ultimately as an executive we have a wide range of resources to call on, but with that comes huge responsibility that most sensible people would not think was worth the effort!
What advice would you give to other business leaders to help create a fantastic work culture? Can you share a story or an example?
Work culture is one of those things that people talk about a lot, but the closer you look into it the more it seems to disappear before your very eyes. When the media talks about the fantastic culture at successful companies they neglect to mention that it is relatively easy to have a good culture when things are going well. It is much harder to have a good culture when times are tough. In the Agglomeration method we allow companies to carry on running the way they always have. You see very clearly that 2 companies can be equally successful with diametrically opposed company cultures. Neither is better than the other, they both work for those people at that time. The only thing I think that is true across all is that they are ‘authentic’ to their leadership. The really impressive companies for me are the ones where the team come together when times are tough and that requires that the key people are bought into the long term vision of the company and are willing to sacrifice the short term for the long term. We saw that a lot with the small businesses in MBH during Covid, whereas in other companies I saw employees putting themselves first to the detriment of the company and both suffered accordingly.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
Like most entrepreneurs I don’t feel I have reached ‘success’, not even close. And despite my best efforts I’m not entirely sure that I have done much to make the world a better place. Certainly the ambition of MBH is that we can level the playing field for small businesses, allowing those great companies that we bring in to continue to do the amazing work they do, continue to hire great people and support their communities. If we are successful then that is certainly something I think we can all be proud of. Besides that I have tried to commit what I’ve learned over the years to the books I’ve published in the hope that they can help others avoid many of the mistakes I’ve made. Finally, for the past decade I have worked closely with B1G1.com so that every business I’m involved in is intimately connected to trying to help those that are less advantaged than ourselves to get a leg up. It’s a small contribution but hopefully it compounds over time.
Fantastic. Here is the primary question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
1 — To build a good company delegate everything you’re not good at. To build a great company, delegate the things you are good at too.
2 — You’re not supposed to have all the answers. It’s OK to ask for, and act on, your team’s recommendations.
3 — The more people in your organization you can empower to make their own decisions, the less work you will have to do
4 — People make mistakes. Occasionally people will abuse your trust. The majority won’t, so don’t punish the whole company with stupid bureaucracy because of the mistakes of one person.
5 — No matter how many interviews you subject people to or how good your onboarding process is, you will never know whether someone is a good fit with your business until they have been with you a while and you can see how they perform in your environment. Not every hire is going to work out, don’t beat yourself up, it is a cost of business. Have the hard conversation and then move on.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
If I truly were a person of great influence, I feel like my kids’ bedrooms would be tidier than they currently are…
But, that aside, small business makes up 50% of GDP in the developed world. 90% of private sector employment. And yet there is no financial ‘product’ that allows the trillions of dollars of investment capital to get involved in that area. We believe that agglomeration model’s like MBH Corporation ($MBHCF) are a way to reconnect the capital markets to the business owners that actually create the value in the world and that by doing so, you increase jobs and support communities. I wrote the book ‘Entrepreneurial Investing’ to try and help this idea to spread.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
A particularly unhealthy trait that many entrepreneurs have is trying to solve the world’s problems ourselves. One of my mentors told me that whenever I was stuck I should be asking ‘who’ questions not ‘how’ questions. So instead of asking ‘how can I find more customers?’ I should be asking ‘Who already has the customers that I could partner with?’ ‘Who already knows the answers to these questions that I could learn from?’
This one bit of advice has served me very well over the years.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
The world is obsessed with tech start-ups, but our investors have a longer term horizon. They value businesses that are cash generating. Businesses that are run by the founders who have successfully navigated challenges over decades. They value longevity over blind growth. There is nothing sexy about the businesses in the MBH group, but our rate of growth through acquisition rivals that of some of the best tech companies. Except we are profitable. And pay dividends. And are building a multi-generational ecosystem of the best small businesses around the world.
We don’t want most investors. We just want those ones that share our belief in the power of small businesses when they are given a level playing field. If your readers know anyone like that, we would love to hear from them through mbhcorporation.com