Business leaders of the future told to look at alternative business strategies

The chief executive of one Scotland’s leading health and social care charities provided the next generation of budding entrepreneurs and carers with inspirational advice yesterday (Thursday, March 15).

Edel Harris, chief executive of Cornerstone, a social care provider which helps people with disabilities and other support needs lead independent lives, addressed a packed audience at the annual Absoft entrepreneurship lecture at Robert Gordon University.

Mrs Harris spoke to a group of around 200 students from Aberdeen Business School as well as those studying health and social care, during the annual event, which is now in its 17th year and has been sponsored by leading independent SAP software consultancy Absoft since 2002.

After taking the helm at Cornerstone in 2008, at a time of change for the social care sector in Scotland, Mrs Harris has successfully led the organisation through a challenging few years, focussing its business strategy on generating alternative sources of income and diversifying into new markets.

Mrs Harris shared her strategies for delivering growth and leading organisational change with the students, and offered some valuable tips on running a business with both charitable and social aims.

She said: “It was a great privilege to be invited to speak at this year’s lecture and share my experiences of working for Cornerstone with the next generation of businessmen and women, including those with a vested interest in social care.

“Making a success of a charitable organisation, particularly in a tough economic climate, presents its challenges and I hope I have inspired students to start thinking of alternative methods of securing organisational success in a competitive marketplace.

“It is important that those who are looking to enter into the charitable sector realise that a business strategy needs to remain competitive without compromising the main aim of the organisation.”

Absoft managing director, Ian Mechie, said: “Cornerstone has become one of Scotland’s most successful social care charities and Edel is a great example of someone who has adopted alternative business strategies to ensure the organisation has continued to grow during challenging times.

“Most students are very much aware of the tough economic climate presented to them and we hope that the advice they received today has inspired those who may be disheartened by the idea of setting up a business to look at different ways of achieving their entrepreneurial dream whatever the sector.”

The session was introduced by Dr Heather Fulford, academic director of the University’s Centre for Entrepreneurship who was followed by Ian Mechie, managing director of Absoft.

Robert Hoving, an international business MSc student at RGU who is already managing director of the UK operation of tailor-made shirtmaker Shirt by Hand, said the session had given him valuable insight into business leadership, with an emphasis on pursuing sustained growth.

"Ian Mechie and Edel Harris are both heads of businesses which are very successful, so having an insight into their approach when planning for major increases in turnover while ensuring the quality of your service is maintained, through investment in the right kind of people and processes, was really very inspiring," he said.

The 21-year-old, who hails from Groningen in the Netherlands, set up his business after approaching parent firm in his home country – having experienced difficulty in finding products which met his requirements and were available in the right size.

"I'm particularly tall, making it difficult to find quality garments which would fit – so I approached Shirt by Hand in the Netherlands and, in the last 10 months, have had great success in securing growth which gives me confidence for the future," he said.

Mr Mechie updated students on the sustained growth Absoft recorded in 2011, as it marked its 20th anniversary – when it boosted turnover and its pool of expert staff by more than 20%.

He also shared Absoft’s ambitious growth strategy, including details of the company’s recent acquisition of specialist performance management and business intelligence solutions provider Hexarus Consulting, which was in direct response to rising customer demand for leading-edge expertise in delivering organisational reporting and business planning and forecasting capabilities.