What makes a good business leader? A subjective question such as this can yield many answers, mostly because leadership means different things to various people in a business. However, core attributes that are often mentioned are honesty, clarity and integrity. According to Sontay’s Managing Director Mark Newton, a company’s leader must embody all three. Sontay sat down with Mark to chat about his story and what it takes to be a good leader.
“Building businesses has always been a key focus of mine,” begins Mark. Mark’s father established the UK arm of the Hager Group in 1983, the same year Mark joined as a warehouse operative straight from school aged seventeen. Over the next 18 years the business grew from four employees with no turnover to 200+ employees and an annual revenue of circa £35M. Mark’s father lived and breathed the mantra of ‘trusting and empowering your people to do their best everyday’. Age was never an obstacle; if you felt you could do a task you were encouraged and supported to achieve it.
“I spent around 20 years working for Hager Group and moved from field sales to sales director,” pinpoints Mark. “Then I transitioned to LED lighting for a period of 10 years for a company called Robus. I spent the first five years building the UK arm of the company and then my family and I took a leap of faith and moved to Australia where we built a Robus business from low revenue numbers to £12M+ in four years.”
“Throughout my career I have enjoyed the challenges that come with working for an SME,” explains Mark. “This kind of business suits my strengths and appreciation for a family-style culture. I like the clarity it gives; you’re working in an environment where no one has to second guess each other. And this direction filters down from the MD level. In a business of Sontay’s size, I want people to be able to speak and be heard. Empowerment and trust are key – this past year has surely highlighted that. I’m also a working-class lad at heart so I like these environments where you want to treat people as you would want to be treated.”
It was six weeks into Mark’s new role as MD when covid hit. “As this happened, my priority was to safeguard the lives of employees,” explains Mark. “I cancelled sales targets, attended to the people who were worried about working from home, and just generally made sure they were doing ok. It felt important for me to set that tone; if I had pushed, we may have had some short-term wins, but there would have been a lot of upset in the business. I am very proud of what we achieved. We were a family coming together to battle adversity. We managed the business, learned every day and came out strong.”
Mark’s attributes – approachable, driven, fair and courteous – definitely make him a good fit for navigating and building a business during a pandemic. Sontay’s plan, according to Mark, over the next five years will be heading to new markets. “At the moment Sontay is very healthy,” continues Mark. “As a business, I know we will continue to surprise.”
What is Mark’s advice?
Building a business isn’t simply about short-term gains and the odd chance of luck, however, it takes determination and foresight, as Mark explains. “When you are given the privilege to run a business, the key attributes are credibility and integrity. If you haven’t got these qualities then search for them or stop in your tracks! As a leader you must be able to see the wood through the trees and be the sort of person who gives clear direction and genuine praise when a project is completed (however big or small). Employees must feel valued. So many that I still meet away from work have received little to no genuine praise from the immediate line manager let alone the MD. Genuine praise costs nothing to give and the positive energy it gives to the receiver can be staggering.”
“Personal attributes aside, when you’re developing a business, it pays to be respectful to others,” continues Mark. “When I built the business in Australia, my team and I did all the simple things that we have done at Sontay. We were polite, thanked people for their business and followed through with our actions. This approach lets people know where they, and you, stand.”
Outside of his work life at Sontay, what does Mark get up to? “I am addicted to ultra-running, which is any distance above a marathon. I run around 45-55 miles a week. It started in earnest at the onset of C19 in March 2020. Running first thing every morning set me up for the rest of the day and allowed me to work through key tasks and challenges in my mind before I arrived back at my home desk to open my inbox.”
“Although I get through a pair of trainers every month, ultrarunning helps me tremendously. Mentally and physically you are challenging yourself to consistently reach new heights. It is surprising what you can achieve when you truly focus your mind, time and efforts, be that on a trail run or in the boardroom,” ends Mark.
There is no single objective truth to being a good leader. But the bread and butter of being one is integrity. Without it, the people you have been asked to lead will never truly commit to coming on the journey with you.