Bob Bradley

Bob Bradley with Paul Essery A business leader interview

Bob was recently interviewed by a fellow local business leader, Paul Essery.

The interview covers a little of Bob's background including his insights on business from experience building  businesses himself and also from working with many other businesses. THe video follows and a transcript is available at the bottom of the page


Bob Bradley with Paul Essery A business leader interview

Paul: Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your business background before we talk about how you built it?

Bob: Sure. I was fortunate to have a good education and land a great job after graduating. Early on in my career, I bounced between large corporations and very small businesses. I felt a bit lost, searching for my niche. In my mid-career, I found a good fit managing medium-sized businesses. However, after a while, I grew tired of working for others and decided to venture out on my own in 2004, founding MD2MD.

Paul: Tell us a little bit about what MD2MD does. It seems to reflect some of your past experiences, doesn't it?

Bob: Absolutely. While I had an MBA and all sorts of qualifications, what I truly valued during my time running medium-sized businesses was a peer group I joined. It was a fantastic forum for learning from others who were different from me. Today, diversity and inclusion are big topics, but back then, I learned a lot from people with all sorts of backgrounds, from those who left school early to fellow graduates. It made me realise the value of learning from peers.

When I started my own business in 2004, that's exactly what I wanted to create. It's like the Remington razor story for those who remember the ad. I liked the concept and built MD2MD from scratch as a better version of what I had experienced as a member.

Paul: Can you explain how peer groups work for people who aren't familiar with them?

Bob: In essence, most business leaders don't relate to academics, consultants, or management theorists. The person they value most is another business leader like them. So the idea is to bring together a group of around a dozen business leaders to discuss their business challenges with each other and act as a sort of business coach for one another. People share their challenges, and everyone else helps them brainstorm solutions. Interestingly, people are surprisingly open when they feel safe with others like them. It's the one space where CEOs can be completely transparent about their challenges, because in their everyday work, everyone expects them to have all the answers.

Paul: Let's go back to that time 20 years ago. Tell us about your thinking at that point. When you decided to create a peer group network, how did you approach growing the business? What was your strategy?

Bob: That's an interesting question. I did one thing right and another that wasn't necessarily wrong, but there were unforeseen consequences.

The thing I did right was based on a previous business I started.  I found that the income was very lumpy. There were times with overflowing contracts and immense stress, followed by dry spells where I was equally busy trying to secure the next one. I decided I wanted to avoid those ups and downs. So, from the start, I designed MD2MD to have a recurring income stream, a membership model. It provided a steady income and lLooking back, I'm really glad I made that decision.

The unforeseen challenge was that I started with no funding and wouldn't take investment because I was done working for other people's businesses and didn't want to share equity. I also wasn't keen on mortgaging my house.

That meant getting the business going was incredibly challenging. Every pound spent on marketing meant a pound less for the mortgage. It was a constant struggle to grow the business while meeting my financial obligations and taking care of my family. With hindsight, whilst it was very difficult there wasn't much I could have done differently. Taking on investment or mortgaging the house wouldn't have been the answer. I just underestimated the limitations of starting with no funding

Paul: So how long did it take for you to get comfortable running the business? Does it ever really feel comfortable?

Bob: It took at least five, maybe even ten years. In the beginning, I was scrambling to grow the business. Because of the financial challenge the only lever I could use to build the business was my own time. I went to events, built a reputation, and got to know people.

That's how MD2MD grew for the first decade. It was all about my reputation. I did a good job spreading awareness. There were even times when I'd explain what we do, and people would say, "Oh, like MD2MD? I've heard of that!" Somehow I managed to establish the brand to punch above its weight across quite a wide area.

It worked, but it was slow, steady growth. It was much slower than what I'd recommend to others, but it reflected the reality of my limited budget for sales and marketing.

Paul: Right. So that's how you recruited people. How about delivering the membership experience? How did that work and how did it change over time?

Bob: There wasn't a dramatic change before COVID, although we can talk about that in a minute if you like. The basic model was always a day together. We'd have a speaker in the morning - I booked a lot of great professional speakers, which was a great source of insights for me too.

But the real heart of it was the peer group conversation in the afternoon. And I think I got much better at facilitating those discussions over time.

One of the things I learned is that people often view facilitation as a soft skill. But I realised that for the meeting to work effectively, especially with managing directors who aren't exactly shrinking violets, I had to be quite firm in guiding the meeting. Otherwise, the people who talk the loudest would dominate the conversation and the quieter members wouldn't get a chance to participate. So as the facilitator, I had to be assertive with the dominant personalities, hold them back a bit, and encourage the quieter folks to share their thoughts as well.

Paul: That takes confidence, doesn't it?

Bob: It does. Because of my background, I wasn't too fazed by it, but my confidence and skill definitely grew over the years. It's only now that I look back that I realise how practised I became at doing that.

Paul: You mentioned COVID. That created problems for a lot of businesses. I imagine it brought challenges for MD2MD as well. Can you tell us a bit about that and the impact it had?

Bob: Interestingly, I was one of the lucky ones. COVID wasn't a bad experience for me personally, and it also turned out to be great for the business.

Challenge forces innovation and that can move a business to a better place. I'd seen it with MD2MD members during the 2008 financial crash. Some members made tough decisions and came out of the recession in a much stronger position.

So I learned from that. When COVID hit, I thought, "How can we turn this problem into an opportunity?" And if you think about it dispassionately, what did managing directors want at that time? They wanted to talk to someone, to figure out what the heck was going on.

One thing I'm proud of by the way, is that I predicted that Covid would be a crisis a month before the Bank of England and the government cottoned on. We had members saying they were having supply chain issues because their factories in China had shut down.  So we started discussing the impact of COVID, about a month before everyone realised how bad it was going to be. So at least our members were planning for it. 

I guess that helped me as well, because as soon as the lockdown was announced, we pivoted to online meetings. We went from face-to-face meetings every month to weekly hour-long meetings for everyone.  We dropped the speaker sessions because nobody was interested in long-term strategy or company culture at that point. They just wanted to know what to do tomorrow, what furlough was, and so on. So we went to these weekly one-hour meetings, and it was fantastic. Then, as things started to get back under control, we increased the frequency to meetings every two weeks, then every three.

Eventually, we ended up exiting the Covid period with a blended model: monthly peer group meetings, separate speaker meetings every week, and four face-to-face meetings a year. It's very different from our competitors, but I think it's much more effective in terms of time usage and value for money.

Paul: So, after COVID passed, were you thinking about needing a new business model, or was it more of a natural evolution based on what you learned during the height of the pandemic? Can you walk us through how that new model developed?

Bob: It was actually a bit of both. It wasn't a completely natural change, but it wasn't a sudden decision either. We were actively making choices. We decided to move online, and then as things started to improve and the end of COVID seemed in sight, we debated when to return to in-person meetings. We consciously decided against going fully back to face-to-face and instead opted for a blended model.

Paul: Right. And then, where did you go from there? You recently exited the business almost entirely, didn't you? Tell us about that final part of the journey. You had a well-established brand and business that came out of COVID even stronger. Why did you decide to move on at that point?

Bob: That's interesting. Actually it wasn't because of COVID, although COVID did play a role. Back in 2018 and 2019, I started thinking about retiring or semi-retiring. It wasn't that I wanted to stop working, but I wanted to do things you can't do when you're running a business day-to-day. I kept telling myself I'd write a book, but every year I never got around to it. I realised that with customers and prospects constantly needing attention, you never get around to things like writing a book unless you're incredibly disciplined.

So, I decided I'd never write the book while actively running the business. In 2018 and 2019, I began to plan to retire. Then COVID hit. And I ended up working incredibly long hours during that time. You couldn't do much else besides go for a walk anyway. I’d seen an opportunity and wanted to grab it fully. Which I did, but that also reinforced my desire to retire. Coming out of COVID, I felt it was the right time.

Luckily, I had a fantastic number two who was eager to take on more responsibility and bought into the business. I also had a good friend who was available and looking for a new venture. So, between the two of them, they now run the business – one as non executive chairman and the other as managing director.

Paul: So, Bob, after MD2MD, how are you using what you learned there in your current work as a coach and mentor? Can you tell us a bit about that?

Bob: Sure. Actually, my top priority right now is writing a book. It's not about making money, but about sharing everything I've learned. I've made mistakes and don't want others to repeat them. So, the book is a way to do that. It's coming out hopefully early next year.

Writing a book leads to speaking engagements, which is another great way to reach people. So, to sum up, I see myself as an author, speaker, facilitator (because I've realised I have a skill for that), and finally a coach and mentor.

What I share is what I've learned from running businesses in my mid-career, or even more importantly, the last 20 years. In that time, I've facilitated over 800 meetings, online and offline, with groups of 6 to 12 business leaders each. They discuss various business challenges, which translates to a massive amount of information I've absorbed. This has allowed me to identify patterns and common challenges faced by business leaders, like imposter syndrome and feelings of isolation at the top.

All of which makes me valuable as a writer, speaker, facilitator, coach, and mentor.

Paul: That's great, bringing all that experience to the table. One last question: Looking back on your career, what are one or two key takeaways?

Bob: There's one big lesson that keeps coming up: the importance of strategy. I spent most of my career doing things right, rather than necessarily doing the right things. I was good at running a lean, efficient business, but I've learned that being in the right place at the right time is even more important.

In my case, with MD2MD, it was a tough sell. Nobody budgets for a business peer group for managing directors. You're always convincing them not to do nothing, or worse, to ask their superiors for money for personal development. It's a tricky sell.

We were successful because people understood the value, but it wasn't easy. If I'd been selling something trendy, like solar panels, I might have been more successful financially. The key is to be in the right place at the right time.

Actually, one more thought! The second key to success in business is persistence and learning. Often, the mistake I see, and have made myself, is jumping from one new thing to another. Sales and marketing people are especially guilty of this, promising clever solutions. But these things rarely work right away.

The truth is, none of them are a magic bullet. But any of them can work if you put in the time to learn how to make them work for you. For example, our most successful growth period came from email marketing, even when everyone said it was dead. But it worked because we made it personal and avoided spammy tactics.

I see this again and again. I have a client who still generates all their business through cold calling. Believe it or not, it still works.  Because they know how to do it really well for their specific customer base. So, my advice is to stick with something, learn how to make it work, and keep doing it instead of chasing the next magic solution.

Paul: Thanks for sharing your story, Bob. It's a great encapsulation of 20 years' experience. I wish you all the best in your next chapter.

Bob: Thanks, Paul. I'm sure it will work out because I'll make it work out. That's the nature of the entrepreneur! I'm having fun. That’s the great thing.  I’m really lucky. I’m at a great stage of life, able to do what I want to do with the people I want to do it with.