Nothing could have prepared Michael McCambridge for the task of taking over the family company after the sudden death of his parents and he had to learn his management skills fast.
Elaine O Regan
Michael McCambridge is chairman of McCambridge Bread, the Irish-owned company employing 46 people in Dublin. In business since 1945, it makes wholewheat, brown soda, seeded and gluten-free breads and mixes from two locations in Rathcoole. McCambridge, 55, studied law at University College Dublin. He joined the family business in 1994 after spending four years working in sales and marketing for Diageo, the drinks company.
Growing up in Ranelagh, all of us McCambridge kids worked in the family business. There were four of us, two boys and two girls and I was the eldest.
We didn’t always go to work willingly, but it was great pocket money. I think we all learned about the importance of customer service from an early stage. Each of us then went on to pursue different paths after university.
I studied law at UCD. During that time, and for a short time after I graduated, I continued to work in the family business.
I then joined Diageo and made good progress there. I started in 1990 as a trade marketing executive and was promoted to sales manager two years later.
At that stage, my aim was to grow my professional skillset and, perhaps, work overseas. Events eclipsed my plans, however. My mum and dad, John and Maureen, were killed in a road traffic accident in 1994.
Nothing could have prepared us for the shock. I had already been thinking about leaving Diageo to join the family business, but the move when it happened was abrupt.
I also suddenly found myself at the helm. The transition was really very difficult. I felt like a duck paddling upstream. Everything looked serene above the waterline, but it was a different story beneath the surface.
My parents were quite young when they died, but we were all old enough to look after ourselves. We were all in our 20s at that stage. On the business front, however, there were challenges. There were issues in relation to my father‘s will and succession planning that had to be addressed.
By that stage, I’d already reached a crossroads at Diageo. I’d been offered a couple of positions that would progress my career. At the same time, I found I was coming across a few bureaucratic challenges there that just weren’t my style.
I remember having a few chats over pints with my father about joining the family business. Dad started working at 14. There was definitely a sense, for me, that it was time for him and mum to enjoy life a little.
Today, I’m the only family member working in the business. From my parents, I would say I have inherited a certain wariness in how I operate.
Both were very careful about who they trusted. After their accident and as I was finding my feet in the family business, I worked with some agencies offering mentors to people starting out in management.
I didn’t find them helpful and, looking back now, I’d say there were times starting out that I maybe trusted one or two people too much.
I enrolled in a business development programme at the Irish Management Institute, which I found helpful. I think that was mainly because my classmates were people like me who were all running their own businesses with very little back-up.
Making a good impression is the easy part in any role. The bigger challenge is backing that up with what you can deliver, your integrity and professionalism.
Maintaining a good impression means getting words and numbers right. My advice would be: cut back on the volume and be clear on the detail.
I have no experience of workplace politics and I would suspect the same is true of many other SME owners.
There’s really no room for politics in our type of business. If a contentious issue arises, my advice would be “grasp the nettle” in a fair, but expeditious, way.
The best job interview I have done during my career was probably with Diageo UK. I was working in Dublin and was invited to apply for a senior position in London.
I was offered the role, but didn’t take it, because my parents’ accident happened shortly after.
I remember that interview well though. I remember talking about how important it is to push forward on all fronts in business with every stakeholder: employees, suppliers, customers and financial providers.
I don’t think that point of view was very common in business back then. It stood me in good stead.
Today, I see McCambridge Bread as a quintessentially Irish business. We are a member of Love Irish Food, and we are passionate about our food heritage and provenance.
We sell Irish breads to the retail and food service markets in Ireland and, frozen, to export markets in Europe as well as Britain and the US.
We also have a range of bread-making kits we sell online through Ocado, Amazon and McCambridge.ie.
The senior team here spends each Tuesday managing projects, training staff and focusing on ways we can improve the business.
We introduced this system in 2017 with the help of a facilitator. It’s proved very effective in helping us to establish clear channels of communication and an open forum to discuss long-term plans.
When I’m making decisions, or dealing with challenging situations, I tend to go with my gut.
A person’s gut feeling or inner voice is, I think, really very important. It is an accumulation of all of your learned experiences blended with your core values.
I rely on it any time I have an important decision to make. I give myself time to take all of the relevant information on board. I let it sink in and settle before I do anything. I never make snap decisions.
If I encounter problems with people at work – conflicts or misunderstanding – my first step is generally to listen to what they have to say. I then explain what I understand the issue to be, so that we can determine what has, or may have been, misunderstood.
Always, I try to bring the conversation back to McCambridge as a business, and our responsibilities within that.
The idea, really, is to bring any issues that may arise with the business – and not the individual personalities – to the fore.
I’ve read Only the Paranoid Survive, Andy Groves’s book. One of the key messages in it is that you should never be comfortable with your existing position in the market. You should always be on the look-out for emerging disruptive forces.
I also like the quote from Wayne Dyer, the American self-help author: “Everything you do is based on the choices you make. It’s not your parents, your past relationships, your job, the economy, the weather, an argument or your age that is to blame. You and only you are responsible for every decision and choice you make. Period.”
I’ve made some poor choices in my life, but there is no point regretting them or being stuck in the past.
You have to keep your eye on the future, to learn from your mistakes, but always keep moving ahead.