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Sustaining a Business Through Tough Times

“Monk was really on the ropes in the 1990s. We had over expanded we had no cash flow, we had no working capital. We were in special credit with the bank.” Even now, Monk owner James McKenzie gets emotional talking about this difficult time. He can vividly recall being at a birthday party for a well-heeled acquaintance: “I’m wearing my nice suit and I’m looking around saying what the heck am I doing here? I don’t know if I’m going to make payroll on Friday.” Luckily, Ian Stewart, the late owner of Honda City was also at this party. He was, McKenzie recalls, “a big guy. He put his hand on my shoulder and said ‘look around the room … every single person here has been through what you’re going through, at some point in their life, so don’t worry about it. Just keep working at it.’ It was a huge encouragement for a very difficult time.”

Although Monk Office has been open since 1951, they almost had to close in the late 1990s. But McKenzie fought hard to save his struggling business. He recently took the time to tell Leadership Victoria about how he did it. “It would have been easier to walk away.” says McKenzie, but to pull Monk back from the brink, he decided to focus on how to improve processes within the business.

This led him to the International Standards Organization. The ISO have several different categories of standards, including quality, environmental, and design. “We started with the quality one,” explains McKenzie. “You define your processes and then monitor your adherence to those processes, and either adjust the processes or retrain staff and leadership [to] become more efficient.”

A core part of Monk’s business is delivering orders. “Because the margins are small,” explains McKenzie, “if we make a mistake on one order, we have to deliver three more orders to pay for that mistake. So, quality [and] getting our error rate down was really important to our business. So, that’s why we went to the ISO 9000. It cost us money to get it going and have it work for us, but it dramatically reduced our costs and made us far more effective. Our customer satisfaction went up, our staff satisfaction went up … and we became more profitable.” After the success of the ISO 9000, in the early 2000’s, Mckenzie and his team went for the environmental certification ISO 14000.

McKenzie’s focus on process and the use of the ISO, as well as his unwillingness to give up, are what ultimately saved the company. Over seven years, Monk paid back what they owed to the bank, the business was thriving, and profitability was through the roof. “It was the best we could ever imagine,” says McKenzie.

McKenzie’s determination to save his business emerged from a positive upbringing. Born in Montreal, McKenzie’s family moved to Dawson’s Creek BC when he was young. McKenzie’s parents were strong influencers. “We had a happy family … it was loving and wonderful [but with] great healthy discipline”.

In addition to having parents who were positive role models, McKenzie had teachers and coaches who were strong leadership influences. McKenzie recalls a rugby practice at the beginning of the season, in the eighth grade. “The coach came up to me and he said, ‘You know James if you keep playing the way that you’re playing, you could be the captain of this team.’ I never dreamt in a million years that I would have that opportunity … That really made a difference in my life.”

McKenzie was also brought up to respect the role of the community. “As the owner of a local business, our success relies one hundred percent on our community” says McKenzie “so I’ve always believed that if we’re going to receive something, one has to – and I was raised this way – reciprocate by giving back to the community, by making donations and volunteering.” In addition to improving the community, McKenzie advises that leaders should be honest with staff and stakeholders. “One of the mistakes that leaderships make is not keeping our staff informed when things aren’t going well … but people know. It’s not the kind of thing you can hide.” McKenzie realized, “If you share the plan to alleviate that, and they see you working on the plan, and they see the steps of the plan being achieved, it’s very, very powerful.”

McKenzie has set up “nest eggs” to protect Monk in the future and is mentoring his daughter, who has taken over the business. McKenzie, “hopes that people will give themselves credit for the challenges [they] have overcome…I’ve got a huge amount of faith in human nature and human achievement, so I’m optimistic.”

Monk has recently announced that it is acquiring Island Blue. Read more about that here:

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