Leadership Lessons Learned: The Digital Transformation Of A 130-year-old Family Business
Any 130-year old company has seen technological changes and has had to learn tough lessons in order to continue to grow and sustain its mission through the challenges that those changes bring. This is especially true for Burrelles, the industry’s oldest media data company, which I’m CEO of. It’s even more true because Burrelles is our family business, with multiple generations seeing it through adaptations to the ongoing evolution of the media landscape.
In 1888, Frank Burrelle overheard two businessmen lament the difficulty of keeping up with the news in the papers – he realized that news travels fast, and busy professionals didn’t always have the time to read and absorb relevant news, and that’s how Burrelle’s Press Clipping Bureau formed in New York City. Burrelle and his wife transformed their kitchen table into a press clipping bureau, pulling news of interest to his customers from New York City newspapers. For this service, Burrelle charged three cents per clip – quite a premium, as newspapers cost two cents at the time. Even then, there was a demand for a media monitoring and clipping service. During the coming decades, the clipping service grew to achieve full national newspaper coverage, added magazine coverage, and became what has since been established as one of the most trusted and credible partners leading the evolution of the media data services industry.
While technology began to play a greater role in the media and communications industries, Burrelles kept ahead of pace. For instance, when Burrelles launched a service that faxed news alerts to busy executives, fax machine technology was so new that the company’s salespeople often had to first explain to their prospects what a fax machine was before moving on to their sales pitch.
We’ve maintained our legacy of relentless innovation in our recent rebrand and launch of new high-tech digital data products. However, we found our latest technological transformation to be very different – and very challenging. What I’m most proud of, however, is the fact that even through all of the technological advancements in this industry, Burrelles has been able to maintain and improve the human element behind media monitoring, especially as the print media landscape has changed so drastically within the last decade.
We’ve perfected our craft in terms of curating print data and have found a way to make it more relevant to our customer base. Despite all changes in the volume of print publications available today, we know our customers still value and appreciate this aspect of our business. Adapting to these changes is what has kept us in business for all these years.
However, that doesn’t mean it has been easy. Besides the struggle of unfolding new technologies in an era where tech is changing faster and more impactfully than it has ever before, we also had to work through governance issues we never anticipated or dealt with.
We had to face the fact that we were no longer a mom-and-pop shop – we are a nation-wide industry pioneer. To make this digital transformation work, we needed to act like one. That meant strong corporate governance and leadership. We hadn’t realized how much we needed well-crafted internal structure until this point. Burrelles has always embraced our small-company culture, but to effectively run the organization at scale, we knew we had important changes to make. Below I’ve shared three essential learnings we gained throughout the successful process of our latest technological revolution.
SEEK EXPERT ADVICE
Family-owned businesses, I recently learned, typically don’t look outward for advice and expertise. Matters of operations, finances, and company growth are often handled organically within the company. However, in fast-evolving fields like media data intelligence, it’s simply not realistic to expect these skills to be resident within the company. It makes sense to have professionals with expert talent in their fields provide guidance in these areas, and our board of directors sought to embrace that opportunity.
That’s when we brought in a management consulting company to help guide us through the process and make this digital transformation – and ultimately, a company transformation – successful. Looking at the company from their outside perspective gave us the insight we needed to enact the changes that would ensure we are operating with the utmost efficiency, instead of relying on the status quo.
PUT SOMEONE IN CHARGE
The first solution was to put someone in charge. As simple as it sounds, we needed one project leader who had both the responsibility to see the project through and the authority to get it done. We needed strict timelines, deliverables, and accountability, and a high level of granularity and specificity in terms of who is doing what. This can be organized internally, but we found it helpful to work with the consulting company to create the path forward. We pride ourselves on being a family-run business, but we wanted to ensure we were following established policies and procedures that work across the Fortune 500’s so that we could succeed like one.
DEFINE ROLES AND RESPONSIBLITIES
Another important step we took was defining job responsibilities and growth opportunities within each function at the company. We evaluated each position and crafted descriptions to ensure that each role had defined responsibilities and a clear path to growth. Many family-owned businesses don’t have a specific matrix of roles and growth plans. We wanted to ensure everyone knew exactly how to advance within their positions. Burrelles is a company that was and is built on human capital, so our employees are our greatest asset. Not only do our employees vet our media monitoring services, provide the insights that help our customers make informed business decisions, and make data come to life for our customers, they are what keeps our company moving day in and day out. Defining clear paths to success has helped our organization functionally, but also provides clarity to our employees and improves morale.
There is no doubt that technology has completely redefined our industry and will continue to do so; this is true of almost all industries. That’s why these lessons are so important. This wasn’t our first technological transformation and it won’t be the last. However, the one constant that has remained is that human capital will always be our competitive advantage and our family business is now stronger than ever.
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