Training company on rapid international expansion
THE BUSINESS TODAY GROUP, started 28 years ago and operational in more than 30 countries, plans to be truly global and have a network of international business partners in 50 countries next year. Those are bold plans during an economic crisis would be the immediate response to such a statement.
However, Business Today co-founder and CEO Peter Knox says: “What could be more important to companies during tough economic times than that their workers understand the concept of profit? Usually training is one of the first areas where corporations cut costs: we’ve been retained while others were cut. We haven’t slowed this year and over the years growth has been steady. In fact, 2009 will be a record year in South Africa and Britain.”
Although Knox and co-founder and chairman Graham Cousins began working together in 1981, for the first eight years the firm was a mishmash of businesses that included a gold mine and a transport business. Only later did it realise business simulations was the real winner in its stable. Knox (55) and Cousins (62) formed the business while participating in the Comrades ultra-marathon. “We’d met before but sort of put the whole thing together running together. I wasn’t talking much after the first hour though,” says Knox. While Knox is more hands on, Cousins is the visionary. “We don’t disagree on much, but his appetite for risk has certainly always been bigger than mine.”
Business Today teaches business and financial skills to employees at all levels in a company – from executives to middle management to entry level – through a range of experiential broad-based business simulations. “It can be called a game – but there’s no dice,” says Knox who, with Cousins, has devised close to 150 simulations in industries ranging from underground mining to pay television and insurance to retail. Business Today custom designs simulations where the development team spends between three to six months at the company (depending on the complexity of its structure), where they gather information and conduct interviews. Clients include Goodyear Dunlop, Toyota, Royal Bank of Scotland, Nestlé, Vodafone, DaimlerChrysler, Roche, SABMiller, AngloGold Ashanti, Reckitt Benckiser, Unilever and Johnson & Johnson.
Says Knox: “We’ve been able to expand rapidly, thanks to the work we’ve done for multinationals in SA, which then spread the word to HQ.” Training sessions can take place over one to four days: make it too short and the impact of business cycles can’t be incorporated in the game.
Knox says contrary to what often happens at motivational or training sessions – where once everybody is back in the office on Monday it’s business as usual – with the Business Today system companies can audit participants’ performance on the job posttraining according to specific criteria.
“Our methodologies make the simulations particularly relevant to former Communist countries where workers’ mindsets still have to be changed,” says Knox. “We’re particularly strong in Russia and former Eastern Bloc countries, including Romania, Bulgaria, Ukraine, etc. We also set up a joint venture in China a year ago and the Indian business is six months old.” Outside its fullyfledged offices in Britain, Australia and SA, and the joint venture in China, Business Today’s presence is via an agent that pays a licence fee (20%) to the company. Of its roughly R50m turnover, half comes from its international operations.
Business Today’s competitors focus mainly on computer-based simulations. “While the advantage of computer simulation is that it can be quickly installed, such programs don’t give participants the big picture or facilitate team play that well.” The staff complement is 30, with 25 in SA. Knox is moving to its office in Britain to boost its simulation making capabilities. “Apart from language, other cultural aspects have to be built into the simulations in other countries.”
Peter Knox (left) running the board-based simulation training, now run in over 30 countries.