Changing direction in business

July 19, 2018

At our July Breakfast event we heard from two very experienced, but very different speakers.

Tom Kirk, of 150-year-old business Francis Kirk & Sons, worked briefly in the family manufacturing business from the tender age of 16, before leaving to study for a degree in business at University and returned, soon to be appointed MD of the firm. In 2013 and at the age of 27, he was offered the opportunity for the business to diversify and acquire an existing manufacturing firm that was in administration. The purchase went ahead, securing business for several years and involved some work moving to outside of the UK. Tom spoke about the further opportunities that have since come up in the Middle East and alongside them, the numerous challenges he faces; not least dealing with cultural differences, language, operating times, etc.

Spotting an opportunity

Turning problems and concerns into opportunities to fit a business is key. It’s important to think about the direction your business is going in and to adapt it to the market. Tom places great attention on his employees, ensuring that staff are rewarded for their efforts.

Around 18 months ago Tom was approached by Andy Burnham to give a talk on ‘hopes and dreams for the future’ to students who were involved in his Apprentice scheme. Finding him to be detailed and keen to make improvements, Tom was invited to join Andy’s Business Advisory Panel from January 2018; he wanted a diverse team including young leaders, to be involved in shaping the future of the region.

Tom is not one to sit still and is keen to make the most of opportunities, recently setting up Bianchi Kirk Management (BKM) – a sports representation company – with another of our past speakers, Nick Bianchi of Arighi Bianchi.

K-Club Breakfast - 5.7.18 Tom Kirk Speaker

Next, we heard from the Retail Chief Executive of Coop Food, Jo Whitfield, someone with true Northern grit; daughter of a welder and the first person in her family to go to University.

With a keen interest in journalism and avid viewer of programmes like ‘Back to the Floor’ and ‘Troubleshooter’ with Sir John Harvey-Jones, she knew that a career in industry was for her. She studied Business and Finance at University and secured a graduate place at Ernst & Young before moving to Northern Foods and at age 23, ran a Finance Team of 50 women, many of whom were older than her own mother.

During her time there, she developed the skills to work collaboratively with her colleagues (mainly men) and to identify and work with the strengths within the team. Moves followed to GE Capital as FD; a great learning experience, teaching her how to work with people and influence them along a journey, and to Matalan as Finance Controller; she loved the pace, energy and contact with customers and colleagues.

Following a maternity break and returning to what seemed to be a very different business, it was apparent that making time to network and to meet new people was of great importance. She was subsequently offered the FD role for George at Asda and over the next 8 years had roles which covered international business, strategy, operations, digital and more, whilst always keeping true to the mantra of ‘Hire for attitude and train for skill.’


Jo joined the Coop in April 2017 as FD for the retail business and is now CEO, having had the opportunity to move around the business and gain deep experience. She sees this as both a huge privilege and an important role, as she’s now the voice for every person in the business.

K-Club Breakfast - 5.7.18 Jo Whitfield speaker

Throughout her career to date, she’s learnt that small achievements build confidence for bigger challenges and that both self-resilience and keeping a sense of humour, recognising the need to have the support of others around her; colleagues, sponsors, team and family in order to keep a balance between work and home life are key to her sanity and success.

She left the audience with some important points to remember; To learn when you listen to people.  Keep an eye out for opportunities for other people & give them self-confidence.  Spot talent – then stretch & support your teams.



To find out about our upcoming events and speakers, click here.