We grab a word with Hydraulics Online co-founder, Helen Tonks. As Operations Director, Helen has the strategy and big picture firmly within her sight, but she isn’t afraid to roll up her own sleeves to deliver on that vision. Here she talks about driving the business forward, capitalising on marketing opportunities, and shaping the organisational culture.
“Other than the basics, I won’t claim to understand a great deal more about hydraulics than when we first started,” admits Helen, “but I bring something else to the business – the strategy, marketing and operations. After I graduated from the University of Bristol with a degree in Economics and Accounting, I worked for Barclays and then a FTSE 100 life assurance company delivering big strategic change projects. My strengths lie in having an idea and a blank sheet of paper, defining what needs to be done and then making things happen. The hydraulics – that’s Mark. But my skills compliment his and that’s what makes us such a great team.”
What’s most remarkable is the way Mark and Helen have also ensured this balance, and their team ethos has permeated the whole culture of Hydraulics Online.
Our success today – in no small way down to Helen’s dynamism – is, in terms of sales, global reach, and online presence, a far cry from where the business started in 2004, yet much has remained the same.
From Humble Beginnings
“Having identified a gap in the market and made the decision to set up Hydraulics Online, our priority initially was to build a business that could generate enough income for us to keep the roof over our heads and, critically, enable us to juggle work with home and the demands of our large family,” says Helen.
“Whilst we had ambition and commitment and took ourselves seriously from the start, we had no idea that we would be able to build such a successful business or that we’d soon be exporting hydraulic equipment and systems all over the world.”
It hasn’t always been easy. Helen and Mark added to their family in 2007 when their youngest child was born – and Helen was suddenly juggling work and family life with the demands of a new baby: “I think my maternity leave lasted about two days,” she smiles, “but working for yourself does have certain advantages – the empowerment, the flexibility. The flipside of that, of course, is you can’t switch off. And if you don’t make things happen, nobody else will.”
Helen’s energy and enthusiasm for growing the business hasn’t been dimmed by the rapid progress made over the last 13 years. It has, for example, been one of the main reasons that she decided Hydraulics Online should pursue an ISO 9001 accreditation.
“I felt strongly that ISO 9001 was right for us as a business. On a practical level, as we attracted more overseas trade, we were increasingly asked about the standard by new customers on their vendor questionnaires. But, more than that, I felt that it would enable us to consolidate what we had achieved so far, in terms of quality and customer service, and make sure that we can retain those standards as we grow. I wanted to put us through our paces though, and decided that the only way to do it properly was to secure accreditation directly from the British Standards Institute themselves. The process has been invaluable in sharpening our thinking – years on and the whole team is always alert to opportunities to work more effectively. It’s just the way we do things now.”
We’ve been ISO 9001 accredited since February, 2014. In this time, we’ve been able to gather more information from our customers about what they want, and Helen credits the process with helping Hydraulics Online to refine and understand our value proposition.
“For us, it has never been about shifting boxes,” asserts Helen. “anyone can do that. We are more about the people than the products. Everyone knows that a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing, but our team are so rich technically – over 80 years between them at the last count – and we want to share that knowledge. We genuinely want to support our customers; we won’t suggest something if we don’t think it’s right for them. We like our customers to think of us as an extension of their own team.”
Hydraulics Online’s independent status has also been a key part of building this trust.
“We have never wanted to be in anyone else’s pocket – having to keep a certain amount of stock, or push a particular manufacturer’s product range – so independence has always been important to us as we have continued to build the business. Since gathering customer feedback under ISO 9001 and as we have worked with our customers to write case studies, we’ve discovered that this independence is also highly prized by our customers.”
“It means they know we have no bias, we only sell quality products that we know are right for the job. If it isn’t right, we won’t put our name to it.”
It’s All About the Team
Helen’s clear vision of the values of Hydraulics Online permeates every aspect of business operations, not only the customer-facing elements.
“We’ve built Hydraulics Online while our own young family is growing up, so we know that life never fits neatly into the weekends or after 5pm, ” she says. “Since our Finance and Administration Manager, Joanna, joined our team she is now able to go to her sons’ school assemblies and, last year, she attended their school sports day for the first time.”
“It’s really sad she wasn’t able to go in the past. Ensuring our staff have the same flexibility that we’ve been able to enjoy is really important to us. We want to retain this balance as we grow because the future success of Hydraulics Online is very much about the team.”
Helen was interviewed for a local radio station after Hydraulics Online was recognised for a startling three awards at the South Cheshire Chamber of Commerce 2017 Business Awards.