Interview: Nick Gunn, Founder of The NiVACK Group

by Jerome Knyszewski
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Nick Gunn, founder & CEO of The NiVACK Group, talks about how to take a company from good to great

With decades of experience as an executive at various levels for Hewlett-Packard, Nick Gunn decided to make his own path as an entrepreneur and businessman. In 2019, he founded The NiVACK Group, which he also runs as CEO. The company “offers executive advisory services to mid-sized and enterprise companies,” and “focuses on helping [our] clients to transform their procurement, real estate, and shared services functions and realize the benefits for customers, shareholders, and employees.”

As an executive, businessman, and founder of The NiVACK Group, Nick Gunn prides himself in being a “highly accomplished,” and “performance-driven” business leader. His expertise comprises the fields of “real estate, procurement, operations and supply chain.” As an executive, he is decisive, and he knows how to use his “strong analytical, financial and problem-solving skills” and “supporting strategic, big-picture thinking” to resolve issues and “drive operational effectiveness.”

Likewise, Nick Gunn has shown a “vision, passion, creativity” and “influencing skills” which helps him motivate his organization to execute tasks at a high level, while “establishing credibility with senior executives at all levels, both internally and externally.”

At Hewlett Packard, Nick Gunn started out as procurement manager for the firm’s UK & Ireland Operations. As he worked his way upward, he became the firm’s Vice President for its Global Category & Supplier Development, and Global Supply Chain Services. In 2014, he became Senior Vice President of HP’s Global Corporate Services.

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Jerome Knyszewski: Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

Nick Gunn: One of the greatest television shows ever made, Star Trek, debuted in 1966, just a couple of years before I was born. While I didn’t recognize it at the time, Star Trek had a huge impact on my life. Watching it as a kid, I became fascinated with technology. As I consumed episode after episode, I always believed a lot of the fictional things I was seeing on the show would become a reality in the future. So, much to the surprise of my parents I chose to study Business and Information Technology at University, instead of Law. And, remember, back in ’89 there was no internet, smart phones, social media, etc., so I ‘grew up’ in the age when some of that Star Trek fiction became a reality!

And while early episodes of Star Trek were airing, there was this Company, Hewlett Packard (HP), that was seemingly taking the ideas on screen and engineering them into reality. When I graduated, I was offered and accepted a position at HP and I was thrilled. Over the next 30 years, with a lot of hard work and luck, I slowly climbed up the corporate ladder. I built a career within HP’s Procurement function and spent about a decade leading the organization.

For those who don’t know, the Procurement organization is basically the group in charge of buying things for a company. If HP sold a $1,000 computer and made a 10% profit on it, then $900 dollars of parts, labor, and overhead were purchased by Procurement. Multiply that by a lot of computers and other Star Trek-esque technology, and our Procurement function managed over $23 billion in annual spend. During my time in charge of the organization, I had about 1,500 fantastic people working for me.

That was a lot of people and a lot of money I was responsible for, but the biggest responsibility I had at HP was in overseeing the Company’s separation into 2 other companies, Hewlett Packard Inc. and Hewlett Packard Enterprise.

If you read about HP on Wikipedia today, you’ll read the following sentences, “On November 1, 2015, the company spun off its enterprise products and services business Hewlett Packard Enterprise. Hewlett-Packard retained the personal computer and printer businesses and was renamed HP Inc.” Those two sentences do not convey how difficult and impressive our transformation efforts were. This separation was the largest in corporate history!

In early 2019, I decided it was time for a change. I convinced a small handful of those fantastic people I referenced earlier to join me at the company I had just started with my son, who has a background in accounting and consulting. The NiVACK Group helps businesses become more profitable by helping their Procurement functions develop world-class capabilities.

Jerome Knyszewski: Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

Nick Gunn: I don’t like to think I faced hard times in my career but there were certainly challenges throughout. Early in my career, some of the biggest challenges I faced were due to the fact that I was young, inexperienced, and new to the role.

Being young, inexperienced, and new to a role, you have to fight for recognition and prove to yourself and others that you’re capable of tackling what’s in front of you. This is okay and it’s certainly one of the things that helped me focus and become more successful over the years.

Over the years, there have definitely been times when I thought about giving up. Times when obstacles piled up and everything seemed too hard, too challenging, and not worth the effort. I was raised to never quit, though; so I always tried my best to persevere and maneuver through these situations. I’m always surprised by how resilient we are during these tough times. And not just my resilience but peoples’ resilience. We really can tolerate a lot of difficult times!

Starting my own business has been challenging as well. There are a lot of times when you feel alone and you wonder whether or not you’ve made the right decision to start a business to go out on your own, you wonder if you have the right DNA to do that, you wonder if you have the right idea, or the right approach and the right methodology and you seek help where you can to help you develop your business and to grow. And then you take the little wins you take the base hits instead of looking for home runs and that’s really the kind of thing that helps see you through the difficult periods and the challenges. You really have to have a lot of self-determination and motivation to be an entrepreneur. You need to be determined to stick with it and to overcome the challenges and honestly to do some of the things that are very difficult when they are not a natural fit for your skillset.

Jerome Knyszewski: Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?

Nick Gunn: Well, I don’t know if this story is funny but I do recall this one moment very early on in my career, when I was still in the UK.

I had to do a presentation to our senior leadership team and I was nervous. I spent a long time preparing and practicing. l rehearsed the presentation with friends and colleagues to make sure that I had all my facts straight and I made sure that my slides looked really, really good.

This meeting was back in the days when we used to meet face-to-face, (you know, before COVID,) so I arrived in very professional attire — suit and tie — and I did my presentation from start to finish. I genuinely thought it went really well! I thought I was very, very professional and that I thought I did a really good job.

After the presentation I spoke to one of my mentors, an Irish guy named Tom Davis who was on the senior leadership team at the time. I asked him, “how did you think it went?” and I told him I thought I did a pretty good job.

He replied, in his thick Irish accent, “Nick it was great. The presentation had all the right information in it. It was very professional. Everything was perfect!” But then he paused. “Everything was perfect except you!”

I was shocked. “You were so boring. You had no passion and it was obvious. The material was great but I don’t think you sold it to a single person in that room!”

I was absolutely horrified. I had no idea what to think, let alone what to say! Luckily, Tom is a really helpful guy, so he gave me some great constructive feedback. “Nick,” he said, “I’ve seen you present in other situations where you were more relaxed and in those situations you are much more yourself and your passion comes through about the topic you’re presenting.” I remember nodding, still a bit in shock. “You need to find that passion if you’re going to convince people, especially senior leaders, to take action! Having the facts and the correct material is important, but you need to be more convincing when you communicate.” He gave me some really great tips on presenting, including how to use body language and storytelling to communicate effectively.

It might not be funny, in a conventional sense, but it sure was shocking! Imagine your mentor telling you “Everything was perfect except you!” That right there was an early mistake that I remember vividly to this day. Part of the reason I remember it so well is that I’ve actually learned from it and changed by behaviours because of it.

Reflecting on this experience, I do a lot of things exactly the same way I did before. I still prepare a lot. I still do research. I still rehearse. I still dress appropriately — although with zoom meetings I only have to dress my top half appropriately. The thing I try to do differently now is that I try to ensure my passion and enthusiasm come across. To help with this, I developed a little acronym: R.A.D.

  • Relatable: I make sure to support data with terms and examples the audience can relate to by creating a common frame of reference, like analogies or metaphors.

  • Accessible: I ensure the audience understands me by minimizing the technical jargon.

  • Digestible: I present content in bite-sized chunks that are easy for the audience to consume.

I’ve used this formula for decades now, and it remains super, super helpful whenever I am presenting!

Jerome Knyszewski: Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to lead a company from Good to Great? Please share a story or an example for each.

Nick Gunn:

  1. Have a compelling mission

When the President visited the Houston Space Center back in the 1960’s, at the height of the space race, he saw a janitor and asked what he was doing as he cleaned. The janitor’s answer was shocking to nearly everyone. “I’m not mopping the floors, I’m putting a man on the moon.” I say it was shocking to nearly everyone, and not everyone, because some people knew exactly what that man was doing. Those were the people on NASA’s leadership team who created that compelling mission and a culture where every employee believed in that mission!

2. Ensure your mission supports the needs of your customers and investors

Blockbuster had a mission statement, “to provide our customers with the most convenient access to media entertainment, including movies and game entertainment delivered through multiple distribution channels such as our stores, by-mail, vending and kiosks.”

But what was the point of that mission statement when their competitor, Netflix, was on a mission “to become the world’s leading internet subscription service for enjoying movies on TV”?

Famously, Netflix figured out much faster than its competitor that customers would be willing to pay for the convenience of online streaming, which rendered Blockbuster’s physical distribution of content completely obsolete within just a few years.

Blockbuster had a mission, but the mission didn’t support customers as the technology and media landscape evolved.

3. Create an operating model to execute the mission

Having a compelling mission is not enough. Companies have to have an operating model that allows them to execute the mission.

A few years ago, Aruba was a great networking company with a great mission and quality products to compete head-to-head with Cisco. But it didn’t have a mature, global Go-To-Market capability. It didn’t have the right operating model to execute the mission and compete with the Bay Area’s networking giant.

HP, another Bay Area tech giant, had a very strong global Go-To-Market capability and an operating model that was perfectly suited to compete. Luckily for Aruba, HP was looking to purchase a networking business that could compete directly with Cisco, and in 2015, HP acquired Aruba. This gave Aruba the Go-To-Market tools it needed to execute its mission and properly compete with Cisco.

4. Hire and develop the best people who can deliver that mission

Companies don’t need to hire Ivy league grads to fill vacant positions, but they do need to hire, develop, and retain exceptional talent at all levels.

At HP in the 2000’s, the company’s strategy was to hire most executives externally, and at a high price. Senior leadership held the belief that expensive external talent would lead the company to more prosperity, but that wasn’t the case.

More than 250 executives were hired externally over just a couple of years, but after 5 years, 90% of those executives had left the company. More disturbingly, this external-hiring practice sent a message to everyone in the company that they wouldn’t be promoted to an executive position, which caused a lot of promising junior leaders to leave.

Meg Whitman changed this external-hiring practice when she became CEO and she put a far greater focus on employee development and promotion from within. With her and her philosophy, there was an expectation that leaders were empowered and accountable to deliver results. Those leaders then successfully executed the Company’s mission, which at the time was to separate Hewlett Packard into three smaller companies.

5. Execute the mission in an exemplary manner

Even if you have a great vision and great products, customers won’t buy from you unless they think your company has great corporate values.

Now more than ever, consumers are aware of which companies behave unethically or irresponsibly, whether with their own employees, with suppliers, or with the environment. People want to buy from businesses that take these responsibilities seriously, so it’s important to execute your mission in an exemplary manner.

Jerome Knyszewski: Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. Can you help articulate for our readers a few reasons why a business should consider becoming a purpose driven business, or consider having a social impact angle?

Nick Gunn: For some of the reasons mentioned above, the social impact angle is becoming increasingly more important. More and more, consumers are spending their money on products and services produced by businesses that are more socially responsible. One of the biggest areas is that of sustainability.

Products and services that rely on sustainable methods are becoming increasingly sought after. Consumers, especially younger ones, consider this to be a critical component in their buying decisions. Thus, sustainability is becoming a differentiating factor for a lot of businesses, especially when companies can achieve sustainability and still compete on price with competitors. Great companies cannot survive if consumer sentiment moves away from their products and services.

Here’s a personal example, I visited Queensland in Australia a couple of years ago on a work trip and learned that the chemicals in many sunscreens were damaging the ocean ecosystem, especially Australia’s coral reefs. At the same time, I learned that zinc sunscreens are better protection for your skin and don’t have a negative impact on the environment. Since that trip, I have only bought zinc sunscreens! When enough people realize something like this, buying preferences will shift and there will no longer be a market for chemical based sunscreens.

It’s better for companies to pivot sooner rather than later on social and sustainability issues.

Jerome Knyszewski: As you know, “conversion” means to convert a visit into a sale. In your experience what are the best strategies a business should use to increase conversion rates?

Nick Gunn: Boring answer, it depends on the business.

In general, people feel better about themselves when they think they got a good deal on a purchase, so consider offering your customers something of value for free or at a discounted price to get their interest.

Also, make it super, super easy for customers to buy from you. This is so important and businesses often fail here. If you’re selling something online, your customers have to understand what you do and be able to buy from you in as few clicks as possible — maybe just two.

Finally, across every interaction you have with potential customers you have to demonstrate your value and build the relationship. This is especially important in a services business like mine.

Jerome Knyszewski: Of course, the main way to increase conversion rates is to create a trusted and beloved brand. Can you share a few ways that a business can earn a reputation as a trusted and beloved brand?

Nick Gunn: I’m no expert in branding, so I won’t go too in depth, but I will give one example.

Although readers wouldn’t realize, I have a pretty thick English accent which I developed over more than 30 years in the country. While I lived there, I once purchased a reasonably expensive suit from a small boutique clothes store. After a couple of years wearing the suit, the lining started to come apart, so I took the suit back to the boutique so they could repair it (at my cost). To my surprise, when I returned to collect my suit a few days later, not only had it been perfectly fixed, but they did it for free and credited my account with 150 GBP!

I never bought suits from anywhere else after that. In one interaction, they took me from a satisfied customer, to a fiercely loyal one. To me their brand was synonymous with customer service, great products and reliability. I told all my friends to shop there, and now I’m even telling you! Robert Old & Co. is still there and still selling suits while most of their big department store competitors have now disappeared!

Jerome Knyszewski: How can our readers further follow you online?

Nick Gunn: The best way to follow me is to connect on LinkedIn. I’m active every single day and I love engaging with people on the platform.

I’m pretty easy to find on LinkedIn and Google, too. If you google me I’m either the first or second guy that pops up. I’m in a bit of a Google search war with another Nick Gunn. Actually he goes by Nicholas and he’s a really great top-ten charting musician. It’s been a battle, but one day I’ll permanently unseat him as the #1 Nick Gunn!

If you’re old school, or more direct, you can email me here. I’m happy to chat!

Jerome Knyszewski: This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!

Nick Gunn: Thank you so much for the opportunity to speak with you!

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