Realising your vision for growth

My business, Playdale, may be small but it has been on an epic journey. We have always had enthusiasm and passion but six years ago we were able to turbo-charge our development and truly articulate our vision for growth when we partnered up with Lancaster University Management School (LUMS). We are still based in the Lake District but we now employ 110 staff, have a turnover of £13m, and export worldwide, and it just goes to show that by pairing a great team and hard work with the right knowledge and expertise you can achieve your goals and succeed on a global scale.

One essential piece of advice I have for fellow entrepreneurs is to be passionate about your own learning and the learning of your staff. We have our own objective of having at least 30% of our staff on a course of some description, and that’s how our journey with Lancaster University Management School started. I was invited to a free masterclass for small businesses (indeed, many such opportunities are freely available) where truly inspirational speakers shared their knowledge and expertise. It was a worthwhile exercise in its own right but also opened up valuable networking opportunities and the chance to start a discussion about our needs and ambitions. Six years on we have developed a ‘talent programme’ at Playdale which incorporates these very same masterclasses, for 11 of our people that have selected themselves through attitude and performance. These individuals are then tasked with feeding back within their group and they also hold learn at lunch events for the whole organisation, making this an effective and valuable learning journey for all of us.

Another hugely important area for small businesses is finding talent, and I can certainly recommend looking into working with business students and student entrepreneurs. When we began our journey with LUMS, Playdale was going through a period of great change and we didn’t have a budget, or lots of time, to focus on a particular issue or area that needed our attention. However, we were able to tap into the energy, enthusiasm and intelligence of Lancaster University students through the consultancy project scheme and in the last few years we have benefited from student insights and recommendations in strategy and business planning, marketing analytics and new technologies. It’s always brought new learnings into our working practices, including how to make the most of this student resource. If a business is not already working with their local university on engaging students around workplace problems to offer up solutions, then they are missing a trick.

It is important to make use of this resource wisely and to constantly adapt. For example, in our first few years of working with students we were reactive to requests, but now we have strategic projects planned annually so when the University comes knocking we have ready-made value added projects to make the most of the students’ time and enthusiasm.

Once you get the ball rolling in your partnership you’d be amazed at the doors that can open for you. In 2016 our Operations Director took part in a ten-month programme, ‘Innovation in Manufacturing and Engineering’, run by both Lancaster University’s Engineering Department and Management School, in partnership with BAE Systems. It helped us to focus on three interlinked themes, innovation, technology, and leadership, and included visits to 'best in class' organisations around the region. More recently my team have taken part in regional Forums based out of Lancaster, a six-month programme which supported us to develop a business growth model and finance to facilitate it, and a 12 month, ‘Productivity Through People’ course, a partnership with three world class manufacturers; BAE Systems, Siemens and Rolls-Royce. It’s given us access to the latest techniques, thinking and research to improve our productivity and working practices. Always ensure to keep your eyes open for these opportunities and be proactive in making suggestions, like how we’ve used the networks we’ve built to give us fresh perspectives, meet suppliers, and draw inspiration from alumni.

We have also found benefits in giving back – I regularly mentor students in my Entrepreneur in Residence role and often lecture under my Honorary Professor badge which is very rewarding and refreshing! We have also hosted visits for the eco-innovation in Africa programme.

The next thing for us is a five-year Playdale Live Lab, with all the schools based at Lancaster University. It’s a deep dive into our manufacturing efficiency. It’s very exciting, it’s never been done anywhere before, we think, and it should see us creating even more great playgrounds around the world and importantly for our future security, more efficiently than ever before.

I hope this demonstrates what excellent value can be achieved if you find the right partner and work at the relationship to create opportunities and achieve even your impossible goals. Your local business school is certainly a great place to look for opportunities, and I wish you the best of luck in building your own business journey and finding the success that we’ve had.


Barry Leahey MBE is Managing Director of Playdale Playgrounds, the largest UK manufacturer of outdoor children’s playground equipment. Playdale’s turnover is circa £13M, it has 110 employees and works with distributors in 49 countries. Playdale have won national awards ‘UK family Manufacturer’, ‘UK SME Exporter of the Year’ as well as being named Department of International Trade Export Champions, with Barry personally receiving an MBE for services to International Trade and Exports. He was recently made an Honorary Professor at Lancaster University Management School as well as featuring in The Telegraph’s Top 50 Most Ambitious UK Business Leaders and inducted into The Manufacturer Top 100 people in the UK Manufacturing Hall of Fame.