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The SMART Interview #21 Alex Polizzi

  • TN-AlexPolizziHunters
  • 17 Feb 2015

Hotel Inspector, small business champion and the BBC's Fixer, Alex Polizzi has helped many companies in trouble. So, how does she turn around failing businesses?

At Heathrow Express we like to celebrate doing things that bit smarter. Each month we seek out someone who really exemplifies this approach to work and life and we ask them some questions. This month: Alex Polizzi.

This interview series is all about doing things smarter, and being creative at work. It’s something many people struggle with – any tips you can share?

Do things well – do them once.

You've helped quite a few businesses as the BBC's Fixer and now in For Hire, your new series. Which ones were the stand-out success stories and why?

I think it’s been the brewery [Hunter’s] and the sausage making family [Heck Sausages] in The Fixer.  Specifically, I think it’s because they had a fantastic product, they really knew their customers and who they wanted to be selling to. They listened. They didn’t think that they knew better, they accepted they’d tried things their way and needed a nudge in another direction. As a result, it made them very satisfying businesses to work with. In For Hire my role is quite different; it isn’t me taking on these chefs for the new jobs.

My job is to point out questions that maybe owners wouldn’t have asked themselves - to ensure they choose the right person for the job. 

Alex Polizzi, Hunters, The Fixer
Image: Alex Polizzi and Hunters

Having a good business idea is often the easy bit. How do you take that good idea and make it commercially successful though?

Not all ideas are commercially successful. The first thing is to be very clear-sighted as to whether you have a niche idea that makes your heart sing. One that’s come to you because all of a sudden, you need a niche product or a niche service yourself and can’t find it. Also, whether you are looking for something to be a massive financial success, or whether – like lots of people – you are just really passionate about something and want it to pay the bills.

What do you need to be a successful entrepreneur? Is it something you can learn or more something you're born with?

I think most of it you could learn, because most of it is just about being rigorous with yourself. All the accounting and finances – which most people shy away from – are just learnt skills. And they are skills that one has to learn to survive in business – certainly to be an entrepreneur, when quite often initially margins are so tight. I think the desire to strike out on your own is something that’s innate to some, because lots of people never have that desire to do it. Many are much happier in the security of a job, a regular pay packet and no responsibilities beyond their specific roles.

Your focus in For Hire is on finding the right chef for a restaurant. Hiring the right staff is a key concern for many CEOs. Any tips?

Many people who have their own businesses get very disheartened by the constant grind that human resources demands. The hiring and firing, the six month reviews, and all the upkeep in between, the sick days, the holidays, the staff morale… Your staff are a reflection of you, and you must really be rigorous in only taking on people who you think reflect your core values. It’s tempting to take people on when you’re desperate, who don’t really fit the bill. I think you always regrets doing this in the end.

Alex Polizzi
Image: Alex Polizzi, The Fixer

In The Fixer you help family businesses. You've done it yourself… would you recommend working with members of your family… or not?

I think there are families who should never work with each other! And there are families who can manage it. It’s hard working with your family, but it’s incredibly rewarding when it works. It’s impossible to say as a general rule if one should or shouldn’t – I think largely it depends on your family relationships before you start working together.

Talking of families… finding time for family life is tough for most business people. Any suggestions for striking the right balance that you've learnt along the way?

I’m quite strict about turning my phone off when everyone knows I’m on holiday.  I’m not someone who is constantly fiddling with my phone, checking my emails. I think that’s very unhelpful for either winding down or for being able to concentrate on the family. So I have a no phone, no email rule – for a week at a time, I can manage it quite easily. If it’s important, everyone knows where I am so they would get hold of me. I think working when you are at work and not working when you are at home is a fairly good rule to live by. 

Alex Polizzi, The Fixer
Image: Alex Polizzi, The Fixer

Do you travel much? Is there a particular part of the world you love to visit?

There are two bits of the world I’m particularly fond of, for different reasons. One is Italy – I always love rediscovering Italy and my heritage, and seeing my family. I’m always amazed at how often I’ve been but how many new things I still discover. I love the Caribbean – there’s something about those idyllic beaches, with the white sand and the palm trees. I know there are lots of problems there, I’m not blind to them, but as a tourist, it is quite easy to ignore them and live out the fantasy for a week or so of living on a desert island.

What do you always take with you when you travel and why?

I go mad without a book, and on holiday I can get through a novel at least every two days, so I need to take quite a lot of books. I might take my running app, to encourage me to exercise rather than just eating and lying about!

Alex Polizzi for Hire is coming soon to BBC Two.

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