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This 25-year-old business is “super-scaling” despite the pandemic

By Verne Harnish 

UCS Group is a 25-year-old company that develops urban utility networks and sustainable energy solutions. By using the Scaling Up platform, it has grown from approximately AUD $70 million to about AUD $120 million and from 120 to 170 people in just three years. 

How did its team pull it off? CEO and managing director Stephen Ellich began working with Scaling Up Certified Coach Rob Nankervis in mid-2018 to put the Scaling Up platform to work for UCS Group as he got ready to establish the Victoria, Australia-based company’s 2023 strategic plan.

“I understood that most strategies fail in the execution phase and that once started, UCS Group would be on a multi-year journey,” says Ellich. “My desire was to include a large portion of the business leadership in the three-to-five year journey, and I considered that many of them had minimal exposure to strategic planning. So, to help me and my team deal with these challenges and execute the Scaling Up methodology, I needed an expert/coach.”

Here is how Ellich and his team tailored the system to the company’s needs, with Nankervis’s guidance. 

Recruit smart

To scale up, UCS Group needed the right people in the right seats on the bus. Many field workers in its blue-collar workforce start out as apprentices, with about 20% of field team members doing an apprenticeship currently. 

To attract them, UCS Group makes sure its recruiting page and other materials showcase the opportunity to belong to a fast-growing company that has a great culture and is doing work that matters. Its job postings prominently share its Core Values: We care, keep it simple, can do, trusted, and ‘cob’ culture. Cob culture refers to the loyalty of the company’s people and customers, of being one team aligned to its purpose, and being connected as a community that respects and appreciates the company.

“The real message to people is if you want to be valued and have a meaningful career and purpose, come here,” says Ellich. 

Get aligned on strategy

Working with Nankervis, Ellich and his team hold both quarterly and annual meetings to work on the company’s strategic plan and set goals. The company also chooses Quarterly Themes to galvanize everyone around meeting critical numbers and staying true to its Brand Promise (safe.on time.first time). The current Quarterly Theme is “Challenged to Challenger,” as the company moves out of the challenge of COVID-19 and back to driving growth. Initiatives like this help keep everyone clear on what the company is working towards. “Communication is everything says,” says Ellich.

In addition to including a large portion of the business leadership team in the company’s strategic planning, Ellich asks everyone in the company to read Scaling Up: Rockefeller Habits 2.0. There are constant reminders of what UCS Group represents throughout its workplace. The company’s Core Values, Purpose (“Creating sustainable connected communities”) and Brand Promise appear prominently on its walls, as well as on its T-shirts, uniforms and vehicles. 

As part of its innovative and flexible culture, the company commemorated its rebranding from Underground Cable Systems to UCS Group by emblazoning its walls with graffiti art made by street artists. The artists created four separate but linked murals depicting the Brand Promise, Purpose, Core Values, history and service lines. 

Prioritize flawless execution

Reliable and efficient operations are particularly important in an industry like utilities. “If we don’t operate safely, people can get hurt,” says Ellich. “If we don’t do it on time the first time, it costs us our reputation.”

To make sure UCS Group’s team continues to achieve operational excellence and customer engagement, Ellich has adapted the company’s processes and technology to its fast growth and to a work environment that became more remote working during COVID-19. “You have to be super vigilant or you may lose both profit and cash as a result of the growth,” Ellich says. 

Build a culture of cash 

Although UCS Group is private-equity backed, it is growing so rapidly that conserving cash is essential. Ellich has prioritized working capital management, negotiating better terms with suppliers and paying on terms, rather than immediately. He has also focused on keeping inventory low and bringing slow payers up to date—even if it means occasionally phoning customers to collect debts himself. The result: The company has almost no bad debts. 

“Cash is the foundation for everything in the business,” says Ellich. “If you want to grow your business and you don’t have cash, you’re not going to go anywhere.”

Ultimately, maintaining a strong cash position will be essential as the company scales. Ellich is reinvesting some of UCS Group’s revenue in his team’s training and is keeping cash available in case he needs to invest in new assets or facilities. As he’s found, when a business is “super scaling” like UCS Group, growth begets new growth. “That’s why cash becomes really important,” he says. 

Verne Harnish
Verne Harnish
Verne Harnish is founder of the world-renowned Entrepreneurs’ Organization (EO) and chaired for fifteen years EO’s premiere CEO program, the “Birthing of Giants” and WEO’s “Advanced Business” executive program both held at MIT. Founder and CEO of Gazelles, a global executive education and coaching company with over 150 coaching partners on six continents, Verne has spent the past three decades helping companies scale-up. The “Growth Guy” syndicated columnist, he’s also the Venture columnist for FORTUNE magazine. He’s the author of Scaling Up (Rockefeller Habits 2.0); Mastering the Rockefeller Habits; and along with the editors of Fortune, authored The Greatest Business Decisions of All Times," for which Jim Collins wrote the foreword. Verne also chairs FORTUNE Magazine’s annual Leadership and Growth Summits and serves on several boards including chairman of The Riordan Clinic and the newly launched Geoversity. He is an investor in many scale-ups. A father of four, he enjoys piano, tennis, and magic as a card-carrying member of the International Brotherhood of Magicians.