By Ronald Hedley
In Bram Krommenhoek’s April 2018 article entitled Why 90% of Startups Fail, and What to Do About It, he shared the four problems and the four subsequent solutions to the crash and burn world of launching a startup.
One of the problems, Krommenhoek wrote, is being a one-person team. He offered the following solution: “My advice to each (would-be) founder is this: find at least one person from a different discipline to join you. Ideally, you have a combination of people that cover the holy startup triangle: hipster, hacker, hustler (aka designer, engineer, marketer).”
So, heeding (subconsciously) the advice above, when Nick Gunn, former SVP of Global Corporate Services at Hewlett Packard Enterprise, buckled in and launched The NiVACK Group, he was not going it alone. He was starting his new company with his son Charles.
The term NiVACK is significant. It represents what’s important in Gunn’s life, and it supports the assertion that one should not launch a startup by oneself. “I made up a name using our initials. The Ni stands for Nick. V is for Vanessa, my wife. A is for Ash, and K is for Katherine.”
Family matters to the senior Gunn. He was born in London in 1968. His father was a plumber and his mum was a typist in a typing pool. Both were hard workers and passed down their work ethics to their son.
Their house had no bathtub and the toilet was outside. Money may have been scarce, but love and humility filled their Victorian terraced home. Gunn cherishes his childhood. He asked rhetorically, “What does this upbringing and background tell you about me? …a humble upbringing, a strong work ethic, nothing is for free, compete to be successful, and maintain humility!”
Charles is the C in NiVACK and an equal partner in the company. Like his father, Charles is inspired by family, but he brings a unique perspective to the partnership. “I am inspired by some of the people I have worked with who are not great leaders. When I’m on a team, it kills me when you’re the person who does the majority of the work. I have worked for different managers in my career, so I’ve had the opportunity to pick out the helpful things and the things I hope I never do.”
Charles shared a pet peeve that paradoxically inspires him: “Forcing physically and mentally drained employees to work into the early hours of the morning on a project is one of the worst things a leader can do.”
He then offered a pragmatic solution: “When your team has a lot on their plate, a leader should come down a level and help the team with their work. A lot of leaders refuse to do it. They think that they’re above getting in the trenches. I take inspiration from the non-inspiring people in the world.”
”What’s really important is the ability to adapt and change and learn new things.Nick Gunn
While the elder Gunn’s expertise is centered around corporate services, the younger Gunn’s expertise is finance. Charles’ experience at PricewaterhouseCoopers in the assurance function has been invaluable in his new role at The NiVACK Group. “I have tremendous insights into these companies and how they work. I know that some companies do not know that they are doing things improperly,” he said.
Charles shared how he was frustrated because, as an auditor, he was not in a position to offer solutions, “I think there are positives and negatives in public accounting. One of the most frustrating negatives was seeing faults in a company and not being able to address them. I was looking for a way that I could bring more value to a company.”
In his new role as consultant, young Gunn can shoot straight and tell a company what it needs to improve. “I’m excited about having the opportunity to, after identifying an area of weakness, jump in and offer some insight. At the very least, I can identify an area that they can work on,” Charles said.
He then offered a specific example: “In the supply chain functions, specifically around inventory management, they often have very junior people, often with just a high school education, managing their inventory day to day. There is a lot of room for improvement there to say the least.”
Nick Gunn’s expertise is much different than his son’s, and so was his motivation to launch The NiVACK Group. He explained, “I left Hewlett Packard Enterprises earlier this year. It was nice being sort of retired, but I realized I needed something challenging.”
Was what happened next fate or coincidence? Gunn continued, “I got invited to a large food manufacturing company by their CIO to provide the new CEO with advice around business transformation. They had questions. He thought it would be good to meet them and give some advice.”
An epiphany followed. “On the plane coming back, I thought, Hey, this is exciting. Why don’t I do this for a job?” Gunn explained. He then made the immediate decision to start an advisory firm. Ironically, he was launching a start-up as he was literally being launched into the atmosphere. It must have been fate.
Gunn brings myriad experiences to NiVACK. He stated, “When I was at HP, we had resources, experience, and capabilities. Not all companies have that, and what NiVACK brings to that is enterprise- scale experience, and strategic thinking to help the smaller and mid-sized companies be more profitable.”
He added, “We accelerate business transformation because we look at where the small to mid-sized company is today, and we help them create a road map to get from where they are to their desired destination in an accelerated fashion.” NiVACK ensures that the people they are helping avoid mistakes and learn from the process.
Gunn detailed what is being transformed: “All of procurement, or anything within procurement, including things like real estate, travel, car fleet, whatever is purchased by the company. It could be digitizing elements of the procurement process, such as using AI to provide insights on spend patterns, creating comprehensive demand management strategies, or even optimizing the talent capabilities of a procurement function.”
Gunn exposited further on his experience, “When you work for a company like Hewlett Packard Enterprise, you do everything to scale. Everything has to be done quickly because it’s a publicly traded company and, as a result, reported every quarter. The expectation is that you can quickly create solutions and execute strategy. I learned to adapt tactically to the changes in environment. That experience is transferable to other situations.”
Throughout his long career, Gunn has gained a bit of wisdom. “What’s really important is the ability to adapt and change and learn new things. In my career, things have progressed significantly. When I first started, mostly everything was analog, and then new technologies and new ways of thinking came about,” he explained.
”When your team has a lot on their plate, a leader should come down a level and help the team with their work....Charles Gunn
He added, “Experiences are valuable because they teach you the value of being adaptable, of being open-minded. If you aren’t, other people will be, and that’s where competitors come along and eat your lunch.”
On Working Together
Charles said, “After my dad was in retirement for a few months, I figured if I could encourage him to jump off the ledge a bit, I would join him. We are working together from the ground up. We have a very complimentary set of skills. He has a lot of experience with transformations: real estate, travel, fleet operations, and I’m eager to learn. I have an inquisitive mindset and an attention to detail. That’s what I bring to the table.”
Gunn concurred, then elaborated, “I can tell you that Charles’ attention to detail is a real asset for us. It doesn’t slow us down because he works at warp speed. When Charles is analyzing data at the right level of focus and balancing it with agility, it is efficient and smart, and it’s helped me as well. We have a complementary skill set. Charles’ expertise, skills, and experience are especially valuable during the startup phase.”
Gunn said, “A lot of businesses look at sustainability as a cost issue. But our view is the opposite. We look at things and ask, ‘How can we positively impact your P&L, and how can we positively impact your Corporate Social Responsibility Program?’”
He offered an example: “At HP, our real estate budget was large. We spent a lot of money on energy. My job was to reduce energy costs. In California, with its abundant sunshine, we installed solar panels. In Bangalore, India, we used geothermal energy because geothermal was available. In Texas, we bought into a wind farm. We thought about things from a different perspective and encouraged our suppliers to think about things differently too.”
”We accelerate business transformation because we look at where the small to mid-sized company is today, and we help them create a road map to get from where they are to their desired destination in an accelerated fashion.Nick Gunn
On Why They Chose a Startup
Charles explained first: “We want to use our experience to help others. It’s not fun when things are not being done in an optimal way, especially when we have ideas about how they can be improved. With The NiVACK Group, I have the opportunity to advise and help companies. It’s rewarding to have a positive impact on companies and the people in them. If we can loop in procurement acumen around Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and help companies do business in a more responsible way, then I’m all about that.”
Gunn then added, “Charles has a unique perspective. My perspective is that it doesn’t feel right to hoard all the good stuff for ourselves. I see people in the procurement space that think they are doing a good job. We look at that from an independent perspective and think, you can do a lot better.”
He continued, “Why do I think that? Because I’ve seen what a lot better looks like. A lot of companies, especially the smaller scale ones, don’t necessarily know what good looks like. The problem is they can be marching along thinking they are doing a great job when, the reality is, they can do more to help the P&L of the company. They can do more to create investment dollars to help grow their revenues.”
NiVACK is more than a name. It is an acronym wrapped in family values. Gunn is proud of how each family member has impacted his life and his new business endeavor. “Vanessa originally didn’t like me. She thought I was too arrogant, and that’s why she keeps me grounded. Ash is a great example of why you should do what you love and not be afraid to try new things. Kate is an example of how different views, opinions, and personalities serve to make the whole greater than the sum of the parts,” he shared.
And as for Charles? He is his hipster, hustler partner in consultation.