When it comes to trusting someone to dish out dispassionate management advice, judge them by their own record. A consultant with the sang-froid to tell a client to ease his own father out of a job is probably worth putting faith in.
Such was the situation for Atif Sheikh, the management consultant at the helm of businessthreezero, which works for a string of blue chips from Samsung to Electronic Arts.
His father, Younus Sheikh, is one of the wealthy tycoons behind the sprawling Bestway wholesale and retail business.
During his childhood Atif saw his father build the business from a couple of corner shops to a nationwide empire. But in 2016 profits started to get squeezed by cost pressures and sharp competition.
businessthreezero was called in and a reluctant Atif saw one of his main principles, to speak the truth when other consultants don’t have the guts to, tested to the limit.
“I said, ‘Mr Sheikh has done a brilliant job over 40 years but this business is not going to move forward with him at the head’,” says the 41-year-old. He admits his relationship with his successful entrepreneur father has “had its up and downs” but that the call to move him into a chairman’s role “has made our relationship stronger, if anything”.
Away from the family business, Sheikh’s company boasts work for Aviva, InterContinental and BP, whose chief executive Bob Dudley called an event it curated for 400 managers “the most different and impactful meeting I have ever experienced in my entire career”.
What’s so different? Sheikh believes there have been three ages of business: winning through industrialisation, then through scale and efficiency and now being quickest to adapt.
He has set his focus on firms employing thousands of people who need to reinvent themselves and set new corporate visions.
The nucleus of the consultancy came after helping Barclays cope with banking’s implosion. Then working at consultancy ?What If!, Sheikh was asked by ex-CEO Antony Jenkins to help rapidly reinvent the culture of the bank.
“The big things I learned were do not divorce the human, purpose, culture stuff from the strategy stuff in a business. It’s a disaster. You won’t get meaningful change when you do it,” says the affable consultant, shifting his not-inconsiderable frame in a low chair.
Sheikh readily admits that, at 31, he didn’t challenge the bank’s bosses enough but the experience was enough to understand the mechanisms over a corporate turnaround. His consultancy’s work is broad.
For InterContinental, it helped look at the contribution of its luxury arm related to its core Holiday Inn brand as new chief executive Keith Barr took the reins.
For insurance giant Aviva, several years of work on its turnaround has included looking at how consumers actually use its products, using tech to prevent accidents and defining how to measure great leadership within the business. Boss Mark Wilson’s abrupt defenestration last week may have undermined that, admittedly.
Sheikh, sporting tight blue shorts and a chunky watch, is no stranger to big business. The Cambridge-educated polyglot followed a year in Japan with a steep learning curve as a Unilever marketing trainee.
He gleams with pride recalling how he created the super-hot Bombay Bad Boy Pot Noodle flavour, building a brand on a shoestring, then later working on marketing for Diageo’s Smirnoff Ice brand and Cadbury’s £150 million biscuits business.
At 29 he had a wobble (“I thought ‘I don’t know how much this really matters, I’m just marketing Pot Noodles and alcopops’”), and he flirted with becoming a poet before later plunging into consultancy.
The world of corporate strategy can appear pretty pretentious to the hardened outsider. (We’re sitting in the Be Us room, while most big firms carry slogans about their “values” painted on the wall crafted by firms like Sheikh’s.)
He says the key to companies’ success in turning these words into action is getting buy-in from more junior staff. “The thing that keeps most CEOs up at night isn’t ‘have I got the right strategic direction’ but ‘how do I get everyone from middle management down to actually execute this?’. I think it’s because you’re asking people to do things differently than they have ever done it. Most people don’t like change.”
With the wave of change sparked by global trade tensions and new technology causing headaches for Footsie bosses, corporate Britain could need his help more than ever.