He’s the master of negotiation who believes firms can learn from Brexit talks. Lizzie Murphy met Tony Hughes, CEO of Huthwaite International
We’ve been chatting for almost an hour when Tony Hughes casually mentions that he’s a former trampolining champion.
“I was British Colleges and Universities Champion, I think. It’s a long time ago now,” he says dismissively.
It was his love of sports that initially led the chief executive of global sales training company Huthwaite International to start his career as a teacher and then ski coach.
He trained at Wentworth Woodhouse, a teacher training college near Rotherham, close to what is now Huthwaite’s headquarters at Hoober House.
“This house was a hall of residence,” he says, gesturing around the meeting room we are sitting in. “I met my first wife at college and she lived here. In fact, her bedroom was my first office when I started working at Huthwaite.”
It was whilst teaching a Huthwaite director to ski, that his eyes were opened to the possibility of a potential new career as a sales and negotiating expert.
“I didn’t know what he did but he turned up to coaching in a big car and he seemed to have a lot of money so I thought it might be a good idea,” Hughes laughs.
He was initially turned down for a job at the company but two years later he joined as a trainer and later led a management buyout of the company.
“People often say, how did you get from teaching to this? In sports coaching you have a best practice model and the idea is how do you get people to do that model? That’s exactly what we do (at Huthwaite). Coming into it wasn’t difficult,” he says.
Huthwaite International trains companies around the world to sell and negotiate to the highest level.
Its clients include IBM, Siemens, Fujitsu, UPS, Ericson, BT, EY, Royal Mint. It trains 30 of the top 100 companies in the world as well as charities and SMEs.
What makes it different to other firms is that it uses verbal behaviour analysis to develop methodologies which it uses in its training programmes to teach the skills for successful sales or negotiations.
Hughes says: “Really, the training comes last of all. We would never start with a training product and then do some research to back it up. That’s very back to front for us. We’re not commercial opportunists.”
The company’s founder undertook the biggest global study into effective negotiation and created the SPIN Selling model in 1988, which changed what people thought about selling and how they approached it.
By analysing 35,000 sales calls, researchers found that by developing the right questioning skills, salespeople could increase their sales by 20 per cent.
Now Huthwaite, which has a £7.3m turnover and £521,000 pre-tax profit, is exploring what artificial intelligence (AI) can do.
The size of the SPIN study, access to observe and cost have meant it could never be repeated in the same form so Huthwaite is working with a US company and using their AI technology and conversation intelligence platform to do in hours what it took 10 years to achieve. “It’s giving us the first opportunity in over 30 years to not only revisit the research but on an unprecedented scale,” says Hughes.
According to Hughes, Brexit is an important platform for companies to learn about their own negotiation capabilities, particularly when it comes the messages sent by each party.
The Brexit talks so far show that negotiating skills are no easy task when concerning a high-risk deal, he says.
“Someone made a mistake in saying to our negotiators and Prime Minister very early on that no deal is better than a bad deal,” says Hughes. “If you’re working in a business, that’s probably true because you can go somewhere else.
“Britain doesn’t have an alternative so how can we walk away from it?”
He adds: “Negotiating in public is impossible. To go to the whole world and say ‘this is what we’re going to have as our target’ in a negotiation is always just going to be a soundbite. You can only recover from it in a negotiation behind the scenes.
“I’m not sure they will be getting feedback about how they negotiate. They will get lots of feedback about what the numbers are and whether they are right or wrong but not about how they use and manage them.”
Asked whether he would describe himself as a good seller and negotiator, he pauses. “I think I’m quite good at it but you can believe your own publicity too much in my job because people trust you.
“I always did quite well before I was a CEO and that’s how I managed to do the MBO but you don’t want to promise more than you can deliver.”
They say good sales people make terrible buyers because they are far too lenient when they buy something. Does this apply to Hughes?
“Probably, yes. I’m always told I should negotiate harder,” he admits.
“The one thing that annoys me is when you go to countries where it’s expected that you should barter in a bazaar because a) I don’t like horse trading anyway and b) It’s taken you half an hour to save 25p when you could have been better spending the 25p and using the half an hour to do something different.”
Hughes, who has a grown-up daughter, owns a livery yard at his home in Upper Denby, West Yorkshire, overseen by his partner, Sam. They have 17 horses, five of which are theirs.
The 58-year-old describes himself as ‘adventurous’. He enjoys motorcycling and other outdoor pursuits. This week he is going on a skipper’s course for motor boats.
“It all comes back to the PE stuff. I enjoy getting out and about,” he says.