Keele programme helps regional estate agent build on success

Katy Harwood was hired by regional estate agent Butters John Bee because she is an innovator.  Their 17 branches offered a full range of residential services, but Katy admits they were only dabbling in new build.  Every branch had some new build stock she says but they had no process to service this, and were essentially a B2C business.

Under Katy’s leadership, the chain is setting up a disruptive business model through which all branches can service SME builders - companies building just a couple of homes a year up to around 20.  Typically they have strong core skills in a range of building trades, but aren’t up with the big boys when it comes to marketing their product.  That’s where Katy comes in.

When she met Keele University Entrepreneur in Residence David Lowe professionally, one thing led to another and Katy became one of 22 SME business leaders to participate in Keele’s first Mercia Centre for Innovation Leadership (MCIL)* programme. “It sounded just what I needed - there were no complicated forms to complete and, while the selection process was rigorous, it was straightforward,” says Katy.

Katy has nothing but praise for MCIL: “The experience has given me heaps of confidence,” she says, highlighting the interaction and networking as a particular benefit, which she sees as being quite different to normal business courses.  “They’ve selected a great mix of people, we’re all different and my LinekedIn has gone off the scale,” says Katy.

From MCIL business coach David Lowe’s point of view, Katy is not untypical of MCIL participants: “She’s got loads of energy and great ideas, so my role is to provide insight, challenge and offer practical guidance to help her become even more effective in her business setting,” says David.

The MCIL programme pulls together insights from external experts and Keele’s leading business thinkers.  Professor Gary Crowe, MCIL Professor of Practice, brings his extensive experience in business innovation and entrepreneurship to the programme.  For him, the key is the combination of learning opportunities: “Peer-to-peer support amongst the business leaders is just as important as the input of experts, and we’ve structured the programme so that intense sessions are supported by one-to-one coaching to drive learning into practice,” he says, “and from the feedback it’s working well.”

Katy had just one complaint: “They had no bacon sandwiches on our first breakfast session,” she says, quickly adding: “But they fixed that for the second session.”

So far Katy has defined the business model and trained all 185 branch staff.  They now have proper processes in place, and business is on the up.  Armed with the techniques and ideas Katy has picked up on MCIL, she’s now developing a three-year plan for the new concept.  But her time on MCIL isn’t over and her enthusiasm for the programme is only growing as it progresses: “I just can’t wait for the next session,” concludes Katy. 

ERDF logo Staffordshire and Stoke-on-Trent businesses can benefit from a range of specialist support and funding.  Interested companies should contact Keele University’s Business Gateway on 01782 733001 or email  

*The MCIL project (ref: 32R15P00229) is part-funded from the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) as part of the European Structural and Investment Funds England Growth Programme 2014-2020.