Great to hear from Stephen Bairfelt who is currently Managing Director of data collection experts at Prevision Research and Co-Founder and Joint Managing Director of Purple Market Research. During his research career, Stephen has been a director of a leading international research agency, working in both the UK and the US. Not only has he worked as a research supplier, but he has also experienced the client side as Head of Insight for Shell UK. Stephen has been very active in the research industry over many years and his highlights include being a former Chairman of the Independent Consultants Group and a board member of the Market Research Society. In 2019 he was awarded a Fellowship from the Market Research Society in recognition of his contribution to the research and insights industry.
So, how did you get into the industry, and take us through how you got to this point?
I joined the market research industry after I left the University of Manchester where I completed a degree in Business Studies and Mathematics. The person who I admired most while I was at University and who had the greatest impact on my career was the former Chairman of House of Fraser, British Aerospace and Manchester United – Professor of Marketing, Roland Smith. I loved his lectures which brought to life the role and importance of marketing and research on major corporations. I decided that a career in market research was right for me and I’ve never looked back.
My first job in research was at Research International, at the time the leading entity in international research. I joined the team called Specialist Units, which focussed on non-consumer markets, where I stayed for 10 years. The team were young and dynamic and I learnt so much from people around me who were highly talented and very experienced. I rose up the ranks until I reached the director level and was then transferred to the US operation, where I stayed for 3 years. Living and working in another country was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and I gained so much valuable experience learning from a different culture and extending my international research knowledge. When I returned to the UK I joined The Research Business, before moving client-side to join Shell UK as Head of Insight, which was another life-learning experience seeing first-hand how the research was used internally and what was needed for it to be actioned. After a period of 5 wonderful years at Shell, I decided to set up my own research consultancy and was soon joined by Trevor Wilkinson when we set up Purple Market Research in 2002. Last year we celebrated our 20th anniversary, during which time we worked together for a wide range of different clients and tried to find research solutions to their customer and market challenges. In 2019, we were approached by the owner of our primary fieldwork and data collection provider, Prevision Research, to see if we were interested in buying the business as he wished to retire. We knew they had an incredibly talented team with lots of potential, so we didn’t hesitate, to bring in Bob Qureshi as director to help promote the business across the industry. In 2022, I became the full-time Managing Director of Prevision, whilst remaining as Joint Managing Director of Purple Market Research.
Career paths are rarely without challenges. Can you share an honest moment from your career when things didn’t go quite according to plan, but the lessons remain with you to this day?
When I was seconded to the US operation while working for Research International, I probably lacked the maturity to handle such an important new role and I admit I found the cultural differences quite challenging. My new manager operated in a very different way from the managers and directors I’d experienced in the UK. Instead of taking the time to learn and appreciate my new environment, I tried to impose my thinking on my new manager. As a result, we clashed a lot and I ended up leaving the company and returning to the UK. The lesson I learnt was that there is no one right way of doing things and people from different backgrounds and cultures can have very different perspectives. I now try to embrace the different views of team members and use them positively to help me find solutions to everyday business challenges.
Thinking back, what leadership skills did you call on to help get you through the COVID crisis?
For both Purple and Prevision, the Covid crisis initially hit us very hard with most of our work cancelled or put on hold. The team at Prevision were naturally very concerned about what the future may hold and when things might get back to normal. The first thing was to reassure people that the business was strong enough to get us through this period. I agreed with the directors that we would all take temporary pay cuts, I worked closely with Bob Qureshi to learn and take advantage of all the loans and grants being made available by the government and we stayed close to all our regular clients. Eventually, the business came back and thankfully within a few months, we had returned to near-normal business levels.
And what did you learn about yourself?
That it is really important to stay positive and to continue to believe in the people around you. Bad times do pass and you have to be ready to capitalise on the good times when they eventually return.
What two things should junior researchers focus on as they progress in their careers?
The first is that they should be humble and learn as much as possible from their more experienced colleagues. Ask lots of questions and challenge the status quo if you feel strongly about something. Secondly, they should take the time to understand the business context for which research is being used. Technology in itself isn’t always the answer, usually, there is a much bigger problem to solve and those that have the most creative solutions to those problems will be the ones to succeed.
Do you have any advice for our sector?
Rather than knocking different methodologies, to come together more to embrace the plethora of tools we now have available for solving business and market challenges.
And do you have anyone who has helped your career so far that you’d like to acknowledge and say thanks or give a shout-out to?
There are so many, but probably three people come to mind. Two were my superiors when I worked at RI Specialist Units. The first was Pete Evans, who eventually went to work for RI Australia. A very talented individual who helped grow the business significantly, while at the same time introducing some revolutionary new management methods. I loved this time in my career. The second was Roger Banks, a commercially oriented and highly driven individual who taught me how to conduct research profitably and efficiently and who always encouraged me to reach my potential. And the third was Mike Harle, my head of department while I worked for Shell. Again a highly intelligent and talented person who knew how to get the best out of a team, by encouraging success and learning from failure.