Getting To Know You: Barry Leahey, MD, Playdale Playgrounds

Barry Leahey, MD, Playdale Playgrounds

Barry Leahey is Managing Director of Playdale Playgrounds, the UK’s leading Manufacturer of Outdoor Children’s Playground Equipment, and an expert in International Trade & Manufacturing.

With a strong international presence, Playdale has distributors in 49 countries covering 57% of the global population.

Playdale is an award winning organisation, and having previously been named ‘UK family Manufacturer of the Year’, by National Family Business United, ‘UK SME Exporter of the Year’ and Department of International Trade Export Champions.

Barry has also received  an MBE for services to International Trade and Exports, and was named IoD North West ‘Global Director of the Year 2018’ as well as ‘Cumbria Business Person of the Year’. He was recently made an Honorary Professor at Lancaster University Management School, and was featured in The Telegraph’s Top 50 Most Ambitious UK Business Leaders, and was inducted into ‘The Manufacturer Top 100 people in the UK’ Manufacturing Hall of Fame. Barry currently Chairs the Institute of Directors in Cumbria. 

What do you currently do at Playdale Playgrounds?

I consider myself as a ‘disruptor’ at Playdale. I don’t believe in living by the status quo, and try to apply continuous change so the business is never standing still. Because of this, I usually find myself spending around 80% of my time outside the office, developing new business strategies and finding ways to further educate myself on the industry.

The other 20% I spend internally, delivering business strategies, working with clients, directing and giving my staff any appropriate training needed. Supporting staff is significantly critical in maintaining Playdale’s exceptionally high attention to detail and customer service.

Four years ago, I made the daring decision to turn the business upside down, placing myself below my 14 area managers. From this position I work to facilitate the team, ensuring they are able to carry out their jobs as effectively and productively as possible. In line with this responsibility I try to position myself as a mentor figure – I train staff but will discipline when it is required. It is crucial to me to assure that, as a team, we are hitting targets and achieving everything we set out to do.

What was the inspiration behind your business?

Playdale first originated in 1978, South Cumbria, UK. It’s actually the 9th Generation of the family, the Croasdale family. The inspiration for the business first came about when the 8th generation was renovating a local sports centre and the committee requested the Croasdale’s to put up some play equipment outside the centre.

They put some play equipment together for the outside and it was a great success. In the same year they put up four playgrounds in three neighbouring villages. Last year, we put up 1200 playgrounds, so there has been a significant amount of growth in the last 41 years.

However, there has been a journey along the way, that journey has involved becoming a leader in the UK, recognised for quality, setting up the Royal Parks in the mid ‘80’s and landing huge contracts on CSR projects for global organisations like Pepsi co. Because of this growth and success, in 2009 we decided we were going to go global ourselves.

Who do you admire?

In my life time I have read around 300 books on business. However, I usually find myself favouring the likes of Jack Welch, Richard Branson and Malcom Gladwell. I appreciate books around numbers, analytics and what it takes to become world class and these authors execute that brilliantly.

Beside business, I read a lot of books on sports. I’m fascinated by Sir Clive Woodward’s stance on marginal gains, and more recently, I’ve spent a lot of time reading about Sir Dave Brailsford’s contributions towards that.

Looking back, is there anything you would have done differently?

In terms of Playdale’s global expansion, I would have invested more time in conducting regional research. I cannot stress enough how important it is to thoroughly research different countries and cultures before venturing into their business. Saying this, it is equally as important to get boots on the ground to experience the culture authenticity. Someone can do an excessive amount of research but never fully grasp the culture of the country, which is essential for branching out to a foreign market.

Secondly, I’d have taken more care and consideration of finances. Playdale is now in 49 different countries and we managed to do this on a shoestring budget, which is great. However, we often question whether we could have done this better and faster by getting out there and looking for ways to finance our plan, with better organisation and a broader budget.

What defines your way of doing business?

I am always honest in the way I do business, sometimes this can turn people on, sometimes it can turn people off, but it is always the best way to be.

As a team, we have created a simple set of core values, following #TEAM. We regularly use this internally and within our social posts.

T represents the phrase ‘Trading globally, acting locally’. At Playdale we carry the mindset that strives for global success whilst being conscious of maintaining standards for our local customers in the UK.

E stands for ‘excellence’ in everything we do and the passion of getting things right the first time. We think critically in every department of the business and that is where the honesty kicks in. We point out failures to help us grow and work together to create the perfect strategy that represents our excellent efforts at playdale.

A is being ‘all-inclusive’. That is for our customers and our staff, we build inclusive playgrounds, and we always want to be an inclusive culture in the way we operate as a business.

Most importantly, M stands for ‘Make smiles’! Business has to be fun, and as a company we recognise that. Long-term it makes everything easier for everyone.

With all these aspects merged together, it really defines the way I and our family at Playdale do business.

What advice would you give to someone starting out?

My thought process follows the approach of being prepared for the competitive global world that is out there. Companies in the UK usually assume they have the right to trade anywhere, but it can be more complicated than that. Competition is in every little aspect of a business, so be the best in every way you can. Be smarter, be faster, never settle.

Act locally, but think globally. Think beyond your current business boundaries. One thing I always tell people starting out is to never accept the status quo. Keep building the business every day, make every day count. Don’t allow one day to follow another.

Create growth in all different aspects, whether it is educating yourself by attending a seminar or building on your strategy, make changes every day. The results may not be visual for another 365 days, but when it does, it will be worth it.