It's Been SUMS Journey: Steve J Smith (1990)

— 07.02.22

by Caroline Mailer

Steve Smith, BA Business Studies (1990) has sold us some of the world's biggest brands, many of which may be sitting in your kitchen now. His time at Sheffield University was a vital step in launching his sales and marketing career and it was a stage of his life that he remembers with fondness, from his favourite marketing lectures to being JCR President of Sorby Hall.

In this interview, Steve shares with us his insight into his impressive career from P&G graduate trainee, through heading up the Sales department at a FTSE 250 company, and now as a business owner, consultant and published author...

You recently published a new book - 'Leadership, Levity and the Power of Baked Alaska' - sharing your experiences over your three decades working in the sales and marketing industry, and we hear that you've mentioned us, your alma mater?

I was the first person in my family to go to University and I was absolutely set on Sheffield after I attended an open day and was shown around the Management School at Crookesmoor and (the now demolished) Sorby Hall – an eleven-storey tower block which was ugly to look at, but warm and lovely inside!

Sheffield was absolutely crucial to my career as I was elected President of Sorby in my first year and that put me on P&G’s recruitment radar. My career flows from there and the University is referenced a lot in ‘Baked Alaska’ because those three years were so important to my development as a person. Whilst studying I enjoyed the marketing lectures by Everett M Jacobs and in later life fully appreciated the lessons in maturity provided by Dr David E Bland OBE, who was Warden of Sorby - great preparation for people I would later encounter in business. Negotiating with him was tough!

Unfortunately, my second year was blighted by the sudden, unexpected death of my mum, shortly followed by the Hillsborough disaster - a close friend of mine having been a victim of the tragedy. Very difficult times, but I have never let them eclipse my positive memories.

You graduated with your Sheffield Business Studies degree in 1990. What are your fondest memories of student life?

For me it was the friendship and camaraderie. I met wonderful people from all across the UK and beyond. It sounds like the start of a joke, but my best mates were an Englishman, an Irishman and a Welshman (though he now lives in Australia). A couple of people from that era were pioneers of reality TV shows and another became a news reader for the BBC and Channel 4.

I actually stayed in Sorby Hall for all three years. There were about four hundred residents in Sorby and being elected President ahead of four other candidates was something I could never have even imagined a few months before. It was a seminal moment.

It was a fantastic life. Your room was cleaned for you, your meals were cooked for you, you didn’t need to worry about bills and all your pals, male and female, were right there with you. We had our own Junior Common Room with a bar, regular discos and events like formal meals and the Hall Ball. For the Ball I organised as President, we had James and The Farm playing live - both became massive bands in the nineties. And of course, when you’d overdone it, as I sometimes did, all you needed to do to get home was find your way to the lift! It wasn’t just about partying though. We had sports teams, societies, and groups within the hall and of course you had the Students Union in the Octagon and places to visit in Broomhill and the city centre when you fancied a change.

You’ve worked for a fair few household names! Tell us about your first role out of university on P&G’s graduate programme - how did you find the world of work compared to university life?

My first job after graduation was actually a short-term role before starting with P&G. Believe it or not, I was a holiday rep at Sorby Hall! Saga holidays utilised the hall as budget priced accommodation for senior citizens who we’d take out on day trips to Buxton, Castleton and the Peaks.

I started with P&G in Sales in the autumn and took to it straight away. I had a brand new Vauxhall Cavalier as a company car, so was the envy of many friends and went back to Sheffield on a regular basis. Clearly a full-time role meant less lie ins and longer hours of working, but I was with a great company, working on world famous brands and with excellent training. My experience as Sorby President, balancing hall responsibilities with my course work was really beneficial. I was meeting and negotiating with lots of different people and needed to be very organised managing my time. In addition, P&G's heritage as one of the world's great brand building companies meant I was working with products that had often been referred to during my course.

You then progressed to a marketing management role at Kellogg’s. Can you tell us about your experience of marketing the Nutri-Grain brand?

Kellogg’s Corn Flakes and it’s derivatives like Frosties and Crunchy Nut were the cornerstone of Kellogg’s dominance in breakfast cereals. However, they had recognised during the nineties that lifestyles were changing. People were more mobile and becoming increasingly cash rich, but time poor. Less people were sitting down to a bowl of cereal and were looking for ‘breakfast on the go’.

Nutri-grain bars were Kellogg’s answer and were advertised heavily. Growth was rapid and by the time I headed up the marketing, we were looking to reposition the brand as a more general, healthier snack than just a breakfast alternative. I introduced Nutri-Grain Elevenses (now called Raisin Bakes) to the UK market and still eat them regularly. A great product.

“It was probably having responsibility for so many people where my Business Studies degree came to the fore. We studied a couple of modules focused on organisational design, human relations and corporate culture. The culture developed in Barr’s Sales Department and the results delivered are the proudest achievements in my career so far.”

Steve J Smith, BA Business Studies (1990)

Your longest tenure was at AG Barr, the creators of the popular soft drink IRN-BRU. How did your career evolve during your time in AG Barr’s sales department?

I was with Barr for fifteen years as Sales Director heading up the sales activities across all the different routes to market – from supermarkets to bars and restaurants. When I joined, we were a c.£100m turnover business and by the end we were nudging £300m in sales and had reached the FTSE 250. At one point I was running a sales team of over four hundred people. It was probably having responsibility for so many people where my Business Studies degree came to the fore. We studied a couple of modules focused on organisational design, human relations and corporate culture. The culture developed in Barr’s Sales Department and the results delivered are the proudest achievements in my career so far.

A sales role typically covers three key activity areas – strategy and planning, customer engagement and people development. I’ve included stories from all three activities in my book, ‘Baked Alaska’, but it was the people side of things I enjoyed the most. Leading teams, helping people fulfil their potential and the cut and thrust of selling to customers like Asda and Tesco was what I enjoyed the most.

You’re now helping SMEs to achieve their vision as a Business Doctor! What’s a typical day like in your new advisory and consulting career?

One of the things I always enjoyed about sales was the variety of activities and responsibilities. It was never a desk bound nine to five job, though there could be some monotony.

Running my own enterprise as a Business Doctor takes variety to another level. I can’t really describe a typical day as what I do is so variable. I might be presenting on leadership in a school, joining an online leadership forum or helping people on benefits take the plunge in setting up their own business through a government programme. I work on projects with the local council and chambers of commerce as well as supporting a number of local private business groups. I then have existing clients across a range of industries who I support with sales, marketing and general business advice and also serve as a Trustee on the board of a charity providing alternative education facilities in Wigan. Of course, in business you can never stand still so I am constantly on the look out for new businesses to work with and developing written material to post online or possibly include in another book.

Looking back over your career now, what advice do you have for students and recent graduates who want to embark on a career in sales and marketing?

I’d recommend it to anyone. I’ve had great fun in my career, worked with incredible people and had a great sense of achievement and job satisfaction. One of the people in the sales team I led at P&G was Greg Jackson. He was a great chap, full of energy and mischief. He went on to found Octopus Energy and is their CEO. I’m absolutely delighted with what Greg has achieved and feel proud to have trained him on selling at the start of his career.

Marketing and communication are at the heart of twenty-first century life. We never had mobile phones or social media when I was a student, but so much of what we do is now driven online through Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn etc. There is an important phrase I use a lot which is that 'people do business with people' and despite the importance of digital marketing, in the sales process relationships are still really important.

Many people think that sales could never be for them. I disagree. It's not about being uber confident or having the ‘gift of the gab’. With the right coaching, support and some simple tools and techniques I believe that anyone can learn to sell. Product knowledge can be acquired, skills can be trained and with a positive attitude anyone can do it!

“There is an important phrase I use a lot which is that 'people do business with people' and despite the importance of digital marketing, in the sales process relationships are still really important.”

Steve J Smith, BA Business Studies (1990)

Do you want to share your career story since graduation? We'd love to hear from you! Email us at


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