Jim Duffy: We should all be lucky enough to have Oompa-Loompas

Gene Wilder as genius confectioner Willie Wonka. Picture: Kobal Collection
Gene Wilder as genius confectioner Willie Wonka. Picture: Kobal Collection
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In the week actor Gene Wilder died, Jim Duffy says Willy Wonka had the right idea with his pint-sized loyal workers

Willy Wonka died this week. Or did he? There is no doubt in my mind that Gene Wilder was and is Willy Wonka. I’ve watched the movie dozens of times and always get something from it. I was never really into the snassberry lickable wallpaper. Brussels has rooms full of it, I hear. But I did like the look of a srumdiddlyumptious bar. Yummy!

I love the idea that maybe, one day, even I could win the Lottery with that Golden Ticket concept. I could join Philip Green, imprisoned on his yacht in Monaco, and learn how to hide from TV cameras. I love the mystique around the Chocolate Factory, with the big walls around it and the chimneys rising up from the heart of it all. Haunting, but alluring – a bit like Scottish Enterprise.

I love the madness of Wonka, coupled with his super clever intellect and, of course, his snappy sartorial elegance. In fact, it’s just dawned on me that Jack Nicholson shared that purple look as the Joker in Batman and probably based some of the character on Gene Wilder’s performance. But, what I love the best about Willy Wonka are the Oompa-Loompas.

Willy Wonka was really clever as an entrepreneur. There are lots of lessons to be learned from how he went about his business. As is always the case, when an entrepreneur creates something special, others want to copy it or get the recipe. And old Slugworth did his best to get Willy Wonka’s recipes. Mind you, I didn’t see the Wonka lawyers in court fighting Slugworth for the patent rights – but you can bet your bottom dollar that Willy will have his name written all over that everlasting gobstopper idea. (Gobstoppers? Whatever happened to them?) Wonka’s old staff were leaking his secret sauce to competitors and everybody was trying to copy his ideas. A bit like Coca-Cola. They’ve never published their drink recipe, while others have tried to replicate it. So, Wonka took radical steps. He sacked the lot of them and burned the house down.

Not an easy decision to make on a very profitable business. He was no doubt raking in the cash, but haemorrhaging intellectual property rights as a few bad apples sold off the family secrets. He was building a great business, but there was something wrong with the culture. So, he sent it to the bottom of the ocean. He paid them all off and created something even more special, something wonderful. Did the chocolate change? No. Did the branding change? No. Did his marketing strategy change? No. The most amazing change was the introduction of the Oompa-Loompa community.

And herein lays the secret of how clever Willy Wonka really was. Creating a culture of trust, openness, transparency and unbridled imagination is the key to starting and growing a great business. Notwithstanding you have a great product to sell – like a delicious Wonka bar. Wonka respected the Oompa-Loompas and worked hard to understand what motivated them and made them feel “safe” at work. Safe to call things out. Safe to be themselves. Safe to have a laugh, while jealously protecting the values and culture of the company. Wonka looked after his new team. Maybe he had learned from his mistakes with the old lot. Maybe he had developed as a leader and taken a good look at himself. But, he now had a loyal bunch of colleagues whom he valued.

Creating a brilliant culture is vital as an entrepreneurial start-up gets going or as you effect change in your organisation. It’s the culture that keeps things on an even keel when the road gets rocky. I suppose it’s a bit like a personal relationship, where communication is key. When people stop talking, that’s when things tend to deteriorate. The best leaders I see are the ones who know the heartbeat of their organisation, while they steer the canoe.

As I work with early stage companies, I always talk about ensuring everyone is in the canoe. And it’s totally relevant in the corporate environment. Imagine you are the leader of a new venture and start to grow to say 5-15 people. That’s 5-15 potential problems every day if they are not behind you in the canoe, rowing in rhythm. Wonka knew with certainty that when he was growing his business that his team of Oompa-Loompas had an operating rhythm paddling in sync with him as he introduced new products and experimented with and validated his tech – WonkaVision. This is – for me – one of the most important facets of starting and growing a business or project: a team all pointing in the same direction.

So, whether you run a start-up, a charity, a growing business or corporate team, creating a brilliant culture is a must. And what is even more important – and Willy Wonka thought this one out too – is developing the next leaders to take over – succession. That’s why he ran the competition and hey presto, Charlie Bucket pops up and shows one kindness in not thieving a gobstopper.

This one act, Wonka knows, epitomises the mindset that fuels the culture he wants fostered and engendered to protect the Oompa-Loompas. He’s not selling out for the money, he’s building people for the future.

Oompa-Loompa doompa de do… sorry!

• Jim Duffy is Head of #GoDo at Entrepreneurial Spark