Welcome to the Fifth Generation


As most of you know, I’ve played the occasional round of golf over the years. So it is impossible for me to start anywhere other than the 18thgreen at Augusta as Tiger Woods rolled in the putt which gave him his 15thmajor, after a gap of 11 years. 

Tiger’s had his problems. We all know that. We all know that his behaviour has sometimes fallen short of certain standards. But leaving that aside, to come back from all the operations, the injuries and the headlines to win another major is an astonishing achievement. And he’s 43 – as many of us who are a similar age will testify, that’s the age at which your body doesn’t always want to co-operate…

So let me add my congratulations. What an example of dedication and a sheer, bloody-minded refusal to be beaten. 

On to business, and the blog on a Wednesday morning – on the simple grounds that Friday may find you with better things to do than read my thoughts on 5G, the ‘fifth generation’ of mobiles. 

Two weeks ago both South Korea and the US launched commercial 5G services. This should bring a ‘new wave’ of capability and connectivity for smartphone users, with Samsung claiming that its Galaxy S10 5Gwill offer speeds that are up to 20x faster than current phones. 

What will 5G do? 

What will it do? 5G will simply be faster. Users should get more data, get it faster and enjoy better and more stable connections. 

Quoted in a BBC article, Ed Barton, chief entertainment analyst at Ovum, said the shift from 4G to 5G would be significant. 1G brought voice, 2G gave us text, 3G images and photos and 4G enabled video. “We’re expecting the leap from 4G to 5G to be a much greater leap than ever before,” said Barton. 

The current 4G offers download speeds of around 20Mbps. That is enough to download a movie in HD in 30 minutes. 5G will offer download speeds of 500 to 1,500Mbps – so you will be downloading your Saturday night movie in around 25-30 seconds. 

That’s incredibly quick – clearly you cannot make a cup of tea in 30 seconds or nip to the kitchen for another can of beer – so providing you have a good connection, 5G will see everything becoming more or less instant. Which is fine in theory: there is just the thorny question of coverage. Or the lack of it…  

Will 5G really improve coverage? 

Possibly… Which areas do and do not get coverage is still very much a business decision made by the phone companies. You may feel – as I do – that a good broadband signal is now an integral part of life. If, for example, I stay in a hotel I am far more concerned about the broadband signal than how many channels the TV has. 

You may therefore feel that our Government shouldn’t stand any nonsense from the phone companies. But they do – and the phone companies will continue to weigh the cost of new towers against the potential revenue from users in that area. 

Businesses continue to suffer

There is no question that UK businesses – especially in rural areas – are being held back by poor 4G connectivity. While 83% of urban homes and offices have complete 4G coverage, rural premises get less than half that, with no coverage at all in some remote parts of the country. As every member of TAB York knows as they drive around North Yorkshire…

For me, the roll-out of 5G across the wholecountry is essential. Nearly everyone I speak to sees it as far more important than HS2. It would be wonderful to see one of the phone companies really champion rural areas – and seaside towns, which are now also suffering because of poor connectivity. 

Sadly, if past performance is any guide that’s not going to happen. And that’s a real shame – the PR benefits for any company that made a genuine commitment to genuinely giving the UK 100% coverage would be enormous. 

But let’s at least try and have the glass half full for the Easter weekend…

What will 5G  bring us? 

The most exciting answer to that question is, ‘we don’t know.’ For example, once your smartphone could process payments and was aware of your location, it gave rise to companies like Uber and Lyft. 

But you are not reading this for a pathetic answer like ‘I don’t know’ so let’s look into the crystal ball and come up with some 5G predictions. Although if you are in the UK, it may be a good idea to move to London, Edinburgh, Cardiff, Belfast, Birmingham or Manchester. These are the citiesthat are supposed to have 5G capability by the middle of this year…

Mapping and shopping 

5G is going to allow your phone to know even more about you – and as the AI algorithms become ever-more powerful, expect your shopping to become more and more personalised. Just walking past Next? There’s a notification on your phone, with a special offer, just for you. And the female side of TAB will be pleased to know that stick-thin models could become a thing of the past. 5G and augmented reality could allow the catwalk models to look exactly like you…

Driverless cars and smart cities

5G will undoubtedly speed up the arrival of driverless cars – and with every other lamppost acting as a base station those driverless cars are going to take in all the information they need from the smart cities they are driving through. Quite how those driverless cars will fare when the passenger wants to go into the desolate British countryside is another matter…

The cloud and security

Very clearly, 5G will see everything heading up to the ‘cloud.’ And that’s fine – being able to access everything you need wherever you are – apart from the countryside and the seaside, of course – is vital for business. But so is security, and 5G has understandably given rise to plenty of security fears, especially where the Chinese company Huaweiis concerned.

Like 3G and 4G before it, 5G is unquestionably going to change lives, businesses and industries. Five or six years from now I will be writing about a $100bn company that hasn’t been founded yet. Like Uber, it will no doubt cause a ‘crisis’ in one sector of the economy. But we all know the old saying: the Chinese word for ‘crisis’ is made up of two characters – danger and opportunity. 

Have a wonderful Easter. The blog will now revert to its traditional Friday, and will be back on May 3rd

Corporate Wellness? It’s more than a Bowl of Fruit


First of all I should enter a plea for leniency. I’m away on holiday this week, so I started writing this post on Wednesday of last week. So the world may have moved on by the time you read this, with another storm due to strike the UK – hopefully not doing the damage it did in Scotland – Coronavirus threatening to make us all work from home and HS2 apparently going through our back gardens by the end of the month…

But let’s assume the world keeps turning. And as we’ve discussed many times on this blog, as the world turns so technology marches forward at an ever faster pace. 

But does that really matter? 

I was hugely heartened to read the results of a recent survey: someone sent me a link to an article in HR News. The headline was simple: ‘Staff twice as important as technology to UK’s high growth small businesses.’ 

Well, we’ve plenty of rapidly growing SMEs among the members of TAB UK but I can emphatically say that in every case the reason for that growth is the great people they employ. Irrespective of how good the technology – and in many cases that is very good indeed – it’s the people, the team (how I hate the word ‘staff…’) that drive the business forward. 

According to the survey 60% of the small businesses cited ‘great staff’ as the most important factor contributing to their success. That was followed by 53% who said, ‘we had a great idea or product’ followed by a significant gap to the other top factors: technology, marketing via the internet and securing funding at the right time. 

I would take great people over great tech any day of the week. How can I not say that, given that I’m surrounded by the best, most talented and hard-working people I’ve ever worked with? If you want the very definition of a ‘people business,’ look no further than TAB UK. 

So you have great staff. The question is, what do your increasingly millennial and Generation Z staff want? If there are two words that should be right at the top of every business owner’s list they are ‘wellness’ and ‘ethics.’ 

I doubt that many of us had heard the word ‘wellness’ five years ago. It is now front and centre.  

What does ‘corporate (or workplace) wellness’ mean? Wiki defines it simply as any workplace health promotion activity or organisational policy designed to support healthy behaviour in the workplace and to improve health outcomes. It comprises activities such as health education, medical screenings, weight management programmes and on-site fitness programmes or facilities.

So that’s all the boxes ticked. Or is it? 

My own view is that really looking after the ‘wellness’ of your team goes a lot further than a bowl of fruit, a flu jab and ‘we might put an exercise bike in that office no-one’s using…’ 

Real ‘corporate wellness’ isn’t about policies and initiatives, it’s about knowing your team as well. Really knowing them – recognising that they all have a life outside the office which is every bit as important as what happens between 9 and 5, Monday to Friday. 

It’s about understanding their need for flexible working and recognising that work/life balance applies to everyone in the team – not just the person sitting round the TAB table. 

It’s also about ethics. Bluntly, I don’t see much difference between corporate wellness and corporate ethics: they’re two sides of the same coin. 

There was a recent story in City AM suggesting that companies would soon need a CEO – a Chief Ethics Officer

Why? 

If you’re the owner or director of an SME you’re already the Chief Ethics Officer – or you should be. 

Your millennial/Generation Z team not only want flexible working, they want to work for a company they believe in, that makes a difference in the world, that has ethical values they share. And if you don’t have ethical values, it doesn’t matter how many bowls of fruit there are in the office. 

One of the very first – and still one of the best – business books I read was Robert Townsend’s Up the Organization. I can’t remember the exact words but Bob Townsend made a very simple point in that book. Don’t lie, he wrote, not to your spouse, not to your staff, not to your shareholders. Except for poker on Friday night, don’t lie. 

Writing in the late 1960s he would have barely recognised the term ‘Chief Ethics Officer.’ But that simple quote absolutely nails business ethics for me. You do the right thing, and you always do the right thing. 

Add that to a clear vision and recognising what the members of your team really want – and that’s corporate wellness. 

Born or Made?


It’s a perennial question, whether it’s sport or business. 

Many of you will have read Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers, and come across his 10,000 hour rule: that the key to achieving world-class expertise in any discipline is – to a large extent – practising in the correct way for 10,000 hours. 

So let’s forget business, management and The Alternative Board for a minute and instead focus on sport – specifically, golf. After all, golf is a sport where you do the same thing time after time – and where there’s no opponent trying to block, tackle or foul you. 

If any sport lends itself to 10,000 hours of practice, it must be golf and – as most people know – I’m a golfer (said he, using the word in its broadest possible sense). 

Could I, with 10,000 hours of practice, become a world class golfer? Let’s leave aside the maths and the marriage. 10,000 hours is 20 hours a week for 10 years: Dav might not be too impressed. Would that amount of practice make me into a top class golfer? After all, I only need to hit my 7-iron 150 yards to the centre of the green. Surely 200 hours will take care of that – leaving me 9,800 hours to perfect the rest of my game…

Let’s leave it there. The ball is heading inexorably towards the pin. Time to consider the broader question of leadership. 

January brought us the World Economic Forum in Davos, the annual meeting of business and political leaders from around the world. An article in City AM posed an interesting question: how many of those who met in Davos are actually trained and competent leaders? 

We’ve all come across the Peter Principle – people in an organisation rise to their ‘level of incompetence.’ Is it the same in the top echelons of business and politics? 

The article made the point that training almost always starts far too late. Someone reaches a senior position and they or their company suddenly recognise that they need some executive training. 

But by that time it’s too late. The article quotes Elke Edwards, founder of a corporate training provider: ‘If we leave it [training leaders] until they’re 35 or 45 it’s too late,’ she says. ‘They already have a whole load of neural pathways that are fully formed, based on what we’ve already role-modelled for them.’ 

So are leaders born or made? You won’t be surprised to hear that Ms Edwards thinks it’s the latter. ‘We all have a leader within us. Leaders are made.’ 

…Which brings me back to my golf ball. 

It was heading straight towards the pin. It really was. But at the last minute it faded to the right. Caught the lip of the bunker. And you know the rest…

I remember reading about Greg Norman and his dedication to practice. He would go to the driving range and hit 600 balls. He’d hit golf balls until his hands were bleeding. Somewhere along the line he must have sailed past 10,000 hours of practice. 

Which is why I think people who reach the top are born and made. Those hours and hours of practice obviously helped Greg Norman. But it was something innate – and unteachable – inside him that made him carry on practising, long after most of us would have decided that bleeding all over our 7-iron wasn’t such a good idea…

It’s the same in business. My own view is that we don’t all have a leader within us. That may be unfashionable but the best leaders I’ve seen have something innate. An instinctive understanding of the organisation they lead: the empathy to bring the very best out of people: the insight to see that if they help everyone achieve their potential, then the only thing the company can do is succeed. 

Whatever Ms Edwards says, we don’t all push our breakfast round the plate in Newport Pagnell service station and decide something has to change. The vast majority of people decide that they’ll stick with it. The kids, the mortgage, not that many years to retirement…

That’s why I believe in born and made. Once someone is sitting round a TAB table then it’s our commitment – backed by the input of their fellow Board members – to help them achieve everything they want to achieve personally and professionally. But we cannot drag them to the TAB table. The drive to start your own business, the courage to accept the risks, the willingness to be responsible for someone else’s mortgage: that comes from deep within…

So no, I may not believe that ‘we all have a leader within us.’ But I absolutely do believe that we all have the ability – with the right support and coaching – to reach our potential and achieve all our goals. And that is a promise TAB UK will always keep: that we will do everything in our power to bring the very best out of all our members.  

Counsel of the North


Another week, another raft of stories about unicorns – companies that didn’t exist a few years ago and are now worth a billion dollars. 

(And Duolingo is one of them! Seriously, whatever happened to four years’ hard work at university?)

We do not – as yet – have a unicorn among the members of TAB UK. What we do have is a lot of members who’ve been in business for a lot of years. And that’s the point I want to make this week. 

Open the business pages and it’s the unicorns – the Duolingos and Starling Banks of this world – that grab the headlines. That’s understandable: companies and entrepreneurs who go from zero to hero sell newspapers and generate clicks. 

‘I thought I could do it better. I thought I owed it to myself to find out. I’m not in it for the short term.’ Those three sentences are not a news story. And yet they’re the story behind so many members of TAB – not just in the UK, but around the world. 

In my last post I mentioned the one TAB board I still run, which has now passed its 7th anniversary. The members of that Board illustrate my point perfectly. Why did they start their businesses? Not for money, but because they owed it to themselves. They had to find out if they could do it better. 

They accepted they were in it for the long haul. They did not have the fashionable business maxim – start it, scale it, sell it – anywhere near their to-do list. 

Part of that long haul is meeting challenges. And as Wednesday morning brought the boss of Lloyds warning of the importance of mental health issues, let’s spare a thought for the support the entrepreneur needs. 

Entrepreneurs face mental and physical challenges. They need stamina – and they need support. 

Yes, you started your business for all the right reasons. Yes, you accepted you were in it for the long haul – but nothing prepares you for being responsible for 20 mortgages. Nothing prepares you for telling Bill that the company has outgrown him. And nothing prepares you for the physical and emotional stress of running a business: of being the person who makes the final decision every time.  

That’s why I think TAB UK is so important. When I’m talking to a potential new member it’s very easy to outline the ‘obvious’ benefits of TAB – accountability, peer support, experienced entrepreneurs to bounce ideas off.

It’s much more difficult to explain those ‘hidden’ benefits – the support, empathy and understanding that are there when you really need them. I’m breaking no confidences when I say that every single member of my original Board has drawn on that support over the last seven years. 

And now to wider matters…

My blog post on January 10th was the first of the year, and the first of a new decade. I made a simple point: the pace of change over the next ten years is only going to accelerate.  

So it obviously makes sense to discuss the events of 1472. 

That was the year Edward IV set up the Council of the North: its aim was simple – to improve government control and economic prosperity and benefit all of Northern England. 

The Council was based in Yorkshire, first at Sheriff Hutton Castle, then at Sandal Castle and finally at King’s Manor in York. Henry VIII re-established the Council after the Reformation (when the North was identified with Roman Catholicism) and it was only abolished in the run-up to the Civil War. 

Could Boris I now be following in Edward IV’s footsteps? Much was made in the election campaign of the Conservatives’ commitment to spread opportunity and investment evenly throughout the UK. But was it just warm words, designed to make the ‘red wall’ crumble, or would we see some positive action? 

“Absolutely fine,” a friend said to me. “But let’s see the evidence. What they need to do is persuade Amazon or Google or Facebook to move their HQ out of London. Hartlepool maybe…” 

Well, it may not be Amazon, Google or Facebook and it may not be Hartlepool. But as I started writing this post (on Sunday evening) there was a story in the Sunday Times: ‘Boris Johnson sends the House of Lords up North.’ York is the rumoured destination, with the city apparently having moved ahead of Birmingham in the race. 

What a coup that would be – and a clear signal that the Government really does intend to make good on its promises. 

Whether the House of Lords moves to York or not it reinforces my original point. The next decade will be one of rapid change. With technological change and a workforce with a new set of demands, it will present entrepreneurs with new and ever more complex challenges. 

And that’s before we factor in Brexit…

This is my last post before the UK leaves the EU. Whichever way you voted, the negotiations with the EU – now not due to begin until March – will bring yet more uncertainty. We’re all going to face challenges we’ve never faced before: a support network like TAB UK is going to be essential for long-term success. 

…And talking of challenges, I’d better do it now. Time to book a table for lunch. Before it’s full of overweight blokes in ermine…

A Decade of Change – and a Simple Message


Good morning, Happy New Year and welcome to the new decade. 

2020 sounds like a year when we should all achieve something significant. But – as we all know – a business career is built over far more than just a year. So let’s use this first blog of the 20s to look even further ahead. 

I’ve written about the pace of change any number of times. But one thing is certain: if you thought the pace of change was fast in the last decade then it’s going to be lightning fast in the next. 

If you want proof, just look at the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Every year the industry unveils the latest developments, and every year what we could barely imagine a few years ago is there on stage. Driverless cars are making the news again this year – will any of us even be driving cars when I write this blog in January 2030? 

Another product on show at CES was a TV screen that rolls up into your ceiling. It costs $60,000 and is – in theory – for people who are ‘short of space.’ I don’t know what it’s like in Las Vegas, but here in South Milford if you can afford $60,000 for a telly, you tend not to be short of space in your lounge…

So how might all this change impact our businesses? Let me take just one ‘industry’ as an example. 

What’s been one of the big growth industries (or professions) of the last ten years? Personal trainers. As most people know, I’ve got one – and [name of dog] really enjoyed finishing off the turkey and stuffing…

But now it looks as though personal trainers could be replaced by AI – much in evidence at CES this year. Thanks to AI, machine learning and motion tracking, fitness apps are already rivalling personal trainers. Very fit young men and women have enjoyed a boom over the last 10 years: could we see their industry wiped out in the next ten? 

Quite possibly – especially when you factor in the rapid growth of companies like Peloton. And it all illustrates how fast the pace of change really is. Previously industries might have evolved over 50 years and taken another 50 to decline. That time span is shortening rapidly – and it’s really going to hit home in the next decade. 

Change will affect all our industries. AI executive coaching? It’s already here. Meet Amanda.

Personality coaching? Here’s the YouTube video

And as we read over Christmas, AI is already outperforming doctors in the diagnosis of some cancers.

So don’t think it can’t happen to you. Burying your head in the sand – thinking, ‘it won’t happen in my industry’ – is the one approach that’s guaranteed not to work. It can happen and it will happen. 

That may all sound a little gloomy. It’s the first full week of a new decade: the glass should be at least half-full. AI and machine learning are going to bring enormous benefits as well – and huge opportunities. The vast majority of us just can’t see what those opportunities are yet – which is why an open mind, a desire to go on learning and adaptability are going to be the keys to success over the next ten years. 

And now let me turn to the UK – and specifically to the General Election. My last blog was published on Friday 13th December. The results were only just in as I finished writing.

As you know I didn’t vote for Brexit and I’m not a great admirer of the Prime Minister either. But let me give credit where credit is due. The Conservatives won a majority of 80 seats with a simple message: Get Brexit Done. As Boris Johnson said at the end of the Love Actually parody. “Enough. Enough. Let’s get this done.” 

Now the dust has settled, is there a business message we can take from that ad? Two, actually. The first is that we all have things we’ve wanted to do for a long time. They’re on the long term goals list and – somehow – they’re still on it at the end of the year. 

As I said in the introduction, 2020 sounds like a significant year. So let’s all make 2020 the year we take one thing – be it business or personal – that we’ve always meant to do and, somehow, never done. Let’s lose patience with ourselves: let’s apply those six words to it: ‘Enough. Enough. Let’s get this done.’ 

The second message is yet more confirmation that talent is evenly spread – and not just throughout the UK. Boris Johnson didn’t use Saatchi and Saatchi, a ‘global communications and advertising agency with 114 offices in 76 countries and over 6,500 staff’ for the Conservatives’ social media message. He used two young New Zealanders: Sean Topham is 28 and Ben Guerin is just 24. 

The talent you’ll need over the next ten years is all around you and all over the world – and very often it will be wearing a black t-shirt and a pair of jeans…

Polls, Publishing and Plans for Next Year


What was it Jane Austen said? “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a man who has to publish a blog on Friday 13th does not want a General Election on Thursday 12th…” 

Something like that – but you have to press publish at a certain time. And, very clearly, you can’t press publish without commenting on the result of the Election. But when do you start writing? When you see the BBC exit poll? When the first result comes in from Newcastle? 

Or do you decide that the polls are going to be right for once, and get your introduction written on Tuesday afternoon? 

In the event, I did a bit of all three – and then hastily revised my estimate of the Conservative majority as the BBC exit poll and the early results confirmed a very clear win for Boris Johnson. While the final numbers are not yet in, it looks as though we are on course for a Conservative majority of 70-80 seats. 

Dodging the scrutiny  of Andrew Neil appears to have done Boris no harm at all. Not having a policy on the most important issue to face the country in the last 70 years unquestionably did Jeremy Corbyn a great deal of harm – as anyone who runs a business could have told him. You are the leader. Your job is to lead, not sit on the fence. 

Labour recorded its lowest number of seats since 1935, as large sections of the ‘red wall’ turned blue. ‘Workington Man’ – this election’s version of the mythical ‘Worcester woman’ – has swung decisively behind Boris Johnson and his simple, endlessly-repeated mantra: ‘Get Brexit Done.’ 

So, sometime around mid-afternoon today, Boris Johnson will emerge from 10 Downing Street and tell us his plans. With all 635 Conservative candidates having pledged to back his deal with the EU, we’ll be leaving the European Union on or before January 31st. Negotiations on a future trade deal will follow, and Sajid Javid will present a Budget some time in February. 

Well, I didn’t want to leave the EU, but neither did I – or any business owner I know – want to be locked in a spiral of never-ending uncertainty. We may not have the certainty I wanted, but at least we have somecertainty. There will not be another referendum this year: neither will there be another referendum on Scottish independence. 

And the next General Election won’t be until 2024 – and even then, there’s only a 50% chance of it coinciding with ‘blog Friday.’ You can relax, Ed…

…And look back on what has been a great year for TAB UK. There are now more than 50 people working with and for TAB UK. That was a significant milestone to reach and – as I have said many times – it’s a privilege to work with every single one of them. 

Our franchisees cover the UK from Rick in the South West to Helen, Chris and Jonathan in Aberdeen. Yes, there are still some gaps on the map – but we’ll fill them. 

The head office team has also grown this year – and let me use this last blog of the year to thank them all for everything they’ve done in the last 12 months. A special word, though, to Lydia and Tracey who joined this year. They’ve fitted in seamlessly and are already making a great contribution to TAB. 

There was also a personal highlight for me this year. I still run one TAB board, and this month it turns seven years old. That’s more than 80 meetings with the same small group of people. Over the seven years their businesses have grown (so have one or two waistlines…) and I hope TAB has played its part in helping to preserve the sanity of the relevant MDs. Last time I checked none of them was an alcoholic. Well, not confirmed…

Looking ahead to 2020 

So what of the coming year? 2020 sounds like an auspicious year, and there are two TAB developments I’m particularly excited about. 

First of all there’s TAB Connect, a global platform connecting all our 4,000 members worldwide. It’s live now, and 2020 is the year when it will really come to life, allowing a TAB member in North Yorkshire to connect with a TAB member in North Carolina. If you want to use a shorthand term, it’s LinkedIn just for TAB members – but it’s a lot more than that and I’m certain that it will lead not just to sharing ideas and expertise, but to business partnerships that wouldn’t otherwise have been possible. 

Closer to home, 2020 will see TAB UK roll out StratPro. This will allow us to work with the owners of bigger companies and those companies’ directors and senior managers, to ensure decisions made at the top flow down through the company as efficiently and as effectively as possible. It’s a really exciting initiative, and I’ll write a specific blog post on it early in the New Year. 

2020 will be an interesting year on a personal level as well. Around this time next year Dan, my eldest son, will be home from his first term at university. How did that happen? It’s only two months since I held his hand and took him into the reception class…

But it has happened, the time has passed and – hopefully – I’ve put it to good use. I couldn’t, though, have done it without a lot of help. To everyone who has been part of my journey this year – thank you. Have a wonderful Christmas, may 2020 bring everything you would wish for and the blog will be back – no doubt vowing to do more exercise – on Friday 10th January. 

John McDonnell and the Billionaires


It sounds like a band that plays at weddings doesn’t it? Five middle-aged guys, hair receding, waistbands straining, but still convincing themselves they’re young so long as they can rock out Layla at the new hotel just off the motorway…

Sadly not. As all of you know, John McDonnell wants to be our next Chancellor of the Exchequer, and last week he made a speech. He promised to “re-write the rules of our economy” and singled out the UK’s 151 billionaires for special treatment. “No-one,” he said, “Needs or deserves to be a billionaire.” 

Well, I don’t know any of the UK’s 151 billionaires. I do know plenty of millionaires: I also know plenty of bosses: or – as they appear to be increasingly demonised in this election campaign – ‘exploitative bosses.’ 

This particular exploitative boss is starting the notes for his blog in Exeter Airport. I’ve been down to the South West to see Rick, TAB UK’s most southerly and westerly franchisee. I’ve had a brilliant time, and met a lot of business people from the South West, many of whom were hearing about TAB for the first time – and who liked what they heard. 

Oddly, I didn’t meet any exploitative bosses. Come to think of it, I know as many ‘exploitative bosses’ as I know billionaires. 

We’re now just under two weeks away from the election. December 12th will no doubt be cold wet and dark: the polls will be open long after the sun has set. But by the time the sun rises on Friday 13th, we’ll know the outcome. At the moment it looks as though Boris Johnson will win with a working majority, which will mean we leave the European Union on or before January 31st

There are many, many points on which I disagree with Boris Johnson, not least the decision to leave the EU. 

But there are two where I do agree. Firstly he’s quite right: the only way we can have world class public services is to pay for them with a vibrant, expanding, highly-skilled economy. Secondly – and even more importantly – talent, enterprise, initiative and ambition is absolutely distributed around every region of the UK. 

That’s what I saw when I went down to the South West to meet Rick and his fellow business owners. Every single one of them wanted to build their business and contribute to their local economy. Exploitative bosses? Not a bit of it. 

They weren’t lying awake at night working out how to cheat the taxman and drive down the pay and conditions of the people who worked for them. No: they were worrying about cash flow, about being responsible for 25 mortgages, about how to tell Bill that the company has moved on and he hasn’t, about which local charity their company will support next year, about…

You get my drift. The list is endless. 

That is why I am so passionate about building TAB UK – not just because of what it can do for our members, but because of what those members of TAB can do for their local economies and communities. 

And it is why I am equally passionate about business making its voice heard in this election campaign. It is not so long ago that Liam Fox – then International Trade Secretary – made his crass comments about business owners being ‘fat, lazy and off to play golf.’ 

Could anything be further from the truth than that piece of idiocy and the idea of ‘exploitative bosses’ doing everything they can to rip off their workers? 

The problem is that Mike Ashley and Philip Green – the pantomime villains if you like – get all the headlines. And yet they are as far away from a typical TAB UK member as I am from Justin Rose or Rory McIlroy – no matter how much time I spend on the golf course, Mr Fox…

Let me end by returning to billionaires. Britain’s richest man is commonly held to be Jim Ratcliffe who – according to his Wiki entry – has a net worth of £21bn. 

Jim Ratcliffe lived in a council house up to the age of 10. He moved with his family to East Yorkshire, went to Beverley Grammar School and subsequently Birmingham University, graduating with a degree in Chemical Engineering. He added an MSc in finance before joining a US private equity group and then founding Ineos, a company that now employs 22,000 people around the world. 

I have absolutely no doubt that on the way to being worth £21bn Jim Ratcliffe had plenty of sleepless nights. There will have been a day when his business was perilously close to going under. Another day when he wondered how the hell he was going to pay the wages. He will have had to part company with ‘Bill.’ And he will have worked tirelessly at building his business – and found that, almost by accident, he has become very wealthy. 

So as the politicians continue to squabble, ordinary business owners need to tell their story. Yes, business owners want to make a success of their company. Yes, they want to provide for their families. And along the way they may well become wealthy. But that is never the prime motivator. 

Every member of TAB UK I know – from those working with Rick in Exeter to our members in Aberdeen – cares passionately about his employees and his local community. They care about paying mortgages, providing the best working conditions they can and helping every member of their team to grow. And I am proud to be associated with every single one of them. 

The Murky World of the Dark Web


I’m starting this post on Tuesday 12th November. A month today, the UK will go to the polls in the first December General Election since 1923 – and the battle lines are being very firmly drawn. 

Depending on your point of view there is now a hard right axis of Trump/Johnson/Farage that – bolstered with a clear majority in the new parliament – will deliver the hardest of hard Brexits and sell the NHS to the American drug companies by Easter. 

Or you read John McDonnell’s plans for the economy in general and your business in particular and think that nothing is too high a price to pay to avoid Jeremy Corbyn walking through the door of 10 Downing Street. 

And this morning former First Lady and Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton has waded into the debate. She is demanding that the UK government immediately publish the report into alleged Russian involvement in British politics. 

I’ll leave you to argue the rights and wrongs of that – just as I’m sure you have your own opinions on alleged Russian involvement in the 2016 Presidential race. Conspiracy theories – tales of mysterious hackers, the folly of allowing Huawei to build your 5G network – are everywhere. 

Central to many of these conspiracy theories is the so called ‘Dark Web:’ the place you go to satisfy the demands that cannot be met on the normal web. Where you search for the services that are not covered by Amazon Prime…

The Dark Web is, of course, the preserve of criminals, their customers and the law enforcement agencies that chase them. Law abiding people like you and me have nothing to fear from it – and need never go near it. 

Sadly, that’s no longer the case. We may all need to add, ‘Learn more about the Dark Web and the threat it poses to my business’ to our to-do lists. So we’d better make a start…

What exactly is the Dark Web? 

Simply put, it’s an area of the internet only accessible with specific software, such as Tor and I2P, which are designed to conceal your identity. Tor was originally set up by the US Navy to protect military intelligence: now it is widely used to protect the identity and location of millions of users.  

So is the Dark Web just for criminals? 

Well if you’re a fan of the Trump/Johnson/Farage conspiracy theory you’ll certainly view the BBC as a criminal organisation… They recently launched on the Dark Web, in a bid to beat censorship in countries like China. Facebook – another company looking to expand its reach in countries where freedom of speech is restricted – is already there. 

Neither is it true that criminals only use the Dark Web. There is plenty of criminal activity on the normal web, especially in countries where law enforcement is lax. There are also – apparently – multiple criminal forums that exist on the everyday web, but which are heavily encrypted and password protected. 

This is known as the ‘deep web’ and it’s commonly suggested that the Dark Web and the deep web account for perhaps 95% of total online content. The internet is effectively like an iceberg: the bulk of it is hidden from normal users. 

I thought they were trying to take down the Dark Web? 

Yes: the most famous – or notorious – marketplace was Silk Road, and that was closed down by the FBI and Europol in 2014, with its founder sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. There have been other successful ‘take down’ operations since then and, on the face of it, the good guys are making progress. 

To be successful criminal marketplaces need the same as any other business: they need to gain trust, they need to build a reputation and they need to deliver what they promise to deliver. Very clearly, the more their activities are disrupted the more they will struggle to do this. 

So should we still worry? 

Sadly, the answer is ‘yes.’ Criminal activity is constantly evolving and anything that can be traded for profit is a target. That includes usernames, passwords, bank account and credit card details, intellectual property and employee information. And once data like intellectual property is gone it is gone for good. You find out someone in say, China, has stolen your intellectual property: let’s be blunt, there is virtually nothing you can do about it. 

Worryingly, it takes a business an average nine months to discover that a data breach has occurred. During that time everyone is at risk: the employer, the staff and the customers. And, of course, the cash. 

That’s why 2020 is going to be a year when taking your security seriously – checking your security as frequently as you check your KPIs – is going to be crucial. The name of your dog will no longer do as your password. And let’s stop something that is all too common in business: having company information sent to personal e-mail addresses ‘just because it’s a lot easier.’ 

If 95% of the internet is hidden from normal users, it is logical to assume that somewhere within that 95% are threats to your business. 

So you have not won the lottery you didn’t enter: there is not a parcel you didn’t order waiting for you at the airport and – hopefully – your business did not have an entry in that international trade directory you’ve never heard of. 

Meanwhile, the Labour Party is claiming it is the victim of a cyber attack from Russia and Brazil. Not so, replies the National Cyber Security Centre. As I said, mysterious hackers everywhere. Just do everything you can to make sure they don’t knock on your door…

Learning from an Old Greek


Ah, politicians. Don’t you just love them? 

First they give us 3½ years of uncertainty and inactivity, then they force me to re-write the introduction to the blog. 

Whichever way you voted in the Referendum I doubt that any of us – reflecting on the morning of June 24th 2016 – could have imagined that the issue would still be unresolved nearly 3½ years later. And it looked set to continue…

So I wrote my introduction for this week along those lines. More uncertainty for business, nothing settled until January 31st at the earliest, no business could operate in such a way…

Damn it, I even used a couple of quotes from Shakespeare! 

‘Your own fault for writing early in the week, Ed,’ you’ll say – and you’re probably right. But at least now there is some certainty on the horizon. The General Election will be held on December 12th. Whatever anyone claims, the Election will be about Brexit, the battle lines are drawn and I suspect, and hope, that it will produce a clear result – and finally, some certainty for our businesses. 

And now let me – if only for the sake of my own sanity – turn to something much more uplifting. Sunday, in case you missed it, was National Mentoring Day. 

Mentor was originally the adviser of the young Telemachus in Homer’s Odyssey. Today we all instinctively understand the term – someone who shares his knowledge and advice with a younger colleague. 

As well as mentoring each other at the monthly meetings, one of the things that gives me the most satisfaction in business is how often I see TAB members sharing their knowledge and experience. That doesn’t just happen in TAB UK – I see it wherever I go, in Europe and the US, and I’m absolutely certain it happens in every other country in the TAB family. 

Credit where credit is due. It was an article in City AM that brought National Mentoring Day to my attention. In the article the author shared his ‘top tips’ for mentoring. Let me highlight three that are always relevant. 

“Just do stuff. Sometimes, to get momentum into your business or your life you should stop thinking too deeply and just get on with it.” 

We all know the phrase ‘paralysis by analysis.’ We’ve all heard Tony Soprano say ‘the wrong decision is better than indecision.’ Your plans will never be perfect: it will never go exactly as you forecast. You need to make a start and adapt as you go along. As I’ve written many times on this blog, we’re living in the age of ‘Ready, fire, aim’ – not ‘Ready, aim, fire.’ 

As I have also written many times (‘countless’ is probably a more accurate word) never forget the KPIs. “Failing to focus on the numbers and key business metrics when times are good.” 

Business would be so easy without human nature. The orders are coming in, the bank balance is moving in the right direction. It is all too easy to think that the KPIs can be skipped this month, that they’re no longer as important as they once were. Nothing could be further from the truth. 

Even in the good times the KPIs are crucial. Even if your bank balance is moving inexorably upwards, is that wholly down to one client or customer? Things can change very, very quickly.

Let me choose just one more. “Not unlocking the incredible potential in people. Not asking for help.” 

It’s cited in the article as a mistake that people keep repeating. And it’s right – we all go through stages in our business careers where, for whatever reason, we don’t simply say, ‘I could do with some help.’ But I think it goes further than that. As you build your business the team around you will be your most valuable asset. 

Set them free. And you will find that they are incredibly talented. So delegate, delegate, delegate and – as I wrote a few weeks ago – do everything you can to make sure they are working in the areas where they are the most productive. 

One final comment – possibly from my personal soapbox! Mentoring is absolutely about sharing experiences and advice. What it’s not about is being all-knowing and all-powerful. 

It’s tempting, when someone is hanging on your every word, to believe you know everything there is to know about everything. (As all parents realise, the only people who really do know everything about everything are teenagers…)

The best mentors – and I’m pleased to include my TAB colleagues in this – know  their limits. They’re not afraid to say, ‘This is my area of expertise. But if you want to know about X then I’m not the person to speak to. But I can introduce you to someone…’ 

If a mentor does stray outside his area of expertise, the person being mentored won’t know that. They’ll still rely on the mentor’s judgement: that’s why the best mentors are honest about the limits of their knowledge. 

That’s it for this week – and where did the year go? Here we are at November 1st which – as many of you will know – is All Saints’ Day. But just as Sunday was National Mentoring Day, November 1st has a few other ‘days’ going for it. 

November 1st is Cook for your Pets Day. It’s World Vegan Day. My 900 words may not be a major contribution to literature but it’s also Authors’ Day. And November 1st is Love your Lawyer Day – so I should have at least two or three happy readers…

“You Can’t Pay too Much for Great People…”


Good morning – and do you by any chance have a spare £145,000 lying around? 

Why? Because – according to a recent article in City AM – that’s how much a shortage of skilled employees will cost each UK SME next year. 

It is a frightening figure. But, say the recruitment firm who carried out the relevant research, it is an inevitable consequence of a shrinking talent pool and ‘increased digitalisation’ of the workforce. 

This ‘skills gap’ is manifesting itself in the UK’s productivity crisis – still well below the level of its major competitors – and all of us running businesses are going to pay the price. 

As most of you know, I still run a TAB board. We had our regular monthly meeting last week and the ‘battle for talent’ was a phrase on everyone’s lips. 

“You can’t pay too much for great people,” one of the board members said – as you’ll see from the title, I immediately stole it – and six sage heads nodded their approval. 

I was thinking about the phrase as I headed home. There’s always been a battle for talent, especially for senior people who help to steer the business – but right now that ‘battle’ feels like it is being fought more keenly then ever. 

You won’t be surprised to hear that one of the reasons cited for the shrinking talent pool was Brexit – and here a note on timings might be appropriate. Commitments dictate that most of this post was written early in the week commencing October 14th. In between writing and publication there will be the EU summit and – I suspect – plenty of late-night negotiation. My apologies in advance if the post has been overtaken by events come publication day. 

But whatever happens in Brussels, Dublin and London the fundamental point remains the same. There is a shrinking pool of talent, and if your business is going to prosper in the medium to long term you need to get your hands on some of that talent. 

So what are the key skills and characteristics we’ll all be looking for as we hire new people?

As it says in the City AM article, “At a time when change is the only constant, adaptability and resilience will be the key soft skills to develop.” 

Resilience was something we discussed at that TAB board meeting. Looking around the table – at people who had been round the block a couple of times – resilience could be taken for granted. But resilience is a going to be a precious commodity in the next few months especially if – as seems entirely possible – we see a recession. 

What about the new people you’re going to recruit? The chances are that they won’t have been round the block a couple of times. Statistically they’re far more likely to be from the millennial generation. 

It’s too easy to use a pejorative term like ‘snowflake.’ But there’s no doubt that there is a generational difference. Millennial employees want to feel that they belong, that they’re making a difference and that the company they work for shares their values. And as I intimated in the last post on climate change, that feeling is only going to increase. 

Fortunately, the millennial generation does come with one advantage. By and large they have grown up with – and embrace – the idea that they are not going to have a ‘job for life.’ They’re open to different career paths and – if you choose the right person – they like to learn. 

I have no idea how our MPs are going to vote on Saturday morning when they’re faced with what looks like a ‘deal or no deal’ scenario – but whichever way they vote, it will herald a period of significant change. 

That may be in markets, it may be in legislation or in the labour supply – or quite possibly all three. So members of your team who are open-minded, adapt quickly and who very definitely see the glass as half-full are going to be worth their weight in gold. 

One final comment: let me reinforce the point I made a month ago. Going forward it will be absolutely essential that your key people are doing what they are best at – and that everything else is delegated. 

You’re paying a lot for those ‘great people’ – so they need to be working where they’re making the most difference. Which means that everyone’s ‘not to do’ list will be every bit as important as their tried and trusted ‘to do’ list. 

If you haven’t done yours yet you need to make a start…

The Climate is Changing: and We’ll have to Change with it


Last week in City AM there was an article on the big banks. Not on the threats they face from fintech. Not on the gaping holes that will appear in our high streets as the traditional bank branches inevitably close. No, it was an opinion piece: How Banks should be looking at the Climate Change Challenge.

Meanwhile the previous Friday had seen schoolchildren around the world come out on strike to raise awareness of climate change – and call on the older generation to do more about it. 

Climate change is front and centre. Whether it is fires in the Amazon or floods in North Yorkshire it’s on virtually every news bulletin. 

I suspect there will be the full range of opinions among people reading this blog. There’ll be those who believe – as I do – that climate change is entirely man-made. There will be those who believe the Earth simply warms up and cools down and we just happened to start measuring as it was warming up.

There will be people who regard Greta Thunberg as the outstanding young woman of her generation. There’ll be those who see her as the modern equivalent of the medieval priestess, wandering from village to village claiming to have seen a vision from God. 

For the purpose of this blog, what you believe doesn’t matter. Climate change – or, if you like, the perception of climate change – does matter, because we as business owners are going to have to deal with it. 

If you go back 15 months to June 2018 – and what a calm, measured time in British politics June 2018 now appears – the Commons Environmental Audit Committee was recommending that climate risk reporting should be mandatory by 2022. That large companies and ‘asset owners’ (such as pension funds) should be compelled to report on their exposure to climate change risks and opportunities. 

Mary Creagh, the Labour MP for Wakefield who is Chair of the Committee, said, “Long term decision making must be factored into financial decision making.” 

Back in June 2018 I suspect most people reading this blog would have read that report, shrugged and moved on. They didn’t come under the Government’s definition of a large company, they didn’t run a pension fund and while climate change was important, it wasn’t quite as important as meeting the year’s targets. 

But events have moved very quickly. Whoever is Prime Minister this time next year is going to have climate change right at the top of their agenda. And never mind large companies and pension funds – I suspect it’s going to impact all our businesses. 

There will, of course, be people who say, ‘Why bother?’ At first sight the case is tempting. After all, China has produced more steel in the past two years than the UK has ever produced. Clearly producing all that steel must have had some environmental impact. 

Pollution in our oceans? More than 90% of all the rubbish polluting our seas comes from just 10 rivers. The Yangtze alone pours an estimated 1.5 million metric tons of plastic into the Yellow Sea each year.

So as someone recently said to me, “Paying 5p for a plastic bag ain’t going to make a whole lot of difference, Ed.” 

Statistically, it isn’t. But just because pollution is happening on a huge scale in some parts of the world, it doesn’t mean we can ignore smaller scale problems at home. 

What the UK does have is a voice – and the impact that voice can have is huge. But if we are to have any influence, we have to put our money where our mouth is: we have to walk the climate change talk. 

That brings me back to the politicians. I’m writing this on Wednesday afternoon, just after Boris Johnson’s conference speech. He referenced climate change and the UK’s move to being carbon neutral any number of times in the speech. He may or may not be Prime Minister this time next year: but if he’s replaced, it won’t be by someone who puts less emphasis on climate change. 

Exactly the opposite. 

If one-in-three businesses don’t have any plan in place for Brexit, then I suspect that barely one in 300 has given any thought to an annual ‘climate change audit.’ 

But I would wager a Newcastle United season ticket – and there’s a currency that makes Bitcoin look stable and secure – that five years from now we’ll all be submitting a lot more than our accounts to Companies House. I think an annual report on your energy use/commitment to green energy/exposure to climate risk is inevitable. 

…As are more protests. Someone asked me recently if I’d be prepared to let the TAB head office staff have time off work to protest against climate change. Make no mistake, climate change is going to present plenty of issues for business owners to deal with. It would be a good idea to start thinking and planning now. 

Interestingly, my youngest son asked his head teacher the ‘could I have time off’ question. Could he miss a few lessons so he could join in the protests? “Of course, Rory,” the head replied. “You can go at lunchtime when you’d be playing football.” 

He swiftly re-considered…