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. 

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 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…

Face to Face with the Future


Last month brought the news that Chinese company Megvii was planning a listing on the Hong Kong stock market. Well, nothing unusual in that: despite the current pro-democracy protests, Chinese companies often list on the Hong Kong market. 

But who are Megvii? As you’ll know if you clicked the link, Megvii are ‘a world class AI company with core competency in deep learning.’ 

But what Megvii are best known for is facial recognition. They are the makers of the Face++ system, currently thought to be more accurate than rival systems from Amazon and IBM. 

So far, Face++ has largely been used in smartphones and laptops. The Chinese ride-hailing app Didi uses it so that passengers can check their driver’s identity. And, inevitably, it is used in dating apps to cut out all that tedious swiping (left or right? I haven’t a clue…)

But according to the company, most of the revenue for Face++ comes from ‘smart city’ applications – which largely means facial recognition and security at workplaces, schools and major events. It has also been reported that the technology (along with similar apps) has been used to help make thousands of arrests in China, and has been pitched to police departments around the world. 

Facial recognition is going to have big implications – for all of us as individuals, and for the businesses we run. But maybe we should take a step back, and ask a rather more basic question…

How does facial recognition work? 

Put simply, facial recognition is a way of recognising a human face through technology, ‘mapping’ features from a photograph or a video. It then compares that information with a database of known faces. 

Everyone, therefore, has a ‘facial signature’ based on ‘facial landmarks’ such as the distance between your eyes, or the distance from your forehead to your chin. One system identifies 68 of these ‘landmarks,’ giving everyone a unique signature, contained in what I suspect is a very long mathematical formula. If you’d like a little more detail, here’s one of any number of videos on Facebook. 

The continued development of facial recognition is inevitable: I have seen one estimate that suggests it will become a $7.7bn a year industry in 2022, up from $4bn in 2017. I’d say that was a very conservative estimate. As the world becomes ever-more security conscious, facial recognition is going to be increasingly pervasive. 

Are we already on the database? 

Very possibly: at least 117m Americans already have images of their face on one or more police databases. The FBI apparently has access to a database of 412m facial images for searches: given my recent trip to Denver, presumably one of those faces is Ed Reid Esq. 

So there are bound to be more and more arguments about facial recognition and its intrusion into our lives. It’s yet one more thing that chips away at our privacy. 

But on the other hand I can see the arguments in favour. Yes, security: but also – on a more practical level – speed. No more having to swipe the card you hang round your neck to walk through a door. And cash? Forget it. Just stand in front of the vending machine, it reads your face, delivers your sandwich and debits your account. Not so much Brave New World as very convenient new world. 

Facial recognition in the business world 

Earlier this month there was a controversy about the use of facial recognition in the UK. Developer Argent is working on a 67 acre site in the King’s Cross area – and it is using facial recognition technology. The company say they’re using it ‘to ensure public safety’ and that it is simply ‘one of a number of detection and tracking methods.’ 

Argent insist there are ‘sophisticated systems’ in place to protect privacy. Other businesses and organisations in the area – including Google and Central St Martin’s College – are less than convinced. Meanwhile a development at Canary Wharf is also going to trial the system…

What about business on a smaller scale? Your business and my business? Right now facial recognition will be a very long way down the agenda for most of us, but it’s not going to go away. And it will become more widespread as the cost – inevitably – comes down. 

As this article in Forbes points out, facial recognition has the potential to be a ‘friend or foe’ for business. As with so many modern developments, it seems to have an equal capacity for good or ill. 

If you’re ever going to employ facial recognition in your business (and my guess is that many of us will) then you will have some big ethical questions to answer – from your own staff to your customers to the wider public your business engages with. 

It would certainly help to have some regulatory frameworks in place. As Forbes comments – and as the King’s Cross development illustrates – ‘currently describing the field like the Wild West feels like a disservice to the Wild West.’ 

So proactive thought and guidance from our government would go a long way. After all, it’s not like they’ve got anything else to deal with this week…

A New TAB Member joins TAB York


Good morning – and welcome to time travel. Jump aboard the TAB Tardis and travel back in time with me. It’s August 2016 and I have just introduced a new member to one of the TAB York boards…

Ed: So here’s your first chance, Theresa. Outline your problem and let’s see what advice the other members can offer

Theresa: Here’s my problem. I’ve just been made CEO of this big company – GB plc it’s called, you might have heard of it. The shareholders have made a decision: I don’t agree with it but I have to implement it. Or I’m supposed to. That’s what the last CEO promised but he left in a huff. The problem is the board of directors are almost certainly going to be against the decision as well.

Lee: OK, Theresa. Let’s try and quantify the size of the problem. How many shareholders?

Theresa: 17.4 million

David: And how many directors?

Theresa: 650

David: Wow. That’s a big board of directors.

Theresa: I do have this thing called a ‘cabinet.’ Supposed to make executive decisions.

Lee: Did you appoint this ‘cabinet?’

Theresa: Yes

David: Great – so they’re all going to support you?

Theresa: No. 50% of them disagree with me.

Ed: Any more questions, chaps?

Lee: Last one; what’s the timeframe? How long do you have to sort it out? Four weeks? Six weeks?

Theresa: I’m thinking of three years

David: Three years? Well, with respect, Theresa, that’s madness. You can’t take three years to make a decision. No-one in business can take three years to make a decision. I mean, your company is going to be overtaken by events. Ed here is always writing about the pace of change. Taking three years to make a decision would be … well, I can’t even put it into words

Ed: Lee? You’re always incisive on this sort of thing

Lee: Well, one thing’s obvious. And you have to accept it, Theresa. You simply cannot please everyone. If you try and do that then you’ll get nowhere. If there’s one thing everyone round this table has learned it’s that the job of a leader is to lead. And sometimes that means unpopular decisions.

David: Lee’s right. And you have to establish your red lines. Lines you simply cannot cross. And you have to tell the truth. Like Lee says, you’re going to be unpopular but if you tell the truth you will at least be respected. Try and please everyone and it really will take three years… (general laughter around the TAB table at the ludicrous thought of three years)

I suspect the history books will not be kind to Theresa May. Neither will the management theory books. And neither were Wednesday morning’s newspaper headlines as I made a start on this week’s post…

We’re in crisis admits May, as she seeks Brexit delay

Cabinet at war as May begs for Brextra time

And, most damningly the Mail, a paper which has recently swung round to supporting May’s deal, called it 1,000 Wasted Days

Yes, as I write it is exactly 1,000 days since the UK voted to leave the EU and I doubt that anyone would claim that we have made progress. It is simply inconceivable that a business could waste 1,000 days. We all know what the result would be after just 100 days of inaction – ‘It’s March 20th, love. A year today that the receivers walked in.’

I may not wholly agree with Tony Soprano’s wisdom – ‘more is lost by indecision than a wrong decision’ – but what the current situation illustrates is that you cannot kick the can down the road indefinitely.

Getting EUsed to Making Decisions

We are all familiar with the old maxim that if you do something for 21 days it becomes a habit. Apparently new research from the University of London contradicts that: the scientists there say that it takes 66 days for something to become a habit. Whether it is 21 days or 66 days or even a little longer, I think we can all agree that if you have consistently done something for 1,000 days then it isn’t just a habit, it is part of your DNA.

Leaders simply cannot delay decisions. Yes, certain things in business take a long time. From the day it was first mooted that I might take over TAB UK to the day Mags and I completed the deal probably took as long as Brexit has currently taken. But from day one, we knew what we wanted to achieve. Yes, progress was sometimes slow – sometimes it was agonisingly slow – but we always knew what we were trying to do and every decision we took was with that one goal in mind.

Everyone who reads this blog knows that I voted to Remain in the EU. I still think that was the correct decision. But I believe in democracy and I accepted the outcome. What I don’t think anyone in the UK – outside Parliament – can accept is that 1,000 days after the vote we have not the slightest idea how it will turn out, or what we are trying to achieve.

But, as always, there is a lesson to be learned. And that is – as ‘David’ and ‘Lee’ pointed out – decisions have to be taken. And if you’re reading the blog then the chances are that you have to make them. The decision you make may, in the short term, make you unpopular. You may lose some support, you may face criticism.

But as our Prime Minister shows us, it is nothing to the support you will lose and the level of unpopularity you will experience if your only ambition is to kick the can endlessly down the road.

A New TAB Member leaves TAB EUork

Meanwhile, back in York…

Theresa: So we have made a firm commitment that the latest extension my company is seeking will not go beyond June 30th at which point the deal will be done

David: Which deal?

Theresa: Well, I’m not sure. Everyone is still voting against my deal

Lee: And these people you want to do the deal with – what do they say?

Theresa: They say I can only have until May 23rd

David: So you still don’t know what you want? Or when you can achieve it? And that’s taken the best part of three years?

Lee: Well, at least you’ll do the decent thing and accept responsibility. That’s what real leaders do

Theresa: Are you mad? I’ve just made a speech saying it’s everyone’s fault but mine. Don’t you people know anything about running a company?


Ed Reid – MD of TAB UK

Read more of Ed’s Blogs here:

Trouble Down Under – and what it can teach us


Monday March 26th

I’ve been writing the blog for nearly eight years now, and for the first time ever I’m going to split it into two halves: a game of two halves you might say as, not for the first time, I’m using sport as an analogy for business.

Almost no-one reading the blog – at least in the UK – can fail to be aware of the current controversy surrounding the Australian cricket team. But for those of you in Europe and the US, let me briefly summarise.

Australia are currently playing a test series in South Africa: to describe it as acrimonious is an understatement. At the weekend the series stood at 1-1, with the third test being played in Cape Town. South Africa were ahead in the game and batting in their second innings – at which point Cameron Bancroft, the newest member of the Australian team, reached into the pocket of his cricket flannels. TV cameras around the ground filmed him looking remarkably guilty as he paid the ball some extravagant attention (with sandpaper, as it later turned out).

I won’t go into the intricacies of swing bowling. Bancroft was tampering with the ball to give his team an unfair advantage. But this wasn’t the action of a lone player: this was a plot hatched by the senior members of the team: “the leadership group” as they were described.

Australian captain Steve Smith and Bancroft quickly admitted their cheating – and confessed that at the very least, the captain and David Warner, the vice-captain, had encouraged Bancroft to tamper with the ball.

05BE21A6000003E8-0-image-a-1_1522517784385

…And that’s why I’m splitting the blog in two. The Australian Cricket Board are to hold an immediate enquiry. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has expressed his outrage. Perhaps most tellingly, veteran Aussie cricket commentator Jim Maxwell has been virtually reduced to tears on air.

At this point, what would a business do? Two of your senior executives have admitted cheating. They have damaged your worldwide reputation. They’ve brought into question your previous successes which – quite naturally – people are saying were gained through cheating. And to cap it all, they got a junior member of the company to do their dirty work.

But hang on. Both the executives have a worldwide reputation. One of them is perhaps your best performer for 50 years. Dismissing them will seriously weaken your company: there are simply no ready-made replacements.

No business that wanted – or deserved – to be taken seriously would hesitate. Smith and Warner would be instantly dismissed. Bancroft would be given a savage reprimand but he’d keep his job. And then the questions would start. If the two execs were conspiring, was the director they report to aware of it? Given their close working relationship he must have been aware of what they were planning. So how high up the organisation does the rot go?

That is exactly where Cricket Australia now find themselves. Many of us have been in the close atmosphere of a dressing room at some stage in our lives: if a plot was being hatched, everyone in the team would have been aware of it. I find it inconceivable that the coach, Darren Lehmann, didn’t know. So how does the Board react to the cheating? And make no mistake, it is cheating every bit as much as an athlete taking steroids is cheating.

Thursday April 5th

So now we know: all three players were sent home from South Africa. Smith and Warner have been banned for a year, Bancroft for nine months. Coach Darren Lehmann was found not to have known anything – but has resigned anyway.

Both Smith and Warner have now performed the modern act of contrition – the tearful press conference – and have accepted their bans. Warner accepts that he is unlikely to ever play for Australia again. I’m not so sure – he’s only 31 and 12 months from now will still be one of the best opening batsmen in the world. Steve Smith is only 28 and will unquestionably be back in the team. Will he be captain again? I wouldn’t bet against it.

We can all argue about the length of the ban. As Michael Vaughan posted on Twitter, you suspect that Mr Lawyer and Mr QC were involved, and it is telling that neither player has sought to challenge their ban. And the dust seems to have settled remarkably quickly…

Are there any business lessons we can learn from Sandpapergate? I think there are two – and one lesson we can learn from Cricket Australia (not a sentence I thought I’d ever write) is the importance of acting decisively.

I’ve written previously about corporate cock-ups – United Airlines and Ryanair spring to mind – and one thing that unquestionably made the situation worse for the companies was that they firstly tried to defend that they’d done, and then they dithered. Even when they clearly didn’t have a leg to stand on, neither company would apologise with good grace. So Cricket Australia have acted swiftly, the players have accepted the bans and the focus of attention turns elsewhere.

The second lesson is that pressure makes you do stupid things. What on earth were Smith and Warner thinking? A disgraced businessman can disappear into the wilderness for a while and come back with a different company. Steve Smith cannot disappear and come back playing for Pakistan.

There is pressure in business every bit as much as there is pressure in sport – and just as in sport, it can lead to stupid decisions. For the entrepreneur, that pressure very often comes from loneliness – from having no-one to speak to about the stresses of running your own business. That is one of TAB’s great strengths: you are never alone. There is always someone there to speak to, always a friend who will allow you to release the pressure – and who will occasionally say, “Hang on, sport. That may not be the best decision you’ve ever made…”

Carillion: Incompetence on an Industrial Scale


Well, I’ve been through the post three times – yes, home and work. Checked my e-mails. Facebook, obviously… And it’s not arrived. Clearly an administrative oversight. Can’t get the staff I expect. So for yet another year I won’t be going to the World Economic Forum, the annual meeting of the great and good in the Swiss resort of Davos.

But tempting as it is to write about it instead – to spend the next 800 words with Theresa May, Donald Trump and Elton John’s speech on ‘5 Leadership Lessons from my Darkest Hours’ the real story right now is the collapse of Carillion.

Carillion

Like all big companies, Carillion had a strap line: ‘Making tomorrow a better place.’ As everyone now knows, the company went into liquidation last Monday with debts of £1.5bn and a pension shortfall of at least £600m – so for Carillion, there is no tomorrow. For the handful of hedge fund managers who made millions out of betting against the company tomorrow may not be a better place but it will certainly be a richer place.

But for the thousands of Carillion staff, and many, many small businesses, tomorrow looks anything but a better place. I have absolute sympathy for every single member of Carillion’s staff – with the exception of the directors – but in this article I want to concentrate on the 30,000 small businesses that will be impacted by Carillion’s collapse.

Carillion was created in July 1999 by a demerger from Tarmac (which was originally founded in 1903). With the Governments of David Cameron and Theresa May continuing the Blair/Brown practice of using the private sector as the supplier of services to the public sector, Carillion was effectively the Government’s ‘go-to’ contractor.

And yet there was plenty of hard – and anecdotal – evidence that the company was in deep trouble. In 2017 it issued three profit warnings: there was also plenty of gossip.

I have not previously used the comments column of the Daily Mail as a source, but two replies to a recent piece on Carillion are worth repeating:

Carillion have been shaky for ages. We were asked if we would undertake a multimillion pound project [for them] as a sub-contractor. Based on some reliable info we said no – thankfully, or their crash and non-payment would have taken us down too.

[They] have been using ‘dodgy’ business practices for years. Undercutting on quotes to the point where competitors know the figure is unsustainable. Writing that piece Mail City Editor Alex Brummer called Carillion a ‘giant Ponzi scheme…’

Effectively Carillion was using the cash flow from their latest contract to paper over the cracks – or fill the black hole, choose your metaphor – from the previous contract. Ultimately – like Mr Ponzi’s investment scheme – that was unsustainable.

Did anyone pay attention to the profit warnings and the dark mutterings? Yes, the hedge funds did. Carillion was ‘the most heavily bet-against company on the stock market’ and the hedge funds will apparently profit to the tune of £300m from the company’s collapse.

Sadly, Her Majesty’s Government did not pay any attention. Despite the profit warnings and the gossip the Government continued to award contracts to Carillion. For example, a week after the first profits warning the Department of Transport announced that Carillion would partner another construction company on a £1.4bn contract as part of HS2.

There was another profits warning in September of last year – swiftly followed by another key infrastructure contract, awarded at a time when Carillion’s CEO and finance director were both leaving. The Government may not be to blame for Carillion’s collapse but it has left senior ministers looking at best naïve and at worst incompetent.

It has also left them with the lot of explaining to do to the owners of small businesses. ‘It’s got 450 Government contracts, the company must be alright’ is a not unreasonable deduction to make.

But now one industry group estimates that up to 30,000 firms are owed money by Carillion, with the firm having spent £952m with local suppliers in 2016. Clearly many small companies will face uncertain futures and/or will need to consider laying off staff to reduce costs. Carillion may have employed 20,000 people in the UK but the 30,000 firms owed money will have employed considerably more. There are real fears of a ‘domino effect’ among smaller companies, with liquidators PricewaterhouseCoopers saying they will not pay any bills for goods or services supplied before the liquidation date of Monday January 15th. Carillion’s creditors have already been warned in court documents that they are likely to receive less than 1p for every pound owed to them.

Bluntly, that is a disgraceful state of affairs. I am trying to keep calm about this but Carillion captures so much of what is wrong with British business – and which the Government could so easily put right. It’s not just the continuing award of contracts, there is also the small matter of Carillion’s terms of business – 120 days.

I’ve used this line before but it bears repeating. When the boys were little they’d occasionally do something and we’d say, “No, you can’t do that. It is just plain wrong.”

That’s how I feel about 120 day payment terms. It is just plain wrong. At best it is asking small business to finance big business and at worst it is pure and simple exploitation. ‘Do the work in January, send the invoice at the end of that month and we’ll pay you at the end of May.’

Back in September 2016 I took Liam Fox – the Secretary of State for International Trade – to task for his description of small business owners: ‘fat, lazy and off to play golf.’ No, Mr Fox, they are anything but ‘fat, lazy and off to play golf.’ They are trying to plug a hole in their cash flow that your Government could fix with one simple piece of legislation. And some of them are wondering how they’re going to save the business they’ve built from the effects of a corporate crash: one that could have been avoided by a Government with an ounce of business acumen.

Some of the smaller companies affected by the debacle will be TAB members. Carillion will unquestionably be one of the problems brought to future Board meetings.

But amid the rubble there is a silver lining – and that silver lining is the meetings of The Alternative Board, and the accumulated wisdom of your colleagues round the table. ‘We’re thinking of signing a contract with X’ is a phrase I’ve heard any number of times. And on a few occasions I’ve also heard that intake of breath and seen the slow shake of the head – the one the garage mechanic used when you asked if your first car could be fixed – and every time it has proved invaluable.

You’ll never be able to take out insurance against the greed of big business and the incompetence of the Government, but your colleagues around the TAB table are the next best thing.

Negotiating with Friends: How we got it Right


Negotiation is very rarely about the short term. It’s an area where you really need to think ‘win/win’ because nine times out ten you’re going to have an ongoing relationship with the person across the table. So don’t set out to ‘screw’ someone: in the long run that attitude is unlikely to be profitable.

That was what I said last week when I was discussing the general principles of negotiation. ‘Think win/win. Nine times out of ten you’re going to have an ongoing relationship.’ But that becomes even more true when you’re negotiating with a friend – as I did when I bought TAB UK from Paul Dickinson and Jo Clarkson.

“Never do business with a friend,” is an old business maxim – and it’s probably saved a lot of friendships – but sometimes doing business with friends and, ultimately, negotiating with them is inevitable.

“Loan oft loses both itself and friendship,” said Polonius, giving advice to his son Laertes before he set sail for France. Well negotiation can do exactly the same: the negotiations can flounder and the friendship can be ruined. Worse still, the negotiations can apparently ‘succeed.’ And then one party gradually realises he’s been ripped off: that he’s been taken advantage of by someone he previously considered a friend. Not any more…

The negotiations to buy TAB UK were long and complex: there were two people involved on both sides, plus accountants, bankers, lawyers – and our respective families.

As Mags and I sat across the table from Paul and Jo I had four priorities:

  • I wanted to buy the UK franchise for The Alternative Board: I’d talked it over with Dav – at length – and I absolutely believed it was the right thing for me, and for my family
  • But like any business deal, I wanted to buy it at the right price
  • I wanted to make sure the negotiations did nothing to damage TAB UK going forward
  • And I wanted to retain the friendship of two people I liked, respected and valued greatly as business colleagues and confidantes.

So how did we set out to achieve that? There were three key rules that guided us through the negotiations and which protected and strengthened our friendship.

  • First and foremost, we set the stage. Both sides were absolutely open about what they wanted to achieve in the negotiations. We constantly asked ourselves a simple question: ‘Is this fair to you? Is it fair to us? And is it in the best long-term interests of TAB UK?’ That question was, if you like, the mission statement of the negotiations
  • …Which inevitably brings me to one of Stephen Covey’s ‘7 Habits.’ “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” There was a real willingness to see the other side’s point of view. If you do find yourself negotiating with a friend it’s vital to see the negotiations from both sides of the table
  • So there was plenty of goodwill on both sides. But even with all that goodwill, there were bumps in the road: that was inevitable with such complex negotiations. The key was to look ahead and anticipate problems, to be open about setbacks and to clear up any misunderstandings as quickly as possible.

The net result? A very successful negotiation and both sides happy with the outcome. Was it easy? No, but then readers of this blog don’t need telling that few things that are worthwhile are easy. Ultimately, I’m absolutely delighted with the outcome – I’m equally delighted that Paul and Jo will be friends for life.

As it’s Easter, let me finish on a slightly lighter note – and a warning, if you’re planning to spend four days in the garden…

When I’m writing these posts I always – irrespective of how well I know the subject – check with Google, just to see if the Harvard Business Review or one of the entrepreneur magazines has a different perspective. And I’m increasingly astonished at how few words I need to type in before Google guesses what I’m after.

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Or I was – until this morning. How do you negotiate with I tapped in. Before I could add a friend, Google completed the sentence for me. How do you negotiate with a Sim eating plant? Seriously? That’s the most popular query about negotiation?

Well, fair enough. I always preach the value of knowing and researching your market…

So for those of you whose Easter might otherwise be ruined by the death of your carefully-nurtured Sims, I present perhaps the most useful advice ever offered on this blog. (Warning: the video contains violent scenes which some readers might find distressing. It also contains a teenage son doing nothing while his father is eaten by a tomato plant…)

Nice Guys Finish First


On Monday I had the idea for this week’s post. As you’ll see from the title, it was ‘Nice Guys Finish First.’ And then came Tuesday, and President Elect Donald J. Trump. Very clearly, not a case of a nice guy finishing first…

But while this isn’t a politics blog and I’m not going to stray into the respective merits of the two candidates, let me draw just one business lesson from the campaign. For all the speeches and all the appearances with celebrities, I simply cannot pinpoint Hillary Clinton’s central message.

Contrast that with ‘Make America Great Again’ or – if you want a Democratic equivalent – ‘Yes we can’ in 2008. Define your market, ladies and gentlemen, and give them a simple message.

I thought both candidates were unimpressive: as one commentator put it, Trump was simply “the imperfect candidate” who had “the perfect message.” But it wasn’t their qualities that depressed me, as much as the tone of the debate. Like our referendum – and the rancour that continues after it – the presidential contest was bitter, divisive and, at times, downright nasty.

Does it have to be that way? In politics, maybe it does. Maybe social media means that a murky business will inevitably get ever murkier.

Will business go the same way? There’ll be plenty of wannabee Donald Trumps waking up this morning – although I do like the story that he’d have been even richer if he’d simply invested in index funds

Nevertheless, the popular stereotype remains the ruthless entrepreneur: the man best portrayed by Gordon Gekko in Wall Street, where nice guys finish last and lunch is for wimps.

But as I look round the TAB boardroom table I don’t see Gordon Gekko – or Donald Trump. You might argue that it’s self-selecting: that I wouldn’t want to work with people like that and they wouldn’t want to work with me. But I think it goes deeper than that.

When I first started this blog I jotted down a few notes on how I wanted to come across. I’ve written about the list before but it bears repeating:

Nice guy – loves his family – knowledgeable about business – could help you – good experience working with him

I wonder now if I was subconsciously defining the clients I wanted. As I look round a TAB table what do I see?

Interesting people who are interested in others – who have ethics and values – who want to grow and who want to help others grow – who respect others – who want to know themselves better – and who are, without exception, ‘nice guys’

…And despite having what our archetypal entrepreneur would see as dreadful handicaps – respect and time for other people, ethics and values – the people I see are all successful. They’ve all finished – or are on their way to finishing – first.

Clearly, ‘first’ means different things to different people. But there is one common thread running through the definitions of ‘first’ around a TAB table.

‘First’ is long term.

It’s about developing and nurturing relationships and helping other people along the way. It’s also about people trusting you: and the only way to guarantee that will happen is to treat people well and to deliver on your promises.

In short, the best way to finish first in the long term is to be a ‘nice guy.’

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So as I look at the nastiness in politics, I’m desperately hoping it doesn’t spill over into business. I absolutely hope we’re not inspiring a generation of children with the message that the best way to win is to unleash a barrage of hostility via social media and then refuse to accept the result if it has the temerity to go against you.

There are two reasons for this: firstly business is going to be a much less welcoming place. Secondly – and rather more importantly – there are going to be far more failed businesses.

Success – as the old saying goes – is a journey, not a destination. And on that journey we all need to work with other people and develop long term relationships. In short, we all need to be nice guys…

I’m Lazy, I’m Fat and I’m off to Play Golf


The UK trade deficit shrank in July, down to £4.5bn from £5.6bn the previous month. The services sector rebounded sharply as the Purchasing Managers’ Index jumped to 52.9 from a seven year low of 47.4 in July. The construction sector is showing signs of recovery – but the British Chambers of Commerce has cut its forecast for UK growth this year, reducing it from 2.2% in March to 1.8%, citing uncertainty over the Brexit negotiations.

In short there’s been the usual mixture of good and bad economic news over the past couple of weeks. There hasn’t been the immediate post-Brexit apocalypse some commentators had predicted, but the negotiations to leave the EU have barely begun. None of us – including the negotiators – have much idea what the talks over the next two years will bring.

But none of this has stopped Liam Fox, the MP for North Somerset, current Secretary of State for International Trade and quite recently, possible successor to David Cameron.

Last week Liam Fox made his feelings known on British businessmen. The country, he declared, was “too lazy and too fat” with businessmen preferring golf on a Friday afternoon to trying to boost the country’s prosperity.

This country is not the free-trading nation it once was. We have become too lazy and too fat on our successes in previous generations. Companies who could contribute to our national prosperity – but choose not to because it might be too difficult or too time-consuming or because they can’t play golf on a Friday afternoon – we’ve got to say to them that if you want to share in the prosperity of our country you have a duty to contribute to the prosperity of our country.

Richard Reed, co-founder of Innocent Drinks, said that Mr Fox had “never done a day’s business in his life.” I suspect that several members of TAB York would respond in significantly stronger terms…

Of course the comments are nonsense. Of course they’re insulting to the overwhelming majority of people running SMEs – and worryingly they show an International Trade Minister alarmingly out of touch with… well, trade. But there are possibly even more important considerations than that.

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I’m not fat (said he, squeezing into the suit he got married in 18 years ago) and I hope no-one considers me lazy. I did, however, play golf on Thursday and I make no apology for that.

Since this blog started – more than six years ago now – I’ve repeatedly stressed the need for time away from work. ‘Work hard, play hard’ might be a cliché, but it stops burnout, keeps you fresh and, importantly, gives you a broader perspective on life.

I remember reading about Denis Healey criticising Margaret Thatcher for having no ‘hinterland:’ no breadth of knowledge of art, culture, literature or science.

You might argue that ‘hinterland’ isn’t important for business success: that a laser-like focus on your goal will get you there.

I wonder… As the worlds of technology and business continue to change ever more rapidly, then knowing about – and learning from – seemingly unconnected disciplines will, I think, become increasingly important.

Just as importantly, hinterland – and the associated work/life balance – is a lot of fun. Which brings me back to Master Fox and our politicians: when was the last time you saw one on a golf course? Too many of our politicians – other than the obligatory August photo op in Cornwall – don’t seem to have any concept of work/life balance: and our political life is poorer for it.

Rather than criticising people running businesses, perhaps our politicians could learn from them – not least in being able to take planned, productive time off. If I see someone who never takes time off then I see someone who’s heading for trouble. You only have to look across to the US to see the latest example of a seemingly ‘indestructible’ politician showing herself to be all too vulnerable.

So I’ll continue to encourage the members of TAB York to work hard and play harder. The idea that any of them opt to do less than their best is simply wrong: the moral obligation they feel to their businesses, their staff, their customers – and the work ethic that flows from that – is something I’m honoured to see on a daily basis.