Be Brave


Last week I wrote a Tale of Four Leaders, contrasting Paul Dickinson and Barry Dodd with two leaders who I consider to be far less successful – the Donald and the Maybot.

I’m still coming to terms with Paul’s passing, but gradually the sadness is giving way to what I’ll think of as his personal legacy to me.

Many of you will know the words of the poem by Henry Scott Holland, so often read at funerals. It’s called Death is Nothing at All, and there is a line that is particularly apt: ‘Why should I be out of mind because I am out of sight?’

Paul will never be out of mind for me and – two weeks on from the funeral – I feel a duty to his memory to make TAB UK the best it can possibly be. That means for everyone in the TAB family: our members, our franchisees, our team at head office – and the colleagues we work with overseas.

How are we going to do that? We are going to be brave. What was it Thoreau said? ‘The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to their grave with the song still in them.”

No-one in the TAB UK family should do that and so – and I know Paul would have approved – the message this week is simple: Be Brave!

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This, more than ever, is a time for brave decisions, on both the micro and macro level. The world is changing at an ever faster pace: AI and machine learning, advanced search and the personalised internet are knocking on the door of virtually any business you can name. Businesses that were once cornerstones of the national and local economy are crumbling away. Brave decisions have become essential.

So let me turn to two decisions – sadly both from our government – which illustrate exactly the type of decisions we should not be making.

A couple of weeks ago Theresa May announced an extra £20bn – from your taxes – for the NHS. That’s a worthy decision: with four out of five people apparently in favour of tax rises to fund the NHS I’m sure the focus groups will approve.

It’s worthy, but in the long run I think it is wrong. And it’s the easy decision, not the brave decision.

Anyone who walks through any town centre will notice that the UK has an obesity epidemic which is getting worse every year. That in turn is leading to an explosion in Type 2 diabetes which is currently costing the NHS £25,000 a minute. Diabetes UK put the cost of treating Type 2 diabetes and its complications at £14bn a year.

Those are staggering figures for what is – in the main – a preventable disease. And quite clearly there isn’t much of the PM’s £20bn left when you’ve paid the diabetes bill: if we carry on getting fatter there very soon won’t be anything left.

The PM’s £20bn is, in essence, a very expensive bucket. There’s a hole in the roof of your factory, the water is coming in ever more quickly, so clearly what you need to fix the problem is a bigger, more expensive bucket…

Yes, that might be the answer while the guys go up on the roof to fix the hole. But as far as the diabetes epidemic is concerned, we’re not sending anyone up on the roof: we’re relying on an ever more expensive bucket instead of making difficult decisions and telling people the unpalatable truth.

Secondly, pot. Or weed, or whatever you might want to call it. Last week the case of Billy Caldwell and an article by William Hague brought cannabis front and centre in the news.

Writing in the Daily Telegraph Hague argued that the war on cannabis has been “irretrievably lost” and called for it to be fully legalised. He argued that cannabis is freely available in the UK, but available in unregulated forms, with a thriving black market bringing huge profits to criminal gangs and putting an unnecessary strain on the police and our criminal justice system.

Some time ago I wrote about the legalisation of cannabis in the US state of Colorado. The state – which I visit every year for TAB’s global conference – legalised  cannabis in 2012. Teenage use of the drug in the state is now at its lowest level for a decade, opioid deaths are down, crime has not risen – but tax revenues have, by an estimated $230m over two years. The population of Colorado is around 5.6m – that is around one-tenth of the UK, so it is easy to project the tax revenues that might result from legalisation here.

Sam Dumitriu, head of research at the Adam Smith Institute says, “We estimate that legalisation would raise at least £1bn a year for the Treasury.” He added, “Just as the prohibition of alcohol failed in the US, so the prohibition of cannabis has failed here.”

What is the UK government’s position? A flat refusal to even discuss the subject – a refusal, not to make a brave decision, but to even have a brave discussion.

In business, you cannot do that. It bears repeating: we are living in the age of brave decisions. The problem is, there’s no pain in buying the NHS a bigger bucket or refusing to discuss cannabis. The government – like so many businesses – is in a comfort zone.

But you know and I know that it cannot last. We cannot go on getting fatter, we cannot go on seeing young people murdered on the streets of London and we cannot ignore Google, Amazon and Uber when they tap on our door.

Throughout his life – and never more than towards the end of it – Paul Dickinson took brave decisions. That’s the legacy he left me: that’s the legacy that we all – in government or in business – need to follow.

A Tale of Four Leaders


I have, of course, stolen the title from Charles Dickens. As your English teacher drummed into you, his Tale of Two Cities begins with one of the most memorable opening lines there is: ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.’

For those of us in the TAB UK community, the last few weeks have simply been the worst of times. As many of you will know, Paul Dickinson, the founder of TAB UK and a man to whom I owe an immeasurable personal debt, died 2 weeks ago. His funeral is today.

At the end of last month Barry Dodd, an inspirational leader of the Yorkshire business community, died in a helicopter crash.

On May 3rd I wrote Darker Thoughts from an Old Friend, pondering a simple question: do you make sacrifices now, in the hope and expectation of a better future? Or do you live life to the full, accepting that the future may never arrive? Well, today I’ll be the one with the darker thoughts as I reflect on that question I asked six weeks ago.

I’ll also be reflecting on the nature of leadership.

If Paul Dickinson and Barry Dodd taught us anything, it was that leaders can and do make a difference. And that their job is simple: it is to lead and take decisions.

On Tuesday night the House of Commons voted for what appears to be yet another fudge on the road to Brexit. We are – give or take a few days – a week away from the second anniversary of the Brexit referendum. It was held on 23rd June 2016: two years on we still have no clear idea of what shape Brexit will ultimately take.

As commentator Patrick Wintour wrote recently, referring to yet another squabble in Cabinet, it was “The apotheosis of May-ism. Her ministers unable to agree what it means to set a date for when they expect to stop kicking a can down the road.”

As everyone knows, I voted to remain in the EU. If the poll were re-run tomorrow I would vote the same way. But I am a democrat: I accept the result. And I am running a business: so let’s get on with it. No commercial organisation would tolerate – or could survive – such indecision.

Our job, as leaders, is to take decisions. It’s come to something when Tony Soprano talks more sense than the British Prime Minister but as he famously said, “A wrong decision is better than indecision.”

If you make no decision: if – as we see – you cannot decide what you want from a negotiation, then you will simply have to accept what you are offered.

I wonder what Paul and Barry would have made of it? Well, I know what Paul made of it as we chatted about the shambles frequently: it doesn’t bear repeating.

Say what you like about the 49th President of the United States. He doesn’t suffer from indecision. And suddenly here’s the leader of North Korea committing to a de-nuclearized Korean peninsula. Paul Dickinson and Barry Dodd may not have approved of much that Donald Trump stands for – but they’d have recognised a successful negotiation.

Let me finish by returning to Dickens – and a personal note on Paul’s passing. Many of us know, ‘It was the best of times…’ Few of us know the next two lines. “It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness.”

There is far too much foolishness in the world, so I’ll concentrate on wisdom – and the wisdom that Paul Dickinson passed on to me, including five very simple words: “Ed, just try smiling more.”

As I wrote in an earlier e-mail to the TAB UK family, smiling is pretty bloody tough right now – but I will try to take comfort from everything Paul gave me.

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His example, and the knowledge that he passed on to me, changed my life. He was, in the very best sense of the word, a leader. Paul had a vision, the courage to pursue that vision, and the charisma to take others with him on the journey.

That is the legacy he leaves us. And if we follow his example then – for both ourselves and our families – we will surely create the very best of times.

Don’t Join the Navy. Be a Pirate!


Of course we are always going to shop on the high street. Of course there will always be bank branches in town centres. Marks and Spencer closing branches? Don’t be ridiculous.

Suddenly, so many things that seemed absolute cornerstones of our life are – to use the modern phrase – being ‘disrupted.’

In fact, if you want to predict the future, there’s a very easy way to do it. Think the previously unthinkable.

If I look back to when I started TAB York and started writing this blog, the changes – in a relatively short space of time – have been remarkable. But I am prepared to wager a hefty sum that the pace of change over the next seven years will be far faster than it has been over the last seven.

So if you’re running a business – or planning to start one – then ‘innovate’ and ‘think differently’ have to be right there at the top of your list. As Steve Jobs put it, if you want to be successful, you can’t join the navy: you have to be a pirate.

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So everything is changing.

Or is it? Because according to the hot new business book, 300 years ago things were, well, pretty much the same…

Three centuries ago, the world was surprisingly similar. The establishment was broken, there was a backdrop of international interconnected conflict and millennials of the day worried the rise of technology would crush employment as they knew it. So they left town and created new societies aboard ships – societies that pilfered and raped, yes, but that also included the systems we operate and abide by today.

The book is Be More Pirate, by entrepreneur-turned-author Sam Conniff Allende – you can read more of his views in City AM here.

I’ll take issue with some of his points – I’m fairly certain that it was the Roman legions, not pirates, who first came up with pension schemes and workplace compensation, for example – but he’s absolutely right in suggesting that the old ways of looking at things simply don’t work any more.

Much of what we have taken for granted for so long – as the high streets and the banks will testify – is starting to break.

So where does that leave mentoring and peer group coaching at a time when innovation is more important than ever? Where does that leave The Alternative Board UK?

Mentors, surely, are part of the established order? It will be a fairly safe bet that the mentor will have more grey hair – or less hair – than the person being mentored. It’s easy to think that the mentor will simply say, “Aye well, ’appen it were done this way when I were a lad and there’s nowt new tha’ knows…” Or words to that effect.

And you could very easily make the accusation that a peer board doesn’t encourage innovation. People are drawing on their own tried and trusted experience and – with a board of six or seven – there must be an inclination to find the common ground in the middle.

In my experience, exactly the reverse is true. The one thing a good mentor knows is that there’s a great deal he doesn’t know. He knows that there is plenty that’s new – and keeps up to date with social and technological changes.

And I am constantly amazed by the cutting edge knowledge of TAB members: yes, even the ones with grey (or very little) hair. In fact, far from a TAB board producing a consensus of ‘safe’ advice, exactly the opposite is true. There is a real willingness to think outside the box and look for innovative solutions when you are discussing a different business to your own. To use a pirate analogy, the shackles are off.

It is then the job of the TAB coach – a job they do superbly well – to make sure that nothing is off the table. That the brave, innovative and outright hard questions get asked – and that they are taken seriously and answered.

So yes, the world is changing at an ever-faster pace. But watching a TAB board meet the challenges of that change is an exhilarating and very, very rewarding experience.

The Board members may be a rum bunch, but none of them parrot the company line.

I’m here all week…

Lance-Corporal Jones and the Robocalypse


You know me. Cutting edge info, state of the art tech, firmly focused on the future.

So let’s go back to 1841. And then take inspiration from Dad’s Army.

Go right back to 1841 and the first census showed that 20% of the UK’s population were engaged in agriculture, and another 20% were in domestic service.

Fast forward a few decades and millions of people were employed in the ‘horse economy.’ They made saddles, shod the horses, built the carriages and – yes – collected the dung.

Candlemakers had a healthy business as well.

But then Edison invented the long-lasting electric light bulb. Henry Ford brought us mass production of the motor car – and the sons of people who’d been employed in the horse economy became panel beaters, paint sprayers and mechanics.

Fast forward again. Right up to today. And if you work in retail, or you own a shop, then the news this week could not be worse. According to the British Retail Consortium (BRC), March and April saw an “unprecedented” decline in footfall – the number of people visiting the nations’ shops. Over the two months footfall was down by 4.8%.

The town centre vacancy rate – the number of empty shops – rose to 9.2% with every area of the UK (except Central London) reporting an increase. A spokesman for the BRC said, “Not since the depths of the recession in 2009 has footfall over March and April declined to such a degree. Even then the drop was less severe at 3.8%.”

Are we seeing the slow death of retail? Quite possibly.

Similarly – as I’ve written previously – artificial intelligence and financial technology (aided by blockchain) are going spell the slow death of the high street bank in a great many towns. “Working in a bank, sir,” will no longer be an acceptable answer to your careers master.

The doom-mongers are having a field day. “This time it really is different,” they say, as they welcome the Four Horsemen of the Robocalypse – Robotics, Artificial Intelligence, Unemployment and Bankruptcy.

And if you believe the worst forecasts, they’re right.

The darkest claims – from two American economists – suggest that 47% of all jobs could disappear. Using the same methodology the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) puts the figure at closer to 10%.

That is still a massive figure – in round numbers there are 32m people employed in the UK. The social and economic consequences of 3.2m people becoming unemployed do not bear thinking about.

That’s assuming you believe in the ‘Lump of Labour.’ It’s Friday morning and you probably don’t want a large slice of economic theory, so I will deal with it in less than 50 words.

The theory in question is the ‘Lump of Labour’ theory: there is a finite amount of labour (the ‘lump’) that needs doing. If new machines are invented that do some of that labour, then jobs are necessarily lost.

That’s the theory. But as we have seen throughout history, new inventions and new technology create new jobs. Yes, the motor car did serious damage to the horse economy – but ultimately it created more jobs and more wealth than the horse economy could ever have done.

So yes, right now we may be seeing the slow death of retail and the high street banks – but what we are also seeing is simply change – as there has always been change.

And who adapts to change? Entrepreneurs: the people reading the blog this morning.

Changes in technology are going to wipe out jobs. But bright, innovative, hard-working people are going to use those changes to create new jobs. The banks may be going, but fintech (financial technology) will create 100,000 new jobs by the end of the next decade.

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Artificial intelligence ? Let me turn to one of the leading management thinkers of the last century. I refer, of course, to Lance-Corporal Jones from Dad’s Army. As the clips shows, he summed it up perfectly. Artificial intelligence will inevitably render some current jobs irrelevant: but it will open up a host of other avenues. I am certain that both my boys will – at some point in their careers – be working in jobs which simply don’t exist at the moment.

Change is undoubtedly happening at a faster pace than ever before, but change does not necessarily equal bad news. The old cliché about the Chinese character for ‘crisis/change’ being made up of ‘danger’ and ‘opportunity’ may not (sadly for business trainers up and down the land) be true, but the coming technological changes will offer a plethora of tremendous business opportunities.

And no-one is better placed to profit from that change and those opportunities than the members of TAB UK. All we ask is that the Government creates a climate that fosters innovation and enterprise, that rewards risk and long-term investment in your business. If we have that, then I have absolutely no doubt that TAB members will more than play their part in building the businesses of tomorrow, creating both jobs and wealth.

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.

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…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…”

You’re Never Too Big for TAB


Hmmm… Vladimir Putin is effectively President for life. Xi Jinping President for life as well. With the annual congress of the People’s Alternative Board being held this week a chap could get ideas

Sadly there is a rather more serious idea that I want to discuss this week: the idea that you are too big to fail – which all too often starts with the idea that you are too big to learn anything new. This year has already seen the administrators called in to once sound businesses: Carillion, Toys-R-Us and Maplin.

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I’ve already discussed Carillion and the impact that collapse will have on up to 30,000 SMEs. More recently we’ve also seen Toys-R-Us and Maplin close the doors and – especially in the case of the now renamed Toys-Were-Us – it seems that arrogance and complacency and a ‘too big to fail/nothing to learn’ attitude were largely to blame. As the Greeks used to remind us, hubris leads inexorably to nemesis.

I often use the question ‘why not?’ on this blog, referencing the well-known quote from Robert Kennedy: “There are those that look at things the way they are and ask ‘why?’ I dream of things that never were and ask, ‘why not?’”

But in business today ‘why not’ – to borrow from SWOT – isn’t just about strengths and opportunities, it’s also about weaknesses and threats.

Could this business start-up I’ve just read about disrupt our industry so much that our whole business model is outdated? Why not?

Could our customers decide that sitting in a traffic jam for thirty minutes to drag children round a toy warehouse isn’t how they want to spend a Sunday morning? Why not?

Today you have to think the previously unthinkable. Not doing that and believing your business model is inviolate – and Toys-R-Us seems to have been the perfect example – is to signpost your own downfall.

With the company having closed its doors there are plenty of anecdotal stories – from former employees and executives – emerging about the decline of Toys-R-Us. Was it simply competition from Amazon? Or did it go deeper than that?

Of course having Amazon as an alternative didn’t help. But all the stories point to Toys-R-Us seeing themselves as ‘king of the toy jungle’ and simply not giving their competitors enough respect. Add in a failure to lock-in the loyalty of their customers, a determination to open new stores whatever the cost and tales of wholesale fall-outs with their suppliers and the story only had one possible ending.

And when the inevitable happened, whose fault was it?

Everyone else’s.

Right now the directors of every failing company seem to have an instant explanation. ‘Picking the low hanging fruit’ might well mean reaching for the most easily available excuse. Competition from Amazon – uncertainty caused by Brexit – fall in the value of the pound – and (my personal favourite) customers changed their shopping/buying/spending habits.

What no-one ever seems to say is that it was rank bad management. Customers and clients are always changing their shopping/buying/spending habits: with the greatest possible respect that’s why you get paid so much – to anticipate those changes and do something about it.

It is my privilege to work with some very talented and very successful people: that includes members of TAB boards up and down the UK, and franchisees both here and overseas. Without exception they have one thing in common: they know that they don’t know everything. They’re willing to learn and they’re willing to listen. They accept that ‘why not’ could overtake their business – as it can overtake any business today.

You are never too big to learn and – bluntly – you are never too big to sit round the table with your colleagues from TAB. If we’d had a director of Toys-R-Us as a member then very quickly – in his first meeting would be my guess – someone would have said, “You know, last Christmas, we bought all the kids’ present on this thing called the internet. From a site called Amazon. Took half an hour, delivered them the next day…”

The loyalty of your customers, not opening stores for the sake of opening stores and working with your suppliers might well have been mentioned as well…

Nothing stays the same for ever and nowhere is that more true than in business. I floated the idea of a TAB for young entrepreneurs recently: maybe we should have one specifically for directors of ‘too big to fail/nothing to learn’ PLCs as well. The blunt common sense of their new colleagues round the table would be the best investment they ever made.

Long White Beards are not Mandatory


Mentor: noun. An experienced and trusted adviser. A person who gives a younger and less experienced colleague help and advice over a period of time, especially at work or school.
First used in the modern sense in the 18th Century, the word comes from Homer’s Odyssey: when Odysseus left for the Trojan War he left his old, trusted friend Mentor in charge of his palace and his son, Telemachus.
I wrote recently about the entrepreneur’s journey mirroring the classic ‘hero’s journey’ in fiction. That’s certainly true of the mentor: there are any number of examples in popular culture. Star Wars offers us Obi-Wan Kenobi. Also mentor this Jedi is… The Lion King has Rafiki, Buffy the Vampire Slayer relies on Giles and, of course, Harry Potter has Dumbledore.

These mentors tick all the archetypal boxes: older, wiser, there when they are needed and – in plenty of cases – a long, white beard.

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The idea of the mentor also runs through business and – as an entrepreneur – you’re going to learn one thing very quickly. You will need someone to talk to. Your accountant, solicitor and bank manager will all no doubt be splendid people: however, they are not running a business like yours and your priorities are not their priorities. Your partner’s priorities aren’t your priorities either. The only person who understands is another entrepreneur: for better or worse, you have joined a special club.
I just wonder if mentoring in British business is working as well as it could…
Without wishing to sound old – but policeman definitely do look younger, don’t they? -many of today’s new entrepreneurs are younger. And I think that creates a problem in the traditional UK model of the business mentor, too many of whom – as I’m writing this on International Women’s Day – have been male, pale and stale.
That is not to criticise organisations like Business Link, or to denigrate the work that solicitors/accountants/bank managers do. It is simply to recognise that young entrepreneurs are swimming in a different pond: there must be a gulf between someone who’s just discovered Google docs and thinks its pretty nifty and someone who communicates, banks and shops via WeChat. (Sorry, it’s China’s answer to Facebook, except that it is much more than FB, its owner Tencent is worth more than FB and will shortly be making inroads in the West.)
So let’s dispense with the idea that the metaphorical long white beard is a requirement: I see no reason why a successful entrepreneur of 28 shouldn’t mentor a 24 year old with a start-up.
Interestingly, several of my TAB colleagues do unpaid mentoring work. Speaking to them there is a common thread that runs through the relationships: they like/believe in the person they are mentoring – and they like/believe in the business as well. They’re 50% giving something back and 50% nurturing a business that they believe could become a significant client.
Perhaps it is up to organisations like TAB to take a lead? It’s the Chancellor’s Spring Statement on Tuesday and I would love Philip Hammond to recognise the difference coaching and mentoring within the business community could make to the country’s future. But as one of his colleagues famously dismissed entrepreneurs as “fat, lazy and off to play golf” I won’t hold my breath…
But this really is another area why we need to start asking ‘why not?’ Thinking out loud – and hoping my colleagues will respond positively – why shouldn’t TAB have an event specifically for entrepreneurs under 30?
Let me now return to the hero’s/entrepreneur’s journey.
So our hero has pushed his breakfast round his plate, decided there has to be a better way, resisted the siren call of corporate security, explained the risks to his partner and taken the plunge.
Five, 10, 15 years down the line it is all very different. The problems are not those of a start-up, they’re the problems of success. He now employs people; the retired guy who did his books two days a week has given way to a finance director; most importantly, his family is beginning to see the benefits of the gamble he took. But he still needs support, guidance and someone who truly understands.
This, of course, is where TAB plays such a key role for so many entrepreneurs. No longer one mentor, but seven – and still not a long white beard in sight… Not only that, you learn as much from mentoring your colleagues as you do from them mentoring and supporting you.
I’m a passionate advocate of peer-to-peer coaching and the mentoring that goes with it. I think it has the potential to make a significant difference to our economy. And as I’ll outline in a fortnight’s time, I don’t see any limits to its applications – even for the biggest businesses.

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.

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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.

Panto Season Comes Early


The scene: an Alternative Board meeting, anywhere in the UK. We’re going round the table, updating each other on progress. It’s Dave’s turn…

TAB franchisee          So, Dave, bring us up to date. How’s it going?

Dave                           Yeah, good. The MD’s coming over at the weekend and we should finally be able to sort it all out. Few wrinkles to iron out in Ireland but we’re getting there

TAB veteran               You said last time that your two divisions in Ireland couldn’t agree on anything…

Dave                           Well, technically, yes. But we’re getting there

TF                                So you’re all set to abandon your current deals and go it alone?

Dave                           Yep. That’s what the shareholders want

TabVet                        So what deals have you got lined up to replace them?

Dave                           Well, technically, none

2nd TabVet                 Sorry if I’m missing something here but isn’t that … well, just a touch risky?

Dave                           It’s what the shareholders want

TF                                OK, so what impact is this all going to have on the company?

Dave                           Huh?

TF                                About six months ago you said you were doing an impact analysis on the effect this would all have. On every division of the company

TabVet                        Yep, I remember that

2nd TabVet                  Me too. Remember asking if you thought you could get it done in time

TF                                So where is it?

Dave                           Well, technically…

TF                                It was so in depth that you haven’t finished it yet?

Dave                           Not quite

TabVet                        So when will it be ready?

Dave                           That’s a difficult one to answer

2nd TabVet                  Why

Dave                           We haven’t started it yet.

There is silence around the table. A pin drops…

TF                                So you’re telling us, with our experience in business, that you are planning a major, major overhaul of your business, abandoning trading relationships you’ve had for forty years, you have nothing ready to replace them – except hope – and you have done no analysis at all of the impact it might have on your company?

Dave                           Well, technically…

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The TAB blog is politically neutral. And whatever my personal views, I try to be strictly neutral on Brexit. The blog is not, however, common-sense neutral. And when I read the stories coming out of the Committee on Exiting the European Union (let’s just call it the Brexit Committee, shall we?) on Wednesday I was, bluntly, staggered.

Were the UK Government – in the shape of Dave – a member of any TAB board (and frankly, Mrs May, right now I think it would be money well spent) he would not have survived the meeting. I can think of no instance in my seven years with TAB UK in which a member has gone ahead with a radical overhaul of his business without doing some seriously in-depth analysis of the potential impact. If a member of TAB York had acted in that way I would have questioned whether I was any good at my job.

And yet, on Wednesday morning, David Davis sat down in front of the Brexit Select Committee and said that Her Majesty’s Government had done no significant work on the impact Brexit might have on major parts of the UK economy.

Translate that into business terms. If you had tasked your finance director with doing these impact assessments and six months later he came back and said he hadn’t started then there would only be one outcome. He’d be clearing his office the same day. Even if he hadn’t been tasked with doing the work – but hadn’t shown the initiative to do the assessments – the end result would be the same.

David Davis has argued that there is no point in preparing impact assessments because the scale of change will be so big. Again, if you translate that into business, it’s just nonsense. “We’re going to make major changes in the company – a complete change of direction. And because the changes are going to be so big we’ve decided not to bother making any plans.”

Yep, that would go down well with your TAB colleagues.

Enough lampooning politicians. Sadly, they’re an easy target. There must be a reason for the Government’s failure to carry out due diligence…

Theresa May – the MD in our example – famously campaigned for Remain in 2016. A few weeks later she was roundly declaring that ‘Brexit means Brexit.’ She had seen the shareholders get rid of the previous MD and give her the job – with a clear mandate to deliver something she’d very recently campaigned against.

This is the time of year when I traditionally write about planning for next year. And that’s where the lessons of Brexit apply. Because if you don’t absolutely believe in your plans, targets and goals – if they don’t reflect what you want both for the business and as an individual – then you’ll end up exactly where Theresa May and David Davis now find themselves. Trying to deliver a plan that you don’t believe in and, consequently, controlled by external events – when it should be the other way round.

That’s it for this week. Next week will be the last post of the year and I’ll be looking forward optimistically to 2018. And also announcing a change…

Strange Habits…


You know how it is… You go online to look at one thing, you see a link, click another link and before you know it you’re reading about men in ice-baths…

I’ve written previously about business pitches delivered from freezing water and how it concentrates the mind. Here’s someone else who says freezing water helps him focus – albeit from the far more gentle climes of Silicon Valley.

Every morning Tim Kendall, President of Pinterest (current valuation £9bn), wanders on to his back deck and climbs into a freezer full of water. “A bath with ice wasn’t quite cold enough,” he says. Famous for wearing a t-shirt with the word ‘focus’ on it – “if you do fewer things you can do those things much better” – Kendall claims that his daily dip in the freezer, “Gives me a lot of energy, wakes me up, and resets my mind and body.”

Having read that – and being in research-useless-things-online mode – I wondered if other successful entrepreneurs had equally strange habits. Was there anything we could usefully import to the UK? (Although anyone who’s been to Wetherby races in January will regard an ice bath as positively tropical…)

We may as well start at the top with the richest man in the world. When Bill Gates started Microsoft he liked to keep a check of who was in the office – so he memorised everyone’s number plate. As Microsoft now employs around 120,000 people we may safely assume he’s abandoned that habit… but apparently Gates still takes to his rocking chair when he needs to focus or when he needs to disconnect – a habit which apparently goes back to his days at Harvard, when he’d do long stretches of coding in a rocking chair.

‘The richest man in the world…’ Unless Amazon’s shares have shot up this morning. Jeff Bezos writes a six page memo before every management meeting: everyone then has to sit in silence for 30 minutes and read the memo. Presumably allowing them to say, “Yup, all good with me, boss,” after 30 minutes and 10 seconds…

Bezos also instigated the two-pizza rule. When he started Amazon he wanted a decentralised company with small teams making the decisions: so the rule was simple – any meeting had to be small enough so that everyone there could be fed with two pizzas. (As you might guess there are now any number of scholarly articles on the ‘two pizza rule…’)

Food takes us very neatly to Steve Jobs. Not only was the former boss of Apple famous for wearing the same clothes – black jeans, black jumper – every day, he also went through obsessive periods with his food, eating nothing but apples or carrots for weeks at a time. Apparently Jobs once ate so many carrots that he turned a vibrant shade of orange.

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And there’s a link we can’t ignore. Speaking of bright orange people Donald Trump has a hatred of shaking hands – he calls it “a barbaric ritual” – and always carries a hand sanitizer with him. You just pressed the nuclear button, Mr President. No £$%*! I thought that was the hand gel dispenser…

Back to eating habits: Henry Ford ate the weeds from his garden, while Mark Zuckerberg had a year when he would only eat meat that he had killed himself. Charles Darwin tried to eat every animal he discovered and the only-just-late Hugh Hefner would only eat food prepared at the Playboy Mansion – even in a restaurant. And Stephen King always eats a slice of cheesecake before he sits down to write, which may explain why the film rights to this blog remain mysteriously unsold…

Meanwhile Novak Djokovic follows a strict gluten-free, vegan diet and has been known to eat grass. After beating Rafa Nadal in 2011 he celebrated by snacking on Wimbledon’s Centre Court.

Finally, proving the old adage that ‘what you can measure you can control’ former Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer wanted to create the perfect cupcake: she bought scores of cookbooks and created a spreadsheet – then did the same with the icing. And just in case you’re ever on bake-off, here’s the link you’ll need…

That’s enough from me for this week: I’m off to buy a car number plate – ED 1 should let them know I’m in the office – and go shopping for black jeans and carrots. Oh, and could I apologise in advance to my golfing partners? If I hack out of the long grass to within six inches of the pin next week I may choose to celebrate in an unusual way…