Eddie and Jacob: the Unlikely Lads


Every day 300,000 people use Southern Rail: every day, a good proportion of those people are subject to overcrowded trains, delays or cancellations – or all three. Management blames the unions: the unions blame the management and now the owners of Southern Rail have been fined £13.4m – which has only increased the bitterness between the two sides.

But it’s not all doom and gloom at head office: Southern Rail have unwittingly discovered a social media star.

Meet Eddie…

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Eddie – sadly we do not know his second name – is 15 and was at Southern Rail on work experience. The decision was taken to put Eddie in charge of Southern Rail’s Twitter feed, which (as you might guess) is usually a seething hotbed of complaints, abuse and sarcasm. Showing that all the world’s ‘social media consultants’ are grossly overpaid, Eddie wasted no time in introducing himself:

Hi! Eddie here! Here on work experience and ready to answer your questions

Sensing that Eddie may not have the answer to why the 08:32 was delayed, overcrowded or cancelled, Southern Rail’s followers tried a different tack:

Hi Eddie! Would you rather fight one horse-sized duck or 100 duck-sized horses?

A tough one: you suspect the traditional occupants of the customer service desk would have struggled. But Eddie was unfazed:

100 duck sized horses. A horse-sized duck would be pretty scary. You? Eddie

That’s a perfect response. In less than 140 characters Eddie answered the question, empathised with the customer and clearly identified himself. And after that he went from strength to strength…

Eddie – would you rather have rollerblades for feet or chopsticks for hands for the rest of your life?

Rollerblades for feet. I feel like I could get used to them pretty quickly and get places quicker.

Unlike Southern Rail someone darkly responded. But Eddie was on a roll, and by the end of his stint was even dishing out dietary advice.

Chicken fajitas or Thai green curry tonight? @Adam_W48 needed to know.

It has to be chicken fajitas Eddie replied with a wink.

For one day at least Southern Rail had given their customers something to smile about. But Eddie is not alone in being an unlikely star of the new media…

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Let me introduce you to an ever more surprising social media star – Jacob Rees-Mogg, or the MP for the 17th Century as he is frequently known. More correctly, the Eton and Oxford educated Mogg – the Moggster to his fans – is the Conservative MP for North Somerset. Unlike many of today’s politicians, Mogg doesn’t pretend to be something he is not. To many, he is what the New Statesman described as ‘a cartoonish toff.’ To others, he is a future Prime Minister – William Hill will offer you 16/1.

But Mogg also has 35,000 followers on Instagram (twice the number Theresa May has). He is not afraid to speak Latin and holds the record for the longest word ever used in the House of Commons (floccloccinaucinihilipilification – it means the habit of estimating something as worthless.) His sixth child was named Sixtus – the Guardian labelled him a ‘Tory sex machine’ – and he campaigns with his eldest son, both of them dressed in identical double-breasted suits.

You suspect that Eddie and Rees-Mogg could not be more different. But what they share is authenticity, and a willingness to answer a question. As Southern Rail casts around for excuses, as United Airlines tries to justify assaulting one of its own passengers and sundry corporate and government ‘spokesmen’ tell us what we all know is patently untrue, maybe business can learn a lesson from Eddie and the Right Honourable Member for the 17th Century. Customers are fed up with spin: more than ever they value the truth, openness, honesty and a willingness to engage.

If you have a problem, admit it. If you’re going to miss the delivery date, tell them. As the old saying goes, ‘The truth hurts, but it doesn’t kill. The lie pleases, but it doesn’t heal.’ I’d go further than that: all our businesses are about building long-term relationships. It is a central part of TAB’s message and beliefs.

The truth may hurt in the short-term, but in the long term it can strengthen a relationship. If you tell the truth when it clearly shows you in a bad light then you’re someone who can be trusted. Lies – or spin – may please in the short-term: you cannot build a long-term business on them.

…And I clearly cannot build a long term business as a sports psychologist. Time to eat humble pie: or humilem massae manducare as JRM would put it. You may have noticed a slightly triumphalist tone in the blog last week. A few words of advice for Joe Root, he scores 190 and England win the first test by 211 runs. Sadly, a week is a long time in the sports psychology business. The last time I checked (from behind the sofa) Joe Root’s off stump was lying flat on the ground and England were sliding to a massive 340 run defeat. No wonder the MCC didn’t pay my invoice…

Dear Prime Minister…


Last week I looked at the lessons we can learn from the General Election campaign.

This week I wanted to start with, ‘The dust has settled and we can get back to normal…’ But, apparently not: still no deal with the DUP and a Queen’s Speech which roughly translated as, ‘Sort it yourselves, I’m off to Ascot.’

Apparently many Conservative MPs are privately admitting to disappointment at the way the Prime Minister has handled the talks with the DUP. Ah well, it’s not as though she has any major negotiations coming up…

But sooner or later the dust will settle: sooner or later we will have a government that won’t be in permanent crisis. Perhaps then the politicians could turn their attention to business: to the tens of thousands of small business owners up and down the land that are building a future for themselves and their families.

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So here’s my open letter to whoever is PM when the music stops. I’m sure TAB members and franchisees will have their own ‘wish lists.’ Here’s mine…

First and foremost, Prime Minister, perhaps you and our other elected representatives could put your big boy pants on? Raise your eyes from the Westminster village and your plots and counter-plots and realise that there is a country to govern. More importantly a country which faces serious challenges – whether it is the ageing population, the ridiculous amount of money wasted on treating the all-too-preventable obesity crisis or the impact AI and robotics are going to have on our jobs. It is time to stop kicking every potential crisis into the long grass and hoping it doesn’t need addressing again until you are writing your memoirs.

And then there’s Brexit – in particular, defining the shape you want it to take. Call me old fashioned but – like most business owners – I prefer to go into negotiations knowing what I want to achieve. That doesn’t seem to be the case at the moment.

As a business owner and a father, I want to see continued investment in our world class universities. We cannot turn the clock back: we live in a global society and we’re not just competing locally for the best talent, we’re competing internationally. So let’s do everything we can to attract that talent to the UK. And while I’m on education, could we just have a radical overhaul of the school curriculum? As Dan and Rory get older I look at some of the work they bring home and I think, ‘that’s the same essay I did thirty years ago.’ If they ever need to know about an ox-bow lake they’ll ask Wiki: teach them to be creative, to solve problems.

Increasingly work is about successful collaboration: and yet we continue to examine ever more irrelevant subjects on an individual basis. Would it be so hard to examine a project that four students had worked on together?

What’s next? A comprehensive review of the tax system. Seriously, what is National Insurance? Would anyone invent it now? In much the same way as we have 20th century town centres trying to cope with 21st Century shopping habits, so we have a 20th Century tax system trying to cope with 21st Century working patterns. People have more than one job, they’re employed, they’re self-employed, they’re contracting, they’re working overseas. Goods are designed in one country, refined in another, manufactured in a third, shipped across continents and sold across the world. And all the time, the poor old tax system is puffing and panting as it runs after the money.

Simplify the system and embrace the Laffer Curve. Give business an incentive to invest and to make profits and it will generate the revenues the country needs. Treat it as a cash cow to provide for everything and everybody and it will rapidly move to a more hospitable tax regime.

It may also move to somewhere you can get a phone signal. I know this is looking dangerously to the future, but could we please have a full and speedy roll out of 5G? Yes, yes, I know your Chancellor has said that he is committed to it but so far that commitment doesn’t extend to a starting date. Right now the UK is ranked 54th in the world for 4G LTE connections and bluntly, it is not good enough. We are behind Morocco and Greece. Even 4G only works intermittently – unless you’re driving through parts of North Yorkshire, when ‘intermittent’ would be a remarkable improvement.

5G is expected to start rolling out worldwide in 2020: according to this article in Wired, South Korea has been preparing for it since 2008. That’s very nearly ten years. In the Spring Budget we committed the mighty sum of £16m for ‘further research.’ If we are going to leave the EU and become a ‘global hub’ then we are going to have to do a lot better than £16m.

Lastly, could we please make long term investments in a coherent, joined-up, 21st Century transport system? Other countries in Europe have taken the long term view, invested in their rail networks and now have modern, connected, effective services. Meanwhile there is a credible argument that the Conservatives lost their majority thanks to congestion on Southern Rail. £90bn on HS2? I can think of other priorities. HS2 will save minutes: business owners waste hours sitting in contraflows on our ‘smart motorways.’ No matter, I’ll just save up and buy one of these little beauties

That’s it. Except that if you’re still struggling to cobble a government together give me a ring. I know plenty of owners of SME’s who are first-rate negotiators. 10 members of the DUP to sort out? They’d do it before breakfast…

Best regards

Ed

Lessons from the Maybot


Consider these two newspaper headlines:

South Milford FC win Champions League

Labour win Kensington & Chelsea

Well, you think. A Chinese conglomerate. Don’t see the value in spending £3bn on Manchester United. Decided to do it the romantic way. Small local team – but a million people within 30 minutes. 20 year plan, work their way up the football pyramid. Suppose it could happen…

What was the other one? Labour win Kensington & Chelsea? Have a word with yourself. And don’t forget your medication…

Except last Friday afternoon it did happen. With a majority of just 20, Emma Dent Coad captured Kensington and Chelsea for Labour. And if you want a measure of how completely inept the Conservative election campaign was, there you have it.

‘I didn’t fail. I learned,’ is one the great aphorisms of the positive-thinking industry. Well, Theresa May certainly learned how to take a working majority and turn it into – dare I use the phrase – a coalition of chaos. As everyone knows, she is now dependent on the DUP, whose ten MPs shuffled into the limelight last Friday afternoon like a factory syndicate who had won the lottery.

But this is a business blog, not a politics one. Are there any lessons we as business owners can learn from the election, the Conservative ‘strategy’ and the Maybot? Oh yes…

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First and foremost, don’t ever take success for granted. I hope Ian Hislop doesn’t mind: I photographed the Private Eye cover from May 18th as my illustration this week. At the time it exactly summed up the mood in Conservative Central Office: it wasn’t a General Election, it was a coronation.

…Did the Conservatives underestimate Corbyn? Only by a factor of 300 – in much the same way that the Clinton camp underestimated Trump. In both cases the overwhelming favourite said, ‘You can’t possibly vote for my opponent:’ to which the electorate replied, ‘Watch us.’

Whatever you’re doing – whether you’re pitching for a contract, tendering for some work, making a presentation to potential clients – you must show up, give your best every single time and never, ever underestimate your opponents. No-one – clients, customers or the electorate – likes to be taken for granted.

Yes, show up. Sounds obvious doesn’t it? You need to show up, even if it’s going to be tough. Say what you like about Corbyn – he turned up, he was prepared to speak, his events were free and he connected with people. Theresa May hunkered in her bunker muttering “strong and stable.” I am sorry, Prime Minister, when the going gets tough, the tough do not send Amber Rudd.

What’s next? Ah yes, the personality cult. They weren’t Conservative candidates were they? They were ‘Theresa May’s local candidate.’ The cabinet? Never heard of them: are you talking about ‘Theresa May’s team?’ If you want to make it all about your personality – whether it’s your business or the General Election – just make sure you have one.

Have a vision. How many times have we said that the leader’s job is to lead? To have a vision and communicate that vision. End tuition fees, raise in the minimum wage, a hand-up for the many… Whether you agree with it or not, that was a vision.

Trust your team. When she became PM Theresa May shuffled her team. Whatever your view of Messrs Hammond, Johnson and Davis – and Ms Rudd – they are experienced politicians. They’re used to campaigning. If you’ve handpicked your team, you have to trust them. No business grows or succeeds by the boss micro-managing every single decision himself.

Lastly, don’t always rely on the same people for advice. The apocryphal story is that the only person Mrs May would take a phone call from during the campaign was the Queen (yep, probably asking for her coach back…) Clearly the PM’s advice came from her two, now-departed, special advisers and her husband, all of whom were telling her what she wanted to hear. Maybe she should have joined a TAB Board for the duration of the campaign: she’d certainly have received advice at odds with her thinking but – as it so often does for so many business owners – it would have saved her from some disastrous mistakes.

So did Theresa May get anything right? Well, certainly not the Mexican wave on Tuesday night but – as one of my team in Harrogate pointed out – she always wore nice shoes…

I could go on and on – but enough’s enough. The Conservative campaign was easily the most inept in my lifetime. And yes, I know she is still Prime Minster but go back to the end of April. Record approval ratings and a 20 point lead in the polls. It’s the equivalent of a team leading 6-0 at half-time, scoring six own goals and scraping home 7-6. A win is a win, but at what price in the long term? What will it cost the country, the economy and our businesses?

What can we learn from Emmanuel Macron?


Meet the new boss. Definitely not the same as the old boss…

After a year of campaigning we have a new man in the Elysee Palace: Emmanuel Macron, the new President of France with 66% of the votes cast and the youngest leader of the country since Napoleon.

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Judging by some of the paeans of praise for the new President, all of France’s problems – indeed, all of Europe’s – have been solved. In reality, Macron faces huge problems with French unemployment, domestic security, the creaking French pension system and – not least – Brexit.

There’s also the small matter of his En Marche movement not having any MPs. Macron is due to appoint a Prime Minister next week but it may be a short-lived appointment. If he doesn’t win a majority in next month’s parliamentary elections then he could well be forced to appoint a new PM from the largest – possibly opposition – party.

And then there’s the votes: or lack of them. Yes, he won 66% of the votes cast, but on the lowest turnout since 1969. What’s more, between 10% and 11% of those that did go to the polls spoiled their ballot paper. That’s not someone sitting up in bed, reaching for their smartphone and clicking ‘none of the above.’ That’s someone getting up, getting dressed and making a conscious effort to reject both the candidates.

Many of those people will have been supporters of the far-left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon, whose high-spending, anti-EU platform had many similarities with Marine Le Pen’s message. Many voters do not see Macron as a ‘brave new dawn.’ To them, he was simply the least-bad of the two candidates on offer, with one poll suggesting 43% of voters supported him purely to thwart Le Pen.

But despite all that, what Macron achieved was remarkable. He launched En Marche (On the move) in his home town of Amiens on 6th April 2016, little more than a year ago. He didn’t announce his bid for the Presidency until November. The rest, as they say, is history…

So are there any lessons we can take from the success of the former Minister for the Economy and Finance and one-time Rothschilds banker? The English speaking, German loving politician that “Europe has been waiting for…”

First and foremost, Macron represents change. Conspiracy theorists may criticise him as a creation of pro-banking, pro-globalisation elites, but the French election was notable for its rejection of the established parties. I think that’s reflective of an attitude to change that’s all around us: look at the way traditional industries and professions – banking, the law, accountancy – are now being shaken up by new technology. If your pitch to your customers is ‘we do it this way because we’ve always done it this way’ you’re going to find people responding with, ‘I’m sorry, I’m bored.’ The old way may still work, but there is an entirely different class of consumer out there, who wants to interact with you in an entirely new way.

Macron, apparently, has always been different. At school, according to one of his former classmates, while other boys watched TV and played football, Macron read classic French literature and wrote a novel about Spanish conquistadors. He had, said the classmate, “Olympic intelligence.”

I’m not sure I know what ‘Olympic intelligence’ means, but I do know that some of the very best operators I have ever worked with were multi-dimensional. They had deep and genuine interests outside work: what Denis Healey famously referred to as ‘hinterland.’ This not only made them fascinating people to work with, it also gave them a sense of perspective, and a different way of looking at business problems.

…And, of course, Macron represents a fresh start: someone without baggage. As a general rule I’m an advocate of promotion from within. Occasionally though, you need to go outside and bring someone in who represents a break with the past, an entirely different way of looking at the problems and the opportunities. Whether Emmanuel Macron can do that remains to be seen: I, for one, will be hoping that his En Marche movement gains enough seats on 11th and 18th June to at least give him a real chance.

In many ways I can see similarities between En Marche and TAB. You can’t call TAB a movement, but can most definitely term it a community. Yes, of course there’s a bottom line to take care of and a cheque to send to HMRC. But we’re driven by ideals, not by profit. It’s about changing lives, not about dividends to shareholders.

Let me finish by returning to those murky conspiracy theories. All conspiracy theorists will have heard of Bilderberg – along with the Illuminati and the Freemasons one of three secret, shadowy organisations that rule the world. Emmanuel Macron was a Bilderberg attendee in 2014, along with one Edward M. Balls.

Unlike the Masons, members of Bilderberg do not have a secret handshake: instead, they reveal themselves to each other with a series of very slight, very subtle ‘moves.’ How unfortunate that these ‘moves’ were leaked so publicly

365 Wasted Days


Hesitantly, the young graduate trainee approached the seen-it-all sales manager to proffer his excuse…

“I just don’t think it was the right time for them. Maybe next month…”

The sales manager sighed. The lad showed promise, but he needed to learn a basic truth. “You know what, Ed?” he said. “There’s never a right time.”

“How do you mean?”

“Well quite clearly no-one’s ever going to buy anything in January. Just recovering from Christmas and hiding from their credit card bills. February it’s too damn cold. March and April it’s Easter and they’re all doing DIY or out in the garden. May they’re thinking about summer holidays. June there’s always the World Cup or the Olympics. July and August they’ve gone on holiday; September they’re recovering from the holiday. October it gets dark. Everyone’s always depressed in November and December’s written off because of Christmas.”

“So…”

“So there’s never a right time. Go back and see them, Ed. Explain that there is a right time and the right time is now.”

I’ve never forgotten that conversation and over the last 20 years I’ve quoted it word for word to several potential customers. I was reminded of it last week when the news broke that Theresa May would be demanding our attendance at the polling stations on June 8th.

Yes, the election – and Brexit – is going to happen. Clearly Theresa May wants her own mandate and equally clearly she doesn’t want to be bound by David Cameron’s election pledges.

Sir Martin Sorrell was being interviewed on TV and failing to hide his irritation. The election, he said, was “another excuse” for people in business to stop making decisions. The run-up to the election would see an inevitable slowdown in the economy: “another 50 wasted days” as Sorrell termed it.

Well, by the time you read this there’ll only be 41 more days to waste – but he may have underestimated the problem. My old sales manager would have understand it perfectly…

‘You’re right, Ed. First and foremost no-one can possibly take a decision before Macron is confirmed as the youngest leader of France since Napoleon. Then there’s our election. But by then we’re into the summer holidays. And as soon we’re back from summer there’s the German election to worry about: if Angela Merkel is defeated it’ll be chaos. Then there’s Philip Hammond’s first Autumn Budget (assuming he’s still Chancellor). I mean seriously, given the hints there have been about tax rises it’s safer to wait and see. Then it’s Christmas and staggering back to work in January. And by February/March we’ll have had six months of serious Brexit negotiations with the new German government. It makes sense to wait and see how those are playing out. And then it’s Easter again on April 1st 2018. You’ve nailed it: no-one can possibly make any decisions for at least a year…’

50 wasted days? More like 365.

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As we all know, there are always reasons not to take decisions. They might be macro – political, economic – or micro, such as staff problems and cash flow, but they’ll always be there.

But making decisions is our job. It’s what we signed up for when we sat in the motorway services, pushed our breakfast round the plate and decided there had to be a better way. Business is about making decisions – and as that as that well-known pioneer of the waste management industry, Anthony Soprano Snr., put it, “A wrong decision is better than indecision.”

He’s right: you can correct a wrong decision. Indecision eats away at you and your business until it does far more damage than a wrong decision.

But making decisions isn’t easy. It’s not meant to be easy. Tony Soprano again: “Every decision you make affects every facet of every other thing. It’s too much to deal with almost. And in the end you’re completely alone with it all.”

Unless, of course, you’re a member of the Alternative Board, and have seven other people to offer their input and their experience and – nine times out of ten – help you make the right decision.

But having last week recommended that the boss of United Airlines joins TAB, perhaps I’ll just stop short of suggesting a new member for TAB New Jersey…

The Billy Index


I hesitate to write about current affairs, given that last week I devoted 700 words to the Budget on Tuesday, only for the Chancellor to change his mind – and cause a re-write – on Wednesday. But the P in the PEST analysis seems to be impinging on all our lives and businesses so much at the moment that you can’t ignore it.

According to one of the Sunday papers there was going to be a snap General Election: Comment Central followed up with the same story on Monday. Downing Street swiftly dismissed the idea as ‘nonsense.’

If you’re planning a holiday the rumoured date is May 4th – just six weeks away: and just about when we find out if France is going to follow Holland down the path of common sense, or whether Marine le Pen will be in the Elysee Palace. In which case, ‘cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war’ as Shakespeare wrote.

Over the next few weeks and months I suspect we’re all going to spend more time with the news bulletins than we’d like to – especially after Wednesday’s tragic events. So let’s turn to something lighter this week; specifically, Ikea’s Billy bookcase.

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In our time we’ve all shopped at Ikea: for beds, sofas, desks for our office and yes, a bookcase that even I can put together on a Saturday morning. The ubiquitous Billy bookcase: dreamed up in 1978 by a designer called Gillis Lundgren and sketched on the back of a napkin in case he forgot it.

There are now more than 60 million Billy bookcases scattered around the world – in very round figures, one for every 100 people on the planet. And so common – and far-flung – is the Billy Bookcase that Bloomberg use them to compare purchasing power. For example, a Billy costs £79 in Egypt: just £31 in Slovakia.

And thinking about the Billy Bookcase Index set me wondering: what other unusual economic indicators are there?

So let’s start with another tick in the ‘never say never’ column. I never thought I’d use the phrase ‘bodice ripper’ in this blog but yes, bodice ripping romance novels fly off the shelves in tough times. Sales were up 32% in 2008, the year of the economic crash. And the ‘high heel index’ confirms that heels also get higher during a recession.

Another indicator of tough economic times – sales of men’s underwear fall sharply, as we look to economise in areas that won’t be noticed. Hopefully… And, of course, more people grow their own fruit and veg: the number of households growing their own fruit, veg and herbs was up 19% in 2009.

What other indicators of the economy tanking are there? Fortunately we’re past this stage but a key indicator is the ‘Diaper rash index.’ During hard times parents try and save money by changing their babies’ nappies (yes, diapers to my American colleagues) less often – so sales of nappy rash cream increase.

Moving through life’s journey, there is an increase in first dates during a recession as people look to brighten the gloom. Match.com reported that the second quarter of 2008 was its busiest period for seven years.

And sadly, long after the mystery of the first date, there is an increase in the re-sale of burial plots when the economy is struggling, as people decide that cremation will be a cheaper option.

But my favourite indicator of hard times (literally) is the ‘marine intensity index.’ With the economy in trouble, more and more people apply to join the US marines. So to discourage applications from anyone who’s not 100% committed the Marine Corps toughen up their ads. Fast forward four years and if you see a marine wearing swimming trunks, carrying a 40lb pack and wading through Arctic water you’ll know that Trump’s economic reforms haven’t worked out too well…

What’s the best indicator that the economy is doing well? Garbage, rubbish, trash… As we produce and consume more, so there’s more rubbish. An analysis by Bloomberg put the correlation between volume of rubbish and the health of the economy as high as 82%.

As we might expect, we’re more willing to get divorced as the economy improves and the Swiss watch index soars into the stratosphere.

More worryingly (given my new role) the New HQ index also rises as the economy improves. Companies are more ready to spend the money on a new headquarters – not always with successful results. There’s an old stock market saw that says sell your stock when the MD or CEO announces an expensive new HQ and recently The New York Times, AOL and Time Warner have all fallen victim to the curse.

It is therefore with great pleasure that I can announce that TAB UK will still be at 15 Hornbeam Square next week – and I’ll be back with a post on ‘agile leadership…’

The Budget: the Shape of Things to Come?


But there’s also a problem: namely, where is the value you’re taxing actually created? If Apple builds an iPhone in Taiwan, using raw materials from Australia and advanced components from Brazil, to a design thought up in California (but partially in Oregon), then markets it in the UK, via a company based in Ireland, where is the value created?

(This is without even getting into the licensing and buying-back of intellectual property rights, or any number of other accounting dodges.)

That very pertinent question is from an article in Cap X that I read last week. More of it later: first, last week’s Budget.

Philip Hammond bounced confidently to his feet and delivered his first (and last – it’s moving to the autumn) Spring Budget speech. There was good news on the economy: growth forecasts were up, borrowing was down and the Government’s “plan was working.” He delivered some far better jokes than George Osborne and sat down to a loud chorus of approval from the Conservative backbenches. He may even have glanced sideways at Theresa May and concluded that in the event of the mythical fall-under-the-bus, Mrs Hammond would be odds-on to be measuring up for new curtains in 10 Downing Street.

He could look forward to a nightcap, a good night’s sleep and plenty of plaudits in the following day’s papers…

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Sadly not. Thursday morning’s newspapers were united in their condemnation.

‘Hammond breaks election pledges,’ said the Telegraph. ‘Hammond raids the self-employed to fund care,’ declared the i newspaper. The tabloids were significantly more direct: ‘Spite van man’ screamed the Sun. ‘Rob the Builder’ was the headline splashed across the Star.

Hammond’s crime? He had allocated money to fund social care – £2bn over the next three years – and one of the ways he planned to fund it was by raising the Class 4 National Insurance contributions paid by the 15% of the UK workforce who are self-employed.

By Friday morning more than 100 Conservative MPs were supposedly voicing their discontent, with Anne-Marie Trevelyan, the MP for Berwick-upon-Tweed, saying “it goes against every principle of Conservative understanding of business.” The Chancellor was roundly criticised for riding roughshod over David Cameron’s ‘5 year tax lock’ and the Conservative manifesto.

There’s no doubt that, politically, Hammond made a mistake. Wittingly or unwittingly he’s given the impression that the Government doesn’t like or trust the self-employed and those running small businesses. As the Spectator said, it seems ‘that he suspects them of being tax-dodgers, of using the NHS without paying for it.’

He may even have given an unintended boost to the black economy. If the legendary ‘white van man’ suspects he’s being taxed unfairly he might decide to do even more work for cash – and the Chancellor might end up with lower tax receipts, and very expensive egg on his face.

But let me say a word in defence of the Chancellor – and here we return to the quote from the Cap X article. In his speech Philip Hammond talked about “the challenges in globalisation, shifts in demographics and the emergence of new technologies.”

He’s right – the economic landscape is changing rapidly. More and more people are becoming self-employed or trading through limited companies: people are changing jobs far more frequently, and all too often they need to have two jobs, often combining employment and self-employment. As Cap X put it, a 20th Century tax system is failing to cope with a 21st Century labour market.

And it’s not just the labour market: look at retailing, where online, out-of-town, low tax distribution centres are wiping out the bricks-and-mortar, high street, highly taxed shops.

Right now the tax system is divorced from the way business operates. There will have to be changes over the coming years and it is simply another illustration of the point I’ve made continuously in this blog: business is changing, and the pace of change is accelerating.

In a future post I’m going to look at the growing trend towards ‘agile’ leadership and management. What the Budget – and its fall out – illustrates is that in the future we will all need to be increasingly agile as we face ever-faster change.

But for next week we might just be due something a little lighter: why Ikea bookcases are a vital economic indicator…

…And there, gentle reader, are the perils of including current events in your blog. I wrote this post on Tuesday evening and, as you’ll all know by now, The Chancellor performed a humiliating U-turn on Wednesday and the NIC increases have now been scrapped. (You can forget measuring up for curtains, Mrs H…) I was initially tempted to re-write this post but, on reflection, I think the U-turn illustrates my point even more forcibly: today’s tax system simply has to change to cope with today’s economy. Maybe Wednesday’s climb-down will bring those changes closer – but let’s hope that whichever Chancellor finally has the courage to undertake a wide-ranging review pays more attention to detail than the Rt. Hon member for Runnymede and Weybridge did last week…

It’s Time for E-levels


There’s a simple truth that all parents know. Letters from school are very rarely good news:

It has come to our notice that…

It is with some concern that I write to you regarding your son…

And, of course

The school nurse has regrettably informed me of an outbreak of head lice.

Yes, almost always bad news: unless of course, your son or daughter goes to Saint Francis High School in Mountain View, California.

Last week the Principal sent out a rather unusual letter: Dear Parents, we’ve made $24m…

You may have seen that Snap Inc. – parent company of messaging app Snapchat – floated on the New York Stock Exchange. The company has never made a profit – last year it lost $515m – but that didn’t stop investors piling into the stock, attracted by Snapchat’s 161m daily users. The price rose from the initial $17 a share to end the opening day at $24.48 – valuing the company at $28bn.

That was good news for the company’s backers, great news for the two founders, Evan Spiegel and Bobby Murphy, both still in their twenties and both now multi-billionaires – and quite extraordinary news for Saint Francis High.

Back in 2012 the school – encouraged by one of their parents who had seen how excited his children were by a fledgling app – invested $15,000 in a little known start-up. That start-up was Snapchat and, five years later, the principal has been able to write to parents regarding the small matter of $24m. We can assume that the cake stall won’t be so crucial in the future…

Meanwhile in the UK there’s a crisis over school funding. I was listening to Radio 4 the other morning when the head of Altrincham Grammar School for Boys said that the school was considering asking for voluntary contributions of £30 to £40 per month from parents, with “many other” schools also apparently considering a similar move.

One head teacher went much further, suggesting that if the funding problems couldn’t be resolved she would need to run her school on a four-day week, scrap the sixth-form or remove arts subjects from the curriculum.

Despite this, Philip Hammond, our (relatively) new Chancellor, has committed himself to spending £500m on vocational education. The move was trailed on Sunday morning’s Andrew Marr Show and confirmed in Wednesday’s Budget. It’s a bid to train more skilled workers and thereby boost productivity and the UK economy. The plans will see 15 ‘routes’ into employment, linked specifically to the needs of employers.

The government is calling these plans – due to be introduced from the 2019/2020 academic year – “the most ambitions educational reform since the introduction of A-levels some 70 years ago.” The new qualifications will be known as ‘T-levels’ and will increase the amount of training available to 16-19 year olds by 50%.

And I’m absolutely in favour of the move. I don’t often quote former shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna, but he was right when he said, “It takes the British worker to Friday to do what the equivalent French or German worker will do by Thursday afternoon.”

The country has to close the productivity gap – but let’s not stop at T-levels. Let’s have E-levels as well.

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Yes, let’s see Entrepreneurship on the National Curriculum.

Why shouldn’t schools take a leaf out of Saint Francis High’s book and invest in emerging local companies? And why shouldn’t Entrepreneurship be a recognised subject alongside Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths?

The scientist, the engineer or the mathematician might well go on to start a business in the future. But they won’t do that without the entrepreneurial spark: if there was ever an education secretary brave enough to kindle that flame and put Entrepreneurship on the curriculum then he or she would have done the country an enormous service.

Because let us be clear on one thing: it is the entrepreneur, not Government policy, that creates jobs and growth. It is the entrepreneur’s willingness to sacrifice security, to put his house on the line, to give up sick pay and holiday pay and pursue a dream that, yes, benefits himself and his family. But at the same time it also enriches – figuratively and literally – the country and the wider economy.

Should We Worry about Germany?


No, I haven’t travelled back to the 1930s. Or to extra time in 1966

But in this era of increasing globalisation – and especially in the aftermath of the Brexit vote – ‘should we worry about Germany’ is a valid question. Specifically, should companies in North Yorkshire worry about European competitors poaching their top talent?

There was an interesting – and disturbing – article on the BBC business pages earlier this month. The gist of it, drawing extensively on quotes from the fund manager Neil Woodford, was that the UK is “appallingly bad” at funding tech start-ups. Small companies aren’t receiving the funding they need to grow: “We’ve been appallingly bad at giving these minnows the long-term capital they need,” said Woodford.

So if start-ups can’t get the funding and support they need in the UK, where will they go? And will talented young people become disillusioned and be tempted abroad?

There’s been no shortage of articles recently championing Germany – and Berlin in particular – as the likely new ‘start-up capital of Europe.’ ‘Berlin to usurp London’ as Geektime put it. No doubt about it: the coming years are going to be exciting for my TAB colleagues in Berlin: ‘Guten Morgen’ to Frank, Thomas and Ralf.

But it’s not just Berlin: the website EU-startups lists the top 15 start-up hubs in Europe: the UK has just one on the list and – post-Brexit – the situation won’t improve.

The anecdotal evidence is there as well: every friend I have with older, university educated children says the same thing. The children all voted Remain, and they all see their future in the UK as a part of Europe, not in the UK as an isolated country. “Two days after the vote he came home for the weekend and told me he wanted to live in Berlin,” as one person lamented to me.

So could the UK – and more pertinently could you – start to lose top talent to Europe?

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It’s not a danger we should under-estimate. Taking Berlin as an example, the arguments in favour of moving are well-rehearsed: the cost of renting around half what it is in London and a pool of talent from all over Europe. And Germany is by any standards a remarkably successful economy – a trade surplus of €20bn or thereabouts month after month after month. Some parts of the Eurozone may be struggling but the German ‘engine’ keeps on running.

And they’re enterprising: soon after the Brexit vote many of London’s start-up technology companies began receiving letters from Berlin. A promotional bus from Berlin drove round the streets of Shoreditch. As Berlin senator Cornelia Yzer put it: “We’re a vibrant city, we attract talent from all over the world. Maybe it’s the right location for a London based company … to make sure they’re part of the EU in future.”

London today, York tomorrow? After all, if you’re going to be part of ‘Generation Rent’ you might as well be paying a lot less rent…

I don’t think so.

York remains an outstanding place to start – and build – a business. As we’ll see at York Business Week in November, there’s a real buzz about the place, a real sense that anything is possible. In many ways the atmosphere in York reminds me of the almost tangible feeling of potential in Denver.

And York has plenty to offer start-ups with The Hub, The Catalyst and the business support available at the Eco Centre.

But talent is scarce – and in greater demand than it’s ever been. Some businesses in York have to fight against the ‘lure’ of Leeds, never mind Berlin!

So the onus – as ever – is on you. Another buck stops on your desk…

The best way to recruit and retain the best talent – whatever the competition – is to lead. That means setting out a clear direction for your company, involving everyone, delegating, recognising your team’s achievements and, above all, making sure they all buy into your vision.

Do that successfully and the burghers of Berlin can drive as many buses as they like round the York ring road!

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.