The Murky World of the Dark Web


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What exactly is the Dark Web? 

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

So is the Dark Web just for criminals? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

So should we still worry? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Exactly the opposite. 

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

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

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

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

He swiftly re-considered…

Face to Face with the Future


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

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

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

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

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

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

How does facial recognition work? 

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

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

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

Are we already on the database? 

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

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

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

Facial recognition in the business world 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Fortnite is a Long Time in Politics


I seem to do it every year. Write half the blog before I go on holiday and half as soon as I come back. This year it seemed to make extra sense to do that, given that our politicians could very easily have rendered anything I’d written at the end of July wholly irrelevant by the middle of August…

As you know I have two boys, Dan and Rory. They’re both teenagers now but we’ve never had any problems with them. They’re hard-working, dedicated and committed. Yep, even in the summer holidays. They broke up from school and immediately went straight to their bedrooms, completely focused on their future careers. 

What was that? Doctor? Solicitor? Accountant? 

Have a word with yourself. This is 2019 – and there’s only one possible career for a self-respecting teenager. 

Professional Fortnite player. Call of Duty at a pinch…

I remember reading an article maybe ten years ago. ‘Video games will take the place of traditional sport’ it boldly prophesied. Right, I thought, as if anything could replace the experience of live sport. An afternoon at St James’s Park: England vs. Scotland at Murrayfield…

And at the end of July the future arrived, as US teenager Kyle Geirsdorf won $3m (£2.49m €2.68m) as he became world champion of the computer game Fortnite. And no, I’m not insulting your intelligence. I converted it to pounds and euros simply to help me get my head round the figures. 

The total prize pool for the event was $30m – easily putting the Fortnite World Championship on a par with some of the biggest ‘traditional’ sports events. 

If you want absolute proof that the world is changing – and changing in ways we barely contemplated a few years ago – look no further than your teenager’s bedroom. 

Of course, you might well argue that the future arrived in more ways than one in that week as – to no-one’s surprise – Boris Johnson easily beat Jeremy Hunt and became our new Prime Minister. 

Johnson undoubtedly epitomises something that has been a running theme of this blog from Day 1: the job of a leader is to lead. He’s unquestionably saying, ‘That’s the direction we’re going in. Follow me.’ 

As the Spectator put it, ‘His mission, as leader, is to project confidence and optimism from the top. After three years of Mrs Dithers we need a bit of courage and guts in Number 10, a sense of purpose and a relish for attack.’ 

But – and this is a very big ‘but’ – Johnson used to be the editor of the Spectator. The magazine has not changed its political stance since and broadly reflects his views. 

I am rather less optimistic. 

Both the UK and Europe now seem to accept that leaving the EU with ‘no deal’ is the most likely outcome. Everyone who knows me is aware that I think that would be a disaster. 

So while Boris Johnson may be demonstrating leadership, it is surely factional leadership. He may be consistent in his message, but that message has no hope of uniting the country. 

Neither am I an expert on parliamentary law and precedent: but again, it seems that even democracy is going to play second fiddle to delivering an outcome whose sole concern is how it plays in a General Election.

Boris Johnson may well find himself spending Christmas in Downing Street with an increased majority, but the way that majority is achieved will, I think, do lasting damage to the political and social fabric of our country. 

Some of you, I’m sure, will disagree with me. But a blog like this has to be a reflection of the writer’s personal views. And I think there are real business lessons to be drawn from these two seemingly unrelated stories. 

What does the success of Fortnite tell us? That things are changing: they’re changing quickly and they’re changing in ways we never imagined even a few years ago. And because of that leadership is going to be more important than ever. But leadership is about more than gestures and personal popularity. It is about taking people with you and keeping the country – or your company – united in a common purpose. 

So here I am back at my desk after a week in Portugal. We’re now less than 11 weeks away from October 31stand there’ll be 4½ months left of the year. We know only two things for certain: all of us running businesses are going to face unprecedented challenges – and you’re much better equipped to meet those challenges as a member of TAB UK.

[One note of housekeeping: this post is late because of being in Portugal. I’ll be publishing the next one on August 30th, as I’m shortly off to the TAB conference in Denver. The normal fortnightly cycle will resume from September 6th.] 

A New TAB Member joins TAB York


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

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

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

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

Theresa: 17.4 million

David: And how many directors?

Theresa: 650

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

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

Lee: Did you appoint this ‘cabinet?’

Theresa: Yes

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

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

Ed: Any more questions, chaps?

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

Theresa: I’m thinking of three years

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cabinet at war as May begs for Brextra time

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

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

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

Getting EUsed to Making Decisions

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

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

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

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

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

A New TAB Member leaves TAB EUork

Meanwhile, back in York…

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

David: Which deal?

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

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

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

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

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

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


Ed Reid – MD of TAB UK

Read more of Ed’s Blogs here:

The Power of Momentum


I was going to talk about momentum this week – the irresistible force that can carry an entrepreneur and a business forward like a surfer catching a wave.

…But first of all I suppose I’d better comment on the two national sideshows. In their own way they’re both fine examples of momentum in action. But a caveat: I’m writing these opening paragraphs on Tuesday morning. But the time you read the blog Downing Street and the England dressing room may be very different places…

Monday brought us the resignation of David Davis and Boris Johnson. More government resignations are rumoured to be imminent. Her Majesty’s Government most certainly has momentum, but sadly it’s the momentum of a downward spiral. ‘Complete shambles’ doesn’t even begin to describe it and Boris Johnson’s reported comment – “£$%& business!” – all too accurately reflects what most politicians think about the people who produce the country’s wealth.

So let’s talk about momentum of a much happier type. Again, Croatia might have had something to say by the time you read this, but for now Gareth Southgate can do no wrong. As I write, the England team’s momentum is carrying them straight to the Luzhniki Stadium on Sunday afternoon.

…Ah, damn it. It’s now Thursday night: football’s not coming home. At least not until 2020.

Does that mean the momentum of the England team has been stopped dead in its tracks? Far from it: people are already talking enthusiastically about the 2020 Euros. Southgate doesn’t think his team will peak until 2024.

And the nation has fallen back in love with the national team. Southgate himself has a lot to do with that: engaging, honest, articulate – and clearly a great man-manager. He’s trusted his players, believed in them and given them a clear direction. They’ve responded by giving him every last drop of blood, sweat and – sadly on Wednesday – tears.

Colombia-v-England-Round-of-16-2018-FIFA-World-Cup-Russia

But give them a week and the team’s morale and momentum will be right back where it was. Goodness knows where our government’s momentum will be in a week’s time, so we’d better talk about business…

Momentum is a subject that comes up a lot at TAB meetings – whether it is a meeting of business owners or TAB franchisees. No-one says ‘momentum,’ obviously. They’re ‘on a roll,’ or ‘can’t do anything wrong.’ Meanwhile across the table someone else is ‘stuck in a rut’ and ‘doesn’t know where the next sale is coming from.’

We have all been there – and experienced both emotions. I very clearly remember thinking that I would never, ever sell anything to anyone ever again. I can picture exactly where I was when my phone buzzed with yet another ‘no thanks’ to TAB York and I began to have doubts…

What’s astonishing is how quickly momentum can change. You see it in sport and you very definitely see it in business. And what’s equally astonishing is that it can change with something relatively unimportant: a small sale, someone you’d written off getting back to you – or just getting some exercise and feeling better about yourself.

That’s why mental resilience is so important in business: we all go through periods when we can do no wrong – and we all have those moments of self-doubt. As I’ve written many times, what’s important is consistency of effort: do that and – in the long run – the results will take care of themselves. And when the momentum is with you, then you’ll be unstoppable.

Which takes me back to England, the Euros and 2020. The final’s at Wembley: book your ticket now…

(The end of this month will find the Reid family booked into Hotel California for a much-anticipated family holiday. If you’re going away in the next four weeks have a wonderful time, and – assuming we can check out and want to leave – the blog will be back on August 10th.)

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…

The Irresistible Rise of the Entrepreneur


Mid-November. Dark, cold, gloomy. You leave your house in the dark, you come home in the dark. It’s freezing, the fog hangs in the Vale of York – and only the brave travel from Pickering to Whitby without a clove of garlic and a silver bullet in the car…

November is by common consent the most depressing month of the year: which is why I am going to write one of my most upbeat blog posts, celebrating the irresistible – and very optimistic – rise of the British entrepreneur.

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It’s not just November: the bickering continues around the Brexit negotiations; the Bank of England have said inflation will remain high, placing more pressure on wages; we have a rudderless Government and an Opposition committed to turning us into Venezuela.

Despite all this, the optimism, endeavour and commitment of the British entrepreneur continue to shine through.

New research from the Hampshire Trust Bank and the Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR) has revealed that the number of small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) in the UK has grown by almost a quarter over the last five years. The FSB now puts the number of private sector businesses at 5.5m.

Leading the way in the CEBR survey was the ‘office administration and business sector’ with the number of SMEs increasing by 76% between 2011 and 2016. Second place went to ‘human health services’ with a 50% rise.

The cynic might retort that this is not real growth; it is simply people becoming virtual assistants or personal trainers.

But it is Friday morning: the glass is not so much half full as running over. Every business has to start somewhere: Apple was once a college dropout building a computer in his garage. Virgin was once someone who left school at 16 selling records in a student magazine.

Small businesses are unquestionably good for the economy – they are innovative, they drive growth and they stimulate local economies. If Tesco want a shop fitting out they use a national firm: if it is the local florist, then there’s work for the local electrician, joiner, glazer and plumber.

Some interesting statistics also came out of HSBC’s second Essence of Enterprise report, which found British entrepreneurs looking to the future with confidence, on average expecting their businesses to grow by 62% over the next five years. Perhaps worryingly though, Britain is creating fewer technology start-ups than other countries – 17% compared to a global average of 24%. (And yet half of our schools still don’t offer a GCSE in Computer Science. Madness, Mrs May, madness…)

Perhaps the most interesting point to emerge from the HSBC report was on motivation. Today’s entrepreneurs are driven not solely by money (sometimes not even by money) but by a desire to have a positive impact on society – something which absolutely chimes with the philosophy of TAB, not just in this country but around the world.

What I find fantastic is that the entrepreneurial flame burns at both ends of the age spectrum. Over the last ten years the number of businesses run by the over 55s has risen by 63% – but that is eclipsed by the number of entrepreneurs past the theoretical retirement age. People over 65 now run 140% more businesses than they did ten years ago.

But if you want to be really encouraged, read this report on the festival of young entrepreneurs which has just taken place in London. It holds out so much hope for the future of the country – although with entrepreneurs as young as nine, it makes me feel positively old.

But someone who is even closer to a new hip (well, hopefully…) is Philip Hammond who, on Wednesday next week, will present the first Autumn Budget. He has a lot to do to build bridges with the small business community: many people are still angry at his ill-conceived raid on the self-employed in the last Budget.

So what do I want to see from the Budget? More than anything I want to see a Budget which shows the Government understands what it means to be an entrepreneur: that they understand the risks – both personal and financial – in setting up a small business. Entrepreneurs and SMEs are not a cash cow to be milked, they are a source of employment, innovation and growth. They are the future of the economy.

Let’s hope that the Chancellor recognises that – or he risks a lot of those very optimistic and ambitious young entrepreneurs deciding that Berlin, Lisbon or San Francisco might be a more attractive place to develop their business…