John McDonnell and the Billionaires


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You get my drift. The list is endless. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Importance of Cyber-Security for Your Business


The strength of TAB UK: Defence and Attack

Good morning – and welcome to 2019. I hope you had a wonderful Christmas, that you have returned to work refreshed, re-focused and reinvigorated and, if it is not too late, a very Happy New Year to anyone I’ve not yet spoken to.

I’m writing this on Thursday, or – as it almost certainly should be labelled – Black Thursday. Ford are planning to slash thousands of jobs, Jaguar Land-Rover are going to make 5,000 people redundant and – in the least surprising headline of the year – Debenhams and M&S have reported poor trading figures for Christmas. The high street, apparently, had its ‘worst Christmas for a decade.’

In search of a rather more uplifting message to start the year, let’s leave the UK and head off to sunnier climes. Specifically, to Las Vegas which this week is hosting CES2019. CES stands for Consumer Electronics Show and this year (as it always does) it features some astonishing products: the Breadbot (a fresh loaf of bread every six minutes), the Foldimate (anyone with teenage children should simply watch the video and place an order) and a ‘smart toilet’ that talks to you.

Given that the smart toilet talks to you via the Alexa app and Alexa does have a previous reputation for broadcasting your conversations to your friends, I think we might pass on that one…

But much as I love fresh bread and the idea of my boys’ clothes being folded automatically, it is a rather more serious tech development that I’d like to talk about this morning.

The importance of a cyber-defence

A perennial theme of this blog has been the pace of technological developments. In 2019 they look set to go at an even faster pace – and while freshly baked bread and freshly pressed clothes might be something to look forward to, there are some rather more serious developments on the horizon…

One of the things writing and researching the blog has increasingly given me is an interest in tech and trends – and I’m delighted that former LastMinute CEO Helen Webb will be talking about ‘megatrends’ at our TAB Conference in May. So over Christmas – at least when Maison Reid was finally cleaned up after our ever-expanding Christmas Eve party – I read a lot of articles more or less entitled ‘Predictions for 2019.’

There was one prediction that struck me very forcibly – that 2019 could be the year when a piece of malware or ransomware takes down a FT-SE100 company.

Two years ago we were all worrying about the NotPetya ransomware attack, which caused millions of pounds worth of damage to countries and companies around the world. Two years on and you can be sure that the viruses, ransomware and the AI behind them are more sophisticated and more dangerous. So much so that security firm Gemalto made this prediction: that ‘an AI orchestrated attack will take down a FT-SE 100 company.’ This will apparently see a new generation of malware infect an organisation’s systems, gather information (presumably on customers, bank accounts and products) and then let loose a series of attacks that will ‘take down the company from the inside out.’

How will companies counter these AI attacks? With AI of their own. We are heading towards a world where it will not be man vs. machine, but machine vs. machine.

…Which, of course, is fine if you are a FT-SE100 companies with a ‘defence’ budget of millions. But no-one sitting around a TAB boardroom table is the boss of a FT-SE100 company. We are owners and directors of SMEs acutely conscious that if it can happen to the big boys, it can happen to us.

“Come with me if you want to live!”

That’s one of the reasons I see 2019 as a year when TAB UK will be more important than ever. Increasingly the problems brought to the TAB table will be about technology and the threats we might face: that they’ll be about defending your business as much as they’ll be about developing your business.

Fortunately TAB gives you the chance to learn from not only the six or seven other people around your table, it also gives you the chance to learn from every member in the UK. Rest assured that any advice and guidance on protecting our businesses will be swiftly and widely disseminated.

Right now it is difficult not to read the news and be depressed: the Brexit shambles, the continuing US/China trade war and – most crucially – no transfer budget at St James’ Park…

And yet I have never been more optimistic about a coming year. As I wrote in December, I am privileged to work with some hugely talented, hard-working and dedicated people. Working together through TAB, I am certain that we’ll all have a year to remember…


By Ed Reid, TAB UK Managing Director

Read more of Ed’s Blogs here:

Your Goals for 2019

How to Manage a Millennial

The Importance of Brand Perception

Lance-Corporal Jones and the Robocalypse


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

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

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

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

Candlemakers had a healthy business as well.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

EMB-Royal-Mail-special-stamp-programme

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

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

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

Carillion: Incompetence on an Industrial Scale


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

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

Carillion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Work/Life Support System


One of the facets of my new role within TAB is taking a wider view of the UK economy. That’s not to say I ignored it when I was owner of TAB York – but as MD of TAB UK I’m much more aware of the concerns and initiatives of organisations like the Institute of Directors and the Federation of Small Businesses.

…And last week brought a worrying report from the FSB. Their latest Small Business Index – carried out in the summer and based on a survey of more than 1,200 members – found that optimism among entrepreneurs had fallen sharply. Most worryingly, 13% of those who responded to the survey were looking for a way out of their business, the highest figure since the FSB began measuring in 2012.

OK: let’s introduce an immediate word of caution. I suspect if I were a disgruntled entrepreneur, desperately looking to sell my business I’d be far more likely to complete a survey like this than if everything were going well and orders were flying out of the door.

But that said, these are the worst figures the FSB have seen for five years. Rents, regulations, taxation and what Mike Cherry, FSB National Chairman, described as “the ridiculous staircase tax” all contributed to the entrepreneurs’ dissatisfaction.

Inevitably rising costs and uncertainty surrounding Brexit also received honourable mentions and they all – with the notable exception of the UK’s very cheerful export sector – contributed to a sharp fall in the FSB’s ‘optimism index.’

I wonder though, if it doesn’t go deeper than that for many entrepreneurs.

I’ve written previously about the ever-increasing impact of flexible working. If you’re looking to build your team and attract – and retain – the very best talent then offering flexible working is a must. Flexible hours, the option of working from home and genuine regard for someone’s work/life balance are all key.

But flexible working cuts both ways. One company’s flexible day can very easily equate to someone else’s 16 hour day.

I am not saying that we should all go back to 9 to 5 – that’s never going to happen. You can’t turn the clock back and remove flexible working, any more than you can – let’s take a ridiculous example – turn the clock back and ban a safe, convenient, modern, technology-driven ride sharing app…

In the old days it was very simple: if you wanted to succeed in business, you had to meet people. Face-to-face contact was essential.

Not so today: there are plenty of entrepreneurs out there – especially in the creative sector – who have never met their clients. “They’ve become my biggest client, Ed,” someone said to me the other day. “I think I’ve spoken to the MD twice on the phone. Everything else has been e-mail and Facebook messenger. I’ve got an address for invoicing but I’m not even sure where the MD’s based.”

That’s not unusual: for an increasing number of people running a business – whether they employ staff or not – equals sitting in front of a screen all day. And that must lead to more and more ‘lonely entrepreneurs.’

loneliness

Costs, taxation and ever increasing legislation all play their part in making the life of an entrepreneur difficult: but I just wonder how often loneliness is the final straw…

That’s why I believe the ‘work/life support system’ offered by The Alternative Board is so important: it’s why I believe the potential for us to grow in the future is so exciting. Some of you may have seen my recent profile in the Yorkshire Post – and yes, I absolutely believe that we can move from working with 350 business owners to over 1,000. And if we can do that we will very definitely benefit the UK economy.

But as I said in the article, sometimes as a business owner it’s difficult to know where to turn. I also said that I now realise how much I didn’t know when I started TAB York. One of the things I unquestionably didn’t know was how lonely life can be as an entrepreneur and how much having a support network can help.

Five years from now let’s hope the FSB are reporting that virtually no entrepreneurs are desperate to sell their businesses – and if TAB UK can play a part in that I’ll be absolutely delighted. Everyone needs friends: as the old saying has it, ‘Even the sharpest knife can’t cut it alone…’

The Valley of Clouds


You know how it is on a long flight: you read anything and everything. A history of the sword making industry in Toledo? What could be more fascinating?

So it was that somewhere at 30,000 feet I came across an article that included this quote: it’s from an author – and a bonus prize to anyone who guesses the author before the end of the post…

There’s a phrase I use called ‘The Valley Full of Clouds.’ Writing a novel is as if you are going on a journey across a valley. The valley is full of mist, but you can see the top of a tree here and the top of another tree over there. And with any luck you can see the other side of the valley. But you cannot see down into the mist. Nevertheless, you head for the first tree. At this stage in the book, I know a little about how I want to start, I know some of the things I want to do on the way. I think I know how I want it to end. And this is enough…

valley-of-clouds-06

That may well be a description of how the author wrote his books. Isn’t it also an exact analogy for the entrepreneur’s journey – the journey we’re all on?

The long flight took me to Denver, for TAB’s annual conference – as many of you know, one of my favourite weeks of the year. It was great to meet so many old friends and (as always with TAB) make plenty of new ones. The best part of it for me? It was simply going back to basics. After the whirlwind of becoming the MD of TAB UK – after spending so many hours with solicitors, bankers and accountants – it was wonderful to be reminded of the simple truth of why we do what we do.

That’s why the quotation chimed so exactly with me: all of us start our journey with a lot of faith and not much in the way of a ‘map.’ As the quote says, we know where we want to get to, we can see a few staging posts along the way: but the rest we’re going to discover on the journey – and we accept that there’ll be plenty of wrong turns.

So when we start the valley is full of mist – but we can emphatically see the other side. Most importantly, we can see the people we love on the other side of the valley, financially secure and happy. We can see our future selves as well – not just financially secure, but fulfilled because we have achieved what we set out to achieve and realised our full potential.

I know some of the things I want to do on the way. Yes, when we start our entrepreneur’s journey we do know some of the things we want to do: in my experience we want to do things differently, ethically.

And sure, we can see the top of one or two trees – but none of us can see down into the mist. We can’t see the route we’re going to take.

And that might be just as well, because if the mist cleared and we saw all the late nights and missed weekends, the deadlines and the stress, we might decide that the journey across the valley isn’t worth it.

Trust me, it is.

Some members of TAB UK have just reached the first tree. Some of them are a long way across the valley and plenty have reached the other side. Building a business is exactly like walking through the mist – but if you have a guide, someone who can say ‘I was here a year ago. This is the path I took’ then you are going to cross the valley much more quickly, with far fewer wrong turns.

Let me finish with another reflection on Denver. It was absolutely inspiring: TAB is now in 16 countries and is becoming a truly international organisation. The latest country to launch is India – along with China one of the two fastest growing major economies in the world and a country almost synonymous with the entrepreneurial spirit.

As always it will take me about a month to process everything that went on and everything I learned in the week. But I came away with one key reflection: the strength of our team here in the UK. The calibre of the people involved is both humbling and inspiring. Truly, if you are at any stage on the entrepreneur’s journey – just starting or halfway across the author’s Valley Full of Clouds – you could not wish for better guides than the TAB UK team.

The author? The late Terry Pratchett.

The Road to 2017


Last week Keaton Jennings made his debut for England, playing against India in Mumbai.

He was dropped off the 21st ball of the day. At the time he’d made 0. Had the catch been taken, he couldn’t have made a worse start to his test career. But it wasn’t – and by the end of the day Jennings was the hero, scoring 112 – only the 19th England player to make a hundred on debut.

Listening to a recap of the first day’s play one of the summarisers made a really important point: even if Jennings had made 0, even if he’d failed in his first few innings, he still looked right. ‘We get too focused on outcomes in very small samples,’ he said.

stock-photo-86282325-empty-road-to-upcoming-2017-against-the-big-cloud

That’s something to keep in mind as you head into 2017. You’ve now made – or you’re close to finalising – your plans for the year ahead. You’re convinced they’re the right plans. You’ve run them past your colleagues and in January you’ll do the same with your fellow Board members. Come Tuesday January 3rd they’re the plans that will guide you through the year.

So don’t lose heart if you get a duck in January. If the plans don’t work immediately, don’t rip them up. Refine, tweak, adjust, get outside the line of off stump: but remember that the first month of the year – like the first steps in building a business or the first few innings in a test career – is a ‘very small sample.’

Anyway, the end of 2016 is approaching. You may now be tempted to breathe a sigh of relief. You may carelessly think, ‘Phew, thank the Lord that’s over. Leicester City, Brexit, Trump… Surely we can’t have another year that’s so unpredictable?’

‘Yes we can,’ is the answer to that question: I suspect there may be quite a few twists, turns and bumps along the road in 2017. Domestically Brexit will be triggered: how it will end, no-one (least of all the Government) knows. And I wouldn’t be entirely surprised to see Theresa May call a General Election next year, Fixed Term Parliament Act or not…

But it’s my colleagues in TAB Europe who’ll see their countries become the focus of attention next year. March brings a General Election in Holland with the far-right Freedom Party currently on course to become the largest single party. The French Presidential election is in April/May – the signs are that it will be fought out between Marine le Pen of the Front National and the likely winner, the right’s self-confessed admirer of Margaret Thatcher, Francois Fillon.

And then in September there are elections in Germany: Angela Merkel will seek a fourth term, but she will surely come under plenty of pressure from the right-wing Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD).

May you live in interesting times’ as the supposedly-Chinese curse has it. I suspect we’ll look back on 2017 and decide that ‘interesting’ was an understatement. So next year will not be a year to take your eye off the ball. No, don’t panic if your plans are not on track by January 31st. Even if the world changes so much next year that you need to completely re-write your original plans, remember the words of Dwight D Eisenhower, “In preparing for battle, I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”

What you will need to do next year is keep a close watch on your metrics: the two or three key statistics, ratios or measurements that absolutely determine the health of your business – the ‘pulse’ that I’ve talked about in previous posts.

Through December I’ve had the remarkably enjoyable job of listening to TAB members reflect on the past year: I’m delighted to say that far more has gone right than has gone wrong. Has there been a common thread running through the success stories – apart from measuring those key metrics?

Yes, I think there has. ‘Resilience’ and ‘consistency’ are the two words that come to mind: TAB members have consistently done the right thing and stayed true to their beliefs and their vision. And as a result, they’re reaping the rewards.

So 2017 will be challenging: I suspect the old PEST analysis will be wheeled out several times. But like all years, it will also be full of opportunities: and however challenging, the plans you’ve made, the metrics you measure and the support of your TAB colleagues will ensure that you couldn’t be in better shape to greet the coming year…

A Conversation with my Wife


Last week I discussed ‘permission.’ That my job is very often about giving an entrepreneur ‘permission’ to grow: to open the door and see what it could be like, to see the potential for himself and his company. But as I wrote last week:

…Going through that door can be painful. Because you’ll need to have a couple of conversations: one with your team, admitting that maybe you don’t have all the answers. And one with your spouse or partner, saying that you have room to grow: that you’ve had a dream, and you’re going to pursue it…

It’s the second of those painful conversations I want to look at this week. There’s no doubt at all that setting up and building a business puts a strain on a relationship. If you Google ‘business success leads to divorce’ the number of results is terrifying.

But sometimes a regular blog needs to go into deep water. Besides, we’ve tackled loneliness and depression in previous blogs: why not marriage guidance?

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(A note on pronouns before I start. As around 75-80% of TAB members are men, and as I’m going to relate this to my own experience, I’ve used ‘he’ for the entrepreneur and ‘she’ for the partner. But swap them round and every point I make is at least equally valid.)

So let me share some of my own story…

When I pushed breakfast round my plate in Watford Gap services and made the decision to start my own business, it wasn’t just a decision about me: it was a decision about my family as well. And yes, it lead to a lengthy conversation with my wife. It also lead to a couple of years of being largely dependent on Dav’s income: years when I was building TAB York and Dav paid the price in going without a lot of life’s luxuries.

Dav’s income allowed me to pursue my dream. You might say that in the same way I give an entrepreneur permission to look through the door, my wife gave me that same permission. I’ll be eternally grateful for that.

Were there some tough times in the first two years? Was the cash flow – with two young children – strained at times? Did it get a little tense occasionally?

Yes to all three.

As I’ve already said, starting a business puts a strain on a relationship. But it’s not just the cash flow – and now we move into real Venus and Mars territory.

The entrepreneur starts a business: his thoughts go something like this:

I’m starting this business for the benefit of my family. Sure things are going to be tough for a while, but ultimately we’ll all benefit. She must be able to see that – and she must be able to see that I’ll go insane if I stay where I am.

His wife takes a different view:

Our security’s gone out of the window. We might not be able to pay the mortgage this month. The kids need new clothes and I need a holiday. And all for what? So that he can spend his days trying to build “a better widget.” Like the world needs another widget…

Then there’s attention: or lack of it. As Dav would tell you, there were plenty of times in the early days of TAB York when I was ‘there but not there.’ All entrepreneurs are the same. Suddenly your head is full of staff who aren’t performing, suppliers who aren’t supplying, the inevitable cash flow problems. It’s all too easy to forget the things you used to do together: date nights, weekends away, the simple act of listening when your partner is talking to you…

Communication is vital in building your business. It’s vital when you come home as well – especially when you’re no longer the boss, but an equal partner.

I often write about the importance of communicating the vision you have for your business. There’s an exact parallel with a relationship. I don’t want to use the word ‘vision’ as it’s too impersonal: but you need to keep focused on the future; on what you want for the family, and for each other.

That’s what Dav and I had – and it’s what we still have. And more than anything, that helps you keep business in perspective.

So yes, there were tough times: some triumphs and some disasters. But as my pal Kipling would say, we tried to treat those two impostors just the same. And we met with pizza instead of steak and treated those two just the same as well…

Does Brexit Really Matter?


Friday June 24th – and today is potentially the most important day in the six years I’ve been writing this blog.

As you read this, you’ll know whether we’ve voted to remain in the EU, or whether ‘Leave’ has won the day.

I’m writing these notes on Wednesday: I hope – and I have to believe – that common sense and a vision of the UK really playing its part in the wider world will have prevailed. I hope we’ve voted Remain by a significant margin – enough to settle the issue not just for a generation, but for several generations to come.

So now let’s talk about Chinese Corporate Debt…

If you’ve given up on your football team and started supporting the International Monetary Fund instead, you’ll know that its First XI were recently playing away in China. And after a fortnight of meetings with Chinese bankers and high-ranking Communist Party officials they came away issuing stark warnings.

The source of their displeasure was Chinese debt.

You may at this point say ‘what debt?’ And on the face of it, you’d have a point. After all, China regularly generates a trade surplus of $40-50bn every month. The economy may be slowing down – but growth of 6.7% in the last quarter is something George Osborne can only fantasise about.

But the IMF believe much of this growth has been built on unsustainable levels of corporate debt – especially among State Owned Enterprises (SOE’s). These organisations produce only 22% of China’s output but account for 55% of its corporate debt – which in total, is equal to one and a half times GDP.

Why am I making this point on the morning of the Referendum result?

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For this reason. The IMF believe that the current level of Chinese corporate debt is unsustainable. If they’re right – and if the chicken comes home to roost – then there’ll be significant sectors of the Chinese economy unable to fulfil orders, unable to pay their suppliers and unable to service their loans.

Cue problems for the banks, cue problems for the rest of the Chinese economy – and therefore, cue problems for the wider world economy. And possibly, for your business as well…

So you may or may not be celebrating this morning. The question I’m asking is, ‘Will the victory for Leave or Remain be a key factor in the success of your business?’

I’d suggest the answer will be ‘no.’ I’d suggest that over the next five years other events in the political and economic arena will be at least as influential as what happens today.

Political and economic events may shape the landscape – but it’s how you react to them, how you navigate the landscape that makes the difference. As business owners we’re the masters of our destiny. The four horsemen of the PEST analysis – Politics, Economics, Social and Technological change – may make the waters choppy, but the most important factor will always be how we sail the ship.

I appreciate that the last few weeks have been difficult for many TAB York members: like stock markets, businesses need certainty and “I’m sorry about your cash flow but I can’t make a decision at the moment” has been heard all too often in the past few weeks and months.

This morning – for good or ill – we know where we stand. From now on it’s the quality of the decisions we make about our lives and our businesses that will determine our success – however we choose to define that success. But – and as always, this is a big ‘but’ – the one thing we can be sure of in the future is change. If the champagne corks are popping at Leave HQ, the British political landscape won’t be quite the same again. Then there’s Trump vs. Clinton, the continuing threat of terrorism – and the Chinese corporate debt…

What can we be certain of? That whatever difficult decisions you have to make in business, TAB York will be there to help. That seven brains are better than one: that the collective wisdom of your colleagues will help you make better decisions – and, when it’s needed, keep a sense of perspective.

So if you’re depressed by the result of the Referendum, take heart. If you’ve backed the winning side, remember it doesn’t automatically guarantee the success of your business. That will always be down to you, to the decisions you make, and the support team you build around you.

Dealing with the Dark Side


A great half term, a brilliant family holiday and – like my trip to Australia – absolute confirmation of why I run my own business.

But as I wrote two weeks ago, it’s time to consider the darker side of being an entrepreneur. How to cope when it’s all going wrong.

So my Google search was fairly straightforward – and back came the regulation 26.7m results. Almost without exception they failed to address my query.

Coping with failure is the key for entrepreneurial success. Don’t see it as a failure; see it as a learning experience.

That’s all very fine. It’s easy to trot out the old clichés, and all successful entrepreneurs have had their share of failure. Equally, you’d expect the vast majority of articles about entrepreneurship to be unremittingly positive.

But this blog has always sought to address the real world. Entrepreneurs are by nature optimistic people, but everyone running a business will – sooner or later – go through tough times.

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We’ll go through times when we wonder if we’ve made the right decision, we’ll go through times when the old security of the corporate world seems remarkably seductive – and we’ll go through times when we wonder if the price is worth paying, both for us and the family we’ve dragged along on the journey.

And once or twice in our entrepreneurial careers, we’ll go through times when the ship seems to be heading for the rocks.

So the question is, how do you cope? I’m not talking about the practical here – solving the immediate problems, keeping everyone informed, stringent cost control – I’m talking about you.

How does the entrepreneur cope when the easiest decision might be to wave the white flag? How do you stop yourself going mad? How do you put on a brave face and focus on sports day, not on what is – or isn’t – happening back at the office?

If that’s what you’re going through right now, here are five strategies that work. These themes are remarkably common in talking to entrepreneurs who’ve ‘been there, done that’ – and eventually steered the ship away from rocks.

Remind yourself why you started

…And remind yourself that if it was easy, everyone would be doing it. You started because you wanted to build something and you wanted to define your own future. Creating anything that worthwhile will involve some pain – and remember the old adage: ‘the only thing harder than carrying on is giving up.’

Take the opportunity to make changes

Tough times can be an opportunity as well: take the chance to make some hard decisions about what’s really working and what’s not working. That might be parts of the business – or it might be people. Sometimes difficult times force you to make the decisions you’ve been putting off for far too long.

Keep the end in mind

This is self-explanatory. Remind yourself why you started this journey – and remind yourself where it’s going to end. That can be incredibly difficult when you’re fire-fighting, but force yourself to do it. Lift your eyes up and look at the eventual destination. Trust me, when the fires are out, you’ll be more determined than ever to reach it.

Walk…

Do some exercise, release some endorphins. No problem was ever solved by eating junk food and gaining half a stone. Get out there in the fresh air, walk up a hill and somehow it puts problems into perspective – and often presents a solution.

…And talk

You’re not the only parent whose teenage daughter has just slammed the door and walked off into the night – and you’re not the only entrepreneur who’s ever had this problem. There is an absolute wealth of experience around any TAB boardroom table, and I’d be amazed if one of the members hasn’t experienced – and solved – whatever problem is facing you right now.

And next week I’ll take a look at one of those problems – one that everyone building a business faces sooner or later. Until then, have a great weekend.