Lance-Corporal Jones and the Robocalypse


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

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

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

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

Candlemakers had a healthy business as well.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Darker Thoughts from an Old Friend


I bumped into an old friend in York last week. He was wearing a suit. And a tie. This was the man who became bored with dress-down Friday – and dress-down every other day of the week – when the rest of us were still learning not to wear a striped tie with a check shirt…

There was only one possible explanation.

“Congratulations,” I said. “You’ve finally made an honest woman of Claire. Where is she?”

He didn’t laugh. “Other end of the scale I’m afraid, Ed. Funeral. My second in two weeks. And both of them not much older than us.”

We’ve all been there: mentioned someone in conversation only to hear, ‘Hasn’t anyone told you? Last Thursday. No warning, nothing.” And inevitably the person being discussed was ‘not much older than us.’

That meeting with my friend played on my mind for the next few days. One thing I am sure of is that there is an ever-increasing level of stress in the average entrepreneur’s life. A few years ago people e-mailed or phoned. Now there is myriad of different ways of contacting someone: whatever you turn off, something else will bleep just as you sit down to dinner.

And we all know the dangers of stress.

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So that chance meeting with my friend stayed with me – not just because we’d been talking about someone close to our own age, but because the conversation posed a question that’s absolutely central to The Alternative Board.

You’ve started a business. You know what you want to achieve: you know what you’re capable of achieving. And you’re determined to get there.

So what do you do? How do you react when someone says, ‘haven’t you heard?’

Do you take it as a signal to run at 100mph in case the same thing happens to you and you never realise your potential?

Or do you stop and smell the roses? Pay attention to your work/life balance? Remind yourself that no-one’s last words have ever been, ‘I wish I’d spent more time at the office.’

The more I thought about it the more I realised I’d seen business owners – perhaps without even recognising it – struggling with the same dilemma. And not just as a one-off.

It’s a problem that raises it head, in different forms, at different stages of your entrepreneur’s journey.

What should I do? Put in the time? Re-invest the cash? And build a company that will really be worth something in 10 or 20 years’ time?

Or realise that I might not get there – and milk the business for all its worth and take my rewards in the here and now.

The answer, of course, is that there is no right answer. The right answer depends on your own individual personality and how you want to live your life. As everyone who knows me will recognise, I’m in the ‘building a business’ camp – and I’m determined to enjoy the journey along the way, sharing that journey with my family and my friends.

Yes, I could be in the office every minute of every day – but I remember waking up one Tuesday morning early in my TAB York days. It was a morning like today: early May and the sun was shining in through the window. I looked at the pile of paperwork on my desk and went off to play 9 holes of golf.

It was a moment when I suddenly appreciated the freedom the decision to start my own business had given me – and when I knew I’d made the right decision in Newport Pagnell service station.

Not every entrepreneur would have taken that decision: some would have ploughed through the paperwork. The important thing, I think, is to recognise what works for you – and what you want from your business.

Whatever choice you make – whether you take your rewards now or later – remember that the business is working for you. It is emphatically not the other way around.

The Entrepreneur’s Journey: Taking the First Steps


So you’ve done it. You’ve pushed your breakfast round the plate, wondered why you weren’t with your family and said, ‘That’s it. There has to be a better way.’

And a few days later you’ve burned your bridges – or at least written a letter which can be boiled down to two words: ‘I resign.’

Child Climbing Steps

You’ve committed yourself to the entrepreneur’s journey. Now you need to take the first steps: you need to write a business plan and you need to raise some money.

The chances are that you’d already ‘written’ a business plan before you wrote your resignation letter. I’ve seen potential entrepreneurs – for now, still employed – with business plans at every stage of completion: from neatly bound, carefully worded documents complete with a three year cash flow forecast – to four lines on the back of the proverbial envelope.

For some people the lead up to the resignation letter is calculated and carefully worked out. For others – as it was for me – it’s the moment when that gnawing sense of unease suddenly crystallises. When there really does ‘have to be something better than this – and it has to be now.’

Most of us know the basics of a good business plan – but I am always conscious that this blog is also being read by people who haven’t yet been tempted to tell the MD what they really think… So let me recap the essential details of a business plan:

· What are you going to do? Simply put, what’s the business about?

· What are your goals and objectives?

· Why are you the person to make it work?

· What’s the market? And what’s your marketing plan?

· Who are your competitors? What makes you different?

· If you’re designing and/or developing a product, what are your plans for that?

· Operations and management: how will the business function on a day to day basis?

· How much money do you need? If you’re investing money in the business, where is that coming from? And if you’re borrowing money, how are you going to pay it back?

· And lastly some numbers – projected profit and loss and cash flow forecasts

Those are the basics – but this is The Alternative Board. We’re about a lot more than the basics. We’re about keeping your work/life balance well and truly balanced. About the business working for you, not – as the vast majority of entrepreneurs find – you

working for the business. So your business plan needs to contain something else – something you need to get right from the outset.

Your business plan needs to contain two commitments – to yourself and to your family. To yourself a commitment that you’ll take time off, that you’ll make the time to keep fit – mentally and physically – and that you’ll invest time and money in self-improvement. Because if you don’t grow, your business cannot grow.

Secondly, a commitment to the people you love. That you’ll be there for them. That you won’t have your body at home and your soul back at the office. However high up the mountain you climb, the view is a lot better if you’re sharing it with someone.

I also like to see a business plan contain a statement of values: this is what we believe in, these are the ethics that underpin the business. Your business needs to be profitable: it needs to be one you’re proud of as well.

And now let me backtrack to the business plan. Because there at the bottom is the thorny question of finance. How much money do you need to start the business? Where is it going to come from and – if you’re borrowing the money – what are you going to use for security? Despite the increasing popularity of new initiatives like Funding Circle, Kickstarter campaigns and venture capital investors, the bank is still far and away the most popular option – and the bank will ask for security. Personal guarantees are never far away for the owners of most SMEs and in many cases, neither is your house.

This is the moment when the price of building your business really hits home. This is the moment when you say to your husband/wife/partner, ‘The house is on the line. The bank want some security and, I’m sorry, that means the house.’

That’s a difficult moment for your relationship. The house you bought together, where you’re raising your family: the house you have plans for… Suddenly there’s the spectre of someone else holding the keys: of a letter arriving from the bank politely inviting you to move out. However much someone loves you, that’s a difficult moment. It’s the moment you realise it’s not just you that will be paying the price.

Which is why that line in the business plan is so important. Time with your family. Yes, you’re building a business – but making sure you don’t miss the Nativity Play is every bit as important. Fortunately, you’re among friends: everyone at TAB UK is committed to making sure you’re sitting proudly in the front row.

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.

Happy New Year. You’re a Hero…


Happy New Year – and welcome to my first blog post of 2018. I hope you all had a wonderful Christmas and New Year – and I hope you’re now well and truly back in ‘work mode.’ I know a few people who had trouble remembering their own names last week, let alone remember what they did for a living…

As I mentioned at the end of last year, I’m going to take a slightly different approach with the blog this year, with longer pieces published every fortnight. I’m also going to alternate the posts between a TAB view of ‘the entrepreneur’s journey’ and a wider look at the economy, business trends and what the stable geniuses that make policy have in store for us.

So congratulations: you’re a hero.

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Last year, as I flew to Denver, I found myself reading about ‘the hero’s journey:’ the classic, storytelling structure that underpins so many novels and films. I’ve re-read the article a few times since – and it’s an almost exact parallel with the journey we take as entrepreneurs.

How does the hero’s journey start? It starts in the ordinary world. Harry Potter lives under the stairs. Peter Parker is a nerdy student bullied by his classmates. Frodo lives in the Shire and visits Bilbo Baggins. Ed Reid has a secure job, a company car, and a decent salary.

Then something happens: the inciting incident, or the ‘call to adventure.’ Letters from Hogwarts start arriving, Peter Parker gets bitten, Gandalf tells Frodo he must destroy the One Ring… Oh, and Ed Reid eats his breakfast in Newport Pagnell service station, wishes he was with his family and thinks, ‘There has to be something better than this.’

Initially, our hero refuses the call. ‘I’m just Harry, I can’t be a wizard.’ Peter Parker decides that winning cash at a wrestling match is the best use of his new powers. And Frodo is reluctant to leave the comfort and security of the Shire.

…Just as so many of us were reluctant to leave the comfort and security of the corporate world. We had mortgages, commitments, wives, children, a future with the company.

But we knew that there had to be something better…

I was reading an article on Richard Branson over Christmas – on an Australian site, the internet is a wonderful thing – and he was talking about most businesses being “born out of frustration” that the existing players aren’t doing a good enough job.

It’s important that you know instinctively that you can do it better (than someone else). If you can come up with an idea that will have a positive impact the figures will follow. It’s very rare that special things go bust. Sometimes they do, but it’s rare.

I take his point – but isn’t it also the point that most, if not all, entrepreneurial careers are born out of a sense of frustration? How many people reading this have had their own ‘Newport Pagnell moment?’ (Not quite ‘the road to Damascus’ but you know what I mean…)

As I sat and ate my breakfast I thought, ‘There has to be something better than this. What am I doing here when I should be with my family?’

So yes, my entrepreneurial career was absolutely born out of frustration. I was frustrated that I wasn’t seeing my children grow up and I wasn’t spending enough time with my wife. And I knew that I was ready to create and build my own business.

Yes, of course there were frustrations with the company I was working for. But the frustrations that drove me to start TAB York were internal, not external. I strongly suspect that holds good for 95% of people reading this blog and – if the figures are to be believed – it will hold good for a record number of people in the UK this year.

But what about the second part of Branson’s quote? It’s very rare that special things go bust. Sometimes they do, but it’s rare. Sadly, that’s not true of small businesses. Four in ten don’t make it through the first five years.

What is very rare, is entrepreneurs who are members of The Alternative Board not making it. Over the last nine months I sat in on any number of TAB meetings – and I never ceased to be amazed at the wisdom, knowledge and laser-like insight of our TAB members. It was a privilege to watch them in action and I can’t wait for more of the same in the coming year.

…As they continue on their hero’s journey.

They’ll be tested by their enemies (Snape, then Voldemort: the Green Goblin, Sauron, business competitors), face their final battles and eventually – in the classic ending – ‘return with the elixir.’ Harry ultimately defeats Voldemort, Peter Parker embraces his role as Spiderman and Frodo and Sam return to the Shire.

And you? You think back to that morning at Newport Pagnell – and know with absolute certainty that you made the right decision.

Our Glass is Half Full


Well, we have a form of words. But as many commentators have already written, ‘Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.’ No matter, the Brexit talks can stumble forward to the next hurdle…

Meanwhile Donald Trump has antagonised 95% of the world by recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, Kim Jong-un is threatening to fire ICBMs on an almost daily basis, Germany doesn’t seem to have an effective government and China is threatening to take over the world. Oh, and the financial world will surely be rocked any day now when the Bitcoin bubble explodes.

Make plans for 2018? Only a madman would think of starting – or expanding – a business.

Welcome to the madhouse.

A recent report from accountants UHY Hacker Young revealed that more businesses were established in the UK last year than in any of the world’s other developed economies. Hacker Young put the number of new businesses at 218,000 – a 6% increase on 2015.

But across the road at the Institute of Directors they are three times as bullish, saying that 650,000 businesses were created last year. I suspect that Hacker Young are counting limited companies and the IoD are counting companies and those registering as self-employed. Whatever way you look at the stats and whatever measure you choose, it’s a remarkable statement of confidence in both the individual entrepreneur’s determination to succeed and the future of the UK.

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And yes, of course confidence comes naturally to an entrepreneur. What is remarkable – and heart-warming – is not just the number of start-ups but the absolute conviction that they will succeed. In the IoD survey 83% of those who replied said they felt optimistic about next year – whereas just 5% were optimistic about the wider UK economy.

Of course concerns remain – chief among them being lack of access to finance and lack of information about the government help available for start-ups and those looking to expand their businesses. Awareness of the British Business Bank, for example, was just 17%. Clearly the Government needs to do rather more to get its message across…

Closer to home, I see the same optimism around the TAB boardroom tables. Optimism, coupled with a steely determination to make it happen. Everyone acknowledges that the road is going to be bumpy – but everyone in the TAB family is determined that next year will be an outstanding success.

As for me, twelve months ago I was the owner of TAB York – and someone who was keeping very quiet about some very complicated negotiations. You all now know how they turned out: to say that 2017 has been an eventful year for me is one of the year’s great understatements!

However much I thought I knew what running TAB UK would be like the reality has been very different. Easier than TAB York? Harder? Neither: simply very different and very exciting – and I see more opportunities for us to grow with every passing day.

I’ve been especially struck by how much our TAB members up and down the UK want to be part of the wider TAB community and how keen they are to meet other TAB members, whether that’s from their own region, the wider UK or internationally.

The ten months since February have been a sharp learning curve for me and I couldn’t have climbed the curve without the support of my brilliant co-director Mags, the amazing team at the Harrogate head office or – as always – the love, support and encouragement of my team at home. I hope all of you know how much I appreciate you.

…Which brings me, misty eyed, to the change I was going to announce. I have been writing this blog every week since 2010. I have absolutely enjoyed it and if you’d told me in 2010 that I could have found something to write about every week for roughly 7½ years I’d have said you were mad. Proof positive that, one bite at a time, you can eat the elephant…

However, my new role as MD of TAB UK has afforded me a broader canvas than writing as owner of TAB York. I hope you’ve noticed the posts becoming slightly longer and taking a wider view of the economy and the future. Necessarily these longer posts take more writing, so from next year I’m going to move to updating the blog fortnightly, starting – after a good break for Xmas and New Year – on Friday January 12th. I’m also going to have more of a theme running through the blog: alternating posts between what you might loosely term an ‘overview’ of business and the economy, with a TAB view of the entrepreneur’s journey – from making the decision to go it alone to signing the final contract and walking into the sunset…

In the meantime have a wonderful Christmas and – on behalf of all of us here at TAB HQ – I hope that 2018 brings everything you would wish for.

Three Ideas we Must get our Heads Round in 2018


It’s generally believed that the oldest board game that has been continuously played is Go, dating back to China more than 2,500 years ago. For those of you that haven’t played, the aim is to surround more territory than your opponent. The game is played on a 19 x19 grid and it’s far more complex than chess: the number of possible moves is put at 2 x 10170 – or, more simply, there are more potential moves in one game than there are atoms in the universe.

So quite a lot.

Anyway, last month Google-owned DeepMind introduced AlphaGo Zero, their latest evolution of a computer programme which defeated the Go World Champion earlier this year. You remember those possible moves? More than there were atoms in the universe? The programme mastered them all in less than 72 hours – with no human help.

The simple fact is that machines are going to surpass human intellect in any given intellectual task: right now, the AI community believes that 2060 is a reasonable estimate for its arrival – but not so long ago driverless cars weren’t going to be on our roads until 2040…

We all need to get our heads round Artificial Intelligence and we need to do it quickly. Worryingly US Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin says he isn’t worried about AI and automation: it’s so far away apparently, “that it’s not even on my radar screen.” Presumably he’s not yet read McKinsey’s report saying that robots will take 800m jobs worldwide by 2030…

Meanwhile Home Secretary Amber Rudd cheerfully stands up at the Conservative Conference and admits she doesn’t really know how encryption works.

Well no – we don’t need our Home Secretary to pop back to her bedroom after a Cabinet meeting and do a bit of coding. But it would be useful if our political leaders had a vague idea of what’s coming down the track. Google, Apple, Amazon and Facebook most certainly do know what’s coming – and it is going to impact your business.

Let me give you a simple example. I don’t know how many possible ‘moves’ there are in deciding whether to lend you or me £250,000 to buy a new house or build that new factory. I do know that it is significantly less than the number of atoms in the universe. I’m acutely aware that sooner rather than later I’m going to need to offer Dan and Rory some careers advice: bank manager may not be top of the list.

Now a rather more basic idea that far too many people still need to tackle: like AI it needs to be on your to-do list at the start of 2018 and crossed off it by the end of the year. The very basic idea is equal pay.

I was reading a salary comparison produced by a TAB member: very clearly, women in North Yorkshire – even in senior roles in the professions – are paid less than men. One line in the report leapt out at me. In comparison to men, women effectively work for nothing from November 7th onwards.

Just say the following out loud. “I’m sorry, you’re bald, we’re going to pay you 80% of what we pay people with hair.” Or try this: “Yes, well, obviously it would have been £3,000 a year more but you’ve got ginger hair…”

…And if you still have a problem with equal pay, go and sort it out now. Equal pay is ethical, it makes business sense and – bluntly – it is just the right thing to do.

And the last idea? Disruption. Henry Ford disrupted horses, Uber disrupted taxis and – as above – AI and ‘fintech’ are going to painfully and permanently disrupt traditional banking. Oh, and the nice, cosy world inhabited by Gillette and Wilkinson Sword and impossibly good-looking men with impossibly smooth chiselled jaws? I’m very sorry, but the Dollar Shave Club is coming to the UK.

Whatever industry you are in – and not for one minute do I exempt peer-to-peer coaching from the list – it is going to be disrupted. We need to be the disruptors, not the disrupted. At the very least, we need to be thinking a long way outside the box, so that we’re prepared when the Dollar Shave Club – or its equivalent – appears on our horizon.

Brave new world? Or Lonely Planet?


We’ve all been there at some stage in our business careers. You’re called to a meeting. Attendance is crucial. A three-line whip. Apparently the very survival of the company is at stake.

You settle in. The sales director/MD/new owner drones on for an hour. You retain the will to live – but only just. “Well,” someone says as you emerge back into the sunlight. “There’s an hour of my life I won’t see again. Why didn’t he just give us the notes?”

“Too right,” you say, as you both wonder where the bar is…

I felt much the same way yesterday as I listened to the Budget. Why didn’t you just give us the notes, Phil? We could have read them on our iPads as we ate breakfast. All that time and expense saved. Not to mention the acres of newsprint and the trees…

Only three things jumped out at me from the Budget speech. First and foremost, stamp duty. Good. A sensible move: there are few better investments in life than buying your first home.

Secondly, one of the numbers – or as the Chancellor put it, “an economic-y bit.” Specifically, it was this sentence: “Annual borrowing will be £49bn this year – £8.4bn lower than forecast in March.” He announced it as good news: I found it slightly alarming. That forecast in March was made by the Office for Budget Responsibility – presumably featuring a few brains on hefty salaries. And yet in just eight months they were 15% out with their forecast? I know plenty of TAB members who’d consider that a completely unacceptable performance from the proverbial back of an envelope.

Lastly, another phrase: “Britain is at the forefront of the technological revolution.” Cue a few raised eyebrows in Silicon Valley and China – but he did at least follow it with the £84m commitment to recruit more computer science teachers.

A week or so previously I’d been chatting to the parents of one of Dan’s classmates. We’d been discussing the world of work our children would go into – and then I’d come home to stumble across a quote from Professor Steve Furber of the University of Manchester – and one of the early pioneers of the Acorn Computer. He put it very simply: “The rate at which technology is transforming the workplace means that we live in a world where many primary schoolchildren will work in technology based roles that do not yet exist, so it is essential that [they] can apply digital skills with confidence.”

So ‘technological revolution’ and ‘Brave New World’ are right. But the changing face of the workplace doesn’t just present a problem for our children. It will also present a problem for us as employers – and our employees.

It’s a well-worn stat now: by the middle of the next decade millennials – those who became adults around the turn of the century – will make up 75% of the workforce. And we all know what millennials want: they want to work flexibly, have the chance to work from home, avoid the 9-to-5 commute and have a better work/life balance.

So as employers, life becomes very simple: all we have to do is give our staff what they want – and then sit back and watch productivity shoot up: after all, it’s a well-documented fact that people who work flexibly are more productive and take less time off for sickness.

But is it that simple? Or are there some long-term trends that should concern us?

People are likely to find the traditional office environment changing rapidly in the next few years. Up to two-thirds of companies are planning to implement hot-desking and shared workspaces by 2020. The trend has started in the Far East but will quickly spread to the West as multinationals and large companies realise the savings they can make – despite evidence that employees do not like the practice.

By 2025 many companies will be holding virtual reality meetings – meaning that physical meetings will become a thing of the past and there will be even less need to travel into an office.

Even if you do go into the office, by 2030 it is likely that you will be working with an AI office assistant – a robot that will book travel, arrange virtual meetings and complete other administrative tasks. (Let’s hope science can tell the difference between milk chocolate and plain chocolate digestives…)

You might say that none of the above matters – that if remote workers are so productive they’re changes we should welcome. I’m not so sure: I think the very low-tech office water cooler still has a crucial role to play.

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I know half a dozen people who work on their own, more or less isolated from real human contact as they write, design or illustrate. What do at least three of them describe as their main problem? Not finding clients, not delivering their work and not getting paid. Their main problem is loneliness.

And with many people warning that the UK is facing an epidemic of loneliness, with all its attendant health and social care costs, adding a generation of work-at-home millennials may not be a sensible long-term idea.

So the ever-faster pace of change is going to bring challenges for both employers and their employees. Employers will need to keep an increasingly distant workforce engaged and motivated. Millennials may find that their desire to work flexibly is readily seized on by their employers – and translates not into working flexibly but into working alone, with meetings conducted by virtual reality and sales figures and reports handed over to the AI assistant. In the future, it may not be just the elderly that are lonely…

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…

God’s Own County? Or God’s Own Country?


From Catalonia to the Aland Swedes in the north of Europe to Sardinia and Sicily in the south, there seem to be an ever increasing number of demands for independence, greater regional autonomy or simply more local power. Could it be that Yorkshire is now about to join that list? God’s own county may not become God’s own country, but with serious conversations being held about a ‘Yorkshire mayor’ it looks like the region could well be set for much greater control over its own economy, investment and spending.

…And apparently we already have the runners and riders. Mane’s neatly plaited and jig-jogging round the paddock are Ed Balls from the Red Stable and William Hague from the Blue.

At first glance it is – to use the colloquial term – a no-brainer.

Yorkshire’s Gross Domestic Product – roughly £120bn – is equal to that of the Ukraine and bigger than 11 EU countries, including Hungary, Bulgaria and Luxembourg. Leeds is the largest legal and financial centre outside London – its financial and insurance industry is reckoned to be worth £2.1bn a year. Sheffield has an economy equal to that of Ghana. On the sporting field Yorkshire gained more medals at the Rio Olympics than Canada.

Yorkshire has a bigger population than Scotland: its GDP is twice that of the whole of Wales. And yet it has the powers of neither.

Liverpool, Manchester and Teesside have directly elected mayors, exercising executive powers. And directly elected mayors are more responsible to the local electorate: they’re in power for four years – they can take the tough decisions that need to be taken. What’s more a local mayor is more recognisable – more of a figurehead, both engaging more people in politics and attracting inward investment. A ‘heavyweight’ like Ed Balls has to be more attractive to foreign companies than, say, the head of the regeneration department at the local council.

Yep, it’s a no-brainer. Roll on the first elections for Yorkshire mayor in 2018.

Wood, Frank Watson, 1862-1953; Alexander Darling, Mayor of Berwick-upon-Tweed (1925-1927)

Or maybe not…

Because the more I think about it, the more cautious about the idea I become. Hang on, I’m just going to jump in the car…

I drove from Leeds to London to Birmingham to Liverpool to Manchester and back to Leeds. A round trip of not quite 500 miles. But on that journey I drove through four areas with directly elected mayors – five if Yorkshire follows suit. That’s five directly elected mayors with their attendant salaries, staff and bureaucracies. Many would argue that what this country needs is less government, not more government.

It’s like a business adding layer upon layer of ‘spending and oversight’ committees: ultimately, they’re all costs which have to be borne by the people that produce the wealth.

And I’m not sure that a politician is the answer. Andy Burnham and Steve Rotherham – both Labour party stalwarts – have washed up in Manchester and Liverpool respectively. Aye, there’s always Mayor of Yorkshire, love. I may have failed at Westminster but t’party has found me a cushy number in Leeds…

No thanks.

If we are to have a Yorkshire mayor, give me someone with business experience: someone like Gary Verity – or better yet, Barry Dodd, someone with experience of business, spending, the LEPs and dealing with politicians.

Mayor of Yorkshire would be a tough gig. Getting Leeds to agree with York is a challenge, before we try and get Sheffield to agree with anyone in West Yorkshire. And then there’s geography. As my former TAB York members on the coast would tell me, Scarborough to Skipton is a three day camel trek.

Money does need spending in Yorkshire, but I have my doubts as to whether a mayor is automatically the right answer. The problem is that the Government seems addicted to expensive gestures, irrespective of their real benefits.

…Which brings me neatly on to HS2. What’s the latest bill? Somewhere north of £50bn – it’s set to be the most expensive railway in the world. I suspect it will cost Elon Musk less money to colonise Mars. Let’s spend a fraction of that money and improve the rail link between Leeds and Manchester and Liverpool. An hour stuck in a siding outside Huddersfield would concentrate the new Mayor’s thoughts. At least they’ve stopped calling the trains ‘sprinters…’