A Tale of Four Leaders


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Don’t Join the Navy. Be a Pirate!


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

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

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

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

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

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So everything is changing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m here all week…

Lance-Corporal Jones and the Robocalypse


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

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

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

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

Candlemakers had a healthy business as well.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trouble Down Under – and what it can teach us


Monday March 26th

I’ve been writing the blog for nearly eight years now, and for the first time ever I’m going to split it into two halves: a game of two halves you might say as, not for the first time, I’m using sport as an analogy for business.

Almost no-one reading the blog – at least in the UK – can fail to be aware of the current controversy surrounding the Australian cricket team. But for those of you in Europe and the US, let me briefly summarise.

Australia are currently playing a test series in South Africa: to describe it as acrimonious is an understatement. At the weekend the series stood at 1-1, with the third test being played in Cape Town. South Africa were ahead in the game and batting in their second innings – at which point Cameron Bancroft, the newest member of the Australian team, reached into the pocket of his cricket flannels. TV cameras around the ground filmed him looking remarkably guilty as he paid the ball some extravagant attention (with sandpaper, as it later turned out).

I won’t go into the intricacies of swing bowling. Bancroft was tampering with the ball to give his team an unfair advantage. But this wasn’t the action of a lone player: this was a plot hatched by the senior members of the team: “the leadership group” as they were described.

Australian captain Steve Smith and Bancroft quickly admitted their cheating – and confessed that at the very least, the captain and David Warner, the vice-captain, had encouraged Bancroft to tamper with the ball.

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…And that’s why I’m splitting the blog in two. The Australian Cricket Board are to hold an immediate enquiry. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has expressed his outrage. Perhaps most tellingly, veteran Aussie cricket commentator Jim Maxwell has been virtually reduced to tears on air.

At this point, what would a business do? Two of your senior executives have admitted cheating. They have damaged your worldwide reputation. They’ve brought into question your previous successes which – quite naturally – people are saying were gained through cheating. And to cap it all, they got a junior member of the company to do their dirty work.

But hang on. Both the executives have a worldwide reputation. One of them is perhaps your best performer for 50 years. Dismissing them will seriously weaken your company: there are simply no ready-made replacements.

No business that wanted – or deserved – to be taken seriously would hesitate. Smith and Warner would be instantly dismissed. Bancroft would be given a savage reprimand but he’d keep his job. And then the questions would start. If the two execs were conspiring, was the director they report to aware of it? Given their close working relationship he must have been aware of what they were planning. So how high up the organisation does the rot go?

That is exactly where Cricket Australia now find themselves. Many of us have been in the close atmosphere of a dressing room at some stage in our lives: if a plot was being hatched, everyone in the team would have been aware of it. I find it inconceivable that the coach, Darren Lehmann, didn’t know. So how does the Board react to the cheating? And make no mistake, it is cheating every bit as much as an athlete taking steroids is cheating.

Thursday April 5th

So now we know: all three players were sent home from South Africa. Smith and Warner have been banned for a year, Bancroft for nine months. Coach Darren Lehmann was found not to have known anything – but has resigned anyway.

Both Smith and Warner have now performed the modern act of contrition – the tearful press conference – and have accepted their bans. Warner accepts that he is unlikely to ever play for Australia again. I’m not so sure – he’s only 31 and 12 months from now will still be one of the best opening batsmen in the world. Steve Smith is only 28 and will unquestionably be back in the team. Will he be captain again? I wouldn’t bet against it.

We can all argue about the length of the ban. As Michael Vaughan posted on Twitter, you suspect that Mr Lawyer and Mr QC were involved, and it is telling that neither player has sought to challenge their ban. And the dust seems to have settled remarkably quickly…

Are there any business lessons we can learn from Sandpapergate? I think there are two – and one lesson we can learn from Cricket Australia (not a sentence I thought I’d ever write) is the importance of acting decisively.

I’ve written previously about corporate cock-ups – United Airlines and Ryanair spring to mind – and one thing that unquestionably made the situation worse for the companies was that they firstly tried to defend that they’d done, and then they dithered. Even when they clearly didn’t have a leg to stand on, neither company would apologise with good grace. So Cricket Australia have acted swiftly, the players have accepted the bans and the focus of attention turns elsewhere.

The second lesson is that pressure makes you do stupid things. What on earth were Smith and Warner thinking? A disgraced businessman can disappear into the wilderness for a while and come back with a different company. Steve Smith cannot disappear and come back playing for Pakistan.

There is pressure in business every bit as much as there is pressure in sport – and just as in sport, it can lead to stupid decisions. For the entrepreneur, that pressure very often comes from loneliness – from having no-one to speak to about the stresses of running your own business. That is one of TAB’s great strengths: you are never alone. There is always someone there to speak to, always a friend who will allow you to release the pressure – and who will occasionally say, “Hang on, sport. That may not be the best decision you’ve ever made…”

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.

Panto Season Comes Early


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

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

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

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

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

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

Dave                           Yep. That’s what the shareholders want

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

Dave                           Well, technically, none

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

Dave                           It’s what the shareholders want

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

Dave                           Huh?

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

TabVet                        Yep, I remember that

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

TF                                So where is it?

Dave                           Well, technically…

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

Dave                           Not quite

TabVet                        So when will it be ready?

Dave                           That’s a difficult one to answer

2nd TabVet                  Why

Dave                           We haven’t started it yet.

There is silence around the table. A pin drops…

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

Dave                           Well, technically…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Professionals


Professionalism. Noun. The competence or skill expected of a professional. The practising of an activity, especially a sport, by professional rather than amateur players.

Hang on, just let me read that again. I can’t see any mention of fighting outside a nightclub at 2:30 in the morning. Or driving a lady home who’s not your wife and ending up accused of drink-driving. Or getting into a taxi which unfortunately whacks a lamppost, leaving you with a broken rib.

I refer, of course, to Messrs Stokes, Rooney and Aguero, all of whom might now be in a much happier – and potentially much less costly – place had they looked at their watches and said, “Goodness me, ten o’clock. I’ve an important game in two days; time I was tucked up in bed with a mug of cocoa.”

Ben Stokes and Wayne Rooney are leaders. Stokes is vice-captain of the England cricket team; Rooney, having re-joined Everton with the experience of captaining Manchester United behind him, must surely have been expected to show leadership; to set an example to the younger players in the dressing room.

What price that leadership now? What price their professionalism?

But this is a business blog – so how do I define professionalism in business?

First of all I think it’s about predictability: that’s not someone saying ‘Ed always says the same thing:’ it about people knowing that Ed will always deliver what he promised to deliver. No ifs, no buts, no excuses: professionalism is delivering what you promised to deliver, when you promised to deliver it.

It’s about preparation as well – and yes, I’m aware that I’m almost wandering down the army’s ‘Six P’s’ path here. Whether it is an interview, a client appointment or a speech, the preparation is as important as the performance: in fact the preparation determines the performance. I will tolerate many things, but one thing that used to really annoy me in my corporate days was the time wasted due to lack of proper preparation, even for supposedly ‘make or break’ meetings. For me it was just unforgivable.

And politeness, which includes punctuality. It may well be the courtesy of kings but it’s also fundamental to business: everyone’s time has value, not just yours.

Let me also define professionalism by what it isn’t. It’s not simply being serious: clearly there are professions where being serious is a requirement, but even then not at the expense of demonstrating empathy and personality.

It’s one of the great truisms of life that people buy from people they like. And that still holds good today, even in an age where we are increasingly dealing with people we may have never met. You can still get your personality across with your language and ‘tone of voice’ – even if that voice is only heard through an e-mail.

I remember an early sales manager telling me to watch Michael Parkinson and Terry Wogan on TV. “They would have made great salesmen, Ed. A loss to the steel industry…”

But despite the instruction to watch Parky and Our Tel I probably didn’t smile enough in my early days. You might be doing a thoroughly professional job: but you’re still allowed to smile and laugh while you’re doing it. Let me hold my hand up and say I wasn’t brilliant at this. So thank you to Paul Dickinson, my predecessor as TAB MD, who gently pointed it out to me…

And yes, I’d like to think we’re seen as professional at TAB: not just in that we deliver results but that we’re fun to work with as well. As I’ve written many times, TAB is about enjoying the journey as well as reaching the destination, and I’m absolutely sure we help the members of the TAB family to do that.

LEWIS_COLLINS OBITUARY

One last question: this week’s title references a once-popular TV programme. Do any of you remember it? Just a quick test to see how old you are and if your fashion sense has moved on…