Xi Jinping is on the March. Should we be Worried?


One of my more serious posts this, and it doesn’t come much more serious than the 19th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party held last week in Beijing.

The Chinese capital is a fair old distance from the UK – 4,978 miles from TAB HQ in Harrogate if Google is to be believed – so should we really worry about what’s happening there? Wouldn’t we be better off just concentrating on our businesses?

Maybe not…

Napoleon famously said, “Let China sleep. When she wakes, the world will tremble.” Well, China most certainly is awake now, and last week President Xi Jinping was confirmed in power for another five years. While Europe was struggling to agree on when talks about talks about Brexit might begin, Xi was calmly laying out plans for China to dominate the world economy. No surprise that Forbes is now suggesting China will overtake America to become the biggest economy in the world as early as next year

But let’s step back a moment. Who is Xi Jinping? He may not have a perma-tan or a tower named after him, but it is arguable that China’s Xi Jinping is the real holder of the ‘most powerful man in the world’ title.

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Five years into a theoretical ten year term Xi is the General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party. Born on June 15th 1953 he is married to Peng Liyuan and has one daughter, who was educated at Harvard. His wife was formerly a very popular singer on Chinese TV and among her hits are those classic rock anthems, People from our Village, My Motherland and In the Field of Hope.

Xi’s father, Xi Zhongxun, was a hero of the Communist revolution and, as such, Xi enjoyed a privileged upbringing as a ‘red princeling.’ All that changed with Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution: his father was imprisoned, the family humiliated and one of his sisters committed suicide. At the age of 15 Xi was sent to the countryside to be re-educated. The story is that Xi lived in a cave in the mountains – but he survived and at the age of 22 he returned from the countryside, “full of confidence and with my life goals firm.”

With his father released from prison and rehabilitated, Xi joined the Communist Party and began a steady, if unspectacular, rise through the ranks. By his 50s he was a senior party leader, but someone still with a reputation for dull competency. When he became Communist party leader in 2012 he was very much a compromise choice – but since then he has ruthlessly consolidated his power. He is now unquestionably China’s strongest leader since Chairman Mao.

So while Theresa May was begging for help (according to Jean-Claude Juncker) and Jean-Claude Juncker was heading for the bar (according to David Davis) Xi Jinping – untroubled by petty irritations like democracy – was telling the delegates what was going to happen and sending them back to work. Specifically, he was telling them about ‘One Belt, One Road.’

China has a domestic population approaching 1.4bn – nearly one-fifth of the world population of 7.5bn (do not click the link: it is terrifying). But ‘One Belt, One Road’ – a huge infrastructure project – is intended to massively extend its economic reach, market and influence.

First mooted by Xi Jinping around 2013, the initiative will see China’s push into global economic affairs extending through a land based Silk Road Economic Belt and the Maritime Silk Road, with the focus being on infrastructure investment, construction, railways and highways, automobiles, power and iron and steel.

The land based Belt runs across Asia and through Europe. The Maritime Road (yes, you would have thought that the ‘road’ would be on land…) reaches South East Asia, Oceania and North Africa. More than 65 countries, 4.4bn people (63% of the world’s population) and 29% of the world’s current GDP are in its path.

Sitting here in the West it is easy to see the Belt and Road initiative as simply a naked power grab. I think I’ll keep the blog out of geo-politics, but what’s undeniable is that it will give China access to vast natural resources and a huge pool of labour. And whatever you think about the rights and wrongs of the situation, that is not a labour market wrapped in red tape about a national living wage or health and safety.

In the medium to long term that has to impact on manufacturing industry in the West – and as advances continue to be made in robotics and AI, it may end up impacting a lot more than manufacturing. China is awake, she is flexing her muscles and we may all have cause to tremble in the future.

Meanwhile let us finish with a word of sympathy for the delegates back at the Congress Hall – who may well have been glad to escape at the end. Xi Jinping spoke for 3 hours and 23 minutes to an audience that was by no means in the first flush of youth. What’s the Chinese for ‘comfort break?’ A four-hour TAB meeting needs at least one interval. But given that popping out in the leader’s speech was almost certainly a treasonable offence, you have to wonder how they coped…

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The Valley of Clouds


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trust me, it is.

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

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

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

The author? The late Terry Pratchett.

Does Brexit Really Matter?


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

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

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

So now let’s talk about Chinese Corporate Debt…

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

The source of their displeasure was Chinese debt.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Basic Business Advice: Don’t Buy a Turtle


Footballers, eh? What a load of simpletons. Put their left boot on first. Left shin pad. One of them is always pulling his shirt over his head as they come out of the tunnel. Was it Paolo di Canio who insisted on wearing his underpants inside out? And Raymond Domenech, the former manager of France, who reputedly refused to select players if their stars weren’t aligned correctly…

Superstitious nonsense. Forget it. Roll your sleeves up, give Hazard a kicking early doors and get stuck in.

Not that cricketers are any better. Left pad, left glove, lucky numbers on their shirts, kiss the badge, lift one foot off the ground when the score is 111… And then there’s Neil McKenzie of Hampshire. He once scored a century after a teammate taped his bat to the ceiling. Guess what he does now before every innings? Oh, and he won’t go out to bat until he’s put down all the toilet seats in the dressing room.

Well thank goodness we’re businessmen. Thank goodness we’re logical, in control, focused on our KPIs, ROI and P&L. What you can measure you can manage. And you certainly can’t manage if some damn fool has stuck a cricket bat to the ceiling.

No sir. Superstition has no place in business.

Or does it?

After all, today is Friday 13th. That must have given all you paraskevidekatriaphobics pause for thought. Careful you didn’t spill the salt. No black cats in front of the car. And don’t forget to salute that magpie.

Can’t do any harm.

Besides, who are the most superstitious people on earth? The Chinese.

And whose economy has marched resolutely ahead for the last twenty years and will soon be the biggest in the world? Precisely.

So lesson number one – remember your feng shui: even Disney used it when they opened Disneyland Hong Kong in 2005. After consulting a feng shui expert, the angle of the front gate was altered by 12 degree – and a bend went into the walkway from the station to the front gate, so the positive chi didn’t shoot straight past the entrance and into the China Sea.

So that’s settled – your desk should be facing as much of the room as possible, with your back against a wall. Number two – plants in the office, to make sure there is positive energy to improve both personal and business growth. And above all, water: I’m away on holiday next week – I’m expecting a shortage of goldfish in North Yorkshire when I get back.

Not that it stops there. In China the number 4 is unlucky; the number 8 is considered very lucky – and no-one who’s serious about their business keeps a turtle as a pet. Obviously it slows you down, and it slows your business down.

Why are we superstitious? Especially in business, where logic, analysis and good management should hold sway. Psychologists will tell us that any form of superstition – or habitual behaviour – gives us a feeling of control and/or confidence. Which of us hasn’t got up in the morning and thought, ‘Important meeting today. Time for my lucky tie.’ And there’s nothing wrong with that: anything that makes you feel more confident has to be good: after all, if you think you can, you very probably will.

And maybe you can turn superstition to your advantage: maybe Friday 13th gives us the chance to think about our marketing in a different way. A few years ago Icelandair ran a promotion allowing customers to add an excursion for $7 – providing the whole trip was booked by 7/7/07. Back in China, packs of 8 tennis balls sell for more than the same tennis balls in packs of ten. And there’s always reverse psychology: five of the eleven Friday the 13th movies – a seriously successful franchise – have been released on that supposedly-unlucky date.

Anyway, enough for this week. Time to go and see a potential client. Just as soon as I’ve put the toilet seat down, pulled my iPad off the ceiling and made sure neither of the boys has bought a pet turtle…

I’m away on holiday next week. Enjoy half term week if you’re taking the time off, and the blog will be back – tanned, full of après-ski and probably with a calf strain – on Friday 27th.

Back to Basics


Sorry about the title – I must have been influenced by the start of the General Election campaign. I didn’t mean to sound like a wannabe Minister of Education…

First of all – even though it’s January 9th – a very happy, peaceful and successful new year to everyone who reads this blog. If you’ve seen any of the papers this week and over Christmas you’ll be in no doubt that the world is going to be a turbulent place in 2015. No-one knows what on earth will happen with May’s General Election: the Greek elections later this month are going to throw the Eurozone into chaos: China’s economy is slowing down: France in social turmoil: the rouble has more or less reached parity with the chocolate coin…

Maybe it’s best to simply go back to bed and not poke your head above the covers until it’s all settled down. Except that we all know it never will settle down and we’ve simply got to roll our sleeves up (metaphorically – it is January) and get on with running our businesses.

And I have to say that I’ve never felt more optimistic. I’m delighted that the members of TAB York are managing to defy the headline writers. It was my privilege in December to look at and discuss a great many plans and targets for 2015. I’ve never seen such a series of positive, ambitious and – just as importantly – realistic documents. It’s going to be a great year for a lot of people.

…And hopefully the information, ideas, suggestions and random thoughts in this blog will help in some small way. But for the first post of the year, let’s go right back to basics. Why do I write this blog?

When the blog started – very nearly five years ago, which I find astonishing – I had four basic aims:

  • The blog was there to keep my name in front of people – after all, TAB York had the grand total of seven clients at the time
  • It was there to prove that I could deliver: that was – and is – why it is always published at the same time every week
  • I wanted to build authority: to show that I knew about business and that if you wanted to take your business to the next level I might be able to help
  • And I wanted to start a conversation. If I got one thing right, it was the realisation that the old ways of marketing had passed their sell-by date. As social media became more and more important, so marketing became more and more about sharing useful information and engaging people

Five years on, nothing has changed. Neither has the answer to another equally important question: who am I writing the blog for?

That answer’s equally simple. It’s for the members and potential members of TAB York. But it goes further than that: I’m writing for anyone who wants to start, or build, a successful business – and also wants to guarantee that they never miss sports day or the nativity play. I’m writing for people who know that the only way to be really successful is to keep your work/life balance truly balanced.

One of the best things about the Christmas break – apart from the obvious – is that it gives you chance to reflect. Every year I flip back through my diary (for ‘flip’ read scroll, obviously) and look at the year’s appointments and notes – and it’s amazing. Every year I see things I stressed over that I’d forgotten about a week later. Appointments that seemed crucial at the time that turned out to be irrelevant. Don’t sweat the small stuff as the cliché goes: it’s all small stuff.

But there are other dates in the diary that really were important. Dates that are never going to come again. Dan’s rugby match. Rory in the school play. Our 16th wedding anniversary.

So to repeat – many of the plans for 2015 that I looked at were breathtaking in their ambition. It will be an absolute pleasure and privilege to work with you this year. But the first question round the TAB table will be simple: have you made sure the really important dates are in your diary?