The Forum is stepping up a gear this autumn. With some exceptional gatherings to look forward to and exciting projects now in the pipeline, we thought it would be appropriate to have a dig into the archives and bring you a completely different feature for the blog.
As we prepare to welcome the likes of the charismatic Tim Smit, the controversial Howard Hodgson, cocoa maestro Willie Harcourt-Cooze and the world class Malcolm Wilson OBE, it’s definitely no mean feat to continue to exceed expectations. 88 miles an hour is an understatement.
Over the next few pages we’ve drawn out some genuinely groundbreaking reveals from speakers who have shared their deepest secrets on stage – those catastrophic mistakes (Yep, Gerald Ratner’s in here), moments of pure insanity that led to some of the bravest decisions the business world has seen, and the best lessons they’ve learnt on the way – most of them via the hard way.
These are the true entrepreneurs’ tales. It’s the stuff that makes entrepreneurs what they are and what keeps them striving to succeed even in the grimmest of circumstances. It’s what caused Hilary Devey to remark ‘Sod you’ to a bank manager who told her she was going to fail. It’s the stuff that aided a tremendous fightback from Lord Kirkham when he decided to buy DFS back from the stock market.
And just a pre-warning, Sir Bob Geldof is referenced in here so apologies in advance for the expletives. In our defence, it could have been far worse….
The good thing is that the stuff that the Forum does best (according to you guys) is going to continue on an even more impressive scale. That means more and more insight into breaking down barriers for those who aspire to achieve growth, and building the strongest peer group possible within the Forum.
So if you’ve been inspired by any of the following quotes and are hungry for more of the same, please make sure you come along and experience the Forum for yourself. Keep up to date with the upcoming events at www.entrepreneursforum.net/gathering and make sure to secure your seat at our upcoming Autumn Conference on the 3rd November.
Many of the speakers in this article are also interviewed on www.entrepreneursforum.tv, our dedicated TV channel bringing you behind the scenes footage, interviews, features and more, so please do visit the channel and invest some time in soaking up even more pearls of wisdom from some of the best decision makers in business.
In early 2008 Trevor Baylis made the following prediction:
‘UK plcs should stand behind the lone inventor otherwise this British economy will take a dive. We are the most wonderful creative nation but the worst in the world for helping inventors bring their ideas to market.”
His own iconic idea – the wind-up radio – was a response to the problem of getting health messages across to people in rural Africa where there was no electricity and batteries were too expensive.
Inspired by an old gramophone Trevor went off to his workshop and within 20 minutes had created a working radio. He made a prototype and filed for a patent in November 1991. From Phillips and Marconi to the Design Council, he was turned away.
Eventually it was the BBC World Service that recognised the radio’s potential and passed him on to Tomorrow’s World. His own nation’s trade bodies may not have supported him but Nelson Mandela did, and now the expanding range of wind-up radio products is all over the world.
Award winning virtuoso, Private Eye Editor and Have I Got News For You team captain Ian Hislop entertained our members and their guests during the 2008 Chairman’s Dinner. The journalist reported
hilarious anecdotes from his 21 years at the famous magazine, of which he became editor aged just 26.
They included an occasion when, led by Private Eye shareholder Peter Cook, they broke into the office of Mirror Group Boss Robert Maxwell, ordered champagne then telephoned the newspaper magnate in New York to tell him where they were.
Hislop holds the dubious distinction of being the most sued man in English legal history (figures correct in 2008!) – a 40 year record which began in his first week as editor when he lost the magazine £250,000.
Before Hilary Devey became the most intriguing panel member on BBC’s Dragon’s Den, she had our audience at the 2008 Autumn Business Conference captivated with her dry sense of humour and remarkable journey to success.
“My drive to start Pall-Ex came from a simple, human, female imperative – to provide financial security for my son as a single parent.
“I was visiting a haulier’s premises in South Wales when I overhead a conversation. It was a customer requesting that three pallets of goods be collected from Wales and delivered to Carlisle. The guy on the phone said it would take 12 days – I could have walked there with a donkey quicker than that. While I was there, the guy must have made 15 phone calls and all the while I was thinking there must be a simpler way. This was on a Friday night and by the Sunday morning I knew what I wanted to do. This was where my self-belief was formed.
“I did a business plan and off I went to see the bank manager who proceeded to tell me how many business start-ups fail, that I didn’t have a cat in hell’s chance and that I was just a woman in a man’s world.
“But I thought ‘sod you – I’ll show you’. I sold my house, my Ford Granada…everything except myself.
“We launched on November 27, 1996, but once I’d paid everybody I had just a pound left. So I did what anyone would have done – rang my mother, invited her over for Christmas Dinner and told her to bring it with her. And a bike for her grandson.”
From then on, the rise of Pall-Ex has become the stuff of legend in the industry. Today, it is the market leader, with 100 companies forming the network and access to a pool of 7,500 trucks and five million square ft of warehousing.
“I have men come up to me at functions and say ‘how are you number one, really?’ I say, ‘we just are. You can be number two if you want.’”
Hilary has also established an internal recession-beating forum that had brought about some £20,000 worth of cost savings in recent months (figures correct 2008).
“I told people if they could save me £200, I’d give them £50 back. That’s only fair,” she says.
Being successful in business is about attitude. It’s one of the things that stops people from being successful. If you want to be successful, you have to double your failure rate. Like Thomas Edison and the 9000 ways he found not to invent the light bulb, next time you cock something up you say ‘great, I’ve found another way of not doing it’. It’s a very positive approach.
I try to be a pioneer, to do something other people haven’t thought of. Creating 10,000 jobs is great, but in our debt-based economy it’s not enough.”
Sir Bob Geldof
As he addressed the audience of over 300 students and 60 entrepreneurs from across the region, Bob Geldof showed that he had clearly done his homework on the North East – an area he considers to be a second home (we helped bring his children up back in the days of the Tube – for those ‘experienced’ enough to remember).
He spoke with great passion about the value of harnessing and developing an entrepreneurial culture in the region.
‘The thing about entrepreneurialism and leadership is that it’s the bedrock of any economy – SMEs are driven by individuals. In fact the key essence of an entrepreneur – and why we like them – is because they have values. Whereas corporations tend to become anonymous entities even when they started off with an individual.’
‘Unless you have a constant supply of new ideas, fresh thinking, exuberance and activity the economy will fall over. And bizarrely and brilliantly Britain is perhaps, in terms of ideas per head of population, far ahead of any other country in the world. What we’re crap at is monetising that. But the regulatory regime that is imposed on people with ideas is stupid. And it prevents many ideas from breathing and gathering the life they require.’
‘At a certain point entrepreneurs should have the modesty to stand back having created the spark and let others enable the idea they’ve started – because many entrepreneurs are actually crap managers.’
‘I suppose if you take ‘I don’t like Mondays’ – a thrillingly great piece of music that it undoubtedly is – it would be shit without Fingers playing the piano. And I couldn’t play the piano. I needed someone else to help make the idea in my head real.’
He went on to reflect on what it is that makes people entrepreneurial. ‘I believe circumstance forces many people to become an entrepreneur. I don’t know for sure but I bet if you saw figures on chronically dyslexic people that a great many of them would be entrepreneurial – because they don’t have a choice. They have to find ways to around and about other systems to find a way forward.’
His advice to entrepreneurs was summed up in 3 simple words. ‘Differentiate, select and amplify. That’s precisely what evolution does and that’s what the entrepreneur needs to understand with regard to their idea.’
It was meant as a joke, but Gerald Ratner’s now infamous admission that some of the products in his family’s jewellery chain were “crap” will go down in history as a business blooper of catastrophic proportions.
It was said to have wiped an estimated £500m off the value of the Ratner group, which included H Samuel and Ernest Jones, as well as overshadowing the success of the family business founded by Gerald’s father.
His “throwaway gag” will never go away and he repeatedly still tops league tables of grievous gaffes, ahead of George Bush, John Profumo, Bill Clinton and President Nixon.
At the 2007 Annual Conference, Gerald was keen to point out that it wasn’t his only error. “People only think about me as the person who made that one terrible mistake; my whole life doesn’t really exist outside of that 20 minutes in 1991. It’s a bit unfair because I made many mistakes which I am not credited for,” he joked.
“I don’t underestimate the terrible effect the speech had but I became a tabloid punch bag,” he said.
“I had built up the business from loss making to making £130m a year. Suddenly I had thrown it all away in a second with a throwaway gag. That was my crime.”
The only solution to restore his reputation was to find new success. After six years in the wilderness, he opened a successful health club which he sold three years later for £3.9m.
His latest venture, Gerald On-line, became the UK’s biggest internet jewellery retailer. He said: “Business is all about setbacks, about dealing with them and never giving up. And success is much better second time around.”
Sir Tom Farmer
Sir Tom Farmer revealed his cost effective way to building Kwik-Fit into an international brand at the 2010 Autumn Business Conference.
“In the beginning it was all about inexpensive advertising – printing out leaflets and getting the local boy scouts to deliver them and put them under car windscreen wipers. We couldn’t afford full page advertising or TV campaigns.
“Then it was about the customer. Every time a customer came in, we asked the staff to make sure they asked them to tell their friends about us.
“We were in a business where nobody ever wanted to deal with us – nobody ever woke up in the morning and said, “Darling, it’s a beautiful day, let’s go and buy a new tyre.” Our customers were distress purchasers – they’d rather go to the dentist than come to us.
“So there was a limited period of time from when a customer came in when we could gain their trust. We were pretty good at training our people to get the customer on side pretty quickly, and once we’d built up that relationship and gained their trust, and done the job, it was about saying thanks very much, and by the way could you tell your friends because we need the business.
“It was as open as that. It sounds too simple, but it is simple. It’s not easy though.”
The early 80s saw the accidental birth of a phenomenon generated from the ‘Can’t Get Better than a Kwik-Fit Fitter’ slogan, and an accompanying £15m television advertising campaign.
“It was a big investment but something happened that we never anticipated. We took a job that had no identity – the exhaust fitter – then suddenly made it the most known job in the country. With TV you’re in everybody’s homes and we were telling people, ‘you can’t get better than us’.
“Our people wanted the slogan on their backs; when you were a Kwik-Fit fitter you were somebody. The morale was incredible; our guys were very, very proud.
“Yet we created it by accident. In fact most things in my life have been an accident. I have been fortunate that God gave me the common sense to see opportunities, reach out and grasp them and use them to the best of my ability.”
Lord Kirkham first spoke at the Forum’s Annual Conference six years ago, soon after he had bought back DFS after 11 years on the Stock Market. He was prompted, he revealed, by his desire to get back to basics and think long term once again.
Privatisation took nine months of “aggravation and hassle”, negative headlines and borrowing for the first time – £350m to be exact.
“I loved being in the spotlight and thrived in the rough and tumble and the pressure from the merchant bank. It was a challenge and that environment suited our competitive nature and encouraged us to grow,” he said.
And while he has gone on to be Knighted and elevated to the House of Lords, he continues to draw on the values he learned as boy brought up in a Yorkshire mining village, namely hard work, aiming high and being patient.
“Patience is a tremendous asset for the entrepreneur. You shouldn’t expect to grow overnight. I wanted to build a prosperous company and build it to last,” he said.
But it was his recent decision, at the age of 65, to finally sell the business for good that most captivated his audience.
“It wasn’t an easy decision to sell the business that has been and still is my life. But I would rather take the lift to the top and bow out there,” he said.
The timing was also influenced by tax implications. “If I waited another five years I would have had to sell for three or four times more just to net the same. Tax planning is important; it’s not what you make that’s vital, it’s what you keep that’s important.”
The principal driver, however, was his neglect of any form of succession planning.
“I had no family who wanted to take it on and no natural successor from inside. If I wanted to protect it I had no option than to pursue a change of ownership.”
He said Advent International worked hard to convince him that they would look after DFS people.
In a sport that has borne its fair share of sporting icons from Fangio to Clark, Senna to Schumacher, Sir Jackie Stewart OBE is seen by many as worthy of the title of the first truly modern professional racing driver.
But it was his ability to transfer his quick thinking from the track to the commercial side of Formula One that has won him as many fans in business as in sport. Having made the transition from driver to team owner, starting Stewart Grand Prix in 1996 with his son Paul, they went on to sell the team to Ford three years later for £133m.
For someone who was told he was stupid and thick, Sir Jackie is acknowledged as having done pretty well – though he would never admit it. The Scotsman is still sticking to his philosophy in life.
“Under-promise and over deliver,” he told members and guests at a special Forum event in 2011 to mark Burns Night. “It is easy to get carried away with a little bit of success and that is the fastest way to bring you down. Never get angry, never get too excited; you have got to be clinical.”
Being a true Scotsman, Sir Jackie is also proud of the fact that he managed to finance the team and business ventures without ever having to borrow a penny.
“I have never had an overdraft, equity partner or any lending. I got all the money in before I needed it. I sold the team without any debt which allowed me to sleep. The biggest problem with many businesses today is around debt and repayments.
“To me it was common logic as I didn’t want to risk what I had. I never borrowed from the bank, never had a mortgage and never spent any more than I earned. I had to find another way to do it; I couldn’t do loans and I thought it better not to.”
He told guests it was the relationships he has developed during his life, both professionally and personally, that has cemented his achievements. He counts King Hussein of Jordan and Lord King, former boss of British Airways, among his mentors.
“I have always believed in long term relationships – I have been married 48 years; short term thinking isn’t the best way to go. I was 40 years with Ford, 43 years with Rolex, and have been with Moet et Chandon since 1960. I saw the benefit of being with good companies, and you also have to have good quality people around you.”
“You have got to have consistency, not peaks and valleys. Peaks and valleys people scare me because you don’t know when they are going to let you down. When you spot someone with potential you have to catch them early and bring them on.”
“You have to have experience and from that you gain knowledge; put them together and you can get wisdom. You can mature and make some big decisions.”
All the details about our upcoming events can be found at www.entrepreneursforum.net/gathering
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