Business Agility @tieuknorth #FoundersDock Launch Speech

Founders Dock Omnijoin

Last night saw the opening of an exciting intitiative from Tie UK North, a brand new incubator for start-up businesses in Spinningfields, Manchester, more about it here

Asked to do a talk around ‘Business Agility’ for the audience, I had a number of people come to me afterwards to ask me if I had a copy of the speech, which thankfully I do.  I’m re-publishing it here for those that asked: -

Phil Jones – Founders Dock  Launch 20/01/2014 – ‘Business Agility’

“Last week we had some great news.  Brother had been named in the list of the Sunday Times Top 100 places to work.  Let me place that in some context for you, our parent is 105 years old and our Manchester business is 46 years old.  In a world where most of the household giants are now less than 10 years old, we’re a wise elder on the topic of staying relevant to your audience, a key attribute defining an agile organisation.

The last seven years have been the most dynamic I’ve ever experienced in business.  At times we’ve ridden waves, other times battled heavy headwinds.  It’s the ability to quickly react which differentiates whether you are a puma or a dinosaur in the new new we all now live in.

So many disruptive technologies entered our realm post 2007 that our landscapes began to shift.  The iPhone, iTunes, Cloud Computing, APPS, Twitter, Dropbox, iPads, Android, Google earth – the list goes on and on. 

And then someone pressed self-destruct on the economy in 2008, creating a perfect storm of technological, organisational and economic turmoil.  I’m sure every business leader in the room has their share of success and horror stories of how this new world order has impacted them, perhaps forcing an unplanned change.

But what is business agility?

It depends who you ask and there are numerous interpretations of the word and what it stands for.  Maybe in the last few years it’s all been about reducing organisational trauma as your business adapts to new markets, for others about finding the quick wins to take on a new-entrant disrupting previous holy ground.

The bottom line is having a workforce, organisational structure, business model and capability to deal with anything that gets thrown at you!  I believe AGILITY is the ATTITUDE of your people, more than your processes.

In the heart of all of this lies the creative leader, the light burst of energy who can inspire, direct and encourage people to turn up with the right attitude towards change.  Recessions bring fear or flight thinking, buttoning down the hatches, sticking with the knitting, risk aversion and controlling behaviour.  It’s about the worst possible environment for large, established businesses battling to keep their oil tanker afloat, whilst observing bootstrapped new entrants kicking the living daylights out of their business model.

Energised and connected leaders who can see this, roll their sleeves in readiness, obsessing about customers in order to stay relevant and intimate.  They are rarely caught asleep at the wheel, a la HMV, Woolworths, Blockbuster, as they are connected to the pulse of the customer, bringing back insights and always ensuring the direction of travel is correct, although the final destination may well still be undetermined.

Words that we normally associate at Brother with agility are: – flexibility, balance, adaptability, co-ordination, autonomy, fluidity, de-centralisation and dexterity, difficult to do all at once unless you are the guy from the TV show ‘don’t look down’ on Channel 4 last night!

We wrapped this all up in an acronym called ‘PRIDE’ – Personal Responsibility In Delivering Excellence.  Driving down responsibility to human beings in a work community to be their best, to adapt and to work through whatever might come through the door.

But why agility has become a theme?


With all this technology, we are now entering the age of ‘isation’ – Democratisation, Virtualisation, Consumerisation, Commodisation, Cannibalisation and Globalisation.  A trickle down effect which has put power right in the hands of people to work anywhere, to amplify their voice and demand the lowest cost for anything, from anyone.  The customer is no longer king, they are king kong with corporate reputations under risk from the crowd as they gather across social computing networks to force change from slow responders or head in the sanders.

But big are speeding up as changes in working practice, culture and organisational structure work through.  We call this ‘Kinetic’ working at Brother, creating a workplace which is not pyramid shaped, but molecular in structure.  Providing a workplace which is ‘community’ driven, with the emphasis being on outcomes not hierarchical status.  Using advancements in technology and the revolution in mobile technology to drive location independent working and increasing our reach into the talent pool. 
The next five years we will continue to see a period of collaboration, sharing, openness, transparency, disruption, creativity and innovation.  It won’t be about the survival of the fittest, but the thinnest.  
Those benefiting from low cost, PAYG infrastructure and workforces will surely succeed over the fixed cost burdens of many larger businesses as they grapple to de-layer, de-construct and determine the middle ground between centralised and de-centralised working.
2020 – 2040 is a tipping point for agility as baby boomers and Generation X retire giving way to the high alacrity Gen Y + Z so used to everything being an application away from anything they need to do. They will demand new democratised work environments with an emphasis on how work fits around their life, rather than the other way round.  Businesses must de-learn their methods of working and adopt new flexible structures, revving up and down, in line with market demand and plus workforce availability.
For Manchester and business to succeed, it must be fleet of foot, in a state of readiness with capable people, skill enabled and backed by the right business environment – networks (physical and data) will be key.  The speed at which business can be transacted will be key to capitalise on the opportunities that present themselves nationally and internationally, business without borders.
The region needs to think bigger than a region, it needs to thing global, grabbing temporary competitive advantage to be more fleet of foot for business and its residents.  Perhaps the internet of things is the big opportunity to make this one of the smartest cities on the planet?
But none of this matters without action.  A region wont grow unless businesses start.  Businesses won’t succeed without the resources to nuture them from incubation to fly.  Large established businesses won’t change unless they adopt a mindset of agility, it all starts with the leadership.  Now it’s about communities, collaboration and connectivity!  Embrace new methods of working, speed up, assist, collaborate or kick the living daylights out of your competition with a pre-emptive strike – but do something!
Speaking to an audience of industry executives in London last week I gave two pieces of advice for the future and both pieces were one word: -
  1. Change will be constant.
  2. Change!
The objective of this incubator is to provide the platform for ideas to turn into actions and businesses.  To keep talent here, to nurture it, to build a future for this great City.  This incubator will be well resourced, with full web video conferencing, opening the capability of the businesses within it to collaborate with anyone in the world, without a mile of HS2 train track needing to be laid!!
I like to think that the moment of serendipity described earlier sums us up (refers to how Brother came involved with this project after a chance meeting on Embankment tube station).  Seeing an opportunity, evaluating it quickly, taking first mover advantage of the opportunity, working it through and creating this space in rapid time working with TiE, sums up that even big business, can be small.
We like to think that we not only talk the talk, but walk the walk, demonstrated by our recent award.  It’s not easy, it takes guts, determination and a lot of change, a committed workforce, the right structures, difficult conversations, tense meeting rooms and a passion for the possible.  
You don’t have to have it all figured out to move forward but do move forward and always good to remember that you can’t do today’s job with yesterdays methods and be in business tomorrow.”









“Fear is a Liar” – Featuring @olivercookson

“Fear is a liar.”  Entrepreneur Oliver Cookson shared this great one-liner with a room full with like-minded people at Insider Magazines annual 42 under 42 dinner, held earlier this month (14/10).

Telling a wonderful story, which started with a single bag of Whey purchased from a farmer who took a gamble on him, Cookson simply took the concept of Protein supplements, evaluated the supply chain and margin capability, then disrupted the sector by selling it direct through his own website. It worked.  The business – My Protein – went on to sell for around £60M to The Hut Group. I’m always hugely interested to listen to stories from Entrepreneurs, there are always so many valuable takeaways which you can use for inspiration in life or business.  Let me share a few things that resonated with me from the talk that Oliver gave….42 Under 42 - 4759
  • He came from a single parent family and left school with a single GCSE in Science, he left college after two weeks.  So much emphasis is put on further education in life, however do not let it be an inhibitor to your ambition or determination to change your dynamic or outcomes if you weren’t successful at school.  Time and time again, in successful people, is a back story of early adversity.  No silver spoons, but a taste of life that they later choose to de-couple from and start anew.  Look to all the big entrepreneurs, you’ll find a story.
  • Gaining an apprenticeship kick-started his career.  With so much focus on apprenticeships right now, you can see how valuable they are in providing structure to a young person, an opportunity to be coached, mentored, educated,  moulded and injected with confidence.  If you don’t provide apprenticeships in your business, why not consider it?  One apprenticeship could change the life direction of a young person.
  • He had an idea and actioned it.  The major difference between those that seek success and those that dream about it.  Those that seek it, take action.  Oliver took his action by understanding the market, defining his own product, then pursuing it with a drive and passion.  It all started with a single bag of Whey, purchased from a farmer who agreed to sell it to him to stop Oliver from calling him so often!  That farmer later enjoyed a huge business with Oliver as he rewarded him with business to the tune of 50 tonnes of whey a month.  There are so many lessons in this paragraph alone, take action, don’t give up and give someone a break!  He commented during the talk – “the hardest thing was starting.”  I’ve spoken before about fear and “fear of failure” is a big distortion which stops people doing things in life.  The bottom line is fear is a manifest of our imagination, hence the brilliant but true line “fear is a liar”.
  • Cookson went social, before the world went social.  Back in 2004/5, web 2.0 was just starting.  With little marketing budget or resources, Cookson set to convince the world of his product by spending time in forums and also introducing a referral scheme in his customer base.  World of mouth soon spread and it went viral.  This ultimately meant the business didn’t have enormous marketing costs and Cookson had no debt from the day he started until the day he sold it, retaining 100% of the equity.  That is a considerable achievement and just shows the power of communities.
  • Get the baby ready!  An interesting part of the evenings talk was when asked about the sale of the business.  Cookson had a beauty parade of top hitting investors keen to take the business off his hands including Nestle and Pepsi.  Building a business from scratch, moulding it to be your own and then preparing it for sale is a tough job, particularly the last bit.  Investors want to see robust processes, professional management, long term strategies and particularly that the business will survive independent of its original founder.  That can be tough for a founder as they hand over control to others by bringing people in, having to give up the reins and see others take it in potentially different directions.
  • What shall I do now?  Sitting in a serviced office, a multi-millionaire, yet with a huge void in his life through the sale of his business he stared at a whiteboard with a pen and asked himself the question.  What should I do next?  And thus the next phase began, albeit with a shedload of money behind his next venture – Saints and Slimmers.  The big lesson here is about purpose.  Despite being incredibly wealthy, Cookson retains the desire to create, which is what I really admire.  Money doesn’t buy purpose, purpose is a natural driver that every human being needs, money or no money.  Define yours.

Get Creative(s)

Steven BOnner“I was on my own without a grand plan.”

Last night I attended the Northern Digitals BLAB event in Manchester to listen to two heavyweights (reputationally) of the creative world, Steven Bonner and John McFaul.  A packed room of around 190 people gathered to hear them tell their respective stories of how they carved their niche in the heavily crowded world of design, to establish themselves as renowned in their peer group.  Bonners line above conveyed well the risk he took to follow his dream of turning his love of “typography” into a business.

Highly creative people always really interest me.  I’m a person that can happily generate ideas, however turning those ideas into original concepts, art or design is a skill I’d love to have.  Both presenters showed amazing visual work, like the image to the right which Bonner helped to co-collaborate.  After hearing him speak I’ll never look at a font again without a greater appreciation for the work that may have gone into it.

John McFaul (see pic below) demonstrated a real panache in his delivery, he articulated well his obsession with momentum.  Always moving forward, pushing a new boundary, re-defining something new.  No surprise that he now specialises primarily with sporting companies like Vandeyk, Ashmei and Beacon Bikes.  He spoke of his personal journey, often troubled, whilst he ultimately defined what he really wanted to do in terms of working with brands which connected with his personal passions of running and cycling.

I’ve been fortunate to get to know John personally and professionally, through our shared interest of all things two wheels.  In him, I’ve seen this obsession for the small details come to bear, I compare him to the level of obsessiveness that Steve Jobs had for perfection, seeing things others may not, taking care of the tiniest detail in order that a brand proposition be fulfilled.  Precise and controlled, he looks for simplicity in a brand promise, de-layering a proposition to its truth – powerful stuff.

Driving home, I always like to think about take-aways for others, here’s a few things: -

  • Both individuals had previously been unhappy at some point, which ultimately then led them to their individual passions.  A lesson for us all there.
  • Both were big collaborators.  Never seeing themselves as the single solution to a problem, able to generate a single solution naturally, but always open to the critique, ideas and collaboration opportunities working with other like minded people may bring.  A reminder to always be open and allow other people to develop you through new ideas.  A saying I like is “When you talk, you are only repeating what you already know.  But if you listen, you may learn something new.”
  • Both were incredibly hard workers.  Bonner citing “Hard work trumps talent.”  He’d done the hard yards in learning the technicalities of his craft.  McFaul spoke of the crazy hours he worked serving clients in different time zones across the world.  Nothing on a plate here, listen up Gen Y!
  • Both were habitual learners and de-learners.  Never satisfied with the current, there always had to be something new.  What do you need to de-learn in order to open up to new potential?
  • Both took risks.  Following their real passion, their hearts, getting aligned into their personal truths.  Leaps of faith were regularly required, but they both took them in order to follow their desired pathway.  Both ultimately are entrepreneurs, running their own businesses, but they would not label themselves that way.  Both put thoughts and words into action, where creativity becomes innovations.  Lesson – Stop talking, start doing.

I’m a great believer that you should always stretch your thinking by looking for inspiration anywhere.  These two were great examples of individuals that the world needs.  Radical and original thinkers who create cool, beautiful things.  Inspiration aplenty.  You can find both gentlemen on Twitter.  @stevenbonner @johnmcfaul.  Well worth a follow.


Michelle Mone OBE “Uplifts” Business Audience in Manchester

You’ve probably seen a lot of Michelle Mone recently.  Her much publicised separation from her husband after a long term marriage and the subsequent discovery of an affair between her husband and one of her most trusted members of staff have been splashed all over the tabloids – difficult, yet defining times. 

She delivered a keynote at yesterday’s Talk of Manchester conference on how she took her brand of women’s bra’s from an idea she had whilst working for an alcoholic drinks company, through to one of the most successful global brands in its sector – Ultimo.

First Impressions

A great speaker connects with their audience, is personable and let’s their personality shine through. 

There can’t have been a single person in the room yesterday that wouldn’t have failed to warm to Michelle.  She’s very pretty, funny, oozing charisma, she showed her product off to it’s full potential via a stunning outfit, is clearly driven and very accomplished in telling her story. And it’s a really inspiring story, which I’m not going to re-cap in detail - go see her speak, but I would like to share some of the key lessons I picked up from Michelle’s talk.

Ten Lessons from Entrepreneur – Michelle Mone

  1. “Every day is a school day” – you can learn something new from every experience, every day.
  2. Her biggest self-confessed weakness is the numbers/finances and she just has a great team around her to do that whilst she takes care of the product innovation and marketing.  This is all about playing to your strengths.
  3. Think small when thinking big.  She burst onto the scene and generated £62m of press coverge with a £500 PR stunt outside Selfridges when first launching the brand.  She continues to think in this way, pushing people to be more creative, rather than assume there will always be a big budget.
  4. She sleeps for four hours a night and is always on the go.  You can see the raw energy when she speaks.  She comes across as calm and collected, however you can see a steely determination to get things done.
  5. She has a list of objectives.  A small notebook in her bag carries her short and long term objectives.  These are reviewed every day for her to stay focussed.
  6. Her biggest lesson was being taken for £1.6M by an overseas business partner.  Minutes away from being foreclosed by the bank, she negotiated a re-financing package with HSBC which saw her overcome the adversity and go on to global success.  She cites this as one of her most difficult periods, but one in which she learned a lot as is often the case with adversity.
  7. She is about to launch a new spray tan product called UTAN.   When you’ve set up a business with all the right channels of distribution, look for other product you can push down that pipe.  Next logical step for the brand is in complementary goods, expect to see them in the shops soon.
  8. She is a big fan of innovation.  Doing things which others say, can’t or shouldn’t be done.  Michelle is constantly looking for ways to create new products or do things better.  Exactly as it should be.
  9. Michelle always set challenging goals for herself.  When joining a drinks manufacturer as an adminstrator, she set her sets on running the entire Scottish operation within three years, she achieved it in eighteen months.  Being the best you can be is always about pushing your potential.
  10. She created her own opportunities.  Speculatively sending bra’s out to 100 top stylists in the world.  The Ultimo bra was worn by Julia Roberts in the film Erin Brockovich, without Michelle’s knowledge.  This led to the bra getting huge international exposure and a new American market was opened up.

Summing It Up

Michelle Mone is a very driven person, hugely successful, with a real sense for business.  It’s the second time I’ve seen her tell the MJM story and for the second time I was really impressed by her, her style and her achievements. 

My audience question was “When will we see Ultimo with an underwear range for men” – M&S have dominated the sector for years, so perhaps its time for a breath of fresh air and some uplift in the gentlemans department.  Watch this space!

The most important lesson I think is this.  Michelle has got where she has got through hard graft and hard graft alone.  No reality TV show, no leg up, no silver spoon.  She set her sights high and set off – that’s what I liked most about her and that should be your “uplifting” moment, along with a decent Ultimo bra if required :-)

Betfred – Job Done

“My greatest regret, turning down a stake in Manchester United Football club for £250,000.”    A lifelong fan of the club, Fred Done, of bookmaking giant Betfred confessed to this during an interesting one to one interview with Insider NW Editor – Michael Taylor – in Manchester on Monday night.  The Leaders dinner, an annual affair which brings together around one hundred and fifty leaders of regional businesses, is an event I enjoy each year.  Informal with a great audience of CEO level attendees.

Done, looking much younger than his age (mid sixties), spoke of the growth of the Betfred empire, which now has a turnover of £3.5bn+ via its network of 1350 sites.  He’s been in the betting game over fifty years, starting when he was just fifteen and now sitting on an enormous betting empire, including the recent acquisition of the Tote.

There’s a lot to appreciate about the Done brothers.  They started with nothing and have gone on to own multiple successful businesses in differing sectors.  Fred, is a really ordinary guy.  He spoke very plainly about his business, raising finance, the Tote acquisition and lessons learned.  There was no corporate speak, citing “top hats vs. flat caps” as one of his observations of the political nature of the Tote acquisition.  Here are some bullets I took from the interview: -

  • The brand Betfred came out of a brainstorming session.  They got an employee to design the logo.  He compared that to the £5M the Tote spent on branding with an agency.
  • Fred has “no plans” to retire.
  • Bet365 is a business who he admires and feels is the industry benchmark for on-line gaming.
  • Their on-line gambling business is growing at 80%+ CAGR.  Staff are based in Gibraltar due to taxation.  He said he would move the staff to the UK tomorrow if the tax environment for a global on-line gaming business were right.
  • Money is out there for borrowing.  But you must prove your case.
  • The journey to acquire the Tote took around 7 years from first idea to deal conclusion.  It took a huge amount of effort, advisory fees and political lobbying.
  • Their initial valuation for the Tote was £150M.  Betfred eventually paid £265m.  He felt that profits could be increased by at least £25M per annum with liberated staff and more business focus, so was happy to pay the higher price.
  • A lesson learned from earlier in his career was that he wasn’t aggressive enough and too parochial.  If he wasn’t sure, he walked away from a deal.  Now he says “If in doubt, do it!”
  • He feels as ambitious now, as he did as a 21 year old and success for him in the next phase of his career is to make the Tote ” a business that I’m proud of.”

The Done brothers are highly influential in the region.  Fred is passionate about young new start businesses and has backed many, aswell as investing group spend in the region wherever possible.  His brother Peter, who runs an employment law and health and safety business called Peninsula, is very much part of the business too.  They are busy building a conglomerate of businesses.

If I were a betting man, I think that would be “odds-on” bet for great success.  Excellent fellow, excellent business, excellent evening

Mark Loughbridge – IBM SVP & CFO Visits Manchester

Senior Vice-President and Chief Financial Officer of IBM – Mark Loughbridge – visited Manchester last week to deliver a lecture at the business school about IBM and their 100 year journey from a small punchcard company to global giant.  In an hour long talk, he covered the four phases of IBM’s existence, including the disastrous imploding which saw their share price collapse between 1973-1993 as the company lost it’s way and drifted from its core competency, losing $16bn in 3 year period at one point.

Compare that with now and IBM is unrecognisable.  They totally turned the business around and made an astonishing 125 acquisitions from 2000 onwards, totalling $33bn, quite a story.  Highly articulate money man – Loughbridge, 57 – lived through all of this.  Joining IBM in 1977, he now has over 11,000 financial people reporting into him across the globe.

A few things stood out for me from the lecture, which I think are worthy of note: -

  1. Between 1951-1972, what he described as “The System/360″ years, the then president discontinued every single product line they owned and threw an incredible amount of money at product development.  During this period, they spent as much on R&D as the American government did putting the Apollo space rocket on the moon.  After a period of re-consolidation, IBM came back stronger and went on to grow at 20% CAGR.
  2. When they had their bad times, it was because the company launched into so many non-core areas, in so many countries, they lost the DNA of the businesss.  Son of the founder – Thomas J. Watson Jr – was quoted as saying “It’s harder to keep a business great, than it is to build it.”  This took a massive amount of energy to turn round and at times the business came close to running out of cash.  A far cry from the hugely profitable business it is now with $47bm a year in gross margins alone.
  3. They achieved the turnaround by jettisoning low margin, non-core businesses and launched themselves into the services/consulting sector, focusing on performance, information and content.  They acquired buinesses with high margin potential and proprietary technology, improving productivity and margin as they consolidated them into the group. IBM now employees over 420,000 people – some wage bill that must be.

It’s a fascinating story of a business that grew and grew and grew, had a major period of drifting in the wilderness which nearly bought it to bankruptcy, which turned itself round to become a huge global organisation with massive profits.    There’s some lessons there: -

  1. Sometimes you have to be bold, to stay relevant. Discontinuing every product they produced was a massive gamble or calculated risk?  Looking back, their CEO was a visionary, he studied what he felt the future might look like and got the business ready for it.  What’s the future for your business/category/space?
  2. Big decisions need implementing. Jettisoning the low margin businesses, cost a lot of money and time,  however they had to cut them loose to grow their profitability.  Think long term, don’t wed yourself to something because it has been great in the past.  If you decide to do something big, do it.
  3. They standardised quickly. Using the same language for financial reporting, sales reporting and group KPI’s.  It was “my way or the highway” when it came to implementing reporting.  Those that resisted were quickly exited in favour of progress.  Time was against them, they had a sense of urgency to save IBM in the dark days.  What could you do to standardise more and get a common language going in your business as you grow.
  4. They dealt with the brutal truth. Read Jim Collins book “Good to Great” and you’ll see the importance of doing that.
  5. They had a strong vision of the future. Loughbridge put up some interesting charts which they used with investors, to give clarity as to their future plans and reasons for acquisitions.  Many of those reached out over ten years.  It’s important to financially plan, to know what course you’re ultimately sailing.

It was an hour well invested.  Some good lessons and a great reminder that even big businesses get it wrong.  The trick is, recognising it and pulling it back.

Dr. Andrew Sentance visits Manchester

I was fortunate enough to be invited to a private dinner with Dr. Andrew Sentance - who sits on the Bank of Englands monetary policy committee (MPC) – on a visit he made to Manchester earlier this week.

Meeting business leaders as part of his visit to the North West, he was interested to understand feedback about life on the street and hear directly how we felt the economy was doing, our outlook and perspective for the future. 

Articulate and brainy (why wouldn’t he be with a name like Sentance), he opened with a macro view on the global and UK economies. I’ve captured some of his key commentary in no particular order: -

  • Commodity pricing remains a key issue (oil+gas).
  • Interest rates do have to go up soon and “how to deploy the exit strategy” remains the key consideration without damage to the economy.  Perhaps in steps of 0.25%, travelling to 1% sometime over the next 12 months.
  • The world is truly globalised now and it is difficult to act independently with so many chain reactions now built into the system.
  • UK is in a recovery phase (as detailed by yesterday’s 0.5% rise in GDP) however the recovery is at different speeds, in different sectors.
  • The 2.5% VAT rise is equal to a 1% reduction in wallet spend for the average consumer.
  • Inflation remains a key long term concern for the economy.
  • Exports continue to be in good shape with the weak £.  However, he did ask the views of the group about if the pound went up to the 1.25-1.30 range, would we see that as “damaging” – conclusion was no.
  • Wage settlements continue to be inconsistent across sectors.  Some businesses opting to not offer increases, others awarding at RPI/CPI rate (up to 5%).

I asked whether the MPC took into account “natural disasters” in their forecasting.  It’s become clear now that a great deal of worldwide production is going to be impacted due to a lack of things following the disaster in Japan, such as micro-chips.  This inevitably may lead to a shortage of some goods in developed economies and therefore a potential to impact growth.  Sentace said the short supply may push prices up, therefore lifting selling prices, so my advice is ”buy it now” – for anything electronic!!

It also became apparent as there were a few businesses there which sold multi-nationally, that production by some major brands for developed economies is being capped in favour of developing economies like Russia, India and China (where there is a huge appetite for western goods and brands).  This is impacting on some of these goods entering the European supply chain.  For example, I didn’t realise that there was a shortage of pigment which car manufacturers use for painting cars, seems that one luxury car brand could only supply their cars in white for the forseeable future.  Interesting thought (guess what colour my new car is – that explains a lot).

It’s good to get these “think tank types” out.  Hearing real feedback from real businesses.  Having debate.  Listening to opinion and it’s a real value to meet other businesses from non-competing sectors to hear their view of the economy.  In a “sentance” – well worth the time investment.

The Jobless Recovery of 2011

Speaking to a Treasury Select Committee on Monday,  Barclays CEO – Bob Diamond remarked “The big banks need to stop apologising for mistakes which led to the global financial crisis.”  I’m sure the two thousand or so workers from Manchester City Council who have today learned that they are to lose their jobs, totally agree.  “They’ve said sorry, so why should we be bitter?”  That makes it alright, an apology.   Not! Perhaps Mr Diamond might treat them all to a small drink up with his reputed £8M bonus that he is set to receive this year.

In a way, the people I don’t feel need to apologise for the banks behaviour are the thousands of bank workers in branches, customer support centres and campuses across the UK.  They are having to be the front end to the bitterness that many will foster for a long time, particularly those affected by job losses.  It’s the City boys where the blame firmly lies, many of them still sitting on the millions they made selling toxic debt to each other in the merry go round of hysteria.  Anyway, not planing to rant, wanted to quickly talk about the idea of the “jobless economy.”

With the public sector reducing headcount, clearly the private sector needs to grow to boost the economy.   Many businesses, having laid people off or re-organised, may well be reluctant to take new headcount on in the short term, opting to do more with less, in case there are any more – ahem – surprises.  2011 will be the year, where nervousness will exist in all areas of the economy.  Macro level forecasts take time to kick in.  So, whilst the public sector and related private sector companies with high public sector dependency make short term cuts, the private sector will be looking for new business, whether that be export or home market.

This transformation of growing new business in new markets won’t happen overnight.  New strategies need to be implemented, sales cycles need to be gone through, prosepcting, meetings, proposals, further meetings etc.  So, 2011 may well be a time where business does more with less.  Sweating assets (human and other) will be where it’s at, so whilst the economy may grow slowly, the number of jobs may not follow in the usual cycle.  Hence, we may well remember 2011 as the year of the jobless economy.  Let’s hope not.

The Big Society

What can business do to contribute to the big society ideal formed by the government? That was the main question primed towards a small audience of business leaders by Business In The Community at an event in Manchester tonight.  I hadn’t really given it much thought previously, however in the surroundings of Manchester Business School and in the company of some bright minds we attempted to try and identify just some of the facilitators and barriers.

What’s obvious is that there are no easy answers or quick fixes.  There is a massive societal shift needed. Who will move first?  Is competition too fierce in the global economy now for us to adopt these holistic ideals?  There were some interesting points made, however it was clear that it won’t be easy to get quick traction.  Nevertheless, here’s a few of the points I thought relevant (in no particular order).

  • Will people be prepared to work less hours for less pay to see more people in employment? - Tough one and the government might not like the answer.  We live in an age of consumption.  Of acquiring things.  My device is better than your device.  My TV is bigger than your TV.  Will people be prepared to trade down for the bigger good?
  • There’s no financial incentive. You really want to motivate a businessperson to get involved, show them an opportunity, not a draw on their time.
  • The bulk of business people represented on panels like this are normally large and successful. You only needed to see the audience in the room tonight.  All Gen X.  Board Directors in successful businesses.  You wont hear the view of  SME’s who make up 99.8% of business.  They are the ones you need engaged too as they employ half the UK workforce and can be more inciteful as to the conditions they would need to donate their time.
  • If the Big society makes us globally uncompetitive, forget it. Harsh, however social investments rely on economic prosperity, a fine balance.
  • Do Generation Y care like Generation X do? Generation Y (digital natives) have a completely different outlook on life.  They are pursuing fame and instant fortune (bit stereotypical I know), however this may get in the way of their ambitions.  You have to incentivise at all levels to get change happening.
  • You need some new innovation in there somewhere. Salami slicing public sector expenditure and then shifting the burden to business, just isn’t on.  We all know the public sector is hugely inefficient in many areas.  Why not incentivise private sector business to drive savings and efficiency in public sector?
  • Get local government to spend more of their grant with local businesses, not on national contracts. They can then insist on some of the big society ideals as part of the supply agreement.  Seen it done already and it works.
  • The future isn’t public or private. It’s a fusion of both in the big society.  A fusion of Enterprise.  Rip down the barriers to enterprise.  Make public sector procurement easier.  Making the planning process easier for businesses to build the premises they need.  By expanding, there will be more jobs in the economy.  Carving up current jobs – in my view – just isn’t the answer.
  • Do people have the time for all this? People are pressured.  T.A.T. rules.  Time is at a premium.  Work/Life blend is poor.

I’m not negative about it, just realistic. I’d love to see a society, which is more like Japan for example.  Purposeful.  Respectful.  More societal in its outlook.  However, people will need to see quick and early wins for this one to make it’s way out of the manifesto and into everyday practice.  It’s a big job, however a worthy aim.  What do you think?

City Leaders Breakfast

“Maybe what got us here, may not get us there,” proclaimed Manchester City Football Club Chief Executive – Garry Cook – at their inaugral City Business Leaders breakfast at the City of Manchester Stadium this morning.  Describing the process of change that the club has undergone, the club has benefitted from massive investment from its Abu Dhabi owner Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan and embarked on a programme of massive investment on and off the pitch.

Addressing an audience of around eighty business leaders, with a common interest in that they are all City fans, Cook went on to talk about the numbers, the culture change they have undergone, their global ambition and their “fix, build and grow” mode since being acquired in September 2008.   Flanked by CFO – Graham Wallis – who eloquently explained the massive investment phase of their cycle (hence huge annual losses of circa £121.3M), both executives went to great lengths to explain that this was part of the plan.  I did smile when Graham Wallis described them as being “virtually debt free,” (the club has long term commercial bank debt of £37M, not insignificant to many businesses), however in context of the fact that their owner has converted £305M of debt into equity, I guess it’s all relative.

What I was most interested in was the “City Code” guide that Cook introduced.  This is a 120 page document describing in great detail, standards of behaviour that they expect all employees of the club – including players – to ahdere to.  I couldn’t help but feel that this is a leadership challenge in the making.  Wayne Rooneys recent off-field antics and other Premier league players would challenge any code of conduct I’ve ever seen and from a leadership point of view, and  if the code isn’t rigorously applied at all levels, then they are simply words in a book, consistency counts in the leadership business.  A brave move.

Nevertheless, I couldn’t fail to be impressed by Cook today. He was very articulate and I could see that he is implementing a clear vision for the club, “one house of football” was mentioned a number of times.  Brand was aligned to values and carried through rigorously to the mulitple platforms they market via.  There is a clear expectation of where and how they want to grow and I liked his description of them being in the “talent management” business,   Cooks years at Nike clearly coming to bear there.  There must be a lot of pressure fulfulling the expectations of a fabulously wealthy owner, a fanbase with decades of expectation which previously have been unfulfilled and a workforce witnessing dramatic change.

Connecting business leaders within the fan base is a good idea, having Marco Pierre White do the breakfast is an even better idea and a great way to guarantee bums on seats, friends in high places.  For the next event (assuming there is one),  I’d issue attendee lists so that you could peruse who was there, issue name badges and start a Linkedin group for the invitees to really start connecting up before they come.  Still, was nice to be invited and was well worth the time to hear Gary share his vision.