Thursday, September 26, 2013

Labour isn’t the party of small business just because it says it is so

Peter Mandelson defined New Labour’s relationship with the City and big business by stating that he was ‘intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich’. It set the mood music for the boom years of the last decade. Both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown enjoyed a reasonably good relationship with big business up to, but probably not including, the financial crash of 2008.

But business relations have soured. Both on economic management and red tape, the Tories have secured the high ground. Not a single FTSE 250 chief executive backed Labour at the last election.

Days before Labour’s conference this week Downtown brought a couple of dozen members together for an audience with front bench heavyweight Andy Burnham MP at Manchester Science Park (pictured above, with Rowena Burns from MSP). One of the points I put towards him was the shift going on our cities and business parks and Labour’s need to engage better with businesses beyond the square mile of the City of London.

The demographic of Britain is changing. The last couple of years has seen record levels of new company formations and new businesses. According to the Start-Up Britain Tracker 382,792 new businesses have been started this year. That enormous figure may mask a multitude of different stories – it includes one-man bands, sole traders, kitchen table eBay traders, shell companies as well as a fully fledged companies with dreams of world domination.

What they all represent is that thread of aspiration through British society. A desire to get on, improve one’s lot and make money.

I wanted to know if there was room for any of that in Andy Burnham’s radical ‘aspirational socialism’ agenda which underpinned his earlier leadership bid. We have been comfortable so far with the soundings we have had with Lord Adonis as he embarks upon his Growth Review.

Too often, Labour’s left leaning rhetoric has betrayed a lack of trust and empathy with the wealth creating classes, focusing firmly on taxes, fat cats and if you close your eyes and listen to Ed Balls spit the word out – “millionaires”.

Many of the 382, 792 will not become the “millionaires” that Ed Balls thinks were undeserving of a tax cut from 50 per cent to 45 per cent once they earned £150,000 a year. But they’re not stupid either. They hear that and think – he’s going to come after me once I make a bit of money for myself. They might not pack it in, but they’ll switch off when Labour come calling.

Ed Miliband was at least right in his instincts this week when he identified an opportunity to make a Labour pitch to be the party of small business. Small companies are often the forgotten and downtrodden underdog in a supply chain, the victims of cartels and stitch ups, shut out from the closed shops of procurement processes by bureaucracy and a high bar for admission to government frameworks.

A policy to cut business rates was a step in the right direction. So too is Shadow Business Secretary Chuka Umunna’s imaginative lifting of the Small Business Saturday project from America, but there is still a great deal more work to be done to convince anyone in a business that the state is on their side, whatever the party.

Take what Chuka Umunna told the Daily Telegraph this week: “We want to celebrate companies that have good business models, which promote long-term sustainable value creation, who value their people and see business as part of society. During our time in government, we weren’t always discerning about the kinds of business models and practices we want to see.”

I’d like to know this: Where is Labour placing the tidemark on these models? No, OK, putting kids up chimneys is off, but cold calling? Lending money? Private healthcare? Entrepreneurial people tend to spot opportunities better than government. They should be supported when they do so. That support should be unconditional, otherwise the aspiration isn’t to support small business at all, just to support cool people we like, and the rest of you can just pay your tax and shut up.

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Sunday, September 22, 2013

Returning to Ewood Park - low expectations

We returned to Ewood Park yesterday for the Blackburn Rovers v Huddersfield Town game. We had great seats, were in fine company, we got well fed and the boys met the man of the match, Scott Dann, above.  We had a good day out, no question about that. It didn't ruin my night that we drew and I wasn't angry about Venky's either.

I have refused to renew our season tickets out of protest and I did stubbornly say I wouldn't set foot in Ewood Park until Venky's left. But I also wasn't enjoying it enough to justify an 80 mile round trip every fortnight. My kids have missed it though. And when the opportunity to break bread with Richard Slater came around, I couldn't resist.

There's also been a change in expectation. After the torrid last few years I simply hope for a quiet and steady period of stability. This is a young team with an inexperienced manager. The team probably lacks a killer edge, but they at least seem to have a clear sense of how they are meant to line up and play. At Doncaster the pass and move style fell to pieces, but yesterday they persisted.

Scott Dann had a good game, in fact the two centre halves bossed it at the back for the most part, save for a rare chance that forced Jake Kean to a fingertip save.

Behind the scenes the club is still facing the financial abyss. Massive losses and reduced income point towards a meltdown at some point. And it's only a matter of time before Shebby Singh pops up again to embarrass us all. But for now I'll happily settle for honesty on the pitch from a team that can only get better. 

Friday, September 20, 2013

Lessons in life from Lloyd Dorfman

Lloyd Dorfman was in town this week. He is chairman of Travelex, the people you probably change your money with when you go on holiday.

I had the honour of interviewing him at an event for The Prince's Trust. He’s a class act, a proper gent and he has an incredible grasp of detail. I wanted to get from him some inspirational stories, some anecdotes about his life, why he is such a generous supporter of the arts and of charities like The Prince's Trust and what has driven him through his life.

He started his business in the toughest of economic times. In 1976 the odds were stacked against him when he founded the company as Bureau de Change from a single shop in London and now trades more than 80 currencies in more than 50 countries.

As he built the business up, he had to fight to get into locations like Heathrow Airport. He battled the vested interests of banks and dominant players. When the opportunity came along to bid for Thomas Cook’s financial services arm, Travelex was prevented from even entering the ring. He bet the whole business on sealing that deal, but it proved transformational and projected the business to a global stage. When he eventually took cash out of the business, selling to Apax, he stayed involved, keeping a 30 per cent stake and retaining his role as chairman. Not executive chairman, not non-executive chairman, just chairman.

I didn’t pick up on this until later but so many of his stories weren’t just about the obstacles that he’d overcome, but how a relationship with a real person turned it - the official at BAA, the Thomas Cook shareholder who ushered him into the auction which led to him buying it. His relationship with his CEO Peter Jackson.

I thought to myself, even a man who operates at the very top of life thrives on such basic raw connections. It starts to emphasise something we can all too often forget: people sell people and people don’t buy from you if they don’t like you.

More than ever this is a connected economy. We are frequently reminded of this, but I firmly believe this firm human contact is more important now than it ever was. The foundation of businesses like LinkedIn warehouse your network and treat your contacts like a commodity, but you always run the risk that you miss out on what is important to any individual.

So, there you go. Spending time with one of the most successful businessmen of his generation teaches you the most important lesson in life. Don’t be horrible.

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Tuesday, September 03, 2013

Rhodes stays - glimmer of light at Blackburn Rovers?

I spoke to a mate today who said the win against Bolton was the most fun he'd had at Ewood Park since the day before Sam Allardyce joined. It was like the 80s. A team with names you can pronounce, honest players grafting out a win over local rivals and a decent atmosphere. OK, two wins don't make a table storming run. But six points is a good return. But the news that will have excited most Rovers fans is that Jordan Rhodes is staying.

I heard last week that Wigan were very confident they'd got their man. And the Daily Mail is reporting today that the player is disappointed not to be going. This is the smoke and mirrors world of football managers and agents at work. Engineering discontent.

I'm also pleased that Pedersen and Givet are moving on. They made a contribution to better times, but they need to be playing somewhere else now. I still don't demur from the view that the presence of Venky's is destructive, but it seems like we're stuck with them. I also think we're stuck in this division for a while. The team Gary Bowyer has built is suited to it. Luck can get you up, or swing against you and send you down. This at least feels stable, which has to be something.

None of the good news masks the underlying problem at Ewood. I think there's a black hole in the finances. I have long since stopped trying to apply logic to what Venky's may do next.

I have also accepted an invitation to go to the Huddersfield game at the end of the month. My Rovers supporting sons will be delighted. We've stayed away as a protest, because I want our Rovers back. The question is which Rovers we're getting back. The honest one will do.

Monday, September 02, 2013

What Bill Shankly might have said about transfer deadline day

On this day of all days, Bill Shankly's birthday, we see all of football laid bare. Transfer deadline day, where Shankly's famous quip about life and death will be crassly taken out of context. I heard a Sky reporter say yesterday we were "witnessing history" as the team bus pulled up at the Bernebau for the very last night time WITHOUT Gareth Bale.

And having just read the 720 pages of David Peace's new novel Red or Dead, there are plenty more things that Shankly said that apply to a day like today.

There's this about the players at the end of their careers, like many who won't get a deal today: "It comes to us all son. And so you have to be prepared. You have to be ready, son. Because you have to decide how you will deal with it. Will it be grace and with dignity? Or will it be with anger and with bitterness?"

And this: "I have always been ambitious. Not for me, but for the supporters. I mean, right from the start I tried to show the supporters that they are the people who matter. Not the directors. But at Carlisle, it was the same story. The same story as at Huddersfield later. The directors lacked the ambition... They were a selling club. Not a buying club."

So is the book any good? Yes, it's demanding and draws you in to its repetitive style, but the second half, charting his retirement is heartbreaking at times. It shows an incredible generosity of spirit and of selfless good deeds from a great man.

I thought Frank Cottrell Boyce nailed it with his review in the Observer.

And if you want more on David Peace, then Phil Thornton did a brilliant interview with him.