Bernard Ginns: Politicians must make life easier for our entrepreneurs

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JOB CREATION must be at the heart of the Northern Powerhouse.

That was the parting message from Peter Wilkinson, the Yorkshire entrepreneur whose technology ventures have created thousands of jobs and built a personal fortune estimated at £365m, as I left his Harrogate office after a long and entertaining interview on Thursday.

That the political concept has captured the imagination of business leaders like Mr Wilkinson is a good thing.

Politicians need to take on board the views of wealth creators if the Northern Powerhouse is to move beyond the realm of rhetoric into reality.

The plan to combine the economies of the towns and cities in close proximity in northern England to help rebalance Britain will only succeed if people can successfully grow businesses.

“They have got to make a better environment for entrepreneurs,” said Mr Wilkinson.

Job creation, followed by transport and housing should be the top priorities of those responsible for delivering the scheme, he added.

They need a great spokesman to sell the idea to the public in terms that everyone can understand, “not some highfalutin esoteric load of bull****”.

He maintains that it should be possible to create 100,000 new businesses a year in the Northern Powerhouse with the right kind of job creation schemes.

Mr Wilkinson described how universities could set up innovation funds to give backing to the best new business ideas coming out of their institutions.

Local and central government could redouble these efforts with similar funds for those outside the university system.

The professional services infrastructure is already here, in the form of top accountancy and law firms, and venture capitalists are coming into the region.

The North has an enormous potential manufacturing base, something that London doesn’t have, Mr Wilkinson added.

“It has the most phenomenal potential if somebody can find a way of getting hold of it,” he said.

As an ambition, the Northern Powerhouse cannot be faulted.

Watching what is happening to London, my home for eight years, suggests that the UK seriously needs an effective counterweight.

* In among hundreds of press releases sent to me on a daily basis, I received a notice from an organisation calling itself The London Coaching Group, explaining why every business needs to start the year with a written business plan.

I asked Peter Wilkinson, veteran of 15 successful multi-million pound start-ups, what he thought about business plans. His reply is worth sharing.

“If you have an embryonic idea and you want to set it up as a business you have no idea where you will be in year two or three years and four or five you may as well write Alice in Wonderland,” he told me.

“You would back somebody on the basis of the idea and whether the idea has got a chance in a market place, whatever the market place that may be.

“The world unfortunately is not run by entrepreneurs. It is run by lawyers and accountants, Bernard, and they are risk averse and being an entrepreneur is all about risk and reward so you have got a complete clash of culture. A kid, if he wants to start a business, has got to go to a bank or VC or equivalent type thing with a business plan.

“Their business plans tend to be wildly optimistic and you know they are going to bear no resemblance to what’s going to happen in the future.

“It should be completely different. A kid should have a really good idea and then get given help and advice. Not come to us with a three-year or five-year business plan.”

He added: “Unless they make life easier for the entrepreneurs, job creation will continue to be a problem.”

Which brings us full circle.