FIVE of Yorkshire’s most successful entrepreneurs stole the show at a Yorkshire business conference yesterday with a Billion Pound Panel debate run in the style of BBC’s Question Time.
Gary Verity, chief executive of Welcome to Yorkshire, chaired the lively debate at the inaugural Yorkshire Mafia Conference, which featured Dean Hoyle, founder of Card Factory, James Somerville, founder of creative agency ATTIK, Ajaz Ahmed, founder of Freeserve, Lawrence Tomlinson, founder and chairman of LNT Group, and Lord Kirkham, founder of DFS.
The businessmen, who are worth a combined total of £3bn, answered questions from the audience on a range of topics, from the highs and lows of running their businesses to what they think of social networking and prospects for the economy.
When Nigel Cliffe, chief executive of Cliffe Associates challenged the panel with the proposition: “As an SME, give me a reason to like my bank”, the general consensus among the panel was that banks are a necessity but there was no reason to like them.
Mr Hoyle, who launched Card Factory with his wife Janet in Wakefield in 1993 and sold the business last year to Charterhouse for a reported £350m, said: “Banks are motivated by greed and fear. We used the same bank for 13 years and we had a situation where they said: ‘We don’t like surprises’ but they gave us all the biggest surprise.”
However, Mr Ahmed, who founded Freeserve, the first free internet service provider in the UK in 1998 and eventually sold it for £1.6bn to what is now Orange broadband, was more sympathetic. “It’s easy to blame the banks sometimes,” he said. “But you have to look at the propositions and see things from their side as well. It’s about relationships – we have to have better relationships with our banks.”
He added: “I met the chairman of a bank at a dinner recently and I said ‘have we learned our lesson?’ He replied: ‘short term yes, long term no’.”
Lawrence Tomlinson, an entrepreneur with an estimated wealth of £400m, revealed one of his biggest mistakes was losing a £2.7m investment in an engineering company. “The lesson is to thoroughly check what kind of people you are dealing with,” he said. “You have to be able to control the business you are investing in or you are in jeopardy of losing all your original investment.”
There were mixed views on whether social media is a useful business tool.
James Somerville who launched ATTIK in the economic downturn of 1986 with a friend and subsequently sold it to Dentsu in November 2007, said: “Social media could work. If it is used to show progress and open dialogue.” Mr Ahmed added: “It hasn’t made a lot of difference to a lot of businesses. It’s early days yet and people are still working out how to exploit it but we must remember an old-fashioned thing called talking.”
A show of hands in the audience found that most delegates thought the worst of the recession is still to come.
However, Lord Kirkham, who founded DFS on the outskirts of Doncaster in 1969 and stepped down as chairman last June, was more upbeat.
He said: “It’s possible to focus too much on the negative. I think it will get a good deal better going forward.”
Mr Ahmed revealed the “most spectacular moment” in his career was launching Freeserve in 1998 and he told how he proudly upgraded his Volvo to a Lexus. However, he said he was bought down to earth a few weeks later when he picked his wife up from Huddersfield Royal Infirmary in his new car.
“As I pulled up outside the hospital, a white guy got in the back of the car. I said ‘what do you think you’re doing? Does it look like a taxi?’ Unfortunately, it wasn’t an isolated incident.”
Meanwhile, Mr Hoyle described the time when Card Factory was forced to take control of the whole card selling process from card design to retail after he said his supplier tried to force him to put his prices up and restrict quality.
“I knew if we went on our own we could control the price and quality ourselves,” he said.
Other highlights of the conference, which was backed by the Yorkshire Post, included a talk by Lord Kirkham on how he built up a successful company from scratch.
He revealed how his “humble origins” as the adopted son of a coal miner, gave him the “burning desire” that he recognised when he became an entrepreneur. He went on to reveal the secrets of being a successful entrepreneur.
He added: “Innovate or die is the golden rule for an entrepreneur. You shouldn’t think twice about plagiarising and following a trend although you have to change and adapt – and don’t break the law.”
More than 1,000 decision makers from across Yorkshire gathered for the day-long Yorkshire Mafia Conference held at the Royal Armouries in Leeds.
There were a number of seminars and talks by people including Sir Ian Wrigglesworth, deputy chairman of the Government’s Regional Growth Fund, Gary Verity and James Somerville.
Geoff Shepherd, co-founder and Don of the Yorkshire Mafia, said afterwards that the conference would be back next year and would double in size.
“What I really liked about today is that we have achieved what we set out to do,” he said. “It’s brilliant. Everyone on the Billion Pound Panel could have been anywhere in the world but they have given up their time to be here to give something back to the business community.
“We see this conference becoming an annual thing but we will double the size of it next year.”
n Watch video coverage of yesterday’s event at yorkshirepost.co.uk/video