What started as a beer among friends now has the biggest b-to-b event in the North on its books. BQ meets Yorkshire Mafia don Geoff Shepherd as he prepares for expansion onto new turf
The rise of The Yorkshire Mafia has an element of Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point theory about it. In his book of the same name, he talks of the magical moment when ideas and trends cross through into positive epidemics which bring about rapid change.
That moment for The Yorkshire Mafia could have been a beer shared with 60 business people at its first gathering. Or more likely, it was its first conference in 2011 which brought together 78 exhibitors and 1,286 delegates. That gained some serious traction and the word started spreading...
“Last year we had 175 exhibitors, 4,000+ delegates, 900 exhibition staff, a bucket load of journalists and a couple of TV crews,” says Geoff Shepherd, who co-founded the organisation with business partner Sat Mann in 2009.
“We’ve created the biggest business-tobusiness event in the North of England in just three short steps.”
In all, 14,000 individuals have attended a Yorkshire Mafia event and, collectively, they have registered 132,000 times for events. At this year’s Buy Yorkshire conference, meanwhile, registered delegates surpassed the 5,000 mark.
Such numbers are perhaps what prompted a key figure inside social media empire LinkedIn to relay his amazement at the achievements of the organisation at a recent event. Shepherd, whose background is in running recruitment consultancies, says: “We were told we are the most productive group on LinkedIn.
One of their regional directors for northern Europe said ‘this is astonishing what you guys have done to get 14,000 people together in a small part of the world’.
“I was a very early adopter of LinkedIn in 2003, in fact I was the 38,014th member and one of the first 100 people to ever post a job on it.”
Against the backdrop of the demise of publicly funded support functions like Yorkshire Forward, The Yorkshire Mafia has risen through the corridors of social media to fill certain gaps for business support, unintentionally in many ways.
“If you look at the group today we get dozens of requests for support, advice, signposting, investment, partnerships and new suppliers – all that kind of stuff which is free and is given gladly – so it’s quite unusual in the respect that it’s not taxpayer funded and I’m not sure there’s anything else that holds such numbers.
“On a national level traditional support structures for businesses have been decimated. The Yorkshire Mafia has gone to some way to filling the gap.
“This would have been done by government agencies once upon a time and if they were done effectively then there wouldn’t be a need for The Yorkshire Mafia.
“One of the things we want to do is turn what used to be really weak words in business, like help, sharing, support, all that community stuff, into really strong words as they underpin everything that we do.”
So quickly has Shepherd’s mob come to power, that it is now contemplating expanding its patch into other regions.
“We’d like to branch out, with a Manchester, Midlands and North East Mafia. The North West Mafia actually already exists and has about 800 members and eventually we’d like to link these groups all together.”
Talks are ongoing with public and private sector parties in the North West, which is likely to be the first area the group expands into. However, Shepherd admits this was never the long term plan, rather a natural progression following the last two years of growth.
“It’s a case of having hold of something that’s alive and when you try to contain it in a rigid strategy, it becomes difficult to manage. I’m not going down the route of reverse engineering a mission statement into the business and claiming this was always the plan,” he says.
Yorkshire Mafia – or YM as Shepherd calls it - was born out of the frustrations he experienced as a business owner in the recruitment sector.
“We’d work all week in our offices, emailing people overseas, getting on trains to London and we’d walk past hundreds of people who didn’t know who we were and we didn’t know who they were. We needed to change that but the mechanisms to do this at the time were things that didn’t really appeal to us. Networking and the dark art of selfpromotion, they work, but getting up at six in the morning and swapping referrals over breakfast isn’t really my kind of thing.
“I wanted something which was sales free with a kind of ‘giver’s gain’ mentality. We couldn’t find one, so we created one.”
Strangely for a business group with some pretty heavyweight leaders within its ranks, the golden rule is “no selling”.
“Everyone’s encouraged to buy things through the group but the whole idea is that if we all buy then you don’t need to sell.”
The group started in 2008 and didn’t take long to start building momentum within the business community.
“We didn’t do a lot with it initially and after the first year there were about 800 people in the group.
“Then in December 2009 we said let’s get together for a beer and kick a few ideas around and 60 people turned up so that’s when the light bulb came on. It didn’t really take very much effort to get those 60 people to turn up. So how could we grow it and build on it.
“So we went from 60 to 120 to 150, 170, and now 200 to 300 for our regular monthly networking evenings.”
In the early days, Shepherd says there was a lot of intrigue, as well as suspicion, in the marketplace and he believes some initial members were there on a spying mission.
“But probably symptomatic of British culture, the bigger we’ve got, the more criticism we’ve hit. When we were an enthusiastic amateur there was probably more support for us.
“Now I think some people don’t know how to take us; perhaps we don’t talk their language directly, but we will continue to learn more about the demographic of our members and present our group in terms other bodies may understand better.”
The Yorkshire Mafia does emanate a certain swagger and sense of fun (the genuine rather than the forced, corporate kind) that perhaps sets it aside from other business groups dealing with equally large numbers.
In a show reel on its website, a supposed sniper scans the Leeds skyline in a helicopter before locking his sights on two Mafia bosses staring villainously over the city Ok, so it’s Shepherd and Mann, and the sniper is a product of some clever editing, but you get the picture – and thousands of other business people ‘get it’ too.
“I think if Chambers of Commerce had never existed and were created today they would probably look more like us than the way they are now,” Shepherd says.
Marching to a different beat to other groups they may be, but like every weighty business networking group it recognised the benefits of a good conference. The planning for the first one began in 2010 and it was delivered the following year.
“The ultimate aim of the YM is to positively affect the trading position of members in relation to each other and there’s nothing quite like a conference to do that. It was a runaway train really.”
As part of further developments at the group, it recently set up its own collective buying initiative, YorBuy. It offers small businesses big business prices for a range of things, including stationery, insurance and even petrol, with one deal promising 3p off the price of a litre of fuel. Consultations within the group are ongoing, sourcing where members are keen to see costs reductions and acting accordingly.
“We’re presenting The YM as a buying entity, consolidating its potential buying power and presenting it to large suppliers to negotiate big business prices for small businesses. It’s going well and we’re looking at moving into utilities. If you can remove the inefficiencies for suppliers and present them with a unified market then it makes sense for them to adjust their pricing accordingly.”
Another item on Shepherd’s ‘to do’ list is to set up a software development centre of excellence. Through his links within the Yorkshire Mafia, plans are afoot to partner up with technology giants, including Microsoft, to create a facility capable of turning out up to 80 highly trained software developers each year.
“We’ve already got some technology partners who’d assist us in terms of the provision of classroom learning.
"At the moment we’re trying to work out the commercial model but what we want to do initially is take young people either pre or post university and give them world class training in areas where there’s a real skills shortage. So we’re offering them the chance to train for really highly paid jobs skills that could take them anywhere in the world.”
One stumbling block may be the approximate £250,000 of investment needed to get it off the ground, but he says: “We have some partners and we have a plan”.
Meanwhile, being able to connect thousands of bright business minds together brings other wider benefits too, like the ability to apply real force behind good causes. Among them is Skill Will, which Shepherd founded on the back of funding from business angel Rachel Hannan and Key Fund.
It was set up in 2012 to link professional and business volunteers with local charities and social enterprises that need assistance – clearly an organisation that can tap into the goodwill within the massed ranks of The Yorkshire Mafia. Shepherd says:
“One of the great things about bringing 14,000 people together is that we can add some good intentions and some real drive and will to get things done. It’s early days for Skill Will. It is a start-up but we want it to stand on its own feet and we’re not looking for handouts.
“The YM since day one has stated it’s as much about helping the community as it is about helping other businesses help each other. When we go home and we sit on our sofas, we all live on the same streets, we’re all in it together. So I don’t think there’s a need to necessarily separate charities and good causes away from the business world, but for some reason they are separated.
“An example of what we do is a recent event in Wakefield where we got 50 businesses and 50 charities together to explore commonalities and ways of helping each other.”
Big business events, though, are what Yorkshire Mafia is best known for and following this year’s conference, Leeds Business Week 2013, which runs from 23 to 27 September, is Shepherd’s main focus.
“We used to have it but it stopped. I don’t know why these things come and go but we’re a big fan of trying to do something big on a shoestring.
“We’ve gone for a minimum of 50 events across the city. There isn’t really an awful lot of cohesion so wouldn’t it be great if, for one week, we could actually all push the same message, do the same thing, forge new relationships, especially between people who’ve maybe been a bit wary of each other?”
Wishful thinking perhaps, but if anyone can do it, the mafia can.