Do you think it’s harder for young people of initiative to launch a business than it was in your day?
In my day it was all about coal, ships, steel and big investment to get started. Now, with the multitude of opportunities there are with internet and other types of business, there are far more alternatives to get involved in and established with. You don’t need as much cash to get started. That must offer a big opportunity for younger folk these days.
What are the drawbacks for them now?
There was a lot of help with Business Link and all the other agencies that were about until the economic cutback and the ending soon of One North East. Cash is obviously an issue, and when banks aren’t as forthcoming as you’d like them to be, getting the initial capital together, even though the requirement may be a lot less than before, is something young folk have to focus on.
What’s the best advice you received when you first set out to build a business, and what advice would you give a young entrepreneur today?
Where are you going? How are you going to get there? And how keen are you to make it happen? It’s all about vision, strategy and passion. Have you clarity of vision about what you’re actually going to do? Have you sat down and worked out your strategy so you know how you will get from where you are to where you want to be? Having the strategy written down and embedded in your mind – and importantly, the minds of those who may be round about you – keeps you on track. These days it’s so easy to get sidetracked, that you’ve got this other opportunity and so you’re off to the left or off to the right. You need absolute clarity, then pursue your strategy with great passion.
With the Reg Vardy business we did this every three and five years. We sat down and said: “What franchises have we got? How do we grow them? What are the franchises we don’t have? How are we going to go about that?” By having that platform of strategy, everybody in the business knew this was what we were going to do and this is what we’re not going to do. It’s important when you’re leading a team that the team knows where you’re going. You can’t be lost in the fog ahead of them, leaving them ignorant of what’s going on. They don’t then feel part of the organisation. You need to have your people brought into your vision, understanding your strategy because you need their passion as much as yours. And make sure people you recruit cover your weaknesses, so that the company benefits from the strengths of all its employees.
Asked: “What’s your greatest asset?” we may reply, “Oh, it’s our staff. But it’s the strengths of the staff that are the greatest asset, not the people themselves. You need to ensure you have strengths covering your own weaknesses. Often a guy may be looking for someone to join him in the business. He recruits someone like himself. But you need balance. My strength, I suppose, was sales and marketing. My weakness was finance. I went out and got the best finance director I could find. He was my greatest asset. Together, we had the strength in the right places. I’d advise writing down on the left-hand side of a sheet of paper what you enjoy doing and what really gives you the buzz. On the other side of the paper, write down the things you don’t like doing, the things you find a grind, then recruit someone to do those things. It’s not getting someone to do the dirty work but finding someone to do well the things you don’t do well. We’re all better if we’re working 100% of the time to our strengths. If you’re working to your weaknesses you’ll never make your weaknesses your strengths.
If you were starting out again would you consider a completely new activity?
No, I’d stick to my known strengths. If you’re starting a new business and your livelihood depends on it you must stick to what you know best. My dad had a haulage business and a car business and my interest was in the cars. I worked my way up that business.
What’s the greatest satisfaction in being your own boss?
The ability to make decisions and travel at your own speed, with no-one holding you back. You can get on with the business. It’s a big responsibility making all the decisions but at least you can get on and do things, whereas if you have to sit around and think about it or persuade other people to do it that’s quite wearying. It saps your energy.
Is the North East becoming more entrepreneurial?
I think it is. There are lots of opportunities. Nine years ago we started the Entrepreneurs’ Forum to encourage people to be thinking entrepreneurially and building the entrepreneurial spirit that exists in the region, and that’s very, very successful. And we have to help each other; support each other in our journey as business leaders and entrepreneurs.
Do you favour the return of apprenticeships?
Definitely. One of the biggest mistakes this country and its business has made was slowing down on the apprenticeships. Everyone coming out of school should have had the chance of an apprenticeship for two or three years. It would have given them wonderful work experience, knowledge and ability. It faded away when apprentices wanted too much money, wanted to earn too quickly and not learn enough. So the foundations of someone’s working life weren’t firmly laid. Schools aren’t able to do it. We’re much poorer as a nation and as employers in industry alike, as indeed the individuals are much poorer through not having had that experience. I worry about the new apprenticeships to an extent. Businesses need to embrace apprenticeships and train folk for their own organisations. That’s essential to the success of their own company. Once you get into the Government handing out money then, as we’ve read in the newspapers over the past few weeks, there are a lot of companies making an awful lot of money out of training schemes and it doesn’t actually get back to an apprenticeship in the first place. Some are just getting a general training. It’s not the same as coming into a company at the bottom. We don’t want a return to folks just making the tea and sweeping the floors. Proper employers know that; they’re not looking for cheap labour. But we do need to train people for the good of our own businesses. What goes against that, obviously, and it may be one of the reasons, is that by the time they’re 30 now people may expect to have had about six jobs whereas before, when they got an apprenticeship, they stayed with the company, and saw their career progression through the company. There was a lot more stability in our society. The stability has gone.
Can apprentices realistically aspire to executive positions eventually?
Definitely. There are lots and lots of examples where folk have started off in apprenticeships and risen through the ranks. I did it myself. I was in a family business but I still started by sweeping the floors and serving the petrol, then I became a mechanic. I think it’s great when you have a foundation in the company and you can speak from a position of strength. You’ve seen everybody; you’ve done most of the jobs. You know how people feel. It was a great help to me when I was a mechanic in my dad’s company. In later life, when I was employing mechanics, I knew how they were doing their job. You knew how it felt to be pulling out gearboxes and all that sort of thing. I didn’t have a very good education, or very good schooling. I got off to a bad start and never recovered, to be honest with you. I wanted to leave school at 16 and work. I got the opportunity to work in my father’s business when there were only six employees. I did time as a paint sprayer and a panel beater – did all the jobs for the first few years. Then I got into selling and that’s where I enjoyed my time the most.
What would you advise aspiring entrepreneurs to be on guard about?
Cash and accounting. Those are two things they really must understand. I find a lot of people don’t spend enough time learning to understand the financing of business. They get into all sorts of trouble. They treat income as profit, whereas there are expenses and everything else to take into account. They don’t get someone into the team early enough who can give sound accounting advice. They could do an awful lot better if they actually knew the numbers. Profitability, cost base, everything else... They may need someone to mentor them and there are plenty of people keen to help. You need to get things right, otherwise you’ll find yourself down the road and having used up all your initial capital. Then you find yourself in an almighty struggle.
Would you advise anyone to follow your example and combine business with a growing sense of philanthropy?
Yes, but concentrate on making the money first. Don’t start trying to give it away before you’ve got it. A lot of folk think philanthropically but some think to give it away before they’ve got it. I’m a great advocate of giving 10% of your profit to charity. But make sure you’re making it, and that your business is on a firm footing first.
Is there any young entrepreneur in the North East presently you’d tip as being a major success story in the future?
I think there are many, and to be honest I wouldn’t like to name them. At the Entrepeneurs’ Forum we have a campaign called If We Can You Can and there is some fantastic talent among younger members. So the North East is well blessed. It’s up to those of us who have been on the road a while to help, nurture and mentor them to achieve the breakthrough and create some great companies in the North East.
Come March 4, Peter, will you be inclined to retire at 65?
Never in a million years! When you’ve worked all your life, 65 is only a milestone. There’s so much to do, so little time in which to do it. Looking at life, there are two halves. The first half is when you’re doing all the work. For me it was creating a success, and creating the funding. The second half is: how do I give it back? How do I put it back into society? How do I influence for good whatever I can come into contact with? How do I help other people? A lot of folk are doing tremendous work and just need funding to go on doing it. So we’re involved with hundreds of different charities at home and abroad, but also trying to concentrate on the North East.