Keith Bradshaw has a rags-to-riches life story as one of the most successful entrepreneurs in the West Midlands. Now he’s determined to give something back. Steve Dyson meets him for lunch.
Keith Bradshaw and his family are worth more that £180m, according to a recent ‘rich list’ publication. Bradshaw himself is still chairman of Listers Group, the largest independent car dealership in England, which he co-founded back in 1979. He’s also non-executive chairman and co-owner of commercial property company Nurton Developments, and deputy chairman and co-owner of Laney Headstock, the music amplification specialists. There are other successful business interests, past and present, the details of which could easily fill this page.
And so why, at the age of 73 and with six grandchildren to dote over in his spare time, did Bradshaw accept an unpaid position as High Sheriff of the West Midlands, which will see him attend around 300 events in the year to April 2017?
It all comes down to a life which has seen him – in his own words – grow from a “raggedy-arsed schoolboy” to a “velvet-arsed sheriff”. This has left him “passionate” about his roots in Birmingham and the West Midlands, and he now sees his ceremonial role as a way of “making a difference”, giving something back by helping to bring the region’s diverse communities together.
Bradshaw explains more by drawing a picture of his impoverished childhood in a back-to-back house in central Birmingham: “I was born before the end of the war at number 8, back of 126, Tower Road, Aston. We shared a toilet with neighbours that was a 50-yard walk from the house. There was no electricity.
“There weren’t any social workers in those days. Often you’d see chaps spending their wages as soon as they’d got them on drink, and then see the resulting black eyes on their wives in the morning. It’s a memory that sticks in my mind and which I’ll never forget.”
Bradshaw escaped this poverty through a mixture of youthful arrogance and luck. He’d left school without taking any O-levels, but instead of accepting a job as an assistant at the local Co-op he knocked on the door of Russell, Durie Kerr, Watson & Co., an accountancy firm in Birmingham city centre, and somehow caught the eye of Sydney Benbow, one of its partners.
“I don’t know what possessed me to knock on their door,” he recalls, “but Mr Benbow – a Christian socialist who’s sadly now passed on – took one look at me and said: ‘Get in there,’ and I was suddenly on 25 shillings a week.”
Bradshaw’s new employers made him work hard to get his O-levels at night school, and two years later he was taking his ‘articles’ to become a chartered accountant. His confidence quickly grew, and in his mid-20s he landed a job as assistant financial controller of the Mesurado Group in Monrovia, Liberia, an industrial giant which then had operations ranging from fishing to industrial gas, and from soap manufacture to farming. By the age of 28 he had become the West African group’s ‘president’, effectively the managing director, leading more than 5,000 staff.
After eight years he returned to the UK, and in 1979 launched a single car dealership and body shop in Coventry, with his business partner Terry Lister. This became the Listers Group, which now has more than 50 dealerships across England, employing more than 2,000 staff and with revenues topping £1bn a year. But the journey to success was far from simple.
“We were flying on a wing and a prayer,” he says. “After Africa, I had a few bob and a reasonable reputation, and so we managed to get some guaranteed loans. But we really were very, very rash. And we were lucky. Basically, we didn’t know that we couldn’t do it, and so we did it.
“After a year, we were more or less insolvent, but not wilfully. You know what they say about banks: owe them £1,000 and you’ve got a problem; owe them a thousand million pounds and they’ve got a problem. We weren’t charlatans and so the bank saw the best way forward was to work with us. We were a bit ballsy and got away with it.”
As well as Listers, Bradshaw set up BP Nursing Homes Ltd, which later became Takare and then Care First. As this business expanded, it went through a troubled time, although it was still worth close on £300m by the time it was sold to BUPA in 1998, a good chunk of those millions going back to its founder.
In short, Bradshaw has made a financial success of whatever he’s turned his entrepreneurial hand to, so what’s his secret? “Grow your own,” is his first reply. “Many of our senior people at Listers started for us washing cars. So if you find someone who’s good, look after them, and you build a loyal staff. That’s probably one of the major things.
“And no man is an island,” is his second top tip. “Myself and Terry Lister were two people with complementary skills – he was the motor trader and I was the accountant. We went forward on that basis.”
Thirdly, Bradshaw values completely equal partnerships, 50:50 share-ownership structures that he describes as guaranteeing “mutually assured destruction”. He says: “It means nobody has more power than the other, and so you work in mutual self-interest.”
Finally, Bradshaw insists, entrepreneurs have got to be great at selling themselves. “You’ve got to sell yourself before you can sell an idea, a product or anything,” he says.
And it’s from this standpoint, looking back at a career that has made him a millionaire so many times over, that Bradshaw decided to take on the role of High Sheriff of the West Midlands, officially the Queen’s most senior legal representative in the county.
“I was amazed when I was offered the role, and thought quite carefully before accepting it,” says Bradshaw, who lives in a Staffordshire village just north of Wolverhampton. “My wife and I are quite low profile. I just don’t think having a big profile is a great thing. In business, you can be known to the people you need to be known by without a high profile.
“But I discussed being High Sheriff with my wife and family and we agreed I would have to accept a degree of profile. There were personal reasons – I mean, I’m getting older, and if you don’t use it you lose it. And it’s given me something meaningful to do.
“Anybody who knows me knows I’m passionate about this city. When I grew up in Aston, there were no immigrants. Then they came and kept their heads down, growing their own families. And it started to come apart. But for me, the reality is that we need these people. We need to tackle head on some of the issues that seem to have caused divisions.
“They call it ‘social cohesion’. But whatever it’s called, as High Sheriff I want to work to help accentuate the positive. Whether our youth are Christian or Muslim, it doesn’t matter. What does matter is that we’ve got to help them talk to each other, and to understand different cultures.”
Bradshaw talks about many charitable initiatives he’s supporting as High Sheriff, but to mention just a few these include: The Feast, which brings together teenagers from different faiths and cultures, building friendships and changing lives; The Prince’s Trust, which helps young people aged 13 to 30 get into jobs, education and training; and the Heart of England Foundation, which helps local charitiess where grants as little as £500 can make a real difference.
“My role is going out to talk to the volunteers of these organisations, getting out there and thanking them personally, with eye contact, for the way they are providing role models to our youth. If we manage to pull them back, they get a job and pay taxes. If they go over the top it means the cost of jail, benefits and everything that goes with that.
“But I’m not some head-in-the-clouds, namby-pamby liberal. I’m talking with hard-nosed reality. I’m talking about the cost of people. Unless they’ve got something to lose we’ve got no traction, so we’ve got to try to give them something of value to engage them. If we can intervene, we can get them into work, paying taxes and not becoming a burden. If not, just think of the damage they could do.”
Bradshaw has had a largely happy family life with Pamela, his wife of 50 years, albeit tinged with their own tragedy. Their son, James, sadly died at the early age of 35. Their other two sons now help to run the family businesses: their eldest, David, is managing director of Nurton Developments, while their youngest, Timothy, is group operations director at Listers.
From the way Bradshaw talks, Pamela is the matriarch of the family, and she’s certainly the one who’s driving a third aim during her husband’s term as High Sheriff: to galvanise the whole of the West Midlands to get fully behind Coventry’s bid to become City of Culture in 2021.
“Pamela’s a Wolverhampton girl,” says Bradshaw, “and it’s she who reminds me that being High Sheriff of the West Midlands means it’s not just Birmingham. Because Coventry is where we founded the [Listers] business, I wanted specifically to demonstrate that this role is for the whole of the region by backing their bid for City of Culture.
“Manchester has got its act together by demonstrating its value to the surrounding area. Birmingham needs to demonstrate what it can do in the same way. It’s a world city, but is it sometimes too big for its boots as far as the other West Midlands areas are concerned?
“When I met Pamela 52 years ago, I remember her Black Country mum not being very happy that I was a Brummie. It was like a ‘Yam Yams’ versus ‘Peaky Blinders’ thing! But joking aside, Birmingham needs to understand. Hull [the UK’s City of Culture in 2017] is set to get £130m. If we want that, it’s got to be Coventry in 2021. And what’s good for Coventry is good for Birmingham.”
Bradshaw says that backing the culture bid could also help his wider ‘diversity’ theme: “The more successful we are as a region, the more we can give back to our youth. And we’ve got to give. We can’t allow our diverse young community to live in silos. We’ve got to deal with them head on. And prosperity will create the environment we need to tackle them.”
Bradshaw takes his role as the Queen’s principal legal representative seriously as well, regularly meeting and engaging with those who work in law and order.
“I’m so impressed with the judiciary,” he says. “They’re often slagged off for being out of touch, and so it’s a privilege to understand them and act as their ambassador, debunking some of the myths spread by the popular press. Working in the high court is an incredibly difficult job, seeing that fairness is done, and making sure that the jury understands the justice process.
“The same goes for magistrates. The other day, I met a woman who’d been doing it for 35 years, and all for nothing of course. Just imagine if we’d had to pay her £10 an hour throughout that time – we’d owe her £100,000 or more. If we paid her properly, it might be £1m or more. People talk about philanthropy – but here are people who give us something that’s invaluable.
“The same goes for all the mayors and civic heads that I’m meeting in cities and towns across our region. Whatever their political persuasion, they’re good people. They’re not in it for themselves. They’ve worked their socks off for the community, sometimes giving 20 or 30 years’ service before they become mayor.
It’s another thing I bang on about. We have a lot to do with them, because it’s time to acknowledge them. There are other amazing people too, like those we met at Childline’s 30th birthday, who’d spent all those years working to help really damaged children. I’m privileged to get out there and just say ‘thank you’ for what they do.”
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