Inspiring business leaders to success

Lord Alan Sugar lost his rag with a TV crew who used the dreaded “R” (recession) word, ex-BBC director general Greg Dyke explained the difference between leading and managing and bra entrepreneur Michelle Mone showed support for the region's businesses with her own “triumph over adversity” story, as Sarah Chambers reports in the final word on the East of England's Development Agency's Destination Growth event.

Lord Alan Sugar lost his rag with a TV crew who used the dreaded “R” (recession) word in his presence. Formula One boss Scott Garrett gave East of England bosses a pitstop crash course in teamworking. Greg Dyke, the ex-director general of the BBC unceremoniously ditched in 2004, explained the difference between leading and managing and bra entrepreneur Michelle Mone showed support for the region's businesses with her own “triumph over adversity” story. The East of England's Development Agency's Destination Growth event packed a punch this year as it tried to show businesses how to “survive and thrive” during Britain's worst recession since the Second World War. Sarah Chambers went along.

DESTINATION Growth 09 was the third staging of the East of England Development Agency's biennial business blockbuster, the first to take place against the background of recession and the second to be held at AirSpace Duxford.

Delegates from around 850 small to medium sized busineses across the region were able to network under the wings of the world's fastest transatlantic aeroplane, Concorde, or peer into the capsule where entrepreneur Richard Branson took ballooning to new heights with his own record-breaking bid.

Business big-hitters such as Government business adviser Lord Alan Sugar, Michelle Mone, creator of the Ultimo bra range, Scott Garrett, former commercial director of Williams Formula 1, and ex-director general of the BBC Greg Dyke, were all there last Tuesday to rally and inspire the region's business leaders.

EEDA chair Richard Ellis kicked off the day with a rallying cry to the assembled delegates, telling them that they can be at the forefront of bringing the UK out of recession.

“This Destination Growth comes to you in the midst of a global recession but despite the recession it's really heartening to see people like you out there ambitious to grow your businesses,” he said.

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“We've asked you how you feel. Two thirds of you are feeling optimistic, unaffected or even some of you are feeling invincible despite the recession and from my perspective that's a fantastic testament to the business calibre and quite frankly the ambitious nature and passion of the entrepreneurs in this room and indeed in the East of England as a whole.”

First up was Mr Dyke, who started the day with an inspiring speech about leadership in adversity. It's a theme he knows something about, having implemented some big cultural changes at the Beeb then left in controversial circumstances following the report of the Hutton Inquiry. By the time of his departure, he had become so popular among staff that they took to the streets to protest.

He took a sideswipe at some of the governors at the BBC before launching into a description of his own leadership ethos. He described how he implemented it at the BBC, and criticised systems that are long on management and short on leadership.

He recalled visits to BBC offices in outlying regions which had not been on the top management's radar in years and the “desperate” and “terrible” conditions he found there, and the staff who felt “unloved” and “unnoticed”.

Adopting the philosophy he had learnt at Harvard Business School, that “organisations are at their best where everyone shares a common aim”, he set about trying to change things, he said.

“I would stand in the queue in the canteen,” he said. “The point was you were telling staff I was accessible.”

He advised East Anglian bosses to be themselves, but also to relate to staff, care about them and experience what they experience.

Leadership is about “the stories people tell about you”, he said. In good times, you could survive with the old-fashioned “command and control” style of leadership, but in tough times you needed something more.

“If you walk in every day and you never say hello to the security guy and you never say hello to the receptionist, that's what they'll tell about you.”

It's exhausting, he admitted, because you are being judged the whole time, and it's important when you did do or say something you later regretted, that you apologise.

Later on, Mr Dyke, a Londoner, revealed that despite his strong ties with the capital, he does have East Anglian links, with a brother who lives in Diss and memories of family holidays in Wisbech.

His message to the businesses of East Anglia was a simple one if they wished to thrive in difficult times.

“You have got to be able to convince the people working for you that they are capable of achieving great things,” he said.

“People perform better when they are tested and encourage rather than when they operate in a climate of fear, when everything they do is double-checked.”

Before he started his cultural change at the BBC, 28% of staff surveyed said they felt valued, and by the end that figure leapt to 58%.

“I believe that most people are capable of achieving outstanding performance well beyond what many have been led to believe they can achieve but that can only be brought about by an inclusive management style,” he said. “I believe we need it more than ever today.”

When Lord Alan Sugar arrived for a question and answer session with a limited number of delegates, access to the upper floor where he was about to speak was temporarily barred to print journalists - even though the media room was upstairs. While newspapers journalists were not permitted interviews, TV crews were allowed to speak to the Government's business adviser and star of hit TV show The Apprentice prior to the session. It was during one of these that he lost his rag while being asked a question about the recession, and it was this clip which found its way on to Friday's edition of the satirical BBC show Have I Got News For You.

In his session with the region's entrepreneurs, Lord Sugar questioned how and why much of the manufacturing which had previously happened in this country headed east.

He talked candidly about how for him the manufacturing process was “this horrible occupational hazard”, and how after setting up his former company, Amstrad, in the late 1960s, he began to outsource it another company. He compared his experience with that of today, when much of manufacturing is in Taiwan, China and Korea, a place he first visited 25 to 30 years ago.

“I sat and watched that country (Korea) grow to the giant that it is in manufacturing and I often ask myself how did they manage that and we haven't,” he said.

“When I get told it's because of all the labour, the labour costs are low and all of that and I don't accept that either - the old bowl of rice syndrome that people used to talk about, that's how they can make it that cheap. I don't believe that either.

“It's the ethos of the people. It's their mentality it's their desire to want them to better themselves that push them.”

Getting that ethos back into Britain was about changing the attitudes of the young, he argued, to see their future in manufacturing and production rather than in the media.

“The problem is it's not necessarily how do we instil manufacturing in this country, it's instilling a certain mentality in younger people is if they want to be production line managers if they want to be skilled people on production lines, or do they all want to be blooming media stars or go into the media industry or do they want to do media studies and all that nonsense?” he said.

“Because the biggest problem we've got is directing people to engineering, directing people to science and away from these flashy other so-called careers.”

Parts of manufacturing in this country such as for hi-tech products or short production runs, still needed to take place in this country, he argued. What he noted in many of the factories in the east was that while their success was often put down to cheap labour, the plants were often highly mechanised.

“You see a minimum of people on the factory floor and you think why couldn't that be in Suffolk or in Renfrew in Scotland? No reason whatsoever - but that's what we've let happen,” he said.

One of the Scotland's own, Ultimo bra entrepreneur Michelle Mone, was last up on the podium to offer her own brand of recession-busting advice.

With a mother who lost her job after suffering depression because of the death of her son, and a father who lost his job when he became disabled, Ms Mone knows a thing or two about adversity.

With a brand now worth in the region of �60million, her unlikely rags-to-riches story began in her cramped family home in the east end of Glasgow.

She left school at 15 with no qualifications, but a determination to succeed. Her springboard was a career with Labatt Brewers, where she quickly rose through the ranks to become a senior manager by the age of 20. At the age of 24, she was made redundant, but it was this which prompted her to go into business for herself. She risked all on a business idea based around designing her own cleavage-enhancing bra.

A firm believer in the virtue of hard work, she was daring in the way she promoted her product, and described how she staged a demonstration by actors dressed as plastic surgeons protesting against her bras outside of London department store Selfridges.

“I believe that the less money you have the more creative you become,” she said. “That launch cost �500.”

The bra gained prominence when actress Julia Roberts wore one in the hit film Erin Brockovich, and fame and fortune followed for Ms Mone.

As well as her celebrity lifestyle and socialising with Rod Stewart and Bill Clinton, she also described the challenges of her charity appearance on a celebrity version of BBC's The Apprentice in aid of Comic Relief.

“I did learn from that how to control difficult people and how to keep your cool and not punch them,” she said.

Down on the conference floor, Mr Goymour felt the event had much to offer, but it was not just the speakers he was interested in - he was looking at the exhibitors, providing services from business finance to training.

“We are always looking at training opportunities not only for senior managers but to provide skills for individual members of staff which is extremely important. Although we have some 200 members of staff across the group, we work as a team. It's very much team-orientated, common goals common purpose,” he said.

Like Ms Mone, he felt challenging conditions can make people more inventive and more organised.

“The recession has the effect of putting your house in order. One of the reasons I think this conference is well supported is people are looking to the future, looking for innovation, looking for growth,” he said.