Saturday, August 30, 2008

The North West

After years exiled in East Anglia, the North West feels like LA - packed with people, covered in motorways, spotted with towns which all blend together, the miles between them long since eaten away. No Greebelts here, except the natural ones to the East (the Pennines) and the sea to the West.

I am in Warrington, halfway between Liverpool and Manchester. Warrington kind of sums up the story of the last fify years in the North West. Its actually a New Town, flanked by motorways beside which sit its numerous industrial estates. Its a place mainly where business gets done.

But not the business done in Hoxton or Cambridge, more the kind of business that keeps Britain ticking over day in, day out. Distribution depots, call centres, office furniture makers. It was never a big mill town but now captures the way the north-west makes it living.

My purpose is to see two people. First, in the morning, I see Matt Stevenson-Dodd. Matt is the new CEO of Young Enterprise North West. YENW is all about encouraging young people to start businesses.

As a Social Enterprise Ambassador, Matt recently left Unique, a company he established, to lead the revival of this forty-odd year old organisation. Although Matt is more than my equal, I am acting as his mentor during this important first couple of years.

As is usual when new in post he found an organisation rich in potential but with a legacy of recent underperformance. While not a turnaround in the true sense, his task involves re-energising, refocusing and making the business a lot more effective in its use of resources. We focus on how to involve everyone in generating a new plan, something I have often failed to do in the past at Speaking Up.

My big message is to be clear and simple about the recovery programme - give it a small number of big aims - and create some space underneath these headings for people to make the plan real for their part of the business. Matt, who scored a distinction at MBA, combines a subtle and quick mind with a level and approachable personality. He will turn this organisation around very easily I feel.

Over lunch, the conversation moves onto our respective longer term futures. I seem to have a lot of these conversations with men in the 35-40 bracket. Its a time when you've lived a bit, know yourself that bit better and, crucially, a time in your working life when your past is suddenly about the same size as your future.

Both of us started out with garganturan ambition and drive and now find it cooled by family, our other interests and a realisation that getting high on tree doesn't necessarily make you any happier.

The afternoon takes me across Warrington to see Rob Harris, founder and CEO of Advocacy Experience. Rob fulfils most people's picture of the Bluff Northerner. Straight-talking, no-nonsense, quick-witted. Rob is a social entrepreneur but, unusually, owns his business 100%. Some would say he isn't a social entrepreneur at all but I would disagree. Althouth his business is profitable, he doesn't maximise personal profit and ensures a healthy balance between social and financial results.

We talk about private versus non-profit ownership. Rob is scathing about what he sees as the in-built waste and ineffectivness of many charities and public organisatios. He say he has a very powerful personal motivation to be efficient and to deliver long-term. He thinks that`skin in the game' - big personal financial interest in the business - is critical if waste & inefficiency are not to be endemic.

In answer to my question of `Does Mission Matter?', Rob would say that it matters a lot less in terms of getting the job done than a lot of people would like to pretend.

Rob own view is that only charities reliant on volunteering and donations should be allowed that status and the rest of what is currently the third sector should operate as businesses. They should seek to make a profit as well deliver social good. This would attract more private operators working into sleepy sectors which are presently dominated by charities.

Whether you agree with Rob or not, you cannot argue with the evidence of Advocacy Experience.

My explicit purpose in seeing Rob is to learn more about how he runs a profitable advocacy business as Speaking Up actually loses money on the types of contracts that Rob is doing handsomely on.

I also believe, longer term, that we might benefit from a much closer-tie in with AE, if we could keep Rob and take their profitable business model into other parts of our own organisation. But this is very specuative and, in a recession, my mind is focussed more on other things.

Evening and I meet up with old mates in the Footballers Arms near where I grew up. The place is like a school reunion, an evening full of double takes and overdone bonhomie. Had I knew in advance that half my year would be there I would have suggested an alternative.

What is clear is that living up here definitely ages you quicker. 40 looks like 50 in places like this. Mainly because of the smoking and bad food I think. Pub-banter I find difficult and pretty dull as its all the same, in every place at all times. Just like there are only three film plots there are fewer pub conversations....

But seeing my mates was good. Though we are all now in completely different walks of life, I just feel very comfortable with people I have known for 30 years.

Today (Saturday) I have been told to wear a suit when I visit the Executive suite at Reebok Stadium where I am the special guest of the CEO of Keyfund, Hannah Eyres, a fellow Impetus charity, who is a also a Bolton fan. A more loyal one than I it has to be said.

Its a long way from going with Dad in the late seventies sitting on wooden benches, eating filthy pies watching Peter Reid, Sam Allardyce and Len Cantello win us the Second Division Championship. This morning I feel like an excited child on Christmas morning. Although I am cynical as the next person about the way the game has gone, the tingle of excitement when I take my seat has never gone, nor ever will.

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