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Could it be that what the successful entrepreneur really wants – as much as the luxury yacht or the fast car of popular understanding – is recognition for a job well done?
That is the message from business people such as Peter Cullum, chairman of Towergate Partnership and overall winner of last year’s Entrepreneur of the Year competition, organised by Ernst & Young, the professional services firm.
Towergate, a fast-growing insurance underwriting and brokering business, entered the competition, Mr Cullum says, “to get a bit of recognition for a business [sector] that is very unsexy. It’s a bit of a conversation stopper when you say what you do.”
Mr Cullum describes himself as formerly “a good company man who enjoyed the corporate environment” working for big insurance employers. But in 1994 he carried out a management buyout of an insurance company that sold for a multi-million pound profit. He became an employee again, “but it was not comfortable, having been an owner-driver already”.
He left to create two of the biggest broking and underwriting companies in the UK, now forming the Towergate Partnership, through organic growth and aggressive acquisition.
Sir Keith Mills, a serial entrepreneur and winner of the Master Entrepreneur category in 2005, says taking part was one of the lighter parts of a very busy year in which he helped lead London’s successful 2012 Olympic bid. “It is one of the few ways that individuals who own a private company can get recognition and exposure,” says Sir Keith, whose entrepreneurial successes include the Air Miles programme which he sold to British Airways and, more recently, Loyalty Management, which runs Nectar, the UK’s biggest loyalty programme.
The fact is such entrepreneurs have built businesses in which the risks have paid off and they want the world to know. Winning the award means recognition among businesses from other sectors and from some of the general public for the company and for the team behind the entrepreneur.
The Entrepreneur of the Year in the UK kicks off with regional competitions, with the winners going through to the national awards, held this year on October 9. The overall winner attends an international event. Participants past and present are invited to an entrepreneurs’ masterclass at the London Business School. The judges are mainly entrepreneurs, and often past winners of the competition.
Taking part offers several practical advantages, say participants. Adam Balon, co-founder of Innocent Drinks, says: “You get a lot out of just hanging out with other entrepreneurs. You have fun and learn a bit about your business at the same time.”
For would-be winners, Mr Balon, who won the Young Entrepreneur award in 2003 and has been a judge, advises: “Take the time to think through the initial entry and really try to answer the questions, as there are some very good entries. The organisers make very clear what you have to do and when. Second, if you are the boss, make sure you are the one turning up to answer the questions. It has to be someone who really knows the business.”
A former winner, and judge several times over, Vijay Patel is chief executive of Waymade Healthcare, the pharmaceutical distribution company that is one of the largest suppliers in the UK. Waymade’s success has allowed Mr Patel to realise his dream, when he arrived in the UK in 1967, aged 16 and penniless, of a new life. He observes that the interviews are very short, so he spends a lot of time beforehand on entrants’ CVs. “Don’t be bashful about entering,” he urges.
Sir Bill Gammell, founder and chief executive of Edinburgh-based Cairn Energy, and a winner in 2004, recalls that the final judging for the national award took place at the end of a long, hard day of shareholder presentations.
He had to pull himself together, he says, and be positive. “I reminded myself that this was important to the company and to me.”
He feels that both the first impressions he made and the track record of his oil exploration and production company were taken into account. “There was our pioneering spirit and also our success in Rajasthan. We took something perceived to be unattractive and made discoveries,” he says, recalling Cairn’s oil discovery in the Thar desert in 2004.
He adds: “Take care that you are not seeking the glamour for yourself. You may be the manifestation of the business but really you are part of the team.”
Entrepreneurs are busy people, so even if they are convinced of the case for entering a competition – in which kudos, not cash, is the prize – do they not have more pressing calls on their time? Sir Keith says his team dealt with the figures – “which any organisation worth its salt can manage” – and he wrote up the application on a flight to Asia.
Richard Hall, UK leader of the competition, says the programme recognises that entrepreneurs are pressed for time. After 20 years of international experience, and eight in the UK, the programme has been tailored accordingly: “An entrepreneur tends to have to deal with in a day a raft of issues that would make many a plc business figure panic.”
Mr Cullum is destined for the international event in Monte Carlo in June. One of the great enjoyments of the competition for him, he says, was the “intoxicating experience” of meeting other entrepreneurs. “I love to find out what drives them – most have had serious setbacks but they always seem to bounce back where others give up.”
The Entrepreneur of the Year competition is organised by Ernst & Young and sponsored by the Financial Times, Coutts & Co and the London Stock Exchange