Business heavyweights impart knowledge at Mafia Conference

A GROUP of successful entrepreneurs – dubbed ‘The Billion Pound Panel’ – have said they believe there are still opportunities for businesses to grow but have stressed the importance of managing cash for an aspiring organisation.

Dean Hoyle, James Sommerville, Ajaz Ahmed, Lawrence Tomlinson and The Lord Kirkham all took part in the panel discussion, chaired by Welcome to Yorkshire chief executive Gary Verity, at the Yorkshire Mafia Conference yesterday.

Taking questions from the floor, the businessmen analysed issues ranging from difficulties encountered when running a business, to the role of the banking sector in the recession and the rise of social media for businesses.

They also passed on advice to small business owners about what they believe are the most important things to remember to make a success of a venture.

Mr Hoyle, who established greeting card retail outlet Card Factory in 1997 and sold it last year for a reported £350m, said there were opportunities in the market but stressed that “cash is king”.

“Don’t be scared of opportunities as they come up,” he said. “But watch your cash. And don’t overtrade.”

Mr Tomlinson, who has an estimated wealth of £400m and is founder and chairman of the LNT Group, which includes the Ginetta Cars business, agreed and said he believed it was important to try to do business with other operators in Yorkshire to help the regional economy.

However, Lord Kirkham, who established DFS in Doncaster in 1969 and stepped down as chairman last year after the sofa firm was sold for a reported £500m, said the best advice he could pass on to businesses starting today was to “go east young man”, as he believes the Far East and emerging economies offer the best opportunities.

Mr Sommerville, who launched creative agency ATTIK with a £2,000 start-up grant from The Prince’s Trust in 1986 and went on to sell the business to the world’s largest advertsing agency, Dentsu, in 2007, said he believed the recession was a “really good thing” for many businesses as they could capitalise on gaps in the market.

He said investing in the right people and working hard were also important attributes to “getting over the finishing line”.

When asked by John Bretherick of Openreach whether the panel had ever invested in a business and found it to be a “stinker”, Lord Kirkham advised the audience to concentrate on their own businesses as they were the most important in his view.

Mr Ahmed, who was a co-founder of Freeserve, the first free internet service provider in the UK, said he had invested in a number of businesses in recent years, with varying levels of success.

He said: “The biggest thing is the people involved. When they sell it (the idea) they’re often one type of people and when you get involved they often become different types.”

He also advised investors to take a step back and not to carry on investing “good money after bad” in a failing company.

There were mixed responses when asked by Emma Owen, business health lead at NHS Hull, about the rise of social media in business.

Mr Ahmed said businesses should look at what using social media will add to their bottom lines before pursuing a strategy in the field.

He said there were organisations making good use of platforms such as Twitter and Facebook but a lot of posts were “rubbish” and he also urged people not to stop communicating face-to-face or on the phone.

Mr Sommerville said social media could “open dialogue”.

Mr Hoyle said he believed banks were driven by greed and fear but the panel generally agreed that they were a necessity for businesses. 

The Yorkshire Mafia Conference, held at the Royal Armouries in Leeds, also included a series of seminars and an exhibition hall where delegates could meet network and find out about other businesses.