Mafia boss Geoff Shepherd talks Buy Yorkshire and billionaires

THIS year’s Buy Yorkshire conference will see 4,000 delegates from the region’s business community over two days, an impressive feat and the biggest free B2B event in the North.

Buy Yorkshire is organised, if you haven’t already heard, by business support and networking organisation The Yorkshire Mafia, which itself has over 16,500 members.

In The Yorkshire Mafia, serial entrepreneurs rub shoulders with the owners of local SME’s as well as the chief executives of FTSE organisations, and this lack of pretension and inclusivity is what makes the Yorkshire Mafia something quite special.

Its founder Geoff Shepherd, is in the same mould.

Starting the conference in 2011, the Yorkshire Mafia has become an “old hand” at organising, but we wanted to know what kept the event growing, from having 1,300 delgates in 2011, doubling it in 2012 and growing in year-on-year ever since.

Mr Shepherd said: “We’ve come a long way from our first conference and I think our line-up has reflected that.”

Indeed it has. Now Mr Shepherd’s wishlist for the famous Billion Pound Panel includes Lord Kirkham, founder of DFS, along with an eclectic mix of Barack Obama, the last remaining founder of Apple, Steve Wozniak, Bill Gates, and JK Rowling.

Though some of these are particularly ambitious, it’s not beyond the realms of belief that JK Rowling or Lord Kirkham could be in the line-up some time soon, considering how much Buy Yorkshire has grown in five years.

Mr Shepherd said: “One thing we look for in candidates for the Billion Pound Panel is if they are people who’ve been where our audience is, not people who’ve had everything handed to them but have worked hard for where they are now, have gone from having a little to having a lot. At least one has been in a difficult place.

“That’s why we wouldn’t have someone like Richard Branson, he was born rich and he’s now a millionaire, where is the identifying message in that?

“If people in the audience are struggling or are unsure, then they want someone they can identify with, who’s been where they are and come out the other side.”

Indeed one of the many impressive presenters and panellists was Glaswegian lingerie entrepreneur Michelle Mone, who went from a working class background and being married at 18 to a multi-millionaire owner of one of the most famous bra brands in the world, Ultimo.

On keeping the event fresh, Mr Shepherd said: “Events like this go into decline if the organisers can’t learn to adapt, and that’s one of the biggest challenges we’ve got, every year we need to do something new.

“We have to keep it fresh and move it along. It would cost less and take less time to have exactly the same people and same format every year, but it would impact on the quality of the event and that is something we don’t want to happen.

“We’re an old hand at organising this now – at this point the only thing we worry about is the weather, otherwise I haven’t really got anything to moan about!”

However, despite talk of big names and billionaires, the overall purpose for Buy Yorkshire is to act as a business catalyst for the region, Mr Shepherd said.

“If I had to rescue one part of the event from a burning building, it would be the Exhibition, not the seminars or the Billion Pound Panel, because that is where people trade. Thats where they connect, and over the 2 days, an estimated £8m is made and that’s not something to be sniffed at.”

The Yorkshire Mafia have worked on the event with no funding or grants and a comparably tiny team, and as Geoff said, that’s something to be proud of.