Jim Duffy: ‘Entrepreneur’ not a bad word but it sets bad examples

Sir Philip Green has come in for some pretty vitriolic criticism, as his alleged actions are perceived as nothing less than sheer greed. Picture: Getty
Sir Philip Green has come in for some pretty vitriolic criticism, as his alleged actions are perceived as nothing less than sheer greed. Picture: Getty
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THERE is such a thing as an admirable entrepreneur, just not the ones we’ve heard from recently, writes Jim Duffy

Mike Ashley… Sir Philip Green… both gentlemen are billionaire entrepreneurs. Both are kings of retail and kings of the high street. Both own lots of property and, of course, Sir Philip is renowned for his multi-million-pound yacht in Monaco – with another on order.

But both are very much now under the microscope and so is entrepreneurship as a result.

Social media outlets like Facebook and Twitter are awash with some very heavy negativity directed towards Sir Philip in particular. The vibe is vitriolic, personal and nasty. People throughout the UK are venting at what they perceive at his alleged actions as sheer greed. As usual, some of it is over the top…

But even a newspaper that usually applauds free enterprise is now referring to Sir Philip as ‘Sir Shifty’. His lawyers have requested that the publication desists from such terminology, but that’s probably just got the editorial staff even more motivated. This has a bit to go yet…

I watched Sir Philip’s Westminster performance on TV as he was being questioned by MPs. I particularly liked his De Niro-esque “you lookin’ at me?” taunt as one of the committee members was obviously jarring with him – as he ‘stared’ at Sir De Niro. I’m so glad I don’t work for Sir Philip as there’s a good chance I would get ‘whacked’ with my big mouth.

But the killer for all concerned was his nonchalant lack of understanding of where the £400 million in dividends he paid his wife was banked. Really? Jeez, I check my bank account every other day as my partner likes to spend a bit too much – in his shops. Ergo, I’m not buying his story here and neither did the MPs.

So, where does this leave us? Are all entrepreneurs greedy and when is enough enough? Firstly, before we condemn Sir Philip (and I get a letter from his lawyers), he is a hard working man who, for decades, has built an empire. Fact. BHS was part of that. Fact. He is a most industrious and entrepreneurial individual in all that he does. Fact. He deserves success and the trappings that go with it. Not so sure? There, there … that’ll keep his lawyers happy.

Entrepreneurs are geared to create value. It’s in their DNA. With that value comes cash reward. But, it doesn’t all happen over night. It takes years of effort. Just look at some of our own homemade multi-millionaire entrepreneurs. Lord Willie Haughey and Lady Susan Haughey have built a great business employing over 12,000 people. Their story is amazing to listen to. Sir Tom Hunter tells the story of his van not starting on a freezing cold morning and the heater going on the blink as he worked in the early days. These are stories we don’t see, or choose to whitewash, as our self-made millionaires appear to have a few bob now.

But, I think there is a real and crucial difference here. The Haugheys and the Hunters of this world care passionately about their local communities, and live among them in Glasgow and Ayrshire respectively. I know them both really well as they backed me when others were shutting doors. They are huge givers to charity. Sir Tom has backed the Kiltwalk with his own cash and Lady Haughey has now been awarded a CBE for her endless charity work. To my mind, this singles them out as a different kind of entrepreneur. And I know so many... but how do we breed the next generation to be more like Haughey and Hunter and less like ‘Sir Shifty’?

The danger we have is that the word ‘entrepreneur’ is becoming toxic. Its association with £100 million yachts, not paying the minimum wage to your staff and a perceived selfish ‘it’s all about me’ attitude is pervading popular culture and turning people off the concept. My call to action today is: now is the time for role models to stand up and make a stand.

It’s okay to make money. It’s okay to be rich having worked hard. It’s okay to have boats, fancy cars and big houses – if you’ve earned it. I applaud this and think that is art and part of the entrepreneurial journey – because it ain’t easy at all. I see it day in and day out across the UK as early stage entrepreneurs sacrifice so much and get bludgeoned with so many negatives and blockages, blindsided by events and a few sharks. They put a lot on the line for their future payday.

However, I draw the line at having so much money that your sense of what is right and wrong and your capacity to care for people is skewed. I draw the line at complete arrogance and an attitude of ‘I can do whatever I want on this planet as I am stinking rich’. I draw the line at leaving workers without a hard-earned pension they paid into with trust in those they worked for.

I think we as a society are also tuning into how we want our uber-entrepreneurs to behave.

• Agitator and disruptor Jim Duffy is soon to be Head of #GoDo at Entrepreneurial Spark