Billion Pound Panel puts industry greats in the hot seat

Happy Friday to you all. It’s certainly been a busy week at Open Comms. Now on to our next blog from the Buy Yorkshire Conference. This time focusing on the Billion Pound Panel, a Question Time style session which invites the great and good from industry to engage with the audience and discuss topics that are most prevalent to them. We hope you enjoy it.

The hustle and bustle to get into the room set a precedent for how popular the Billion Pound Panel has become since its launch four years ago. Arguably there is still no session in any business event that can rival what has become a must see and this year was no exception.

As we all took to our seats, the panel was introduced; Chairman of LNT Group, Lawrence Tomlinson; Managing Director of HARIBO UK, Herwig Vennekens; CEO of AESSEAL, Chris Rea; Chairman of York, North Yorkshire and East Rising Enterprise Partnership, Barry Dodd and the chair of the event, Associate Dean of Leeds Becket University, Simon Jones.

It was almost immediately apparent that the discussion was going to be an interesting one with a mix of people from a range of backgrounds – just what you want when you are sitting in a room waiting for a question time style discussion. There’s no point if everyone has the same opinion on everything!

The discussion started with a gentle question that focused around what benefits Leeds becoming a Capital of Culture 2028 would achieve with differing views. Barry Dodd was particularly vocal with his thoughts around ‘Why?’. His main points were why would you do this when the city and region has a strong reputation that it could build on and why ask for an award when you could give it to yourself.

In contrast Herwig Vennekens explained that when he introduces people to the HARIBO business they often find it difficult to understand where Pontefract is and he spends much of his time explaining that it is ‘near Leeds’ with mixed outcomes even then.

The discussion then moved on to motivating staff and how you can ‘sweeten the deal’ to the humoured groans of the audience.

Interestingly Chris Rea explained that through not being greedy you can build a team that you can trust and that you can rely on when delegating tasks. You certainly got a sense that he has a strong team in place who support him, with reference made to his PA on a number of occasions.

Lawrence gave a glimpse into the culture of the company that he has created, explaining that as someone who only sleeps for 5 hours per night he has to keep connected with the whole of the business. As a result he has given every one of his employees an iPhone, which is a perk but also allows him to communicate with them – in this example sending a podcast from his most recent 24 hour racing event.

A great example of how technology can be used in a simple way to communicate and connect a workforce that otherwise may not engage.

 Barry then sat forward to make one of the strongest comments of the session when he said: “What we all need to remember is that no one works for you, they work with you. Once you remember this your attitude will change and you will take on a culture that you can build.”

There were lots of nods from both the panel and the audience at this point.

The discussion then moved on to local community. The most consistent response came from this question with every member of the panel agreeing that it was important to show your commitment to your local area if the reasons for doing so were valid.

Once again Lawrence was able to showcase how LNT Group have implemented an internal charity called the LNT Foundation, which allows employees of the business to decide how the company invests its money to the benefit of the local community. Another good idea and something that perhaps companies could learn from when they are in the position to do so and to genuinely give something back.

Herwig reiterated that CSR needed to be honest and to meet a genuine need, otherwise why bother. He also explained that it cannot be about a marketing exercise but about meeting with a specific need that a community or local area had.

Next on the agenda was start-up businesses and what top tips the panel had. Chris set the scene explaining that you should never do what a competent person can. And always get people to hire their replacements.

Herwig then added that it was about priorities and the need to identify the difference between something that is a real urgency and something that hits your inbox but can wait. “It’s about being rigorous about what is a priority and what is not. Not doing this absorbs a lot of time. Put a ream around you that you can trust 100 per cent and that are capable also be careful not to employ people who do the same as you. It makes more sense to complement your skills rather than duplicate them.”

Further reiterating this point was Barry who said: “Surround yourself with good people or change them. Don’t end up keeping them and doing their job.” He then went on to pass on a tip that many of the audience seemed to scribble down which was: “Give an accurate time for a meeting such as 10.10am so that people know when they are expected. If you say 10am then people can have a tendency to be late or to feel they can give or take 10 minutes.”

What makes the Billion Pound Panel so interesting is the diversity of the questions and the next one which focused on a possible European Referendum raised a number of eye brows and some genuine discussion.

The panel appeared split with some feeling it is easier to work with Europe if you are part of the EU and others believing that uncertainty and instability was almost forcing decisions that otherwise may not have been made.

Whatever way you choose to agree or disagree there was no doubt that these businessmen were well aware of the possibilities and challenges that may or may not lie ahead.

And then came the last question, which asked what each panellists would do with £1bn to improve the region. An interesting one but the strongest and most consistent response was that the panel were aligned to thinking that education is something that needs addressing.

Finding ways in which education and skills gaps can be aligned was discussed and how this could then create a talent pool that would lead to stronger opportunities. Once again there were many murmurs of support from the audience as people recognised from their own companies the challenges that can be faced with recruitment and how a strong talent pool would make things simpler.

With that the applause went up and the curtain metaphorically came down but overall what a session. The panel was diverse, the room was packed and the questions were coming thick and fast. There is little doubt that the Billion Pound Panel format works and that many people could have stayed in that room for a further hour or two but it’s here that we will leave it until the next time.