Business and life - "things are not always as they seem!"

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Sunday, 27 December 2009

Your country needs you!

Another open letter to Minister Arlene Foster from Grumpy Old Will
Dear Minister,

Wasted years, wasted wealth
During his reign as Chancellor in the heady days of New Labour, Gordon Brown threw public expenditure at NI to keep the lid on unemployment.
This largesse was delivered over the years almost as a budgetary afterthought from Westminster, and indeed accepted joyfully, if lazily, by Stormont.

Neither party seemed to give any serious thought to applying the massive amounts of money towards creating a coherent strategy for a competitive private sector. Instead they aquiesced in fueling the well documented out-of-control growth of the public sector cuckoo in our economic nest.

A 20 year fix?
In 2006 a group of 10 public-spirited business people produced a private report on the Northern Ireland economy.
Their stark conclusions highlighted a number of areas needing urgent attention but I want to focus on their view, that in order to balance our economy, around 117,000 jobs must be shed in the public sector and in due course replaced with new private sector led jobs.
This equates to a £2 billion annual payroll, and in the opinion of the group it could take 20 years to accomplish the necessary transition.

Now these are not my figures and I am sure there are many experts who can argue them up or down, but whatever the precise numbers, most would agree that we have a problem that seems intractable - and for me, 20 years is far too long.
Minister, break it down to 10,000 jobs a year over 10 years and let's get on with it.

Compulsory military service
The Barnett report made a brief mention of the state of Israel as an exemplar of good practice in economic development, but did not give any clue as to why the Israelis were successful. My blog of December 5th 2009 says why. The mindset.

I would refer you to the book "Start-up Nation". It refers to Israel's innovation, self-reliance, knowledge and networks, but the crucial central driving force of their mindset is "the experience of compulsory army service that truly sets young Israelis apart, ........ helping to equip them with the skills and mindset of entrepreneurs".

No more armies
Now Minister, after our decades of troubles I am certainly not advocating that we create any more armies in Northern Ireland, but I do think we should consider adapting and adopting the model of compulsory economic development service.

General Grumpy's plan
Here are my early thoughts on this.

Grasp the nettle, but don't just shrink the public sector in an unplanned or unfeeling way.
Plan a one-year programme of "private sector mindset conditioning" (analogous to compulsory army service) to be run for 10 consecutive years.
10,000 participants shifted from the public sector on day one into the programme. 5,000 economically inactive people to be included from day one.
We are already paying all these folks anyway, or providing them with benefits.
Involve them as individuals and as teams in skills training, opportunity search, networking with growing, established NI businesses and preparation for integration with the private sector, either as employees or in some cases as entrepreneurs, at the end of their "boot-camp" year.
It needs to be spread right across the province. On average that only amounts to about 500 people per Council area.

Minister, our problems will not be solved incrementally or by political compromise. It will take leadership; radical leadership.
This is a radical approach; there are many clever people who will rubbish it; there are major hurdles to be overcome in its implementation; but the model works in Israel and I don't see anything as potentially worthwhile jumping off the pages of the Barnett report.
Yours sincerely,
Will McKee

Sunday, 20 December 2009

To Atheists, Christians and Don't Knows at Christmas - From meek and mild Old Will

Folk are OK
My world-view tells me that despite the often horrendous acts of inhumanity that make media headlines, most folk want to be kind and helpful to others.

Perhaps the unseeing crowd rushes by uncaring; but engage one-on-one with any person, say to ask for directions or to wish them Merry Christmas and almost without exception they will give willing assistance or respond cheerfully. Goodwill is a characteristic of most people in our society.

Ho Ho Ho!
Pretty much everybody, whether they believe in God or not, participates in Christmas and enjoys the season which marks the birth of the man whose values "set the benchmarks by which we judge every aspect of human behaviour".

That phrase is borrowed from David Adams, writing in the Irish Times under the headline "Jesus gave the finest blueprint, whether you believe or not".
David Adams, on his own declaration, does not believe in God, but verbatim extracts from his powerful article eloquently explain the resonance of Christmas for everybody.

David Adams, December 17th 2009
I don't believe in God ........ However, I believe totally in the values that Jesus espoused.

........ I hold a concept of right and wrong that derives entirely from the teachings of and examples set by Jesus, and was passed down to me by my family, my church and, crucially, by the society to which I belong.

What Jesus had to say about how we should conduct ourselves and how we should treat others is in essence what we now think of as civilised behaviour. It follows that if a society is to be deemed worthy of being called civilised it must be underpinned by his values.

....... Most of what Jesus taught us runs completely counter to our natural instincts. Kindness, tolerance, compassion, forgiveness, concern for others, protection of the weak, fairness, understanding, non-violence, and so on.

....... When one looks around the world today, the sense is not just of humanity being far removed from the gospel of Jesus, but of something much worse. It is though we, in our arrogance, have determined that we no longer need his blueprint for humanity.

...... We should never stop celebrating his birth, or ever forget precisely why we are celebrating it.


I detest the arrogance of rabid foam-lipped fundamentalism. Whether it comes with an insensitive, guilt-inducing, Christian rant or with the cold, rapier-like, atheistic, faith-threatening thrust of Dawkins and Hitchins.
Either way, the outcome of this vicious religious or intellectual arrogance is hurt abused people. Either way, it repels me. Either way, they may win the argument, but they lose my respect.

But most Christians are not rabid ranters and most atheists are not fervent faith-killers.

Thomas Hardy
Thomas Hardy, one of the greatest English poets, was an avowed atheist, yet his iconic poem of the World War 1 era, "The Oxen", conveys the spirit of Christmas in words that resonate with believer and unbeliever alike.

Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.
"Now they are all on their knees,"
An elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in hearthside ease.

We pictured the meek mild creatures where
They dwelt in their strawy pen,
Nor did it occur to one of us there
To doubt they were kneeling then.

So fair a fancy few would weave
In these years! Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve,
"Come; see the oxen kneel

"In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
Our childhood used to know,"
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.

For all of us, whether Christian, atheist or agnostic, in this world of ups and downs there is no such thing as a state of perfection; but there are intense moments of perfection - and Christmas is a time when they appear.

Be alert; recognise, savour and share the precious moments when they come.

Today, Old Will is stepping out of his Grumpy persona to wish you many Merry Christmas moments of perfection. And a Happy New Year. So now, my blog friends, post me a cheerful encouraging response and prove my point!

Thursday, 17 December 2009

Sammy Wilson's smile - be afraid, be very afraid.

An open letter to Minister Arlene Foster from Grumpy Old Will

Dear Minister, The Barnett report and change

Just when I thought that the Barnett report might spur some swift political actions towards stemming our downward economic drift, I am feeling concerned.

Crisis denial
Last week I was confronted with Minister Sammy Wilson's smiling comment, "the impact may not be felt until 2011". This was in response to Alistair Darling's pre-budget announcement that the Westminster financial support for NI remains effectively intact pro tem. And he certainly was not alone in smiling. But ........
While welcome in one sense, this postponement of inevitable cuts means that Sammy, together with all the folks on the hill and our entire populace, can carry on in the torpor of crisis denial. Rather than actually doing something concrete towards dismantling the excess in our monstrous public service and thus over time freeing funds and people for investment in the private sector.

Barnett v G.O. Will
Overall and over time, Professor Barnett suggests sensible structural reorganisation to improve our economic lot, but history shows that any change will be slow in coming.
The Professor's and my views differ significantly on implementation. Two examples.
1. He suggests a reduction in business development training expenditure and increased spend on innovation and research. I propose the exact opposite.
2. Currently, contact centres are a key element in our private sector employment. My views on their importance are diametrically opposed to those of the Barnett report.

Medium-term strategy strand for INI
Let me put forward a possible strand of private sector strategy for Invest NI to be getting on with in the meantime while longer term strategies are being debated.
It focuses on the reality of where we are today and what we can do by developing current opportunities rather than the longer term, where "innovation and research" may pay off.

The background is Invest NI's tremendous success over the last few years in attracting contact centres, together with many companies describing themselves as in "ICT" or "Financial Services", but which are in reality nothing more than contact centres.

Barnett's blindspot
Professor Barnett mistakenly follows traditional economic group-think in disparaging such jobs and by implication the people who perform them. He is so wrong on this; indeed it is alarming that Invest NI themselves, after expending the effort of putting the cluster in place, do not appear to promote the competitiveness of the sector to any great degree.
"many of the new jobs promoted have been in call centres, some of which offer low wages and have contributed little to Invest NI’s mission to boost business productivity".

Minister, this is rubbish. How can such a statement be taken seriously when the numbers of our "economically inactive" continue to rise? All jobs at all levels of expertise and pay are valuable and in many cases contact centres pay very well.
Invest NI has made a real achievement, whether they acknowledge it or not, in putting this key cluster in place. It should be exploited aggressively, not denigrated.

Invest NI actions
These labour-intensive activities are the foundational base on which to build any successful economy and the creation of this cluster of businesses arguably makes NI the "contact centre capital" of Europe.
Action 1. Something we should boast about rather than hide.

Now that we have enough contact centres on board as a base - Action 2. - Invest NI should put a task-force team in place to assist these existing enterprises, both indigenous and FDI, with intensive training and promotion to enhance their international competitiveness and maintain our lead. This is a tremendous opportunity.

Action 3. The concurrent area of focus should be to motivate and support expansion of the next tier of international competitiveness in our existing manufacturing and service businesses. There is much good work already going on here though still enormous scope for future growth.

Contact centre value
Well-run contact centres deliver direct productivity to the economy and are also a hotbed of business skills training for their often young operatives - effectively they are "commercial universities". Many in due course will go on to higher-wage employment in the wider labour force or will become entrepreneurs in their own right. I suspect their alumni produce more start-ups than Queens and UUJ put together.

To substantiate my argument further by specific example, I refer to public domain information on the Irish-owned Belfast contact centre Gem, which is among the cluster of companies to whom the Barnett report gives a negative portrayal.
For the past 10 years Gem has employed hundreds of people and contributed direct wages to the economy of almost £70 million, which by any reasonable multiplier, alone represents a couple of years of Invest NI's total budget!
In addition, the vast bulk of Gem's multi-millions of revenue is generated by international customers bringing valuable foreign exchange into Northern Ireland.

A phenomonal export performance - and a high encouraging note on which to end this letter.
I hope this proposal is of some help.

Yours sincerely,
Will McKee

Sunday, 13 December 2009

Budgets, Banks, Blame, Barbarians - Reflection for 2010

These penal cruel budgets. The Banks are to blame! - or are they?

Society's rampant blame culture infects us all. We just love to find a target for blame - provided that we ourselves are not in the crosshairs of the gunsight.

Reactions to the worldwide financial crash show that in general, individuals don't readily accept any personal responsibility. It seems we all prefer denial. The faults were nothing to do with you or me.

Well I for one am heartily sick of this shallow, self-serving, simplistic, scapegoating blame-game.

Misdirected unfair blame for the fundamental cause of the meltdown; whether from the rantings of red-top media lightweights, or politicians, or cab-drivers, or bar room bores.

The heavyweight "I told you so!" commentators like Robert Peston, David McWilliams and Vincent Browne, while providing insightful opinion on the unfolding drama, have also been guilty of focussing undue blame in the wrong quarters.

Since the problems emerged, without fixing on the real culprits, these whingers have blasted away at a wide and ever-changing set of lesser targets. They started with hedge funds, short-sellers, Northern Rock, currency speculators, fat cats, Sir Fred Goodwin, Lehman Bros, Bear Stearns, property developers, tax exiles etc.

Now after a year of this guff, their mixed stew of opprobrium has settled and coalesced into almost universal condemnation of "evil bankers". So, now we know - or do we?

Bankers are a tempting target, - and the banks have to shoulder their own responsibilities - but that they are the original cause of the mess is a complete misrepresentation of the true facts. Their actions were symptomatic, not causal.

The current negative portrayal of banking executives and employees is totally unfair to the thousands of good hard-working people who labour on in trying to provide an essential banking service to their customers. This, despite having to endure misplaced, insensitive, sometimes vicious, criticisms of them and their profession.

At worst, the crime of the banks is analogous to the barman who pours another drink for a drunk, or the server who sells a triple king-size hamburger to a morbidly obese person.
Bad judgement, yes; but it is clearly the personal responsibility of the customer as to whether or not the liquor and the burger is consumed and paid for.

In this whole sorry tale of financial mayhem, banking was merely a conduit and a tacit instrument of government; albeit in many instances a very badly managed, weakly regulated instrument.

Nonetheless, the banks operated competitively, and generally quite legally, within the overall economic ecosystem created by national and international government fiscal trading frameworks.

The undoubted disarray, inequities and abuses in parts of the worldwide banking system are certainly clear symptomatic effects of the catastrophe, but the root cause and original blame belongs to populist vote-chasing democratic governments - and their voters!

Cheap politicians buying your cheap vote in return for cheap money.

At the express impetus of the national political will of virtually every western democratic government, the banks conveyed vast amounts of uncollateralised credit to the spendthrift electorate.

In return, we as voters duly and gratefully put the Congressmen, MPs, TDs et al into their privileged positions of power. They loved it! And we loved it. Every last one of us. Vive la d├ęcadence!

We personally voted for cheap money - and got it. Basics weren't good enough any more.

Everybody turned up at the trash-filled consumerist trough for the intoxicating feast.
Today you have the inevitable hangover, as government budgets land the true bill on your mat with a thud.

So who is ultimately to blame? Michael Jackson said it. "The man in the mirror".
Take a look in the mirror. Stop blaming other people. Get over it. Move forward into 2010 - and the rest of your life.

Acknowledging, learning from and dumping your mistakes of the past and moving on will help your career and enhance your attitude to work performance. You'll also be happier.

And to make things even better, look for opportunities to help the hurting people who are much less fortunate than yourself. You have a responsibility there too.

When the Roman emperors needed to pacify the mobs, they offered spectacular games and massive entertainments, funded by their far-off plunder.

And the suckers bought it until the Barbarians were at the gate. Hail Caesar!
Sound familiar?

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

"Mental reservations" and the latest tiger collapse. The blindness of selfish arrogance

There is something about successful achievement in any aspect of life, whether sport or business or even religion, that encourages dangerous arrogance and an over-rated sense of our own importance.

Sure, an attitude of positivity and self-belief is a good thing. Indeed it is essential in order to succeed to any degree in any dimension of today's competitive world.
But there can be a fine line between its uplifting benign aspect and a destructive arrogance that precedes the fall of hubristic tigers, bishops or developers.

We all had a good run in the heady days of the Celtic tiger yet none of us are world-class golfers or zillionaire bankers or princes of the Church. But beware!
The reality is that the blinding effects of selfish arrogance can also apply to ordinary folks like you and me. With consequences that are never good.

My wife Swmbo - that's not her real name, it's just short for "she who must be obeyed" - looks after my own frequent trips to the naughty corner. For example, when I fail the dishwasher test.

There's a rule in our house (guess who made it up) that if you innocently open the dishwasher to put a cup or plate in - doing your bit to help in the house even though you are a pioneering hunter gatherer, Phg for short (she pronounces it pig) and it has just finished its cycle, you have to immediately empty it and put everything away neatly!

Another useful assist to my humility came to mind earlier this week when I was about to give a speech on selling to a group of business owners and I was being introduced to the audience in glowing terms.

As the hyperbole continued and my head was swelling with pride, it just flashed into my mind how my sweet Swmbo would interpret the introduction. Her comments are in brackets.

"Will McKee is one of Ireland's leading entrepreneurs (he can't even boil an egg) with a distinguished persona (if I didn't watch what he wears, he'd look like Forrest Gump) and lifetime reputation of support to all his colleagues (what about the dishwasher?). His easy unhurried approach (you must be joking!) comes from ......etc......etc....... (more home truths) ......etc.......etc." You get the picture.

Despite any short-term advantage that accrues through our own flights into selfish arrogance, its inevitable longer-term effect has serious consequences for our personal lives through damage to our careers, businesses and relationships.

Sometimes it goes to the extreme of a crack on the head with a golf club. He had a wife to remind him that worldwide fame is not a licence for infidelity.

Or a summons to the Vatican to be fired. He had no wife to remind him that a "mental reservation" is just a lie.

Monday, 7 December 2009

Copenhagen summit, Mega-rich Bankers, Steel Magnates and Quota-traders - the law of unintended consequences

Following the massive injection of funds into the world financial system, we now hear that investment bankers will be paid huge bonuses, not for any particular skill they have shown, but purely as an unintended consequence of the unique circumstances.

That well-known disciple of Mother Teresa, John "Two-Jag" Prescott, is apoplectic!
But enough about bankers and bonkers already.

The Sunday Times reports that ArcelorMittal, the steel giant headed by Britain's richest man Lakshmi Mittal, will profit by between £1 billion and £3 billion from the carbon emissions trading scheme aimed at reducing global warming.
Now, very few individuals can make that kind of dosh.

A man who lives in a £70 million house with a personal fortune of £11 billion making a few billion more over 2 years! - and to rub salt in the wound of the green lobby, as he trousers these unearned billions his world-wide steel plants are spewing vast quantities of carbon into the atmosphere day and night.

Acccording to emissions trading scheme specialist Anna Pearson, “Between 2008 and 2012 ArcelorMittal stands to gain assets worth 1 billion pounds at today’s prices for scant effort. For them, the ETS has been turned into a system for generating free subsidies. The cap on emissions was set too high and too many permits were issued.”

Shades of the EU Common Agricultural Policy, or what? When will we ever learn?

The ETS scheme grants companies ‘permits' to emit carbon dioxide up to a specified limit and they are also allowed to buy and sell unused permits on the open market.
Sounds OK, but the spectre of inevitable unintended consequences poses the question; is this really the way that climate change campaigners want things to turn out?

This week the Copenhagen climate change summit will hammer away at trying to get agreement on extending emissions controls and if "success" is achieved then President Obama and the world leaders will congratulate themselves on a great step forward.

But the well-intentioned impact, whatever emerges, is unlikely to lead to any significant reduction in global warming. It will however, result in unintended consequences such as those currently enriching the investment bankers. The effects may also be even more economically, environmentally and socially destructive than those of Europe's Common Agricultural Policy.

For a saner climate change perspective, look at the writings of Copenhagen-based Bjorn Lomborg - Google him.

Despite the fact that he lives in the city of the summit he won't get much of a hearing there, but in my view his perspectives and suggested priorities are altogether more convincing and practical for the good of mankind - and are unlikely to enrich bankers, steel magnates or quota-traders in their implementation.

Saturday, 5 December 2009

Arlene Foster's Barnett IREP report - "It's the mindset, stupid"

In 1992 Bill Clinton became President by focussing on a sign on his desk, "It's the economy, stupid". Not a bad general approach for us today but can I suggest a sign for Minister Arlene Foster's desk?

"It's the mindset, stupid" - She might even get to be First Minister!

Professor Richard Barnett's independent review of economic policy demonstrates thorough research, careful analysis, firm conclusions and clear recommendations as to how a "step-change" in policy effectiveness might be achieved towards providing a better life for people in Northern Ireland.

Initial reaction to its launch in September varied from the Belfast Telegraph's hysterical banner headline, worthy of any gutter press red-top, that Invest NI had "wasted" £1 billion of public funds, to a more muted but perhaps more worrying, "welcome" from the Irish Congress of Trade Unions.

I openly admire the efforts of Professor Barnett's team and I do agree that if their recommendations on structural changes were immediately implemented - a mighty big ask, by the way - there is a good chance we would see the hoped for step-change in policy effectiveness.

Unfortunately however, the world of international competitiveness and opportunity has changed significantly, even in the brief time since the report was commissioned.

Frankly, step-change based on structural alteration within DETI just ain't enough anymore. (as Richard Ramsey chief economist of Ulster Bank put it, rearranging the seating plan in the orchestra now that we have the sheet music)

What is needed and needed urgently is not a step-change, but a sea-change in mindset. We have the sheet music and the seating plan - now we need quality entrepreneurial players; highly motivated and with strong positive attitudes towards business establishment and business growth.

This key dimension was only alluded to tangentially in the Barnett report which concentrated on top-down policy change. Bottom-up interventional support is arguably even more important.

Arlene Foster should ask the Professor to follow up his excellent work so far and address the greater problem of how all our people can be brought, through a policy-driven process of sea-change, to a collective mindset of ambition and proud achievement.

Back to the latent ethic of pride, in hard hard work towards economic growth, that in previous generations was an acknowledged character trait of our people.

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Where is the Northern Ireland economic "Vision"? - Go on, inspire me!

In 2008 the Irish government decided to position Ireland as an "innovation economy".
Great, but is anything similar happening in the North?

Subsequent difficulties with financial turbulence may have dulled Ireland's focus somewhat, but here are three exciting action signs that this visionary Irish initiative is gaining momentum.

Three actions that should cover the NI government with guilt due to their lack of initiative in providing a clear vision for the economy.

First action; the clear indicator of intent evident in the Spring 09 announcement that the government has signed an agreement with ESB and carmaker Renault-Nissan to radically increase the usage of electric vehicles in Ireland.

Not only does this align Ireland with Israel and Denmark at the forefront of the commercial application of green technology, it also provides a platform for future development of businesses in related areas. There is the additional enormous benefit of branding - Ireland being seen as a leading innovator and thus attracting other innovative initiatives.

The specific business model being used for the roll-out over the next few years was featured in last weekend's Sunday Times magazine - and it looks like a winner. Check out

Second action; the high profile Global Irish Economic Forum held at Farmleigh attracted the interest and continuing attention of powerful, innovative, entrepreneurial world business leaders from the Irish diaspora. There is a Northern (but ignored!) diaspora too.

Third action; Ireland has now secured the hugely important EU research and innovation portfolio, "which resonates very strongly with our own Smart Economy agenda” to quote Brian Cowen. He also said that the Research and Innovation Commissioner, Maire Geoghegan-Quinn, will play a key role in the drive to maintain and create jobs, and stimulate economic growth in Europe.

These three notable actions, together with the overarching vision, inspire me.

In spite of all the obstacles, diversions and difficulties, the people in the Republic have a real vision and economic strategy, led by their much-maligned politicians and being demonstrably implemented. It is actually under way.

In the North, so far as I can see, while small photo-opportunity wins may be achieved, our Ministers and MLAs have no obvious compelling vision or strategy for the economy.

Nothing to excite our imagination. No economic leadership, no vision, no strategy, no action. No inspiration. Just a vacuum. And a mindset of reactivity.

The complete opposite of innovation and entrepreneurship.

Go on, persuade me I'm wrong. I want to be inspired!

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Courage and personal resilience - Failure is an incident, not an identity

My son John and I are directly involved in helping entrepreneurial enterprises cope with the current turmoil, but difficulties for individuals are not confined to the private sector. I am aware of many public sector employees who are also under serious financial stress due to their involvement in speculation.

On top of all the European property investment it is estimated that up to 10,000 Irish people are exposed, badly exposed, to the Dubai debacle and not all of these are "rash entrepreneurs".

Whatever our occupation, the core underpinning of effective response to current problems must be courage and personal resilience. Do not let an incident or incidents of failure swamp you.

This true story of an incident from some years ago when John and I were struggling to raise capital to save a business illustrates the point.

We were on the 16th floor of some of the most expensive real-estate in London, sitting in an oak-paneled boardroom at a massive table under crystal chandeliers.

The public school, Harvard-educated venture capitalist, whom I will call Henry, pried and probed in a very condescending intimidating way, but still John answered courteously and
capably to every question – except what proved to be the last.

“I recognise that your company has a strong IP position and the financial prospects look good. So good that we feel comfortable in considering an investment. But you failed to complete your last deal, so I have to ask myself ‘Why I should invest in failures like you people?’.”

John jumped to his feet, threw the pencil he was holding at Henry and, with passion, told him that, yes, we had failed with that deal, yes, we had failed at many things and yes, we would fail at many things in the future, but he was not going to sit there and let us be called failures.
We didn’t get the investment.

On the way down in the mirrored elevator, I assured John that I agreed with every word he had uttered and that he should never allow anyone to call him a failure, but: “Son, you shouldn’t have thrown the pencil at Henry”.
John looked me in the eye and spat out: “Will, I wish it had been a brick!”.

We failed to get Henry’s money, but we roared with laughter – and we were certainly not failures.

Failure is an incident, not an identity. Whatever your current personal stresses; remember that - and press on.

Sunday, 29 November 2009

The Sultan of Bling - why Dubai matters to you

With Governments committing billions and trillions (whatever they are) to bailing out toxic banks, many people were of a notion that the worst was over.

In the language of the economists the world is now emerging from a U-shaped recession. Green shoots, world stock markets roaring ahead, everybody feeling better. Spend our way out of recession.

Well, hold up. Over the weekend proof has emerged that all is not rosy in Dubai, the small city-state which is the greatest exemplar of "mine is bigger than yours".

Biggest building in the world, biggest indoor ski-slope, biggest swimming pool, biggest hotel (7 star no less), shopping mall, theme park, airport, and biggest sweet shop for goodness sake.
Now it appears to be on the edge of producing, relatively speaking, the biggest financial crash in the world because of its fragile sovereign debt position.

The ripple effect of Dubai on confidence will affect international lending decisions and interest rates out of all proportion to the actual amounts of money involved.

Hey, Dubai is a long way away with its possible debt default being fairly inconsequential in the context of trillions of worldwide debt. A little sandy dot with a pile of essentially useless real estate bling. Does its hubristic economic collapse matter to me and my business in Ireland?

I think it does and I would advise you to take note and take early action. Now that everybody is getting a bit complacent, Dubai reminds us that recovery is still shaky.

When the downturn started to bite and borrowing was tight, remember how you made cuts in overhead, reduced staff, slashed expenses and focussed on cash flow?
Well, go into your business this week, take another hard look and follow it up with some hard action as before.

Oh, and at a personal level, delay your car change, take a much less expensive holiday, cut all unnecessary expense. Christmas is coming and here is Mr Scrooge already.

Do this and do it now! I have a feeling that in 6 months time you will be thanking me.

Thursday, 26 November 2009

Ration and cap high salaries? - Why stop there?

The Copenhagen summit on climate change next month will see world leaders pay lip service to the crisis but agree on precious little that will make any difference to the global uses of energy.

They are unlikely to address what, in my opinion, is the neglected key issue. Waste! Waste of energy - for which every one of us is responsible.
And the same goes for that other global scarce resource, food, though our individual culpability here is even more glaring and inherently unfair. Waste of food!

We are all in such a swiz about capping the obscenely high salaries of those who "got us into this financial mess", (we all did our own bit to create the mess ourselves by the way) that we ignore our disgustingly wasteful system, still continuing, where we dump 1.6 million tonnes of perfectly good food into landfill every year.

And this takes no account of the much greater annual waste - equally disgusting - where we stuff millions of tonnes of food into "peoplefill" through gross unnecessary overeating. The results are plain to see waddling up and down every street in the country.

Appeals for voluntary restraint just have not worked nor will they work. The only long-term answer, which has a proven effectiveness in crisis situations, is food and fuel rationing.

I remember when I was a wee boy seeing my mother get the ration books off the mantlepiece and set off to buy the groceries.
There was no waste in our house in those days and yet we survived by eating just enough, throwing nothing away and growing our own food where possible. There was no alternative.

In that post-war time of severe shortages, this ration system was the only way the country could live within its limited resources and ensure that the distribution of food and fuel to individuals was reasonably fair.

We are arguably in as great a crisis today, so it should not be beyond the capability of our ├╝ber-bureaucratic nanny-state to implement appropriate effective rationing.
Such radical action would save the vast amount of value in food and energy that is currently being dumped through profligate unrestrained waste and in the process is despoiling our planet and destroying our health.

I haven't been invited to Copenhagen, so if you agree that rationing would reduce waste please pass this blog on and maybe someone influential (like you) will read it.
If you don't agree, then post a comment. What is your solution to waste?

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

The Marketing Myth

As most of my business life has been spent in direct selling functions I have studied sales and marketing deeply.

This downturn has prompted me to look again at some of my long-held assumptions and I have come to the conclusion that a fundamental concept drilled into me years ago by academics when I did my MBA is a complete misrepresentation of reality.

Jerome McCarthy and Philip Kotler's assertion that "Selling is part of the Marketing mix" - the 4 P's and all that junk - is, as we would say in the wilds of County Tyrone, totally arse-about-face.

This false notion, spawned for intellectual neatness, has misled corporate executives for years and resulted in a diminution in status of selling, diluted sales efforts, weakening of direct sales support investment and an associated inflation of costs in indirect marketing activity.

Now, don't get me wrong. I am not dismissing marketing as an essential element in sales success. All I am saying - and this is vital - is that marketing is part of the selling mix; not the other way round.

As John King, one of Ireland's greatest businessmen, puts it "at the end of the day, the only thing that really matters in business is sales"
Successful selling has four key components, in each of which to a greater or lesser degree, marketing plays an important though subservient role.

1. Preparation - Leading to a comprehensive targeted plan.
2. Investigation - Looking for opportunity and diagnosing customer "pain"
3. Presentation - Communicating the solution
4. Negotiation - Closing the sale

Downturns are opportunities for a rethink on how we go about things. So, here are a few suggestions to help you "put marketing in its place"

1. Scrap your marketing function and make all marketing decisions within the sales function.
2. Abolish all stand-alone marketing titles
3. Elevate "sales and selling" in corporate importance and priority.
4. Make your sales function "own" all marketing activity
5. Treat your sales people as heroes.
6. Engage everyone in the company in support of selling.

Oh, and don't believe everything the academics tell you!

Friday, 20 November 2009

Cheats win at business - or do they?

Like most sports fans, I was appalled at Thierry Henry's deliberate cheating to put Ireland out of the World Cup. So today's subject is soccer - with a business angle.

In this blog I am borrowing heavily from some great thoughts given to me by Colin Reid of Consilium Technologies on the analagous comparison of players on a football team to the people in a business.

The strikers, Kevin Doyle and Robbie Keane (smashin' goal Robbie!), are your sales people, scoring goals / getting orders.

The defence, Kevin Kilbane, John O'Shea, Sean St Ledger, Richard Dunne (titanic performance!) and the great Shay Given, are your customer services/support team, not conceding goals / not letting the customers down.

The midfield, Glenn Whelan, Keith Andrews, Liam Lawrence and Damien Duff (brilliant game!) are your production/product people, winning the ball to feed your strikers / giving them good products to win orders, protecting the defence / delivering quality product that doesn't cause customer service problems.

Then there is Trappatoni's superb individual coaching (that is the job for the MD) and each player/person having to be the best they can be individually; as good a striker as possible but being a committed team player as well, i.e. when your team don't have the ball the strikers are aggressively tackling back.

Everybody comes back to help defend corners and defenders come up when you have a corner. So the sales people help out with difficult customer issues and your customer services people help out with sales.

The development of a football team is a good guide as to how a business develops. Starting out in the lower leagues is like starting a business in Ireland; then you get promoted to the premiership which in business terms is making it in the UK market; then competing in the Champions League is like being successful internationally.

The analogy plays out further in that the players who got the team its early success are not necessarily the people who will get them to the Premiership and the people who achieved promotion to the Premiership won't necessarily keep the team there, never mind win the trophy.

That rule applies to the Manager as well as the players, but football is demonstrably more efficient than business at making the necessary personnel changes in line with growth.

What about the cheating? Thierry Henry will be considerably richer and French football will make millions from his blatant openly-admitted action.

But despite my indignation, I do feel rather sorry for the sublimely talented Thierry in the "long game" of life and how he will be remembered.

Turning the analogy round, what first comes to mind when you think of the following business people who were superstar successes in their time?

Bernie Madoff, Robert Maxwell, John DeLorean.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Wake-up call for Northern Ireland - Ireland's December budget

While the South of Ireland wakens to a nightmare moment of truth, the North is sleeping like a baby - a very fat baby.

This week's media portrays the Republic of Ireland as an economic basket-case, with an upcoming budget in December which will attempt cuts of €4 billion, not as a stimulus for recovery or to reduce state borrowing but only to stabilise the current account.

Frankly, the Government has no room for manouvre, yet special interest groups from the unions and the public sector are marching in vitriolic opposition to cuts, creating the real spectre of civil unrest to add to the economic woes of our nearest neighbour.

In real terms, the North is in exactly the same boat as the South right now but the politicians at Stormont just tinker at the edges of solving the potential economic disaster.

However bad the short-term prospects in the Republic, at least the debate is making headlines and external pressures are forcing Government actions. These may hopefully result in their regaining international competitiveness through the longer-term expansion of a resurgent private sector.

Despite significantly weaker underlying economic strength, together with endemic market failure, the North sleeps on under the soporific influence of Westminster's £7 billion drug infusion. Parish-pump politicians in Stormont blissfully ignore the potential danger of this supply lifeline being significantly reduced in the future.

The economic structural and systemic failure of NI should be the number one issue for businesses, unions, politicians and society right now - for the paradoxical reason that technically, with sterling's recent effective devaluation, the North's private sector is currently in a strong position to increase overall exports.

But these conditions will not produce any material gain in total for NI, despite many economists' predictions that on the back of exchange rate competitiveness, Britain's exports will grow strongly in 2010 and 2011.

Yes, individual companies will prosper over time, but the overall economy will not benefit significantly in a macro sense, simply because the private sector (muscle) is far too small and weak within the overweight uncompetitive NI body.

To put it bluntly, the North's economy is morbidly obese, fat, unfit and carrying too much weight in the wrong places.

Reducing the relative size of the public sector (fat) in NI has been talked about for years but with little effective action. The discussion always ends up in agreement that the way to do this is to increase the size of the private sector. Yes and NO, NO, NO!

Let's get real and pursue the analogy of the economy and the body. If my body mass index is sky-high and I am morbidly fat my doctor will not tell me to first increase my muscle and everything will be OK. My doctor will tell me to lose fat first - a lot of fat - and then increase my muscle ratio by disciplined food intake and regular exercise.

NI needs to radically and ruthlessly reduce its public sector (fat), thus creating thousands of necessity entrepreneurs to start private businesses and work in existing businesses. This will be extremely painful for a time for the economy and individuals, just like crash dieting, but it will ultimately build muscle in a growing, private sector-led society.

At the moment, thousands of clever highly talented people who could be strengthening the private sector muscle are trapped in, or sheltering in, or hiding in, the fat public sector. Tip them out.

For years they have been hoovered away from productive exporting value-adding contribution by inducements of salaries, pensions, conditions and job security that private sector businesses competing in the real world cannot match.

Come on NornIron! Politicians, people, all of us. Stop kidding ourselves. Our economy doesn't have "heavy bones", it is not the fault of our glands, it is not genetic. We are too fat!

The South is wakening up and beginning to face its problems. The sooner the North wakes up too, the better. It is all about the survival of the fittest - not the fattest!

Saturday, 14 November 2009

We all lost the run of ourselves! So, what now?

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s classic grief cycle model of response stages to bereavement was created to help people cope with the most terminal of traumatic events.

Elizabeth’s 5 non-linear stages are; Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance. In essence, the sooner one can come to the point of Acceptance, the better.

By extended application, this simple yet powerful model may also enable many of us to understand and move on from lesser though extremely serious events or conditions in our business and personal lives. How about the fall-out from the international financial turmoil and closer to home, the demise of the Celtic tiger?

Almost without exception in Ireland, North and South, we suffered from and were severely damaged by a syndrome that I call “WALTROO” (We all lost the run of ourselves).

WALTROO-induced traumatic events are being experienced by people all over Ireland. Traumatic events such as losing jobs, houses, status, peace of mind, or stacks of money are tough to face, but it is essential to accept and then work with the new realities.

Elizabeth’s model can help in coping and moving on.

Denial – Get out of it!
We are not among the richest nations of the world any more.
In reality, we never were. (but we had a smashin’ time while it lasted!)
If you can see green shoots anyway soon, you are colourblind or deluded.
Lower your short/medium term expectations with regard to personal wealth and expenditure.
Take personal responsibility for the money you spent (sometimes well, in fairness), borrowed (OK far too much), wasted (don't go there), misspent (apartments in Bulgaria? Crikey!)

Anger – Get over it!
Bankers, politicians, Government, builders, developers; Grrrr! Rant! Grrrr!
Blaming others won’t help you. You were delighted the banks lent you the money! You loved the ride, big-shot!
You bought the houses, second homes, new kitchens, Armani suits, Jimmy Choos, long-haul holidays, tasty meals and you ran up the debts; so if you have a strong uncontrollable urge to blame somebody, blame yourself.
Take personal responsibility.

Bargaining – Forget it!
You can't stay in the old paradigm - the Tiger economy is gone.
You can't be a big-shot any more - or even a middle-shot.
Accept the truth that you are currently a wee-shot, and build from there.
Attempting to bargain will only delay your emergence from the deep darkness of depression.
Take personal responsibility

Depression - Won't fix anything!
This is a natural, and probably inevitable, stage
The toughest one to deal with
Essential to get out of it, quick
Be courageous, take personal responsibility

Acceptance - This is the only positive stage!
Acceptance of personal responsibility is intensely liberating and uplifting
Get here as quickly as you can
Now, and only now, can you make real progress
This is when you make the emotional adjustment to the new realities
There is life after the Tiger!

The platitudes that go with times of trauma such as "time brings healing" or "look for a silver lining", while well-meaning are often hard to take, but they contain more than a grain of truth.

Elizabeth's model can help. How do I know? - I got smacked in the meltdown too!

By the way, if you see a grumpy (but otherwise generally happy) geezer with WALTROO tattooed on his forehead - that'll be me!

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Export or die – a message for Irish businesses

The 3 amigos and predictors of catastrophe! - Nostradamus and Old Moore’s Almanac meet Grumpy Old Will (GOW)

I have checked, and neither Nostradamus nor Old Moore has predicted the full impact of the current economic mayhem. Nor have they identified the actions that a business should take in response. GOW didn’t predict it either so the 3 amigos are in full agreement there, but here is a view on what most Irish SME companies should do now.

It has always been important for business leaders to look carefully at the opportunities to sell outside their home markets and because the readers of this blog are sophisticated business people, I am not going to waste time justifying the compelling reasons in support of this view.

However, up to now in broad terms, the strategic imperative for exporting was founded on the requirement for growth. The world has changed and within the 3 year planning horizons of most Irish companies, North and South, today’s strategic imperative is survival. All of a sudden, rather than being a “nice to have” dimension, exporting is the key to survival.

The chronic state of finances in Ireland, where there is a significant possibility of civil unrest on top of all the other difficulties, means that any company with more that 50% of current sales in the home market will have to seriously revise its strategy.

This is an all-island comment because the descriptor of sales from the North to the Republic as “exports” is a complete cod. Plus, the North is going to be walloped by a huge reduction in the £7 billion subsidy as Britain deals with its own borrowing problems.

So the strategic solution lies in overseas markets that have a genuine chance of emerging from recession in the near term; meaning the US, Europe and Asia. Most SMEs in Ireland, particularly in the North, have only a superficial knowledge of trading in these markets, but they must learn quickly or GOW predicts doom!

What to do?

1. Set up a day for your top team to start to seriously plan strategy in light of the above
2. Pick a strong facilitator who will vigorously challenge your assumptions
3. Ignore all the economists’ talk about “green shoots” – they don’t apply to you!
4. Act on this with extreme urgency

But I am an optimist and hate joining Nosty and Oul’ Moore in predicting doom – so sort out your strategy and prove the 3 amigos wrong!

Monday, 9 November 2009

Tired of whizzo business coaches - is it only me?

Can your “business coach ” or “life coach” ride a bike?

All of a sudden, life and business coaching has become the latest fad. Good counsel is invaluable, but it appears to me that much of the current coach offering is shallow in the extreme. This shallowness is often due to the absence of the most important criterion for the selection of an advisor – experience.

If there is one attribute that demonstrates the value of experience in the ‘University of Life’ over the acknowledged value of a high- class, formal business education, it is the ability to make good decisions in the context of ambiguity. And ambiguity is everywhere for those of us who run businesses.

Henry Mintzberg’s assertion that “university MBA classrooms produce hubris rather than leadership excellence” goes somewhat further than I would want, but there is more than a grain of truth in what he says.

Sure, in a classroom, students can dissect all the theory of management or leadership and write theses on communication, motivation and negotiation, which gain top marks and, in due course perhaps, a job in McKinsey, Bain or PwC.

Then, from their lofty position of knowledge and black or white solutions, these geniuses can counsel us in how to run a business – but they have never run or led anything themselves.

The wise leader certainly will take advantage of the intellectual horsepower that these clever people can deliver, but will also be very selective in the advice she/he takes.

If you are learning to ride a bicycle, you will only really trust a teacher who has actually ridden one and can demonstrate proficiency in the art. In contrast, a physics PhD can explain to you on paper the theory of balance and velocity; but will fail to teach you to deal with the counter-intuitive ambiguities that cause the inevitable crash.

Get a coach who can ride a bike!

There. I feel better already!

Saturday, 7 November 2009

How to change someone's life


Kindness in life – Kindness in business

I love this true story broadcast by BBC Northern Ireland, where Sheila Quigley, a 70-year old lady from rural Ireland was reminiscing on a moment in time and an act of kindness that inspired her as a nine-year-old child:

“We always were sent to Confession on Saturday. I was on my own that day and I went into Confession and when I came out again the sky was very overcast and I just got down past the beautiful thatched house called Farthings, when the skies opened and the rain came dashin’ down. And you couldn’t shelter, so I began to run down the road.

And I was coming past Greenfields Estate and the door of the gate lodge was opened and a lady was standing at the door. And she said to me, “Come on in, wee McCallion”, she said, “you will be drooped to the skin, you can wait here until the rain goes over”. And she brought me in and she said to me, “Sit down there by the fire until you get yourself dried”.

She took my shoes and socks off and she dried my feet and she hung my socks up over the rack of the stove, and she took the bow off my hair and she dried my hair with a towel and then she combed it, and by the time she did that the ribbon was dry. She put it back in my hair and she tied it. Oh … she was just … the loveliest woman you could ever imagine!

She said to me, “Would you like a wee drop of milk?”, and I said, “Yes, please”. And then she gave me, not one, but two jam tarts. Now this was the war and one jam tart was a luxury but two jam tarts were riches beyond treasure.

But I sat, and I ... I was in heaven. And they were the most delicious jam tarts. A real treat to me. Whenever the rain went over, she put four jam tarts in a blue sugar bag and she gave them to me to take home to the rest.

And I went down the road and I thought I was in heaven. And I said to myself, “When I grow up, I am going to be kind and good and lovely like Mrs. King”.


I used this story verbatim in a speech I made last year to Londonderry Chamber of Commerce. After the event, a young woman came up to me and said “ Mr McKee, Sheila Quigley is my aunt and I can tell you that she is the kindest, best and lovliest person anyone could ever meet”

What a tribute to Mrs King! What a lesson for how we can help the people we work with in our businesses and live with in our families.

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Encourage that MD!!

Directing in a Downturn

Now that we are struggling through recession, boards throughout Ireland are wrestling with fall-out issues from the tightening credit environment.

Last week, after a particularly fraught meeting at a major company where I am a non-executive director, I was having a private lunch with the Chairman in McDonalds – things are that bad! – and he made a comment which made me chew profoundly on my Big Mac. “You know Will, in the go-go Tiger days our fiduciary duties to the company meant we had to put a high priority on challenging the management, setting boundaries, and ensuring good corporate governance. Now that the party is over, in the company interest, we must focus on helping the CEO to cope with loneliness and fear.”

I think he has a point. Being part of a growth economy is exciting, rewarding and often good plain fun; we know all about that in Ireland and it is the same at the micro level for the executive team in a growing company, but none of these positive motivational descriptors apply in a downturn such as that into which we have all been so suddenly plunged. Not only does the CEO have to cope with the breath-constricting shock of icy immersion. There is also the need to get back to the surface and then keep the team and the company afloat in the stormy waters of the future. This certainly takes a steely determination and frankly, the CEO needs all the help and support he can get.

In October I attended the centennial conference of the Harvard Business School where we heard Jeff Immelt, CEO of the mighty GE, relate some of the immense challenges faced by this colossal bellwether organisation. However for me, his most telling comment was – “Some nights after difficult long days, I go to bed feeling a total washed out failure because of our problems. Then in the morning I look in the mirror, say ‘Hello Handsome!’ and get right back to work.”

Your CEO doesn’t have as big a support team as Jeff has, but next time you are going into a difficult board meeting why not smile at him and say “Hello Handsome”?

No, on second thought, don’t do that – but you get my drift

Friday, 18 September 2009

Where are the Sir Alex Fergusons of the boardroom?

In the sporting world, teams are trained towards a clear purpose, whether their goal is to win matches, league titles or championships. The goal is clearly defined, the team members are assessed in terms of their skill levels, and the team’s overall competence is evaluated in the light of its ability to achieve the desired goal.

Rigorous measured training of individual athletes and the team is implemented as one of the critical success factors in overcoming the efforts of competitors. The training itself focuses on skills development, the enhancement of behaviours, and forming the team into a cohesive unit capable of exemplary performance.

During training, the coach takes careful note of performance measurement metrics such as sprinting speed, stamina, recovery ability, ball control, positioning, teamwork and even tactical understanding. Possession of these skills may get the player a place on the team; but critically, when the game is on, none of these input evaluations matter any more.

The only things that matter for measurement in achieving the goal are outputs and behaviours – number of goals scored, tackles made, yards gained, perseverance of effort, and points won; these are the contributions that secure the player’s place for the next contest. The ultimate measurement appraisal is how one actually plays, which is starkly articulated in the sporting truism “you are only as good as your last game!”

In the sporting world, teams are trained towards a clear purpose, whether their goal is to win matches, league titles or championships. The goal is clearly defined, the team members are assessed in terms of their skill levels, and the team’s overall competence is evaluated in the light of its ability to achieve the desired goal.

Rigorous measured training of individual athletes and the team is implemented as one of the critical success factors in overcoming the efforts of competitors. The training itself focuses on skills development, the enhancement of behaviours, and forming the team into a cohesive unit capable of exemplary performance.

During training, the coach takes careful note of performance measurement metrics such as sprinting speed, stamina, recovery ability, ball control, positioning, teamwork and even tactical understanding. Possession of these skills may get the player a place on the team; but critically, when the game is on, none of these input evaluations matter any more.

Despite all the evident benefit of executive training in companies, it is remarkable that, with very rare exceptions, there is relatively little demand or provision for the necessary equivalent training for boards, their chairs and their members.

In my opinion this is mainly due to four facts contributing to confusion in the area of board development and training.

1. Very few boards have clear board goals as distinct from enterprise goals, therefore it is impossible to develop clear output driven training to enhance behaviours for the board, its chair and its members.

2. Hard edged evaluation of board performance and that of directors is extremely rare, and even where it is present it falls well short of the standard of evaluation applied to CEOs and senior management.

3. Suitable common-sense board output performance metrics are very hard to find, and it appears that little work has been done on developing practical, easily applicable measurement in this vital area.

4. There is still a high level of resistance to formal board and director evaluation in the boardrooms of Britain and Ireland despite lip service paid to the value of continuous improvement.

Where are the Sir Alex Fergusons of the Boardroom?

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Downturn antidote

This could change your life! And it is not only for sales people.

Currently, and for the foreseeable future, the general sales environment for companies is extremely challenging and it is vital that they respond by giving their sales teams appropriate sales development training. And you need to take ownership of your personal sales training.

Most sales training fails to deliver sustainable behavioural change, primarily because the participants are not fully engaged and committed. This lack of engagement may be due to the fact that many sales people, and managers in particular, feel they already know enough about selling and have “heard it all before”. Or the training itself is of the ‘sheep dip’ or ‘one size fits all’ variety, where participants are very well aware that their individual weaknesses are not being fully addressed.

In the course of training and counselling hundreds of business owners and thousands of salespeople over the years, I have observed that personal motivation is by a long way the most dominant factor in achieving success in selling. This factor applies in all dimensions of sales, from “foot-in-the-door” to high-level collaborative selling.

Knowledge and skills are basic requirements. The greater your personal motivation, the greater the results. The greater your ownership, the greater the personal motivation.

For your personal sales success – and for your personal life success – own the three key elements of personal motivation.


· Reason to “get up and go” in the morning – enjoyment of work

· Focus on goals and personal achievement

· Ambition to succeed

· Ability to work hard - very hard


· Positive expectancy – glass more than half-full

· Eagerness to learn and accept assistance

· Innovative searching for new ways to achieve

· Enjoyment of work and interaction with colleagues


· Performing consistently well – even under stress and pressure

· Believing in the company and its offerings

· Confident in colleagues and enjoying their confidence also

· Facing whatever is thrown up – and still looking for wins

Grab hold of this – and start doing it!

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