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.

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