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Judge Interview: Tom Riordan

With registration for the 2013 Great British Entrepreneur Awards officially open we caught up with one of the awards’ judges, Tom Riordan.

Tom became the youngest ever Chief Executive of Leeds City Council in August 2010, and was not slow in making his mark as he sets out to turn Leeds into the Best Council in the Best City in the UK.

Great British Entrepreneur Awards: Do you think we, as a nation, celebrate success enough?

Tom Riordan: No. I think we’ve been world class at not doing it in Leeds! We have so much to celebrate as the UK’s third biggest city, with a new Arena and million square foot Trinity shopping centre opening this year, but we sometimes need to force ourselves to shout about it. One of the many great things about the Olympics was that the nation seemed to have a collective brainstorm and did actually celebrate! And of course Yorkshire came twelfth in the medals table!

GBEA: Why do you think we are not good at celebrating success?

TR: It’s almost a part of the British psyche. In Yorkshire – despite the stereotypes – there’s a bit of a culture of not shouting about success. I remember getting told by my Grandad when I was five to “stop showing off” and so I didn’t! I think there’s also a problem of lack of ambition in the country that’s linked to the class thing of “knowing your place”. We’ve got to change that.

GBEA: What makes a successful entrepreneur?

TR: The ones I have come across have great focus, drive and energy. Sir Graham Hall used to quote to me “the law of the important few and trivial many”. That’s a much harder concept for the public sector and politicians to sell. It’s amazing how many of them have experienced a great personal failure of some sort, like failing exams at school, and seem to be driven after that by a determination to prove people or the system wrong by succeeding.

Failure almost seems to be the making of them and we need to be more like the US in tolerating failure more. How do you allow innovation without the ability to fail? Successful entrepreneurs never rest on their laurels either. They’re always on the look out for the next big idea to stay ahead of the competition.

GBEA: How important are entrepreneurs to the UK economy?

TR: No one’s more important. If we don’t have successful entrepreneurs we’ll be left behind as a country. The basic equation in an age of austerity is that if businesses don’t create wealth then the state doesn’t have the money to provide public services. Entrepreneurs can’t do it on their own though.

They need access to finance, the right tax system, decent infrastructure and, most importantly, an education system that provides skilled, hard working people who are the lifeblood of any successful economy. The state – locally and nationally – has an important role to play in valuing and supporting entrepreneurs.

GBEA: Do you think we have enough role models for aspiring entrepreneurs?

TR: No. It’s a pity that the vogue for celebrity and one-dimensional stereotypes give the impression to young people that the only way to get on is to be ruthless, selfish and even rude. Many business people I meet see the wider responsibility they have to the place they work in or come from and actively want to ‘put something back’.

“We had a guy called Jimi Heselden, a miner from East Leeds who invested his redundancy money in an innovative idea of putting rocks into cages to build sea defences and built the massively successful Hesco Bastian company, of Camp Bastian fame. Until his tragic death, he put £23m back into helping young people in East Leeds without any desire for publicity. He’s the only person ever to be given the Freedom of Leeds posthumously.

GBEA: What made you want to be involved with the Great British Entrepreneur Awards?

TR: We’re trying to fight back against austerity by making Leeds a successful, job-creating city and reigniting the original spirit of local government that built the great British cities. Civic entrepreneurs like Titus Salt in Bradford, Joseph Rowntree in York and Matthew Murray in Leeds worked with the local corporations to put in a public health, education and water infrastructure that stood the test of time.

Local government’s power has been eroded over the years and we want to show that the public sector can be entrepreneurial too. My involvement in such prestigious awards is a signal that successful entrepreneurs can be civic and councils can be enterprising.