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The joys of Cambridge and farewell John

Image representing Robert Scoble as depicted i...Image via CrunchBase

On the day that this is published, I will be walking up Snowdon thinking of a very special person who we lost a few days ago, the Rev John Sweet of Selwyn College.  He helped my niece when she was undecided as to whether or not to take her studies seriously.  Gentle guidance was the key.  As I get older, I wonder whether to move from Cambridge but then I remember the special people in Cambridge like John.

Take last Friday;  I had an invitation to lunch with NW Brown, although finance is not always inspiring these days.  Just before I cycled into town, I read a Tweet saying that Robert Scoble, better known as the Scobleizer, was at a meeting of Travelling Geeks at the old CUP buildings.  Robert was here four years ago when he was Microsoft’s Technical Evangelist.  He now promotes new technology companies using social networks to spread the message.  As I cycled along Mill Lane, they were breaking for lunch, and I managed to talk my way past reception, fought my way through the crowd and shook his hand.  Amazingly he remembered me but his suggestion that I should join SecretScoble on Twitter by giving him a direct message from his FriendFeed account left me a little bemused.  I will try but it is better to press the flesh.

On to lunch; NW Brown operate from smart offices on Regent Street with a reception area once described as being like a dentist’s waiting reception – no flash and fish tanks.  It was like going back in time to be escorted up to the panelled dining room and to be greeted by the Deputy Chairman, Marcus Johnson.  NW Brown is a passive equity company operating from the one office.  I knew that the Cambridge Evening News had reported a recent change of control so I had done my homework, read the bios of those attending and looked at the latest accounts.  It is a very profitable and succeessful business employing nearly one hundred people.  The interesting comment in the Deputy Chairman’s report was that they had disposed of the non-core businesses investing in the Active Equity Companies which are at the centre of the Cambridge Cluster.  As I know to my own cost, investing in new cluster companies is a not an easy business.  The of each requires careful scrutiny.

Marcus is very different from the stereotype business people we see on the TV who star in Dragon’s Den and The Apprentice.  His short bio lists that he has spent “over 30 years in the investment industry” so I was a little confused as to how he had bought out Nigel Brown.  I waited until the third course to say rather pompously that no one else present, according to the bios, had started a business.  At this Finance Director Phil Burke smiled  and stated “Marcus has”.  I took out my list of bios and read them more carefully and then the penny dropped.  Mr Burke also had “over 30 years in the investment industry”.  It turned out that Messrs Johnson and Burke had worked together for many years and then had decided there was a little gem in Cambridge with a founder looking for a change.  As with the shaving company, they liked it so much they bought it!

I felt rather humble.  These quiet self-effacing people at the table (ably supported by the long serving, 33 years, Ron Dart and key Cambridge networker Hugh Parnell) were not dreamers of the type who start Active Equity Companies but highly experienced, very successful operators who know how to turn a profit out of a very focused business.  One might describe them as a breath of fresh air in the cluster; people used to selling and looking after customers face to face.  I gather that Marcus has another persona when he dons his Chief Executive hat but he was all smiles today!

As coffee was served I took a glance at the hardly touched bottles and wished I had a doggy bag with me. How different from the days when we had proper lunches.

The Deputy Chair (or was he wearing his Chief Executive hat?) allowed me to demonstrate DuoFertility (in which I am an angel investor) and all provided excellent advice which I passed on to the company.  A proud Sarah Squire, President of Hughes Hall, said that DuoFertility was founded by three of her student.  It is always a small world in Cambridge.  The meal finished by Marcus kindly offering the use of a downstairs office on Regent Street, which has busy footfall, to DuoFertility for a Saturday so it looks as though the company could be having an infertility day of talking to customers.

So with my mind in a whirl, I rushed off to DuoFertility to collect the sales brochures for my forthcoming presentation to the fertility clinic at the Royal Shrewsbury Hospital.  I am now a part-time drugs rep trying to be more than a passive angel investor.  Such fun to be going from an established business to a start-up in one afternoon; the joys of Cambridge.  At the weekend I heard that another angel investor in DuoFertility, social network guru Geoff Jones(just back from three months in South America) had arranged for the Scobleizer to video DuoFertility founder, Shamus Husheer.

Entrepreneurs now have another High Table to gather round and I urge you all to cultivate an invitation and listen and learn.  But we in the Cambridge Cluster must never forget that our opportunities are built on academics like John Sweet who give so readily of their time to encourage and guide the young and we, in our modest way, must always follow their example.  Let us banish those who glory in “Back to back meetings”.

PS For those who missed the article on my visit to Cornwall, please read and comment at www.cambridgecluster.com

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Look after the nippers

View of the beach from New Polzeath.Image via Wikipedia

It is not often in Cornwall that you are hoping it will rain but when you are a lucky entrepreneur, you arrive in time for a heat-wave.  On one day I hoped for a little rain to clear the car park and the beach so I could enjoy peace and quiet.  It is amazing how many people come down to the beach on hot and sunny days.  Numbers are up but many visitors to Cornwall are spending their money in the supermarkets and cutting back on going out for meals.  This is not good for the many passive equity companies in Cornwall that are in the catering tradesuch as Dobles, many with second and third generations at the helm.  Let us hope that they do not fulfill the old adage of clogs to clogs in three generations.  Hope they all have a good business plan.  You could spend your holiday seeking out active equity companies funded by Finance Cornwall but it is more fun to taste the delights of local producers (nearly all passive equity companies) such as Rodda’s Cornish Clotted Cream and St Austell Brewery.  There is also the onerous task of seeking out the best Cornish pasty.  Try starting with the forty members of the Cornish Pasty Association.

As in the Lake District, there is a tension between the locals who make their money from the visitors, and the incomers who are seeking a paradise of peace and quiet with incomes funded by public sector or large company pensions.  The remains of the tin mines remind us all that Cornwall was a very important industrial area and a wealth creator.  It is only comparatively recently that it has become a holiday and retirement county.  I stayed in the village of St Agnes, on the north coast, which was split by plans to bring in the popular Beach Break Festival from Polzeath to the farm which used to host the Surfers Against Sewage Ball.  The local bakery expected to sell £20,000 worth of pasties to the 10,000 festival goers.  Local campsites would have been full.  But others were concerned with disruption to their paradise.

The West Briton reported that “the three-day event featuring top national bands should have filled the farm fields with revellers. But that all changed when Cornwall Council’s planning committee members ignored their officers’ recommendation for approval and threw out the application”.  The locals blamed recently retired in-comers with time to spare and cash to produce detailed reports (always remember the bats and newts) and then bussed in the protesters to attend the planning meeting.  To add salt to the local’s wounds, one of the incomers was then elected to the local council!

You can see both points of view but as I was woken by the sound of a beach party one night, I turned over and dreamed of times long ago when I would have been “moon-walking”! (I wish. Ed).  Even in Cambridge we manage with May Week and Strawberry Fair although I gather that the Jesus College Ball had to finish early.

One evening I was lucky enough to be down at Trevaunance Cove when the Nippers Club of St Agnes Surf Club ( 7-12 years old, boys and girls) had a training evening.  It was very special to see nearly fifty kids and their supervisors set out for a distant cove. The nippers take their training very seriously and are taught great respect of the sea and how to help each other.  The purpose of the training is to provide volunteers for the surf club, people willing to risk their lives to save others.  It is them against the elements and such a very different atmosphere from watching nippers play football, tennis or rugby with parents urging their children on from the sidelines.  Which sport prepares people best for the business world where team work and leadership are such valuable skills?

So the message from Cornwall is “Please do come and stay.  We understand that times are tough but do make sure that some of your money is spent with local firms”.  To those who wish to move to paradise, remember that Cornwall is for all.  Although sometimes festivities for the young can be disruptive, it is not for long and one day those youngster will be the next older visitors to Cornwall and bring their children.  And you will feel safer in paradise guarded by one of those nippers who has grown up and may even have enjoyed a beach party or two!

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Crimping 50,000 pasties a day

BUDE, UNITED KINGDOM - SEPTEMBER 09:  A Pengen...Image by Getty Images via Daylife

Proper Cornish Food Company is part of the Cornish Cluster which makes food sourced whenever possible from local farmers in Cornwall and sells across Europe.  The pasties are made in Bodmin and command a premium price.  Each pasty is crimped by hand; expert crimpers can manage three or four per minute.  I wonder when someone will develop a machine to crimp a pasty?  I am sure someone has the skills in Cornwall.

The company was founded in 1988 by three Cornish men, Phil Ugdale and brothers, Dave and Chris Pauling.   The pasties are based on a Pauling family recipe.  Phil is now CEO and Chris is Operations Director.  No sign of Dave on the Proper People page of the site but there must have been romance at Proper in the past (and hopefully now and in the future) as Chris met Jane Flowerdue and married her.  Jane is Marketing Director.

Helen Dunne writes in Business Truth that Proper Cornish Food was started in 1988 and was not incorporated until 1999.  The early years were spent on the less than romantic quest to keep the suppliers happy whilst all the time expanding and investing to keep up with the demands of new regulations.  Four year spent funded by the goodwill and generosity of the creditors must have concentrated the mind.  It is one source of funding but it is not normally recommended to take creditors to an Individual Voluntary Arrangement.

The benefit will be that the founders probably kept more of the equity but if they had raised VC funding, brought in expertise, by now they could have sold out and be enjoying their pasties by the surf.

Proper Cornish Food had an interesting website and no pictures of a pastie on the home page, just a picture of the sea and a video of potatoe farming.  Another brochure site I hear Grant Dain, internet marketing Cambridge, say?

Proper Cornish Food is a member of The Cornish Pasty Association.  A Cornish pasty is crimped on the side and never on top.  More detail on the website where there are plenty of pictures of pasties!

PS. The picture of the pasties is from Zemanta and is from Pengenna Pasties of Bude; another business needing an updated website!  Must try the pasties when next in Cornwall.

I wonder if either of these companies supplies my cousin’s company, Doble Quality Foods, suppliers to the catering trade in Cornwall and South Devon?

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Boodles are a girl’s best friend to relax

In an interesting article on Boodles, it states that the company was founded in Liverpool in 1798 and is now owned by the sixth generation brothers, Michael and Nicholas Wainwright.  It would be very interesting to follow the ownership changes through the six generations to understand how and why members of the family were or were not included in the equity ownership and if they were, how were they bought out.

Nephews James Amos and Jody Wainwright have joined the business and I wonder if they are included in the equity.  James sums up the allure of the life-style or Passive Equity Company “We’ve turned down many offers from private equity – and that boat has probably sailed away anyway – but we really benefit from being relaxed about the pace of the firm’s growth”.

Do you want to be relaxed?  Not me!

Aside: Lots of flash on the website.  Why would I want to go to a website to order a brochure – I want to buy…..  As Grant Dain, internet marketing Cambridge, might say, it is an online brochure – the classic mistake.

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Cornish salt seller

S1033635Image by gribso via Flickr

Is Cornish Sea Salt another Cornwall Cluster life-style company or has founder Tony Fraser raised outside capital?  He certainly has two non-executive directors and has got off to good start with turnover in the first year, £250,000.  Energy costs must be significant to boil off all the water unless they have established themselves next to a cold store, like the one owned by my cousin’s family, suppliers to the catering trade in Cornwall and South Devon -Doble Quality Foods, which generates excess heat.

Cornish Sea Salt has plans to expand and it is all about getting the price points right and the packaging to attract the customers.  From the photos on the website, the packaging looks very good and would make fantastic presents.  But there is no “shop” on the site.

I bought Welsh sea salt for a Christmas present last year and now I have find an outlet for Cornish Sea Salt near Cambridge.

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The Cake Tin bakes the eggs from the farm

Eggs laid by free-range chickens, who found a ...Image via WikipediaThe Cake Tin was “cracked open” from St. Ewe Free Range Eggs by Rebecca Morris starting in their farm kitchen.  The cakes have been so successful that baking has moved to farm buildings converted by husband Andy.

The cakes are supplied to the Catering Trade in Cornwall and South Devon by Doble Quality Foods or you can always go direct but why miss a smile from a Doble Quality Foods driver!

St. Ewe has been producing egss for 25 years and the chickens are free to range during the day with eggs collected twice a day.

So a fascinating story of how one family in the Cornish Cluster is diversifying to keep bring us the best food.  It must all be done with a helpful bank manager.  I wonder if the banks are offering fixed rate loans for ten years at the special rates now available.

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Stay in the Game

The Bank of England is avilable to rent...Image by aminorjourney via Flickr“Stay in the Game” says my son as KPMG offers staff a four day week or a few weeks holiday.  Tempting to take the latter but as we move into unknown territory (when before did KPMG and the like have to make such an offer) it is better to stay at the coal face.  At least until you are made an offer you cannot refuse.

Herman Hauser is promoting the cause of the Cambridge Cluster with thousands of jobs and companies at risk as they are unable to raise further rounds of funding.  The future of the UK knowledge-based economy could be at risk.  The case needs to be made to the government – the Cambridge Cluster is as important as the car and other industries.  I hear from Bristol that a company visited VCs in London and found the atmosphere chilling.

Although the banks were supervised by the Bank of England and the Financial Services Authority – what were they doing? –  bankers have to take the stick but how come the likes of Applegarth of Northern Rock, Hornby of HBOS and Goodwin (paid £30million over ten years and relaxing with a pension pot of £8.4million) of RBS get away without taking responsibility for their actions.  If they had been entrepreneurs they would have lost all their wealth which might have concentrated their minds.

So should we encourage the talent in the Cambridge Cluster to start a business or are they better joining the relatively risk free and highly rewarding career of large companies.

One last thought, we will know we are in a full blown recession when the public sector starts reducing head counts.  I guess we have a long way to go.  So it is all about chosing the game you want to play and staying at the coal face.

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Cornwall and Devon members of Taste of the West

With happy memories of a wonderful family Christmas with the proprietors of Doble Quality Foods, Suppliers to the Catering Trade in Cornwall and South Devon, I am enthused to look at some of their suppliers.

This cluster of food manufacturers is quite different from companies in the Cambridge Cluster.  They are family run and controlled companies and many in their second and earlier generations.  It is interesting to think about the equity structures of each business as they pass down the generations.  All the companies are closely linked to the farming world which has similar problems of passing down ownership of the business.

Whilst Cambridge Cluster companies have ideas which they hope to sell to the world, the products of the Cornish Cluster companies are mainly for local consumption and rely on the customers coming to the South West of England.  Transport links have improved over the years but avoid travel on change-over Saturdays in the very busy summer school holidays.  The development of Newquay Airport (remember to pay the local tax or you cannot get out) has made it more accessible.  You can always take the Cornish Riviera and sleep on the way down in your bunk.  It is better for returning to London as you do not have to worry about getting off at your station.

There is a market for the people from the South West who are now scattered round the world and want a Taste of the West for a celebration when the cost of the goods is dwarfed by the cost of transport – but who cares for a precious moment!  Logistics can be difficult as it is not good for perishable food to be stuck or lost in transit for a few days.

Cornwall needs to develop other industries and to do so will require a business plan resource.

Of course, the ego of Rich Stein will insist that he put Cornwall on the gormet map and it was just gormand before him.  At least you can be sure of a warm and generous welcome from the members of Taste of the West whereas Jasper Gerard, writing in his Your Table is Ready on “Padstein”, comments about the “accusation of arrogance that sniffs the air”.  Gerard also comments that Stein “fired the first shot in the Cornish food revolution” – not sure if the people of Kernow agree with that.

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Learning from the Romans

London during Credit CrunchImage by Francisco Antunes via FlickrBanker Philip Kay has given a lecture at his Oxford on the credit crunch that hit the Romans.

“The essential similarity between what happened 21 centuries ago and what is happening in today’s UK economy is that a massive increase in monetary liquidity culminated with problems in another country causing a credit crisis at home. In both cases distance and over-optimism obscured the risk,” said Kay, a supernumerary fellow at Wolfson College.”

But unfortunately he has not found out the medecine which they had to take but there is a lot of talk about wars.

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Last walk for 2008, lovely ladies and brave, brave men

Patterdale village with Place Fell behindImage via WikipediaWhat better way of finishing the year than a walk with John Morrell, the best walking guide in the Lake District.  With strong winds in the weather forecast on the tops and rain later, John decided on a walk from Patterdale, over Beda Fell (just behind Place Fell) down to Martindale and back along Ullswater to the car.

We started the walk across the valley to the trekking stables where the kids spent a wonderful and very wet day many years ago.  Then it was slowly up to Beda Fell with glorious views over the fells and Hellvelyn.  We expected it to be a quiet day but we came across a number of walkers and some ten rather earnest people taking their Mountain Leadership test.   Lucky them, they were to camp out in the rain and I hope they found a site sheltered from the strengthening winds.  Soon we could see Martindale below with the two churches and one of the oldest yew trees in the country.

I remembered taking a young american girl to Martindale forty years ago and think it was to the older and smaller church.  John and I were looking for a memorial to a local lad lost in the war and a friend of my Father.  We found the beautiful window dedicated to the crew of the H.M.S.Glorious, sunk in Norwegian waters in 1940.  There are brave men and women today fighting for freedom and brave today and so good to remember them amidst all  the news of delinquent city kids today.  The window is described as “The ship lies along the length of the window cleaving the seas, with the stars of heaven above”.

Outside we met a group of young ladies from Flixton Girls’ High School, Urmston, Manchester who were spending a week at Ullswater Outward Bound.  They were very chatty and looking forward to a dry bed after spending a night under canvas – just a pity that they had not visited either church.

On the walk back from Martindale, we saw a lovely cottage to rent and then met another group of Flixton girls coming down from the fells – happy to be away from city life and enjoying the countryside.  They were led by David from Ullswater Outward Bound who had taken them caving at Ingleton the day before.

Then we went for a drink at the Kirkstone Pass Inn but it was closed.  I wonder what sort of business plan resource  the owners use.  The Queen’s Head, Troutbeck, made us very welcome and then it was back to Ambleside to plan walks to keep me fit so I can join John on his one week walk in the Spring.

What a way to end 2008 with lots of fresh if rather damp air, the best of the young and memories of my Father and brave, brave young men.

PS Thanks to Frog in the Fields for the spelling alert – I prefer typo!

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