Keith Bradshaw, chair of the Library of Birmingham Trust pictured in the library.
07/10/13

Former accountant Keith Bradshaw, 74, is one of Britain’s most prolific and successful entrepreneurs (you can read his amazing story here). Here are Keith’s top six business insights…

“When you’re 20, you think you know everything, but at 74 you realise you know next to bugger all!”

This quote from Keith Bradshaw contains an element of truth, but if anyone knows how to succeed in business and accountancy, it’s him. This straight talking, down-to earth Brummie has been there and done it. The former accountant became CEO of a multinational company, leading 5,000 staff in West Africa, at the tender age of 28. He then built up several multi-million-pound companies, including Listers, one of England’s largest privately owned motor groups, whilst battling the effects of a life-threatening stroke.

1) Common sense is king

Keith believes that common sense, and more importantly the ability to act on it, is critical in business. “In my life I’ve met so many people with enormous intellect and absolutely no common sense,” he says.

Indeed, Keith puts the 2008 banking crisis down to senior directors who failed to use common sense. “Hardly anyone understood the complicated derivatives and other financial instruments at the heart of the banking crisis,” he says. “The ‘grey hairs’ at the head of the table should have acted when people came in pushing ideas, the implications of which were not properly analysed or understood.

“You can’t stay silent for fear of appearing stupid, or back away from crossing someone who might be difficult. Young lads were coming in and saying: ‘They’re doing it; everyone else is doing it, so why can’t we?’ And the failure in the banking system was that the ‘grey hairs’ simply conducted the meetings, ticked the corporate governance boxes, but didn’t use common sense.”

2) Partnerships are crucial for success

“No man is an island,” says Keith. “The biggest and most successful partnership in my life is with my wife Pam – we’ve been married for 51 years.

“But no partnership, including marriage, is always moonlight and roses, which is fine and healthy provided it doesn’t get personal. I’ve been involved in a few businesses that didn’t succeed but the ones that did have sprung from effective partnerships. I’ve complemented my partners and they’ve complemented me, because no one can ever cover 360 degrees alone.”

3) Maintain your integrity

“I recently attended a lunch where a couple of chairmen of large plcs were present. They were preening themselves on the success of their corporate governance. Yet one was a retailer…and we know that some retailers are shafting their suppliers. They place orders for one month and take them two months later. They offer 60 days’ credit and take 120. They allow buyers to bully their suppliers. But that’s ‘alright’ as long as they’ve ticked the corporate governance box. That really annoys me because the whole future of capitalism as we know it is on the line. Capitalists have got to take responsibility for people. Double standards are not OK. End of rant.”

4) Take every opportunity to learn

“During my three years as a junior prior to commencing my articles, I was the lowest of the low. Here’s what that experience taught me: when you’re filling the ink bowls, people don’t notice you, but you notice them. When you’re off the radar, you learn so much about people and business, because you learn it from the bottom up. And you can learn as much from the idiots as you can from the geniuses.

“When we were out on audit, clients used to put us in the stationary cupboard. It was always hot and uncomfortable. But being onaudit lets you get under the skin of a business. When you have an accountancy qualification, you can either become a technocrat, which is fine – you can develop that – or you can learn business, which is what I did.”

5) It all comes down to people

Business is about inspiring people and delegating effectively. Doing those two things is critical, whatever methods you use.Dev Pritchard, with whom I co-founded the nursing-home business Takare, wasa great and inspirational leader. He’d go to Rochdale, Blackburn or wherever, and say: ‘Matron, you are the Florence Nightingale of Rochdale. You’re the nurse, the boss, everyone reports to you. If you do the things that you believe to be right at the time and you can justify them, I will back you to the ends of the earth.’ They’d all kill for him! He was magnificent!”

“I did it slightly differently. I used to get to know which of my team watched Corrie, whether their son had just taken his O-Levels, if their husband had been ill. And I used to speak to them all face to face. That meant something to people.
“Delegation is just as important. The key thing about delegation is that you need to trust and believe in your management team. Make a decision if you really think it’s appropriate, but if you’re the big cheese and you undermine your management team, it’s no good at all.

“A fund manager once asked me how I would define my role as CEO. I told him it was simple: I focus on 10 people (no matter how many staff I had in my business), and I need to know two things about them. Firstly, I need to understand what floats their boat. Secondly, I need to know that they can name the 10 people who matter to them, and that they understand what makes them tick. The art of delegation is having the right people in the right place and making sure there are no more than 10 who report in to you. You might have 12,000 people in the business, but that doesn’t matter if you choose the right 10 carefully.

“Some people are motivated by money, some want to feel loved, some want to be consulted, some want to know the strategic vision, some just want to hear you say thank you every so often. These differences were something that I knew instinctively.”

6) Focus on the right things

“My favourite piece of advice is the Serenity Prayer [by the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr]: ‘God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.’ There are certain things you can do nothing about. But for those you can do something about, ensure you make the biggest and most sustainable impact possible.

“Focusing your energy in the right place is critical to business success. If you’ve got 20 things to do, imagine a desk with 20 pieces of paper on it. Pick the most important one and put the other 19 in a drawer. Don’t allow your mind to wander. Once you’ve sorted it, forget it, move on and pick up the next most important piece of paper out the drawer.”