A few days before Grant Thornton UK launched Faces of a Vibrant Economy, we brought five of the faces together to find out how they’re living the values of a vibrant economy

What is a truly vibrant economy? Is the UK a good example and, if not, what more can business leaders do to foster one?

These questions formed the focal point of a discussion between four dynamic and fast-growing businesses, all based in the UK. The conversation – hosted by Grant Thornton’s Norman Pickavance and Strategies for growth editor Dan Matthews – focused on how new ways of doing business can achieve greater customer engagement, create sustainable business practices and inspire loyalty from employees. It considered how these practices combine to build a better community of businesses.

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Norman Pickavance, Grant Thornton (above left): Grant Thornton has defined the vibrant economy as being about trust and integrity in markets, as well as how dynamic organisations deliver sustainable growth. It means creating environments in which people and businesses thrive. How would you define a vibrant economy?

Petra Wetzel, WEST: We’re based in Glasgow, which has become the first circular economy in the world. To me ‘circular’ and ‘vibrant’ are synonymous. We are a brewery but we also operate bars and restaurants. We produce spent grain through the brewing process, so we have cattle that we feed the grain to and they are slaughtered to make burgers and steaks. We’re also using our spent grain to make flapjacks, cakes and bread. The money we make goes into an investment fund backing female-led Scottish businesses in the food and drink industry. It’s fun and worthwhile.

Sumita Jindal, Digimeal: We created Digimeal to inspire young people to cook more and to educate them about the right way to use food. To us, the vibrant economy is all about purpose; ours is to help people stop wasting food and eat more healthily while saving money.

Risha Jindal, Digimeal: In the vibrant economy I think there is a lot of potential for change and action. It’s a place where new ideas have limitless scope and there is a lot of innovation that can underpin big ambitions.

Tracy Mort, Grace Cole: From day one I wanted to be an international business. A few weeks after we launched, nine years ago, the UK economy went into recession, so it was really important to look beyond our borders. We began manufacturing in China, but soon realised that people expect a British product should be manufactured in the UK. So we brought it back. We learnt that provenance is an important factor in the modern economy.

Romi Savova, PensionBee (below): PensionBee helps people combine their old pension plans and start a new one online, which is managed by a major investment manager. People face a lot of hurdles chasing up and transferring old pensions. There is a bewildering range of investment options and people have to jump through lots of hoops to transfer pensions, so we felt it was ripe for change.

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We’ve been going for two years now and and we’re excited about bringing more people into the world of savings. In our industry people need to trust you and you need integrity, especially since the financial collapse of 2008, which decimated public trust in savings and investments. It’s time for a new diverse group of people to actually run the companies, because sometimes it feels like the old guard doesn’t understand the way the consumer works and what they really want.

Norman Pickavance: All of your businesses respond, in some way, to the feeling that the old guard is out of touch. You’re all offering simplicity, authenticity and responsiveness. Are these characteristics part of a common thread of what vibrant businesses might look like?

Petra Wetzel: I think ‘vibrant’ also means ‘nimble’ and I think we’re nimble. I come from Germany, where SMEs are the powerhouse of the economy; you have small businesses with small boards that can move quickly and adapt to demand in the market. I think we have really done well because we’ve seen opportunities and have jumped at them. Five years ago we launched a beer for one of our major distributors within four weeks. It would take a major brewery a year to do that. Being small brings agility and to me there is a big overlap between agility and vibrancy.

Tracy Mort: Consumers are savvy and know what they want. There’s a lot of choice and you have to be innovative, otherwise you just fall behind. It’s an advantage over the big multiples.

Romi Savova: ‘Small’ is definitely not a word I’d use to describe what we’re trying to do. Real innovation will be managing big companies in a way that’s responsive, and new communication channels will help with that.

Norman Pickavance: How do you retain that dynamism and vibrancy as you grow?

Petra Wetzel: You can’t run a business all on your own, so the most important feature of any business is the people who work within it. As long as you have the right people in the right roles, you can grow to whatever size you want to be. We don’t want to be the biggest brewer but as we grow we are diversifying. I want the team to come up with their own ideas. I’ll invest and let them make mistakes in an environment that’s safe, so they don’t feel they have to go away and start up on their own.

Tracy Mort (below): Entrepreneurship is key. We employ a lot of women and there is a lot happening around female entrepreneurs trying to push forward. They often have a different approach and can be really successful. It’s important for me to be a role model and encourage them to be entrepreneurial. If you can encourage people to be more driven and to use their initiative, then that will add to the vibrant economy.

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Norman Pickavance: In general, do young women feel more encouraged to become entrepreneurs?

Sumita Jindal: I think we felt encouraged. One of the great things about being an entrepreneur is that you can start young, you can be a woman and you can actually do it.

Risha Jindal: We grew up in a time when Facebook, Snapchat and Twitter were all developing. Facebook was created by people the same age as we are now. We have seen how fast these companies can grow: being exposed to that gave us great confidence. That’s the benchmark we have set ourselves – those young leaders in the app industry and the wider tech world.

Norman Pickavance: Do you think young people have changed their view of entrepreneurs?

Risha Jindal (below right): Definitely. I was at an industry event recently and there were 10 groups of children between the ages of 10 and 16 who pitched app ideas to me and were asking my advice. They were so excited. They had researched, interviewed people and many of them were only about half my height! I think there is a lot more awareness early on, thanks to people in Silicon Valley. I guess 10 or 15 years ago many of these kids would have wanted to be footballers – it’s completely changed.

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The buzz of getting into something was definitely a major motivator for us. At first we didn’t know exactly what we wanted to do but we knew we wanted to start a business. It didn’t become clear until Sumita went to university and we uncovered the need for Digimeal.

Norman Pickavance: What do vibrant businesses need to facilitate access to markets?

Petra Wetzel: I think in some ways it’s still quite difficult to start a business, particularly if you need access to finance. You can start a business from your kitchen or basement but if you want to get backing, it’s pretty hard. It’s all about the first key introductions you get. If they are positive then the rest will fall into place, but this is what really determines the success of the business.

Romi Savova: I think it also depends where you are in the UK. London is still a focal point for investors and support, to the point where we see people starting up who perhaps shouldn’t. It’s easy to start up but harder to scale up.

Tracy Mort: Financially, I agree it’s difficult, but there has never been greater access and entrepreneurs have never been so talked about. When I was younger I didn’t even know what ‘entrepreneur’ meant. Now there are entrepreneurs on every street; if you open a shop you are an entrepreneur. The vibe and the noise are great. On the financial side, if you can prove yourself successful, then investment is no problem.

Norman Pickavance: How important is it to have clear values in the business?

Tracy Mort: It’s huge. We trade in Japan – the hardest country in the world to trade beauty products – and the Japanese are all about values. We are a consumer-facing business and we drive demand through the values that create customer engagement.

The brand is everything and building up brand equity is key. That’s worldwide, not just in the UK. For us, part of this is manufacturing in the UK, which people just expect from a British product. We used to manufacture in China, which is a lot cheaper, but people didn’t like the idea of a British company bringing products in from overseas. The Made in Britain label still resonates. It’s a tough call because stockists tell us they could sell a lot more units at a lower price point if we reduced our costs, but we are in it for the long term and the British label is an essential part of that.

Norman Pickavance: Do you think it is important to act in a sustainable way?

Romi Savova: I think it’s critical, especially in a sector like financial services in which companies can make a profit out of nothing, with no discernible benefit. This isn’t the way we should be continuing because it doesn’t generate real value. Growth is not about one or two calendar quarters, it is not dip in, dip out; it needs to be sustainable. In some cases it’s actually quite easy to create profits out of nothing, but if you are not doing something real that actually impacts people in a positive way then I just don’t get the point.

Petra Wetzel (below): We’re brewing in accordance with the German beer purity law, Reinheitsgebot, which celebrated its 500th anniversary in April. I won’t be running the WEST Brewery in 500 years’ time, but I hope someone of a future generation will. If you can do something well and look after your customers, and you tweak the formula a little bit to innovate, then you retain the values and ‘realness’.

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Tracy Mort: Everything has to be sustainable otherwise, by definition, it won’t last. If you don’t look after the community and the economy then people won’t buy your products. A lot of consumers want trust and integrity; they want to know they are dealing with people with these values.

Romi Savova: It’s interesting, this word ‘sustainable’, because it is shrouded in green but it has a lot to do with being a responsible business and delivering what customers want.

Norman Pickavance: Is it possible to observe these principles throughout your business, including the supply chain?

Tracy Mort: You can in our industry. Globally, retailers these days insist on ethical audits and, if you don’t follow those, then it’s hard to get into a lot of shops. They don’t want to be exposed to a bad PR day because of a supplier. There are also a lot more regulations to comply with now. Before, you could knock up a lotion or handwash in your kitchen; there was no testing and you could put almost anything in it. It was just ridiculous.

Risha Jindal: For us, sustainability comes from making an impact on our customers. We want to introduce new eating habits to young people, helping them to cook well and not waste so much food. If we get in early it will become part of who they are and how they act. The other side of sustainability, for us, is evolving our product so it continues to appeal to people in the long term. That goes hand in hand with the vibrant economy, understanding that things are constantly changing and knowing that your business must continue to adapt.

More information

You can find out more about the five faces – and hear them speak in their own words – in our video from the roundtable.

For more information about the Faces of a Vibrant Economy programme – and to see all 100 people selected – visit the official website.

Images: Nick Wilson

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Entrepreneurs | Interview | Issue 7