You probably haven’t heard of Alastair Bathgate. He looks like an average bloke, and he lives in an average house in Yorkshire. No one would guess that behind his mundane facade is a story of extraordinary wealth and entrepreneurial success.
He has quietly got on with running Blue Prism, the Merseyside-based robotics company he founded, and now has a near-£100million stake that will take him into the rich lists. Unusually, the rewards are shared with rank and file staff, scores of whom will become millionaires.
Blue Prism’s performance has been astounding. Its success is on a par with drinks company Fever-Tree, whose shares are among the biggest-ever risers on the stock market.
Merseyside-based robotics Blue Prism is one of Britain’s success stories
That firm’s two founders, Tim Warrillow and Charles Rolls, are not household names either, but they have also reaped enormous rewards – selling shares worth £330million between them since they floated their company, and retaining large stakes.
It would be naïve not to recognise that these two companies might fall to earth. And, sadly, praising any business leader is a dangerous thing for a commentator to do. So many of them let us down.
But, assuming all is as it seems, Fever-Tree and Blue Prism are examples of that rare beast: the Great British Business Success Story.
It’s refreshing to be able to highlight them at a time of so much uncertainty and gloom.
The takeover of House of Fraser by Mike Ashley is a case in point. The Newcastle United owner has bought the department stores out of administration, no doubt planning to cherry pick the best, minimise his obligations to creditors, pensioners and staff, and use the shops to flog his sports clobber.
It will strike many who look with nostalgia on the glory days of House of Fraser as a sad fate for the once grand department stores.
Ineos founder Sir Jim Ratcliffe, left, has decided to join Sir Philip Green in tax haven of Monaco
Then there is Sir Jim Ratcliffe, who rose from a council house childhood to a £21billion fortune as the founder of petrochemicals giant Ineos. What a shame he has decided to move to the tax haven of Monaco, where he will be neighbours with Sir Philip and Lady Green.
The FTSE 100 index is littered with pay scandals, the worst of which is at housebuilder Persimmon, where the boss, Jeff Fairburn, tried to trouser more than £100million until shareholders intervened.
By no stretch of the imagination can Fairburn be described as an entrepreneur – he has shimmied up the corporate ladder, giving every appearance of being a greedy dullard who reaped the fruits of a housing boom stoked by Government incentives.
Corporate Britain is littered with chieftains who are over-rewarded and intent on maximising their rewards and minimising their obligations. Workers, pensioners and customers are just collateral damage. Genuine creativity and innovation are in short supply.
Greedy: Persimmon boss Jeff Fairburn tried to trouser more than £100m until shareholders intervened
I regularly receive calls from market research companies asking how businesses can restore trust. It’s obvious from their questions that they think there is a nebulous activity called ‘social responsibility’ which is entirely distinct from normal business behaviour, and that they can fix ‘reputational issues’ by doing some charity work and getting better PR.
This misses the obvious: that behaving decently should be normal for businesses and their leaders – not an optional extra.
The whole point of a company is to make a profit by supplying products and services that people need or want – any business that is at odds with society does not have a long term future, as the banking meltdown amply proved.
Companies like Blue Prism and Fever Tree show how capitalism is supposed to work.
We need more like them, particularly at a time when many firms are fearful of a hard Brexit and the rise of Jeremy Corbyn, and when a climate of sheer cynicism about business threatens to take over.