It's the time of the year again. The Sunday Times has published its Top Track 250, the annual league table of the country’s most successful private businesses.
Much loved by advisers, accountants and lawyers, it is certainly being crawled over by City professionals right now looking for new potential clients.
As I was leafing through my edition,I was struck by just how many companies and shareholders I didn’t recognise. Some people jumped out – gym owner Duncan Bannatyne, fashion designer Sir Paul Smith, among others – but most were new to me. I’d guess most readers would be hard-pressed to recognise more than five names.
And yet these companies are the hidden champions of our economy: manufacturers in Manchester, developers in Dorset and farmers in Furness. In the Square Mile, it is easy to forget there is an actual economy outside of EC1 – let alone London. But the businesses on this list are the quiet giants, employing thousands, or even tens of thousands, and generating billions.
Private companies’ economic contributions are not so overlooked in other parts of the world.
In Germany, mid-market private businesses, known as the ‘Mittelstand’ locally, are widely recognised as the lifeblood of the economy – not only by the government but the media and public too.
They are given pride of place in the public consciousness. They are the “backbone of the German economy”, according to Chancellor Angela Merkel. And a mainstay of the German media – a sign of their national importance.
In the Square Mile, it is easy to forget there is an actual economy outside of EC1 – let alone London
Why is it different in the UK? We, in the City, bear some of the blame, with our fixation on IPOs. The media’s fascination with publicly listed megaliths, City grandees and London also plays a role. As does politicians’ narrow focus on younger trendier businesses, generally software apps, rather than those quiet economic titans in retail, construction, FMCG, agriculture, business services, and other industries.
But our mid-market companies are not putting their best foot forward either. Understandably, they relish being low-key and self-effacing, working in niche industries and staying under the radar. But there is a difference between being dignified, subtle and humble – and being invisible. And too many are the latter.
I put this to a quick and, admittedly, unscientific test: I searched a couple of companies on the Top Track 250 list online. The results were akin to a digital desert: in almost all cases, there was no information about the values, mission and culture that had made these inspirational companies successful. Nor the jobs they have created. Nor the role many have undoubtedly played in waving the British flag abroad, funding cutting-edge research or reviving craftsmanship. What a lost opportunity.
I am the first to understand why the owners behind these companies are anxious about rebalancing the discourse: they feel the growing sense of public unease with wealth in the UK. Why would I put my head above the parapet to get shot down? Anti-enterprise sentiment is at its highest since 2009. More than 75 per cent of comments on social media about billionaires were negative last year, according to analytics company Crimson Hexagon. Back in 2014, the split was 50:50.
There is a difference between being dignified, subtle and humble – and being invisible
But who else is going to bat their corner? They may feel that this is the job of the business next door, their industry lobby group, or our politicians. But all that happens is that the buck is passed again and again – and the yawning silence continues. The alternative is that everyone vacates the public arena stage left, leaving space for other voices which have no qualms about hammering enterprise.
Some individuals are willing to jump out of the trenches. I have immense respect for entrepreneur and philanthropist John Caudwell, founder of Phones 4u [pictured]. His approach to media is not for everyone, but he is out there day in, day out batting for business. During last year’s General Election, he debated the merits of capitalism with the-then Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell and, recently, has championed private businesses, enterprise and industry in the papers. That takes courage.
Business owners do not need to speak as loudly as Caudwell, but our national conversation will be richer and more balanced if more companies and their owners took careful steps to highlight the contribution of their own businesses and considered how they might be able to add their own voices. Even in a whisper. It would make a big difference.
Jordan Greenaway is Managing Partner of Transmission Private, a communications firm that advises successful individuals, investors, entrepreneurs and private clients on their reputation. transmission-private.com