Interviews – David Wilkinson

David Wilkinson, partner at Ernst & Young, swapped large company directors for unknown entrepreneurs twelve years ago. He now runs the Entrepreneur of the Year Awards and spends the rest of his time talent-spotting for the company’s entrepreneurial services

What is your title at Ernst & Young?
I’ve got several hats. I’m national head of entrepreneurial services. In the London team, we have three industry-focused teams, a business-to-consumer team and a technology team, and I run the team on the business-to-business side, doing a lot of work with recruitment companies and other service providers, often Internet-related. However, I’m also national director of the Entrepreneur of the Year awards.

What do you do in your day-to-day role?
So I’m a client handler, I’ve got twenty-five or so entrepreneurial businesses that I look after. But we also go out and try to win new clients, so it’s to some extent a sales-focused team.

What triggered the idea for Entrepreneur of the Year awards?
We are very much of the view – and it’s confirmed by a survey we did when we first launched – that entrepreneurs feel, and probably are, unloved. So it’s partly a pat on the back for them but it’s also establishing role models for kids who want to start a business, and trying to help grow the entrepreneurial culture in this country.

What characteristics do you need to be a successful entrepreneur?
All the successful entrepreneurs I’ve met have had a vision of what they want their business to be. Bur it’s not just having the vision, it’s being able to take people with you and inspire them with your vision. They’ve all got determination, they’ve overcome adversity, shrugged things away and just carried on. And they’ve an incredible amount of focus.

What path do you suggest for would-be entrepreneurs?
Find out what it’s like in business, and what it’s like to have customers and keep books and all that really basic stuff. I think it’s probably worth working for someone before you start a business, unless you have some really wizard idea that in technology terms is going to take the market by storm. I think the answer is get out and do a bit of work with someone. I talked to Mark Dixon of Regis, who was our 1999 winner overall, about who was a big influence on him and he said it was the guy who ran the restaurant he worked in down in the south of France when he was a kid.

What are the drawbacks to being an entrepreneur?
I think the concept of work-life balance for entrepreneurs is a bit tricky for a lot of them. The trouble with these people is that ambition has taken over. Maybe they plan to work flat out for a period of time and make themselves sufficiently wealthy that they don’t have to work much after that, but how many of them really manage to achieve that, rather than go back and start something new, I don’t know.

What do you think the dotcom has done for enterprise?
It’s created a huge amount of activity and activity is what creates wealth. The problem is that a lot of what’s been created has not been permanent, but it’s not all dead. It’s also created a lot of change in other businesses – if you didn’t have the dotcom entrepreneurs it would have taken a lot longer for e to get into other businesses.

Have you got any favourite success stories from the millions of entrepreneurs you’ve seen?
Steve Smith, who runs a company called Poundland, was a retail sector winner last year, in ’99. Everything he sells is a pound. It just looked like a business that hadn’t got a hope in hell. And the year that he won the award he’d turned over £140m. That’s 140 million items! And made money! It just beggars belief, really, how it ever happened – everyone told him it wouldn’t work.

How do you recognize the next big thing?
To some extent you don’t. One of the things that we’re trying to do is exploring ways of spotting the next Cisco or Intel and it’s quite difficult. I suppose for something to become a major business on a global scale it needs to have a new business model of some sort, which probably means it needs to have some kind of technology or science or Internet driver behind it. You’re not likely to change a business model without some kind of new technology involved somewhere.

What was your first job?
I was a trainee accountant straight from university, so I’ve always been with this firm. I’m the only person I know who’s been at the same place for as long as I have!

What were your expectations when you started your graduate training?
I had a three-year horizon, as every trainee in accountancy does, to get that qualification because it’s security. I didn’t particularly intend to stay. In those days, and it’s quite a while ago, I would say within two years of qualifying 95% of all the trainees had gone, so maybe it’s not that surprising I’m the only one left. I was in an intake of 120 people when I joined, and two of us made partnership.

How long did it take you to become a partner?
Thirteen years, but during that time the job changes dramatically. I very nearly went overseas, as lots of people do. I ended up being in the training department and doing a lot of internal training courses which is great fun. This business can, if you want it to, provide all sorts of opportunities to do something different when it’s getting samey. I haven’t stayed here out of a sense of loyalty particularly, nor, I think, out of apathy – there was always someone that put something else in front of me that made it interesting.

What’s the most interesting part of your job?
The Awards programme has been a real high point for me. I feel with this that when I leave the firm, this will still be there. I love meeting the entrepreneurs and spending time with them and networking with that group is just fantastic.

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