By Matt Ayres, Fresh Business Thinking

Interview with Alan Lewis, Chairman of Hartley Investment Group

It’s no wonder that Alan Lewis wanted to “play in the first division” shortly after starting out in business. The proud Northern entrepreneur grew up in Manchester’s working class area of Old Trafford. “I hear there are also a couple of successful football teams from around there,” he quips, shortly before discussing his own phenomenal successes.

Starting from nothing at the age of 20, Alan’s early business ventures involved redeveloping underoptimised garage sites and restructuring the property and finances of textile companies. He learned his most important lessons on the job, occasionally with unfavourable consequences, but stresses that this was fundamental in shaping his approach to business. “I was weaned on that period of difficulty,” he acknowledges. “It taught me so much, better than any university or college could. Any entrepreneur is fortunate to go through that.”

Alan’s substantial portfolio of businesses now ranges from industry and finance to property and financial resources. He is the chairman of high-end menswear brand Crombie and was made a CBE in 1990 for chairing the Confederation of British Industry’s Initiative For Europe, focusing the minds of British businessmen on the changes and competition generated by the Single Market.

Indeed, entire books could be written on the business experiences that Alan has acquired throughout his career, but his most recent venture involves sharing his wisdom more proactively to help inspire the next generation of British entrepreneurs.

“I believe the UK is probably the greatest entrepreneurial force in the world,” says Alan. “We can absolutely be world players, and we’ve got to be. The older industries are fine, but we’ve got to move and be respected as one of the major innovators in the world. I’m keen that people get an aspiration when they’re young, which is why inspiring entrepreneurs in schools and universities is so important.”

Keen to as be involved in this process as possible, Alan was appointed Visiting Professor of Entrepreneurship at the University of Huddersfield. His close involvement with the university includes partnering with it alongside international technology company 3M to develop the multi-million pound Globe Innovation Centre. Alan hopes that this will be recognised across Europe as a beacon of excellence for innovation and enterprise.

“The North of England has been very good to me, and I’m very passionate about giving something back,” he explains. “That’s not to say I’m not interested in the South, because as a whole the UK is a tremendous place. But we have to make sure we feed and cultivate the entrepreneurial gift we’ve been given in the North West. I’m very keen to make sure we consolidate the North of England as one of the fulcrums of British enterprise.”

Having been recognised throughout his career for investing in tangible goods – the iconic Crombie coat being one of his most famous examples – Alan feels it’s a shame that the skills needed for manufacturing high quality products are no longer respected or encouraged in the UK. He believes that Britain’s proud heritage of producing innovative and world-renowned products needs to be refreshed.

“For a long time, the average age of our personnel in the factories was 56 years of age,” he says. “We couldn’t get anyone younger to be a skilled engineer or craftsman in textiles. Because we insist on most of our products being made in the UK, I’ve got to bring people out of retirement to create quality products. That’s very sad.

“Our problem is that we can’t get high quality products made in the UK, so we’ve got to go into schools and give some kudos to people who make things,” Alan continues. “If you go to Germany or countries similar to that, the elite are people who make things. We’ve got to ensure that makers aren’t seen as second class citizens, just because they’re not lawyers or doctors or bankers. The pendant has got to swing to the importance of creators, the people who are making our future products.”

Once a young person has acquired the skills necessary to become successful creator, Alan is confident that the other skills required to become an entrepreneur can be taught. “I think we can give them masterclasses in what being an entrepreneur is about,” he enthuses. “The key components for achieving success are thought tied to purpose, creativity, effort, tenacity, serenity and judgement. These are things that can be taught, and that’s why I’m so keen on being a visiting professor.”

Of course, there’s only so much that you can teach an aspiring entrepreneur before they must take the reins and become the enabler of their own success. Above all, Alan believes that it is tenacity that separates the average from the exceptional in business. His own personal mantra (and, he admits, the words he wants included in his epitaph) is to “Go in search of excellence and promote the power of good.” But this admirable mission is a failed one if you don’t have the drive and persistence required to keep at it.

“Keep going,” he concludes matter-of-factly. “That’s the key. You’ve got to be tenacious.”