Malcolm Walker Retail Week Columns

Entrepreneurs are not villains

The role of business in generating prosperity still isn’t recognised, says Malcolm Walker

Next week I’m hosting a bit of party to mark Iceland’s 40th birthday.

On the very day that we opened our first shop in Oswestry in 1970, about 350 people will be celebrating at a charity ball that aims to raise close to £1m for Help for Heroes (H4H), Iceland’s Charity of the Year.

We’ve already held a party in Birmingham for 1,650 of our staff, at which we gave H4H a £774,000 cheque raised during our annual charity week in the stores. The generosity of our employees and customers is astonishing and humbling, particularly in the current economic climate.

No one can dispute that the young people who are going out to Afghanistan and coming back minus limbs are heroes, even if we don’t all agree with the Government’s reasons for sending them in the first place. It was always so. Back in 1970, the army had recently been deployed in Northern Ireland and was soon to suffer its first fatality there.

Some things do change for the better in four decades. It is hard to remember that fridges and freezers were luxuries then, colour TV a rare and expensive novelty, and the internet unheard of.

But other things just seem to repeat themselves, like the threats of union disruption after the ejection of a Labour government (by the Conservatives then, and the coalition now).

It troubles me that one of the main things that does not seem to have changed in all these years is the British attitude to business. Sure, we now have TV programmes like The Apprentice and Dragons’ Den, but in many ways we remain conditioned to look down in a Downton Abbey way on those who are “in trade”.

I left school at 16 and became a retailer; my three children all went to university. And every student I meet these days seems to aspire to be a management consultant, accountant or lawyer – a well-paid, respectable profession. Which, I’ll admit, may well look like the safest way to pay back the ever-increasing debts with which they are being loaded to get a degree.

But there is another way: entrepreneurship. As the public sector prepares to shed half a million jobs, it is entrepreneurs that this country will need to take up the slack.

Since Iceland was founded, I reckon that we have provided jobs for more than a quarter of a million people directly, plus many thousands more at our suppliers.

Totting up our bills for PAYE and corporation tax, we have also handed over

to the Government about £1.75bn in taxes. That’s enough for 30 new schools, seven hospitals or more than half an aircraft carrier.

Back in the 1970s envy and resentment were powerful forces in society. Drive an expensive car and it would not be long before someone ran a key down the side. Ted Heath bemoaned “the unpleasant and unacceptable face of capitalism”. Forty years on, Business Secretary Vince Cable uses his speech to the Liberal Democrat conference to attack capitalism itself.

I worry that we might have learnt nothing during the Iceland’s lifetime. Because one thing is sure: if this country is going to pull itself out of its present economic mess, it needs to recognise that entrepreneurs are heroes, not villains.

We may not be risking our lives on the front line for Queen and country, but without successful wealth creators there will be no armed forces, no infrastructure and ultimately no society worth defending.

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