Tom Riordan Reflects on 10 Years of Business in Leeds

Ten years ago, the UK was in the grips of the unfolding financial crash with the run on banks in full swing, the mortgage market crashing around us and, of course, the failures of some financial institutions like Lehman Brothers. And we felt the impact sharply in Leeds, notably for the council in the introduction of austerity budgeting which has since 2010 reduced our core funding by ÂŁ251m. The news was filled with more hardship, talk of austerity and recession and unemployment. It was a tough time.

Ten years on, as we start 2019, Leeds has not just weathered the storm but in many ways has become stronger.  More people who can work are in more work than most European cities, with our employment rate three per cent higher than London; the city has one of the highest rates of business start-ups and scale-ups amongst UK cities and our city is physically transforming in ways it hasn’t for decades. The council has found ways to become more enterprising and, while being far from perfect, we have just been rated outstanding by Ofsted for our children’s services.  Best of all, there’s a confidence and ambition about the city following wins like attracting Channel 4, that we haven’t seen for a very long time. Leeds United are top of the league and hopefully heading for the Premiership – and I say that as a Boro fan!

Businesses, as ever, have been central to the city’s successes. Small businesses make up the vast majority of the region’s economy and that’s why Yorkshire Mafia have been and continue to be so important.  Ten years old last November they launched in the middle of the financial crisis with one simple mantra: Stronger Together.

They believed that by encouraging business in the region to, simply, spend some time together getting to know each other, this would lead to them working with, and buying from, each other. That in turn would make all their businesses more successful, would feed into the economy of the region and create more opportunities. And all done with simple, cost effective events based around people getting to know each other, not just showing business cards in each other’s hands and trying to sell to one another. It is the one rule for which the Yorkshire Mafia is best known: No Selling.

And it worked. In the last ten years the Yorkshire Mafia has become one of the most recognisable parts of the business world in the region (and beyond). They have created a calendar of social events which regularly pack out venues with people getting to know each other with the success story of Buy Yorkshire, the UK’s largest and most successful business exhibition outside London. All done on the back of the vision of their founder Geoff Shepherd, and a group of equally committed people around him. Thank you Geoff!

Just as Leeds did in the 30s when the Civic Hall was built by unemployed people as a public works project, or the city’s people raised millions for the Ark Royal during the war, in the last decade Leeds and Yorkshire stood up to the challenges we faced and decided to find the opportunity, not the problem. We looked to see what we could do and not what we couldn’t. And in all the above we haven’t even talked about the Tour de France Grand Depart, the British Art Show, Rugby and Cricket World Cups, Light Night, Triathlon and Cycling World Championships, Leeds 2023, the raft of business and culture festivals in the city.

It feels like we’re entering another challenging period, not only because of the big Brexit debate, but also the divisions in society that the vote reflected.  I’m only too aware that are lots of people who have missed out entirely on the success of the last few years and we need to do more to help people out of poverty and achieving their potential. Despite the first major investment in transport for years and improvements to the bus fleet, successful park and ride sites and the outer ring road, we’ve got to radically improve our transport system. We need a devolution deal to make sure decisions are taken over transport, skills and jobs in our region not by Whitehall.

The Yorkshire Mafia and Leeds reflect each other’s strong desire to succeed and to be ambitious. The next ten years will bring further challenges but working together we can overcome them and take our place as one of the best cities in the world to live, work, visit and do business.



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