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The Entrepreneurial Exchange

Tycoon Chris Gorman Boosts Scots Entrepreneurs

The chairman of the Entrepreneurial Exchange reveals how he is trying to give Scottish business the Midas touch

John Penman

SHY and retiring are not words you normally associate with Chris Gorman, so it comes as a surprise to hear that the multi-millionaire entrepreneur once agonised for weeks over a letter to Sir Tom Farmer.

Gorman wanted advice on developing mobile phone firm DX Communications, the company he ran with fellow entrepreneur Richard Emanuel.

"Back then there was no network of business support," said Gorman. "It can be lonely running a business. We had one shop and it was fine but, as we grew, suddenly we had three and, as you deal with it, you can think you are the only one in the world going through the sleepless nights.

"So Richard and I decided to approach someone for advice on things like handling the growth in staff. Tom was probably the best-known, highest-profile Scottish entrepreneur but we thought he would be too busy to meet us, so we wanted to get it just right and spent ages making sure we said the right things. As it was, he called us about 10 minutes after opening the letter inviting us in for a cup of tea."

Gorman recalled his agonising at a recent event where around 100 members of the Entrepreneurial Exchange heard Sir Tom's thoughts on business before quizzing him.

Gorman, who chaired the event, said: "The Q and A session is scheduled for about 45 minutes. With Sir Tom Farmer, it lasted two and a half hours. The man is remarkable and has time for just about anyone who wants a chat. His cups of tea are rather famous now."

The creation of the exchange about a decade ago provided the first real network for like-minded business leaders whose aim was to grow their businesses significantly. It remains a unique group.

"There are bodies you can turn to, but with the exchange, you are talking to people who have real experience," said Gorman.

"I had advice once from Scottish Enterprise. They sent this guy whose sole suggestion was that I slow down. It seems he had had a bad experience with growing a business too fast, but frankly, that was no help to me."

It is hard to imagine Gorman slowing down. He made his first million selling DX Communications and then made his real fortune with e-commerce firm Reality Group, which was sold for £35m to Great Universal Stores. He suffered a loss when the Gadget Shop eventually struggled and, along with his friend and mentor, Sir Tom Hunter, became embroiled in a difficult court case with fellow Gadget Shop investors, which he eventually won.

These days he is an investor in several companies and is on the advisory board of social website Bebo. He says he will realise a seven-figure sum if the sale of Bebo to AOL goes through.

Gorman has been involved with the exchange from the start and is about to celebrate his first year as chairman, following such tough acts as Jim McColl, chief executive of business development company Clyde Blowers, and Hunter.

"I set two key targets, which were about increasing the membership and restoring the balance between the size of the member companies," he said.

"It has always been the aim to have a rough split of one third of companies with turnover of less than a million, one third in the £1-5m category and a third beyond £5m.

"In recent years that slipped a little with too many in the lower category. We are now back to the figures we wanted and have about 460 members."

Gorman feels the exchange's value to Scotland is sometimes overlooked.

"We employ 270,000 people and have a combined turnover of £18.5billion. That's as big as, if not bigger than, some sectors in this country," he said.

Despite this, he thinks there is still a lot of work to do persuading Scots to become more entrepreneurial.

"It still think there is a lack of confidence, a fear of failure we are still trying to address. We are doing more in schools than ever before. But I was speaking to a businessman recently and the guy was looking to expand within Scotland. I asked him why he wasn't looking at London and he said he didn't know anyone there.

"That happens too often. We need to think bigger and if a London-based version of the exchange happens, he will have access to that network."

Talks about such an exchange are in fact at an early stage after "serious interest" from business figures down south. "A London version would also give Scottish business people a way into the market there. It is a common complaint that as people grow their business in Scotland, they don't look at expanding in London because have no network to tap into in London and I am sure this could help."

Gorman is English but has lived in Scotland for 20 years and his four children were born here. What did he think of Hunter's call for a referendum on Scottish independence?

"Business does not like uncertainty and I think it is a question that needs to be answered sooner rather than later," is his reply.

He adds, though, that the exchange does not take a collective view on politics.

Gorman is excited about the exchange's forthcoming Gleneagles conference, when speakers will include Cranium inventor Richard Tait and flooring tycoon Dawn Gibbins. But he does have one worry.

"I am trying to fit everyone in," he said. "This is the first time we have had a waiting list. I am sure we'll manage."

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