My Biggest Mistake: Stuart Bishell

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The Independent Online
Stuart Bishell, aged 44, is the managing director of Astra Training Services - the largest training company in the UK, with an annual turnover of almost pounds 40m.

Mr Bishell, after completing a degree at Sheffield University, began his career in the Civil Service in London and remained in that sector until he led the management buy-out of Astra from the Employment Department three years ago. Today, from its headquarters in Sheffield, the company provides training and other services to employers and Training and Enterprise Councils (TECS) throughout the country.

MY BIGGEST mistake was to believe that an enterprise - any enterprise - could be run efficiently and economically in the public sector.

I was a civil servant from 1969 until 1990, but I came from a long line of business people and self-employed people, and almost all of my 21 years in the Civil Service was spent in trying to provide efficient services to the public.

My initial experience was in the old-style employment exchanges. A few years into my career it was decided that their image was wrong. We needed smart high street locations to compete with commercial employment agencies. The Job Centres were developed - a change that cost millions of pounds, but there were no commercial measures of the success of this massive investment.

Throughout this time I used what were then current best management techniques - management by objectives, development of people, etc. I also sought to bring a degree of cost-consciousness and financial awareness into the scene. I argued that the public respects what it pays for more than what is given free. I didn't persuade my seniors to charge for job centre services - but we did charge for professional and executive recruitment, and later for training.

Both of these former government services are now in the private sector, which is where they belong. I believe that passionately, because of my experience on both sides of the divide between public and private sectors.

There are many good and committed people in the public sector. They want to do a good job. But they have too little incentive to do so. They have relative job security and their pay is inadequately linked to performance. They cannot 'go out of business' because of their weaknesses. All of this creates an atmosphere that lacks the sense of urgency essential to running a successful enterprise.

There is also one other reason why enterprise will never really prosper in the public sector - politics. The political imperatives always dominate - they have to.

Ministers and senior civil servants answer to Parliament - and Parliament is political. Decisions will always be made with 'political backlash', 'avoidance of banana skins' and 'protecting the Minister' at the forefront of the thought process. Good political decisions may result. Bad commercial decisions are a certainty.

I remember when good business opportunities presented themselves, but the opportunity often coincided with a period of severe restraint on spending - no cash was available to make an investment that would have generated much more.

I now live and work in a simpler world. My business has to succeed to meet the expectations of both staff and shareholders. It can only succeed if we deliver a quality product that satisfies our existing customers and attracts new ones. I know that the customer is the most important person to the business and I run it accordingly. Nothing could be more satisfying.

I know that many leaders of nationalised industries share my view. After 20 years of striving to throw off these shackles on enterprise, I am now free. It is wonderful. I hope they will be able to join me soon.

(Photograph omitted)