…some of them really are giants amongst men. Public Health bod’s will tell you that the state of the economy and meaningful employment are major determinants of health. I think they are right. I was nearly 17, I was jobless, I was skint, I was in a lousy punk band (we sold a dozen copies of our tape to the obviously hard of hearing in Scandinavia), I had been living in a bedsit since leaving home on my 16th birthday and I had no qualifications. Having skived most of my O-Level exams, I was politely informed I was no longer welcome at Penrith Grammar School; and quite frankly I wasn’t bothered. I hated school; the head who kept sending me home on the grounds that my hairstyle was unacceptable, the history teacher who was uncomfortable with my smoking in class and the old-style gym teacher who drove me nuts with exhortations that “playing rugby for my school was a privilege I should welcome”; no it wasn’t, it was clearly a form of torture and a lot less fun than playing the guitar!
So I found myself in a strange place, I was in a small market town in Northern England, with no prospects, an overly close relationship with the local constabulary and an increasingly uncertain future. I had tried hitch-hiking to London to hook up with other like minds, or struggling souls, and had sought solace in a squat that used to be the ambulance station on the Old Kent Road, but being chased by angry skinheads in the middle of the night left me with no appetite for staying in the big smoke and I hitched back to Cumbria as speedily as I had left. And then someone gave me a chance, and I never looked back. That someone was David Tate, the man behind the famous Lilliput Lane miniature model cottage manufacturing empire. I discovered that I liked the world of work, no-one seemed bothered by the way I dressed, the holes in my ears or the colour of my hair, I quickly realised that in the world of work all that really mattered was how effectively and efficiently you could do your job; and I took to it like a duck to water.
Lilliput Lane was a new company based on the outskirts of Penrith and it was growing fast. Before I was 19 I found myself tasked with supervising three departments of around 30 people. When I look back on it now I laugh, to have the audacity to think that I knew enough at the age of 18 to hold the respect of people who had forgotten more than I had learned could only have been the product of youthful arrogance…and for better or worse I had that in spades. Thriving on new levels of confidence that work and responsibility were providing, I marched into the local building society at the age of 18 and arranged a mortgage with no deposit; I told them I was sick of paying rent for a bedsit and I think they thought it was easier to just give me a mortgage than to try to talk me out of it.
Having a job enabled me to plan a future, to get married to my wife Debbie, who also worked at Lilliput Lane, and to buy a house and create a home. Working at Lilliput Lane was to be part of a commercial meritocracy, if you worked hard you were recognised and rewarded and discovering the benefits this offered was a great turning point in my life. The managers and people I worked with on the shop-floor didn’t care a hoot about my qualifications or the lack of them, no-one looked down their nose because I came from a single parent family on a council estate, success in the job you were doing was the only thing that counted, you could be as clever as you like but if you were a waffler or a shirker you were not thought highly of. The world of work was where I found myself, and at Lilliput Lane we were given a unique opportunity to be part of something new and exciting…and I and many other people I knew threw ourselves into it.
David set up a real wealth creating business, not just a money making business. Lilliput Lane created wealth in the truest economic sense. As if the direct product of Adam Smith’s thinking it took raw materials and labour and added worth to them in a truly value-adding manufacturing process. It was not a business of smoke and mirrors that created money as if by alchemy, it was an enterprise that added real value to everyone involved in its development and evolution; suppliers, employees, distributors and retailers. Lilliput Lane sold products to dozens of countries and was awarded for its contribution to exports on many occasions. David’s ability to sell the products to audiences abroad by convincing them that these miniature masterpieces were hand-crafted by fairies in caves on the edge of the English Lake District was the stuff of corporate folklore…part of the glue that company culture hangs on and that holds a good team of people together in the knowledge that their leader is out front, leading the company forward.
The world of enterprise and the entrepreneurs it houses provide opportunities for us all. Cumbria, the Eden Valley and Penrith, the town where I still live with Debbie, is awash with families and couples who worked and often met at Lilliput Lane, they have bought houses, made homes, raised children, travelled the world, gained experience, trained for a host of professions, and a whole lot more besides…and all because someone created a business that provided real opportunities and generated wealth for a great many people.
David Tate, the entrepreneur behind the success of Lilliput Lane died recently at the age of 72…I and many others will remember him with great fondness. So here’s to the entrepreneurs and the wealth creators, we need them more than we know.