Dragon to champion manufacturing: Q&A with Deborah Meaden

Jane Gray talks to Deborah Meaden about her new role as industry champion for Make it in Great Britain

It was announced yesterday that Dragon’s Den presenter Deborah Meaden, who acquired textiles manufacturer Fox Brothers in 2009, has joined the group of industry champions supporting the Make it Great Britain campaign.

Make it in Great Britain was launched by the Department of Buisness Innovation and Skills in 2011 to highlight the best of British manufacturing and alter public perceptions that the industry is a ‘dead end’ career destination’ with low skilled, low paid labour. It aims to emphasize the dynamic role manufacturing is to play in rebalancing the UK economy and bringing growth.

Find out more here.

JG: You are a self-confessed recent convert to the idea that manufacturing is an important UK industry. What is it you see in the industry today which has convinced you so quickly that you want to champion its interests?

DM: Like everyone I have had contact with manufacturing forever as a consumer. It has also been essential to many of my businesses, but I have always been involved as a buyer, looking at the industry from the outside.

In 2009, in a rather accidental way, I became a mill owner and working with Fox Brothers opened my eyes to the potential, and to the challenges, being faced by manufacturers in the UK.

I was struck by the skill, the technology and the love that goes into making Fox Brother’s products. Visiting other manufacturing firms I saw more and more of the success stories of British manufacturing.

What I am fearful of however, is the mis-match between this reality and what people outside the industry perceive. If action is not taken now then the kind of specialist skills present in Fox Brother’s will disappear.

JG: What do you think you will add to the Make it in Great Britain campaign which has already been acting on industry skills and perception issues for some time?

DM: I am specifically focussing on the competition part of the campaign – the 30 Under 30 initiative. I want to help clarify what manufacturing involves for young entrepreneurs. I think the term ‘manufacturing’ has been misleading and misunderstood. After all the is no job role ‘manufacturer’. People and companies in the industry are specialists. They are designers or experts in the production of specific things. I hope that the context of Dragon’s Den will allow me to engage young people’s attention on this matter.

JG: Are you convinced that rehabilitating the image of manufacturing and recruiting an new generation of employees for the industry is an economic imperative?

DM: Absolutely. But the watchword is ‘balance’. Just as it was foolish to become over reliant on financial services we cannot pretend that the economy should be completely reliant on manufacturing.

And the industry itself must be balanced to. Companies need to make sure that they are in markets which are big enough to sustain growth.

JG: As an entrepreneur and experienced business woman, do you believe that government could or should do more to make UK manufacturing competitive?

DM: Government can speak to a lot of people with a united voice. They have a clear role to play in creating a tax regime which allows people to invest but I do not advocate handouts. We don’t want to create a false industry.

JG: Do you believe manufacturing leaders, particularly in SME firms could do more to engage in the kind of activity Make it in Great Britain is encouraging?

DM: It is a necessity that business leaders take the time to be outward facing as well as dealing with the day to day of their businesses.

Time and again, when conditions get tough you see people’s shoulders go down and businesses stop taking the time to connect with the world around them. But it is a fact that business does not exist independent of society.

Look out for the July issue of TM for Deborah’s thoughts on UK manufacturing and the 2012 Olympics.