F or a classic tale of entrepreneurial pluck, look no further than Sir Tom Hunter. According to the Sunday Times, his big break was in 1984 when he analysed the returns on his father’s market stall in Scotland and saw that sales of trainers (or sneakers, to Americans) were growing fast. So he established Sports Division with £10,000 of investment and started out selling sports shoes himself from the back of a van.
Hunter grew the business into Britain’s biggest sports shop chain, before selling it in 1998 for £300 million. Thanks to this and other investments, he went on to become Scotland’s wealthiest man.
Hunter’s private equity firm – East Coast Capital – still has holdings in the retail industry. But his great passion today is philanthropy, for which he has been knighted. His latest initiative focuses on China: he has created a scholarship programme to send young British entrepreneurs to study at a Chinese business school.
Here, Hunter explains his goals for the ‘Chinapreneurs’ scheme.
You’ve just selected the initial ‘Chinapreneurs’. What do you hope to achieve with this programme?
It really came about through my own lack of knowledge about China. It was definitely an area that was missing in my education. I was asked to become involved with the Cheung Kong Business School as an adviser for their European school and that highlighted to me how much I didn’t know about China. I thought it would be a great thing to get knowledge flowing from East to West, and West to East. So in conjunction with the business school, we came up with this programme.
When did you first visit China and have this idea?
My first visit was in April. We went with alumni of the Cheung Kong school, and visited the campus and the professors there. It just blew my mind. In addition we met several exceptional entrepreneurs who were truly inspirational. Obviously there are plenty of European business people who have a good understanding of China. But I just thought, my goodness, there is so much going on here and we really need our young people to understand what is happening.
So you were surprised by the entrepreneurial activity you saw?
I absolutely was.
What were you looking for in the four ‘Chinapreneur’ candidates you selected?
We were looking for the candidates who could make the most of this opportunity. They will live in Beijing for a year. They’ll have to learn Mandarin and it’s a life-changing opportunity. So we wanted people who we could see would really make the most of this. Hopefully, we have four candidates who will shine.
A couple of those we selected had started businesses already. One was a financial trader. Another was a soldier who served a term in Afghanistan and then went into banking.
What words of wisdom have you given them from your own experience?
Well, the first thing is I am very jealous of what they are doing! I am saying to them, go in with an open mind, the world is changing at a heck of a rate. I’ve said, they’ll be put in the nexus of this change. And this is a life-changing opportunity, so grab it with both hands.
The other thing I say is learn by doing. That’s what we are doing here. We are getting on with it.
China is a whole new world. For the four of them to live in China amid this change is going to be fascinating.
Your first business was selling trainers from the back of a van? Do you see similarities with Chinese entrepreneurial success stories?
Yes, absolutely. Both in Scotland and in China – hard work is a crucial trait. Cost-saving is another thing we Scots have in common with the Chinese: every penny is a prisoner, so to speak.
What is the goal of the new scholarships?
I would love for these scholars to come back to the UK and use their knowledge to set up companies that are very successful here. That is my hope.
What’s your view on how well people in Britain understand China?
If you read the mainstream press the majority of the coverage about China here is pretty negative. We have to go beyond that. There are some challenges and we can’t shirk those, but there are also some amazing opportunities. To sit here and dismiss it would be a huge mistake. That’s what I believe quite a lot of people are doing. So my view is you have to get over there and learn for yourself what is happening.
Can you talk about the Sino-British entrepreneurs event you’ve also scheduled?
This month we have some 35 Chinese entrepreneurs and CEOs coming across to Cambridge to meet an equivalent number of their European counterparts. We’re going to ‘go back to school together’ because I think people in the West sometimes think it is going to be a West-to-East education. It certainly isn’t.
Our plan is for the event to be annual. It’s part of Li Ka-shing’s view [the Hong Kong tycoon behind the Cheung Kong business school] that the way to get business people from different parts of the world understanding each other better is to be educated together.
Will you give a speech on philanthropy at the event?
Yes, I plan to talk about what happens beyond great wealth. I will be fascinated to get into a dialogue with the Chinese at the event about what they plan to do with their wealth. There is probably more individual wealth being created in China right now than anywhere else in the world.
I don’t want to preach but my goal is to be philanthropical in a practical and useful way. Many of those in the audience are still in the midst of making their money and they won’t really have thought about what to do with it. It would be worthwhile if I can spark something in their mind, to get discussions on philanthropy moving at a slightly faster pace. Philanthropy is still in its very early stages in China.
When did you have your own eureka moment about philanthropy?
We started the business out of the back of a van. And then, when I was 37, we sold it for £300 million. At that point I needed to work out what I needed to do. I suppose the real turning point was speaking to the chairman of the Carnegie Corporation of New York, Vartan Gregorian. He said: “It’s not really your money, you are really just a custodian for this.” That individual is now one of my custodians and he certainly made me think.
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