End of the Road….?

dad-india

Grief is like toothache, many people have experienced it and they have an idea of what you’re feeling, but the pain is personal to you and they will never really know what it’s like. It comes and goes in waves, you think you’re over it but then something happens to set it off again. You have no idea how long it’s going to go on for, and there’s not much you can do to stop it.

That’s how I feel after the death of my dad last week. He went into hospital on 23rd January for a routine hip operation, and we all expected that this week we would be needing to find ways to keep him in his chair resting, knowing that he would want to be up and about at the earliest opportunity. Instead, the operation caused a blood clot which went on to his lung and lead to further complications. He passed away on the morning of 26th Jan.

Dad was a citizen of the world. He spent his life travelling, firstly in the Army, then through his work designing, selling and installing quarry and asphalt plant, and latterly as a motorcycling adventurer. We lost count of the number of countries he had visited in his lifetime, and his Facebook page includes contacts from across the globe. We’ve been overwhelmed by the many tributes and anecdotes from his friends, many of whom experienced his enthusiasm, inspiration and spirit of adventure as he took part in numerous organised runs across India and the Himalaya by Enfield motorcycle, forming links with an amazing group of people who obviously held him in high regard. My own experiences travelling with him to Germany are the subject of a previous blog.

Dad was a modest man but he was secretly proud to be showing the younger guys how it should be done, especially when many of those younger guys were well into retirement themselves. To be riding the highest roads in the world across rough terrain, rockfalls and heavy fords was a great achievement in itself, to be doing it in your mid-80s is pretty special.

I learned a lot from my father over his lifetime, and I’ll pick up on some of the key things in a future post. For now, it’s enough to record that he is no longer with us and that our family is in mourning. His funeral is on Tuesday 14th February in Loughborough, and there’s a lot to do before then to make sure we give him a great send-off.

Why This Rebel Is Keen To Remain In Europe

I’m on a narrowboat this week and not paying much attention to the news, but when an MP is murdered in cold blood it’s an event that can’t be ignored.

It seems as though the perpetrator was suffering his own mental health problems, but such extreme action has to have some underlying trigger. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to guess that the Brexit campaign could have been it. I can’t be the only one to have become thoroughly disenchanted with the way in which the campaigns have descended from at least some semblance of intelligent debate to bickering, personal attacks and name calling. It seems that this has to be the way of modern politics.

(FILES) This file photo taken on August

image from metro.co.uk

What depresses me further is that the debate seems to have become about nationalism and whether you are ‘for’ or ‘against’ Britain and her continued existence. To even suggest that a vote to Remain is anti-British has to be the ultimate in distortion of reality.

I’m as passionate about this country – by which I mean the United Kingdom in its entirety – as anyone, and it’s because of this very belief that I am so strongly in favour of staying in.

That doesn’t mean I’m happy with the status quo, far from it. Europe is by no means perfect, and if it is to succeed in the long term it has to change. I think that the idea of ever closer political union in Europe is wrong, and that the EU has made some significant errors of economic policy that haven’t helped the lives of its citizens.

Red Tape Can Be Good

But despite the rhetoric there is a lot of good to being a member of the European ‘Club’. A lot of the so-called ‘red tape’ that comes out of Brussels is aimed at harmonising trade, and that requires regulations to be proposed, drafted, debated and accepted. In return our businesses can sell their goods right across Europe with no further restrictions, and this has been a boost to trade over the years. In my own field, financial services, it has taken a long time to get this harmonisation in place and there is still a way to go, but Britain has been a significant winner in its areas of expertise, with 30% of the European banking market, half of Europe’s fund management business, and well over 80% of hedge fund activity, a major money-spinner for the City. Leaving the EU would definitely put this major trade at risk, and it could take years to recover our position. Surely if rules are being drafted for the pan-European market that we will have to conform to anyway, it makes sense to have a place at the negotiating table?

Immigration

Arrivals from the European Union customs channel at Stansted Airport, England, Britain UK

image from viewsbank.com

Perhaps the greatest area of concern for many people is that of immigration. On this one I’m probably of a different view to many, because I’m all in favour of open borders. In my idealistic world it would be possible for anyone to travel anywhere without hindrance, and it would be great to think that, one day in the future that might happen. I do accept that the world isn’t ideal, of course, and in reality controls are required, but free movement of goods, services and people within the EU seems to me to be a laudable objective. This doesn’t mean free access to all services the state provides, of course, and it’s here that the debate should focus in my view. David Cameron has already gained acknowledgement of this within Europe and the Government’s policy has for some time been aimed at limiting benefits for migrants.

There’s a well-proven economic case for such free movement. At a time when Western economies are facing the prospect of ageing populations as the 1950’s baby boomers’ move into retirement, we need younger workers to be able to grow. It’s also true that many new businesses are started by immigrants seeking a better life for their families. Ultimately the way to resolve the pressure of immigration is to help make the countries from which the people come to be stable and prosperous, and here the EU has a role.

If we were to exit the Union I really can’t see how things would change much on this front, either. A large proportion of immigrants are from non-EU countries already, and we couldn’t hope for much tighter controls whilst enjoying unfettered movement of our own goods, services and citizens. It’s folly to believe otherwise.

Change is already happening

There is evidence that the EU is already changing. Its politicians are getting the message that, right across Europe, there is disenchantment with its opaqueness and remoteness from the people whose lives it affects. The influx of smaller nations who have joined in recent years

Eu Flags

image from guardian.co.uk

aren’t interested in ever closer political union, they want better access to Europe’s markets, stability, and protection against aggressors, notably Russia. Britain, with its emphasis on defence (on which we spend more than most other Euro nations) and trade is seen as a strong and consistent voice with the scale and economic clout to be a positive leader in Europe. The very intensity of the UK Brexit debate has made politicians across Europe sit up and take notice. We aren’t the only ones who aren’t entirely happy, as evidenced by rising nationalistic voices in France, Germany, Spain, Italy and many other countries. Something must be done.

Agitate from within

I’ve always seen myself as something of a rebel. I’m all in favour of shaking things up and agitating for change. But I came to realise a long time ago that crusading through the streets holding placards and chanting slogans is nothing like as effective as being on the inside and influencing things with the people who hold the power. Attractive as it might feel to make a protest against Europe and ‘stand up for Britain,’ let’s not throw away years of negotiations and effort that could set us back 10 years or more and leave us with less influence and no real gains.

Instead, let’s create the necessary change from within with a strong voice and firm principles. Let’s stand up for Britain as a negotiating partner and not a truculent absentee.

In my humble opinion, a vote for Britain is a vote to Remain.

Andy Jervis

19-06-2016

IFP Conference Report 2015 Day One

As a long-standing member of the Institute of Financial Planning I have always enjoyed attending the Annual Conference, held for the last few years in the luxurious surroundings of the Celtic Manor Resort in Newport. Today is the first day of the Conference and it’s already provided plenty of meaty food for thought.

I first got involved with the IFP in the early 1990’s, and much of what Chesterton House now practices has been learned from that long association. Members have always been generous in sharing ideas, and I’ve been highly impressed by their dedication to delivering great results for clients as well as wanting to know how to run highly effective businesses – two things that go hand-in-hand.

Twenty years ago the Annual Conference was held at Cambridge University, a mark of the aspirations of the leading players in the Institute at that time, during an era when salesmanship was much more highly prized by financial institutions than academic rigour. Since then, the regulators have imposed the need for learning on to advisers in the form of the RDR, which brought in the requirement for financial qualifications for anyone giving advice to the public. Many of the old school decided that was a time to leave the business, but for the IFP it felt like its time had come. With a burgeoning need for high quality advice from a wealthier, older and more time-pressured population facing an ever more complicated world, the IFP’s blend of holistic financial planning skills, high integrity and focus on long-term relationship based business models is proving successful for those practitioners who choose to follow it.

The Conference is the annual coming together of advisers and financial professionals seeking the latest ideas and techniques, as well as to enjoy the camaraderie of ‘front-line’ practitioners. It’s always an inspiring event and this year is proving no different.

We began this morning with a session specifically designed for members of firms holding the Accredited Financial Planning Firm designation, of which Chesterton House is proud to be one. An overview of a member survey that gave us some useful benchmarks on which we could measure our respective firms performance was followed by an excellent talk by Nicky Simonds-Gooding of Gazing Performance Systems about how to raise your performance in an increasingly pressurised world. Nicky taught us to use the Samurai principle of the ‘Double Gaze’ – being able to focus intensively on specific details whilst still having an eye on the Bigger Picture, something that resonated strongly with our approach at Chesterton House. She went on to remind us that the High Performance mind set says that however good we are, we can always improve, and suggested some techniques for generating that improvement. Inspiring stuff.

The Institute’s AGM was followed by a session discussing the future of the IFP, which has just agreed to merge with the Chartered Institute of Securities and Investments, a much larger body with an academic base. This has been a big deal for IFP members and, amongst general approval of the potential benefits of the deal, there was concern that the unique qualities of the IFP might be subsumed into the CISI over time. We were assured that wasn’t going to happen, and members were reassured by the obvious enthusiasm for the idea of an expanded organisation being able to spread the word about what real financial planning is and its potential to change people’s lives.

The next session asked, ‘Does Size Matter,’ with leaders of small, medium and large financial planning firms discussing how to continue to deliver a consistent client experience and the highest quality advice as firms grow. This is something that’s particularly relevant to me in my role as Chairman of Chesterton House as our own growth continues, and there were some useful observations from the panel that I noted down.

The next session from Alison Broadberry of Charles Russell Speechlys Solicitors explored the area of Estate Planning for Business Owners. This was another topic of great relevance to me as our Legal Team develops its role in working with families and successful business people to ensure that their assets end up where they intended. Alison explained how a ‘Company Will’ can be used to create certainty for business owners faced with the death of a partner or owner, as well as ways to use trusts to protect business assets on death and massively reduce tax bills. The session was a helpful reminder of these ideas that will be useful when advising clients who are in this situation.

The final session from Michael Langerup of ETF Securities asked, ‘What’s So Smart About Smart Beta’. This was a talk aimed at the investment geeks among us, investigating as it did the market for passive investments based on Exchange traded Funds (ETFs) and the differences between them. If you’re really interested in Systematic Factor Strategies based on key macro risks as a way to diversify your portfolio I’ll be happy to speak to you separately. Or send you to see Michael.

With a lively exhibition area used as a meeting and eating venue for the evening it was great to catch up with some old acquaintances as well as make some new ones. After such an interesting day in a great Conference venue its no wonder some of us keep returning each year.

Tomorrow is an early start as sessions start at 8.15am, and it’s just turned midnight as I write this so I think that’s enough for now. Over and out!

 

Build Recurring Revenue

Andy will be speaking on the subject of ‘Profit’ at three ‘Love Business’ breakfast workshops to be held in Leicester, Nottingham and Derby on the mornings of 23rd, 24th and 25th June 2015 respectively, and he has written a series of blogs to set the scene for the workshops. If you’re in business entry is free. Each one will be packed with dozens of ideas around the theme of doing great business in the new age of the millennial buyer. Click here for more details and a registration form.

Most businesses survive on their next order. If the order doesn’t materialise, their business is dead.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. There is usually scope to focus on building recurring revenue as the route to higher profits, greater predictability of income, and more capital value in your business.

What product, service or benefit will your customer enter into a contract with you to provide? Could you make your life – and, more importantly, your customer’s life – easier by agreeing the details now?

I’m constantly amazed by how many businesses completely fail to capitalise on this future revenue stream. For example, for many years we have used the services of a heating engineer to carry out an annual gas safety check on property we own.

Has the engineer ever suggested a regular contract to guarantee that this important check will never be missed? Perhaps offering priority attention in the event of breakdown or emergency? Maybe even special ‘favoured customer’ terms on other work?

You can guess the answer.

We’ve periodically required our offices to be refurbished and painted. Has the contractor ever offered to schedule future work in advance to an agreed schedule on a regular monthly payment scheme? If so, might there have been other work that could have been included on the schedule – other properties, or maybe our home?

I’ll let you speculate on whether this ever happened.

When we’ve taken a car for service, did the garage recommend a service plan to cover the cost of future work and guarantee a high standard? No – although the very same garage offers a five year service plan on a new car we bought from them.

I could go on and on (and as my wife tells me, I often do!).

But you get the idea.

Some businesses don’t lend themselves to this type of regular-payment arrangement, but in my experience they are the exception, not the rule .

So let’s say you achieved this, and were successful in getting a substantial part of your work onto a recurring, contractual basis. What implications would that have for your work scheduling? For your staffing needs? For your ability to seek efficiencies in delivery as a result of your new focus on consistently repeated processes?

Being able to predict revenues, costs and profitability in advance, what effect would there be on the value of your business to a potential purchaser?

Of course, if you’re going to make promises you need to match them with great performance. Don’t offer what you can’t deliver.

But for many customers seeking great service from a business they can trust, entering into a long term contract is one less thing to worry about. And one more step towards your highly successful business.

Income Less Expenses Equals Profit

Andy will be speaking on the subject of ‘Profit’ at three ‘Love Business’ breakfast workshops to be held in Leicester, Nottingham and Derby on the mornings of 23rd, 24th and 25th June 2015 respectively, and he has written a series of blogs to set the scene for the workshops. If you’re in business entry is free. Each one will be packed with dozens of ideas around the theme of doing great business in the new age of the millennial buyer. Click here for more details and a registration form.

I have a friend and long-standing client who is focused on cost reduction in his business, and has been for years. Over time his business has become more efficient, leaner and better run.

His problem is that, in all of that time, his turnover has remained stationery. He now delivers his service for less money than he did ten years ago. His business is slowly, inexorably, strangling him to death.

He hasn’t learned the lesson that Ken Blanchard expressed in his seminal book, ‘Big Bucks,’ the third of his cardinal rules of business. It’s a simple rule, and it says ‘Income Less Expenses Equals Profit.’

Now you might imagine that is just what my friend is practising. If you do, you’ve missed the most important part of the equation.

There are two variables in play here; Income and Expenses. One has limited application. The other is completely without limits. Which will you spend your time working on?

Let me expand. You cannot cut your expenses by more than 100% of their current level. The more you cut, the harder it will be to grow. A business spending nothing is unlikely to move forward (although if you know of a way to run a business with zero costs, I’m all ears!).

Income, on the other hand, can be expanded exponentially without limit. Yes, this expansion is likely to mean higher costs, but my point is that the fastest way to more profit in your business is more income, not lower costs. That’s why the world’s great companies devote so much of their revenue to marketing and revenue expansion.

My friend lives in the shadow of the stigma of failure. Yet unless he changes his ways, failure is inevitable. In your business, are you prepared to countenance the risk of success by focusing on growth?

Profit is a Way of Being

Andy will be speaking on the subject of ‘Profit’ at three ‘Love Business’ breakfast workshops to be held in Leicester, Nottingham and Derby on the mornings of 23rd, 24th and 25th June 2015 respectively, and he has written a series of blogs to set the scene for the workshops. If you’re in business entry is free. Each one will be packed with dozens of ideas around the theme of doing great business in the new age of the millennial buyer. Click here for more details and a registration form.

In your business and mine, profit is a state of mind and a way of being. It derives from how you see the world, which in turn reflects in the actions you take and the results you achieve.

It sounds obvious to say that making more profit is the first objective of business, but in my experience that most often isn’t true, especially in smaller businesses. Ultimately you are driven by your values, which are the keys to your world. Understanding your own values is essential if you are to leverage your effectiveness.

For example, if you are in business, will you act to put more money in your bank before you focus on producing a great product? Before excellent design? Before building a first class reputation and the respect of your customers?

Is profit more important to you than working with a great team? Enjoying turning up for work each day? More important than doing work that fulfils you and gives your life purpose?

Or do you believe that doing these things will lead to profit? If so, how will you know?

Do you actually believe that making high profits is a ‘good thing?’ Or do you carry a secret belief around with you that suggests that companies that are highly profitable are somehow unethical, devious or self-serving? If you do, you’re not alone.

Who knows, you may be right.

If you’re running a registered charity.

Assuming that you’re not, perhaps it’s time to get your thinking straight about profit.

Here’s my view;

The level of profitability in a business reflects the value that the business delivers to its customers multiplied by the efficiency with which it delivers it.

That efficiency extends into all areas of business activity, encompassing production, finance, sales and marketing, people, etc. It’s what makes for the day to day challenge of running a successful enterprise. It has to be at the heart of everything you do, or eventually your business will fail or, much more likely, it will be completely without teeth in the fight to deliver your best work to the widest audience.

Which is where your profit will come from.

Ken Blanchard expresses this superbly in his excellent book ‘Big Bucks.’ In it, he describes the three cardinal rules of business.

Firstly, your business must be about something much more important than just making money.

Secondly, making money has to be the most important thing.

The resolution of this apparent dichotomy is what makes good businesses great. My advice is to get very clear about what your business brings to the world in words that are meaningful and inspiring to both you and your customers before you try to figure out how to deliver it profitably.

And the third of Blanchard’s cardinal rules? That’s for another blog.

 

 

Lost in Thought

I’ve read many books in my lifetime, but there are only a handful that are ‘stand outs’ that I will happily return to again and again.

One of these is ‘The Power of Now’ by Eckhart Tolle which has lived by my bed for several years now. Its simple message, that by living in the present moment all of our problems drop away, is not one that inspires everyone who first reads the book. If you are wedded to thinking, then it’s a message you won’t ‘get’ at first, and you might consider it misguided or irrelevant to everyday life.

Maybe though, like me, you will come to appreciate that the present moment is all we have, because it’s all there ever is. If you aren’t here now, where are you?

Of course, there are times when it’s much easier to be present than others. Sitting here on the balcony looking out over the Adriatic in the warm sunshine with beach sounds rising up from the happy people below, this moment is one crying out to be noticed.

But even here – or perhaps especially here – other thoughts soon come sliding in. The warmth, the peace and the gentle lapping of the sea are the perfect cocktail for contemplation. As the mind slows down, the endless loop of thought continues to unwind. There’s a small boat in the harbour, picking up passengers. I didn’t see it arrive even though it’s directly in my field of view. I must have been somewhere else.

Staying fully present is hard work.

Dubrovnik balcony view

It’s not that I don’t value thought. Creative thinking is the root of all human progress, and clearly we need it to function.

But most thought isn’t creative, it’s reactive, and if you’re like me you’ve probably had the experience of drowning in thought – your head so full and busy that you feel as though a fuse will blow.

When you feel that way too, try switching your attention to the present. Bring your focus to the Now. Listen, see, touch, feel the moment. Be here totally. Let yourself experience your own life.

If you were to ask me, I would say that, compared to presence, thought is a poor substitute.

How much money should I leave behind for my children?

 

This is a question that I was asked by a client recently, and as with many such questions, it’s a complex one to answer as it depends on your own personal views and values, as well as the personality and capabilities of the child.

When I thought about it further, I came to the conclusion that it’s actually the wrong question. You have no idea when you are going to die, what your future circumstances might be, how much wealth you may have, and what sort of person your child may grow into. I would therefore suggest that a much better question is to ask, “How can I prepare my child to make good decisions around money, to use it creatively and for the good of him or herself and society, and to avoid the bear traps and leeches that populate the financial world?”

There is plenty of evidence for the damaging effects that too much money too soon in life can wreak on young lives. Vorayud Yoovidhaya, the grandson of the founder of Red Bull was accused of the hit-and-run death of a police officer whilst driving his million-dollar Ferrari, and reportedly used his wealth to buy off the officer’s family and avoid prosecution. Brandon Davis, 32 year old oil heir and friend of Paris Hilton, is a regular in the tabloids for drug infringements and alleged nightclub brawls. Prince Pierre Casiraghi, son of Princess Caroline of Monaco, was accused of being “completely obnoxious”, insulting models and swigging from a $500 bottle of vodka after a brawl at a New York nightclub that left him in hospital. There are plenty of other examples.

 

For parents trying to deal with these excesses, views also vary. Gene Simmons, bass guitarist with American group KISS and reportedly worth $300 million, reportedly told CNBC “…in terms of an inheritance and stuff, (my kids are) gonna be taken care of, but they will never be rich off my money. Because every year they should be forced to get up out of bed, and go out and work and make their own way.”

 

Bill GatesMicrosoft founder Bill Gates feels similarly. He said “I didn’t think it was a good idea to give the money to my kids. That wouldn’t be good either for my kids or society.” Instead, he and his wife Melinda created the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in 1994, which today has assets of over $37 billion.

 

 

Movie star Jackie Chan does not plan to leave his millions to his son, Jaycee. He told a reporter “If he is capable, he can make his own money. If he is not, then he will just be wasting my money.” Contrast that approach with young Suri Cruise, daughter of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes, who at the age of six reportedly had a three million-dollar wardrobe, and whose mother was apparently planning to surprise her daughter with an eight foot, $24,000 Grand Victorian Playhouse for Christmas, complete with running water, electricity, and extensive landscaping.
These are, of course, examples from the extreme end of the wealth spectrum. Nevertheless, the range of sentiments which are expressed can apply to all of us who have surplus funds that our children may one day inherit. So how do we prepare them for that day?

 

 

Inevitably, the good financial habits of children are likely to be built on the foundation of the practice of their parents. But sometimes, those habits aren’t always recognised.

 

I had a conversation with clients a few years ago when mother expressed a desire to give her three children a significant sum so that they could each buy their own homes. I asked her what was important about making this gift to her. She thought for a moment, and then told me that she didn’t want her children to struggle in the way that she and her husband had done over the years.

 

I reminded her of a previous conversation when we had explored her values in depth. At that time, she told me of her pride in achieving her financial success as a result of having to struggle and make good decisions in the tough times. This, she had said, had been the making of her.

 

I didn’t need to ask whether she wanted to take this away from her children. She saw the point immediately.

 

I quickly told her that I didn’t disagree at all with her giving money to her children – she could easily afford to do so – but she should firstly be clear about whether the children were ready to receive it.

 

George Kinder refers to these issues extensively in his book, ‘The Seven Stages of Money Maturity’. He describes the first two stages, Innocence and Pain, and explains how it is necessary as part of life’s journey to feel the pain before one can move onto the next stage, acquiring Knowledge. If the pain isn’t there, neither is the incentive to do the work necessary for personal growth.

 

Financial knowledge is essential on this journey. It is common for the very wealthy to enrol their children in financial education classes at an early age, enabling them to be equipped to deal with complex decisions around investment, accounting and trusts as well as to understand the role of philanthropy and community service in a well rounded financial life. It is a fact that the financial literacy of many young people leaving school today is extremely poor. Many have little idea about how a mortgage or credit card works, what the stock market does or how companies and governments operate. The child who understands these things early in life has a clear head start when it comes to understanding and dealing with his or her parents wealth.

 

Kids PiggyPerhaps the starting point for your child’s financial education is to revisit your own. Are your financial habits and attitudes appropriate and taking you where you want to go, or do you need some further coaching or education? Have you written down your own attitude to money, wealth creation, borrowing, saving and investing? When your child asks a financial question, are you able to give a rounded response?

 

Is money a problem for you, or is it the solution to a problem? How comfortable are you with your own wealth? If you have some issues in these areas, the chances are your child will grow up reflecting your views.

 

At Chesterton House we seek to work with our clients and their families to address these issues over time. If you don’t have a relationship with a financial planner who can assist you in this area, there are lots of financial information websites that are a good starting point. You need to make sure, though, that they aren’t just a cleverly dressed up sales message and that they are offering genuine education. Take your time to research and find a source of help that chimes with your own personal goals and values.

 

If you need any help on this topic, let me know. I’ll do what I can to point you in the right direction.

Beauty And The Beasts

As our plane gains height above Naples we get a fantastic view of the lights of the city spreading out before us, the dark shadow of Vesuvius just visible in the background. The last night-time takeoff we experienced was at Los Angeles, and we remember being impressed by the clearly laid out grid structure, each ‘block’ in sharp definition. Here perhaps it’s no coincidence that the city from the air resembles a plate of spaghetti, with the sodium lamps even adding the hue of tomato sauce.

So what are my impressions of Italy after our first visit?

It’s tempting to continue the American comparison, not least because the place is full with Yanks. I’m sure that Sorrento, our home for the last week, is no more representative of Italy than L.A. is of the States, but it’s all I’ve got. I’m sure you’ll draw your own conclusions if you’re familiar with the country.

Sorrento and the Amalfi Coast are very lovely to behold. Yesterday we took the boat to the island of Capri, probably the jewel in the area’s glittering crown. Riding the chairlift to the highest point on the island was an amazing experience, and the views from the top were stunning, not least the near 2,000 foot sheer drop to the sea below. The limestone cliffs, the sun reflecting off the azure sea, the multicolored buildings below – if you’ve seen it you’ll know what I mean, and also agree that words can’t do it justice.

Capri View

Capri View

One reason that the Americans come here in droves is clearly because of the antiquity of the place. In San Diego, California, our bus driver proudly showed us the City’s oldest building, dating back to 1850. Here, our walking tour of Sorrento included a visit to a pub proudly displaying a portion of original 2,000 year-old Roman wall in its basement along with a number of earthenware pots discovered during renovations. It could easily have been part of the pub run by the landlords’ ancestors.

Of course, many Americans have Italian roots, their own ancestors moving continents only a generation or two ago. No wonder they want to explore their past.

It’s no wonder either that Americans are so entrepreneurial given our experience in Sorrento. Every restaurant, it seems, has a staffer stationed outside ready to explain why you should visit their establishment, pushing a menu into your hand whilst pointing out the chef’s recommendations. Every shop beckons you inside, and they all have their sales pitch. Capitalism is in full swing here.

So why is Italy apparently in such economic trouble whilst it’s sons and daughters in the US are racing ahead?

I don’t know the answer to that one, although I suspect it is to do with a combination of politics, Eurozone austerity and demographics. However one factor that I’m sure is a contributor is the absence of the large corporation.

In America the streets are dominated by the big chains, from McDonalds’ to Applebee’s, from Days Inn to Marriott, and from Starbucks to Dunkin Donuts. Here there is no sign of any of them. On the contrary, every establishment we visit seems to be owned and run by a family, anxious to please and committed to great service. It’s one of the features that makes a visit here so enjoyable.

We order some bottles of Limoncello, the delicious local liqueur speciality. We are served by Roberto, who proudly tells us that he is the sixth and youngest child in his family. His parents run the farm that supplies produce to the shop, whilst his sister manages the fashion store across the road that is another family venture. He seems very happy, with no plans for world domination. This is a family business, not a corporation.

I’m intrigued by this so I look up the statistics. According to a report from PwC, in 2014 American companies accounted for 47 of the top 100 firms in the world. Italy had 1, Eni Spa whose oil and gas business was ranked 92nd (the UK had 6). I’m not at all surprised.

Now I’m a fan of business, and I understand that they need to grow to survive. But I have to say that it would be a real shame if Italy – or at least the bit of Italy we got to see – got taken over by mega-corporations. It’s happened elsewhere, not least in the States where many people lament the loss of the ‘mom and pop’ stores that used to be the backbone of small town retailing across America, squeezed out by the Wal-Mart’s and the Safeway’s.

Ultimately it will be the consumer who chooses where and with whom they want to shop, and times of austerity make it easier for the retail big guns to attract business, so who knows what the future may bring.

But I suspect that, so far as Sorrento and the Amalfi coast area is concerned, it will be business as usual for a while yet. So if you haven’t yet discovered this lovely area, come and visit Roberto and friends. I’m sure that, like us, you’ll get a very warm welcome.

 

The Loveliest Coast In The World

Tuesday, 28th October 2014

Roger Moore’s house is beautiful. It’s a white painted villa set in the cliffs near Amalfi, with a stunning setting and amazing views across the Mediterranean Sea.

It pales besides Gina Lollobrigida’s pink painted home, however. And that in turn looks small next to Sophia Loren’s lovely villa atop a crag, framed by the glorious Amalfi mountain coastal backdrop. And looking down on them all from on high is Gore Vidal’s white mansion, all 70 million euros worth of it according to our skipper.

The Amalfi coast is generally reckoned to be the most gorgeous in the world, and we’ve come out by bus and boat to see for ourselves. We’re strongly inclined to agree.

Gina, we love your house!

Gina, we love your house!

We’ve driven across from Sorrento, following the coast road to Positano, Amalfi and Ravello. At Amalfi our guide has arranged a boat excursion to view the coast as it should be viewed, from the sea. And what a fabulous view it is.

It’s the complexity of the scene that is its key. The multi-textured cliffs are full of interest, changing constantly as layer builds upon layer. Interwoven into the cliffs are houses, villas, churches and other buildings forming a riot of colour. Added to them are the vineyards, rosemary gardens, inlets, caves, crags and beaches that have been threaded into the picture like silks in an intricate embroidery.

I’m reminded of the coast of Southern Ireland that I visited last year. That was glorious for its emptiness, its remoteness. Here the contrast is clear. The beauty of the Amalfi coast is in its vibrant humanity, its ancient relationship with the peoples of the area, and its modern-day connection with the beauty and confidence that is Italy.

I could write a lot more about it, and many others have done so. But there are some places that you just have to experience to understand. Here is one of them.

Sharpen your passport now.