Leigh Wharton Image

Leigh Wharton

Non-executive, Associate, Board Member,

Dr Leigh Wharton (Non-Executive Director Lloyd-Davies Associate - Strategy) Interview August 2023

Leigh Wharton was always cut out to be an academic, in that he is very analytical and considers the what and the why of everything. But he is also practical and has run his own consultancy business Bubble Partnership and Bubble Enterprises, a community interest company, for over 20 years. Primarily these businesses have helped start, nurture and scale ‘ventures’ in both commercial high growth areas and the ‘third sector’

The collective wisdom of these activities has coalesced into the text book he co-authored ‘Entrepreneurship, Innovation and Technology’ first released in 2013 and has undergone an enhanced version released in 2023.

Here Lesley Lomax interviews Leigh to understand his background and what has led him to stay close to Academia and support entrepreneurs over the last 23 years.

Interviewed by Lesley Lomax August 2023

Leigh, I notice from your linked in profile that you worked for a pyrite extraction facility in the 1980’s in South Africa?

‘Yes, that was one of my last jobs!!’

Interesting start, so how did that start lead to working on MBA’s, start up programmes and publishing a book.

“So my first degree is in Chemistry from Durham, but I didn't fancy working in the labs. I wanted to travel but didn't ever quite have the guts to give everything up and do it. So I thought, I'll do a bit of both. I'll work somewhere overseas. I asked myself how I could turn a chemistry degree into a practical job. So it was about mineral processing, oil and gas, and so on. So I ended up getting a graduate role for Anglo American, which is a big mining house, and they were recruiting for graduates to go to South Africa. And that's that was in 1980. So I did a graduate programme with Anglo American and that got me an 18 month training programme in different mines, and it was mineral processing.

I worked on the surface, literally turning rock into gold. Gold mines, diamond mines, coal mines, and other sorts of extraction plants. You did that for 18 months traveling around Southern Africa, working in different plants, and then eventually you were given a role and a job. I ended up working on a gold mine in a town called Welcom in the middle of the Free State. One of the facilities there that I eventually ended up running  was the pyrite extraction facility. A technique for extracting Gold from sludge.

As I never intended to emigrate, I came back to the UK to do a Masters of Science in Production Engineering at Birmingham to build my production profile. This led me to work for Lyons Tetley based in London, Allied Bakeries based in Newcastle and the CO-OP retail based back in Manchester. All jobs working on large change projects and programmes in planning new manufacturing processes or outsourcing business processes. At the end of each of these engagements I was making myself ‘redundant’ and at the end of the CO-OP outsourcing programme was when I decided to do my full time MBA at the Alliance Manchester Business School.”

Interesting, is that where you became interested in business incubation?

“Well yes, in our final year, you had a big project to do. The project I was involved with was a feasibility study on whether we could establish a business support unit out of the business school. 

The team working on the project set up what is now Bubble Partnership as a consultancy, and decided to pitch the project to the business school to implement. We had done all the background work, and we had got all the contacts, we had got this business template from the MBA and we went back to the Business School and pitched it to the head of the business. 

He quite liked it!

So we built a virtual incubator where it was focused around the business school and its resources and it was a ‘spin in’ not a ‘spin out’ from the University..

We went out and looked for ideas outside the university with the premise that we could offer resources of the business school and associates to help support the growth of these entrepreneurs who perhaps would want to access business school resources.  It is a really neat model. I still think it's a really neat model. 

We integrated it into the MBA programme. Students could experience startup businesses as part of their MBA. We got four commercial large stakeholders in Addleshaws (Lawyers), Royal Bank of Scotland (Finance), and then Rothchilds, PwC and the University. They were the shareholders. It was set up as a for profit company, which was unique. 

Then we had a series of associates, who all paid the incubator to be associated with it, who also provided services. They paid to be associated with the incubator, the university and the other big brands. The entrepreneurs who came to us could get ‘free’ projects out of the business school as they would have a group of MBA caliber people working on a business challenge that they set. The incubator would take some equity in the business for the ‘service’;

We ended up running the programme for ten years with many highs and lows. But this is how we got into business incubation, learning about tech transfer, early stage investments, and started being aware of how universities and government funds development, how business angels work and much much more.

Where did the social enterprise angle come in?

‘Initially we started approaching housing associations with a view to setting up business incubators in partnership with them, the theory being that if you work with the tenants to develop employment they will be creating income that makes them more secure tenants. This led us into conversation with social services and mental health support organisations. Our first ‘venture’ was with South Yorkshire Mental Health Trust where we ran a service in a day center that supported people recovering from ‘issues’ with a pathway that taught entrepreneurial skills.

We recruited a lady, Sue Dixon, to lead this work who was a service user, and with her insights and networking ended up bidding for and running multiple projects. The Oasis Cafe in Stockport, a mental health training programme with the Strategic Health Authority in the north west that ran across Greater Manchester and several incubation Hubs working with our original target Housing Associations. All of which built up our body of knowledge around what works and the challenges involved.

Can you tell me how you met Don Phillips and how he came into the story? How did you eventually help LDA create the Cohesion Platform?

“Don came to the incubator at the business school with one of his startup ideas, which we supported for quite a while. As it happened he sat next to Sue at his first dinner he attended and listened to her passion on enterprise as a pathway to recovery from mental health issues and our plans to launch Bubble Enterprises CIC as our ‘virtual incubator’ to support this space. He has lived experience and a background that could help us and agreed to become chair.

We have now been working together for over 15 years and been involved in multiple projects and programmes that have been flagships in their way. 

The latest is to take the methodology that we, (Ozwaldo Lorenzo, Peter Kawalak and I) write about in our book Entrepreneurship, Innovation and Technology, and bring it to life in an online platform. This is why I am so excited about the Cohesion Platform.’

Why do you think the platform will succeed, surely launching a business is all about entrepreneurial flair, do you really think that you can ‘systemise’ the process?

‘To be British about this I tend to sit on a fence, I think setting up and running a business and getting it ‘across the chasm’ is a bit of both an art and a science. 

I think it's six one and half dozen of the other.  You can be quite structured, in terms of setting up a business, however, there are strong elements of opportunity, and taking advantage of situations and so being quite reactive. 

Why I think the Cohesion Platform will succeed is that it is offering structure and learning that the entrepreneur can do independently coupled with access to a network who have experience in different areas of skills, who have many ‘scars’ and learnings from being in business and  who can be used as a ‘sounding boards’ to maximise the upside of all situations.

Ultimately it's about managing the risk and achieving the ‘upside’ which is a successful business that will support good jobs.’

As an entrepreneur yourself, would you think Entrepreneurs will want advice?

Again, I think it's a spread. I think it's the entrepreneurs that are willing to listen and to take advice that perhaps benefit more. But you do get people who don't listen to others. (it's not just entrepreneurs) 

As a coach and a mentor, there's only so much you can do with people that don't listen, you can only take them to the water. It can get to the stage, I think, where you need to make the call as an entrepreneur or as a coach and mentor as to are you adding value to each other. The beauty of the platform is we have both the learning element and the ability to start considering alternative people to partner with.


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