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26 May 2017

Celebrating business, disruption and unlikely godfathers: 20 years of Fast Track

Alistair King

For the first time in its 20-year history, and to mark this anniversary, the annual Fast Track 100 conference and awards dinner, sponsored by the Sunday Times and Virgin, was held not in Oxfordshire but in London.

As a representative of Bureau van Dijk, which provides detailed private company data from Fame to help compile the list, I'd attended last year at the awards' traditional home, the grounds of the Branson family estate.

Lavish London in 2017

Learning that this year's event, which took place yesterday, would be at the Old Billingsgate Market, only a stone's throw from our London offices, I'd felt a little disappointed not to be off on a rural jaunt. But my disappointment turned to delight at the lavishness of the Thames-side venue – overlooking HMS Belfast and City Hall from the red carpet outside on the terrace – and the luck we had with the weather, reportedly the hottest May day since 1944.

Like last year, I was struck by the sheer enthusiasm the 15 or so entertaining, wise but in many cases quite humble speakers showed for enterprise simply for its own sake.

Productive disruption

Like many such events, offering awards is really just an excuse to have a big group discussion on and celebration of business and innovative disruption – and it was hugely welcome and inspiring.

When writing up experiences like this it's tempting to look for a unifying theme, and it's a tactic that sometimes works. But on this occasion the conversations were just too diverse, so I'll round off with a few of my favourite quotes and anecdotes from the panels and the Q&A between Sir Richard and Virgin Group's CEO, Josh Bayliss.

Anecdotal evidence

On the first panel, Creating innovative billion-pound companies, Simon Segars, CEO of ARM, spoke eloquently about the company's decision to sell to Softbank last year, a coda to which we wrote about in March this year. But my favourite line from him, endorsed by the other panellists, was on the necessity of working with good colleagues. "If you can't change the people, change the people," he said.

Famous from appearances on the BBC's Dragons' Den, Nick Jenkins joined a discussion entitled Taking on the big brands, talking of a "dis-economy of scale" in relation to IT employee requirements when expanding small businesses, a phrase that will stick with me. But – despite his underselling it – I was most taken by the story of how he got his nickname, "Moonpig", which he went on to use for his company. An old schoolfriend – the one who came up with it on their first day at school – took him for a pint decades later and explained that there was no reason for it at all.

And on the Building 21st-century businesses panel there was much talk of artificial intelligence, machine learning and automation, something that in the Q&A that followed led Sir Richard to talk passionately in support of the idea of a universal basic income. (Philanthropic activities and the work of Virgin Unite account for most of Sir Richard's time these days.)

Oh, and you read it here first: within five years, we'll all be using a portable DNA-detection device at home to diagnose our illnesses and we'll look back on these times as being like the dark ages. At least this is the contention of Dr Gordon Sanghera, speaking on the same panel. CEO of Oxford Nanopore Technologies, he argued his case very convincingly, so I'm not really in a position to dismiss it.

But I leave you with a link to a story on the Virgin homepage that explains how Sir Richard became the unlikely godfather of a customer's daughter, something he candidly and amusingly recounted again yesterday. It's not something we maybe want to explicitly reference on a family blog like ours.
Alistair King

Alistair King, Content Manager

Alistair contributes and edits material for all areas on this blog. With extensive knowledge of legal and company information, his specialist interests include compliance and corporate ownership.

Alistair contributes and edits material for all areas on this blog. With extensive knowledge of legal and company information, his specialist interests include compliance and corporate ownership.

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