Dragons: Ten Entrepreneurs Who Built Britain by Liam Byrne

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Dragons: Ten Entrepreneurs Who Built Britain by Liam Byrne

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Category: Business and Finance
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: British history from medieval times to the present day as seen through the business world, and in particular the key entrepreneurs and commercial venturers. A thoroughly researched volume, albeit aimed more at the student than the general reader.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 544 Date: May 2016
Publisher: Head of Zeus
ISBN: 978-1781857472

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Liam Byrne MP, a minister in the last Labour government, has come up with a novel way of telling British history through the ages in this book. His approach is not one of Kings and Queens, wars or scientific discoveries, but through the business world and several of the key – and often unsung – entrepreneurs and commercial venturers from medieval times to the twentieth century. As he says in his preface, the people through whose lives he has chosen to narrate the saga reveal the best and worst of human endeavours, as he serves us up several explorers, inventors and moral leaders alongside a motley crew of fraudsters, warmongers and unembarrassed imperialists. All of them took risks, some made fortunes and some lost them, but for better or worse they all contributed towards the tale of British enterprise and the making of the modern world.

For Byrne, the epic journey begins with the 'pioneers of fleece and finance' from medieval and Tudor days, namely the celebrated Dick Whittington, the poor Gloucestershire lad who walked to London where he made good, and the less feted William de la Pole and Thomas Gresham. Each one built their fortunes on the burgeoning textile industry, and the national economy was all the better for it. In succeeding centuries, fortunes were made by names such as Sir Thomas 'Diamond' Pitt, Governor of the East India Company's headquarters at Madras, who became one of the richest men in England after purchasing what many to this day still consider the finest diamond in the world, and sold it to the French royal family; and William Jardine, the Scottish physician and merchant who became co-founder of the Hong Kong-based trading conglomerate Jardine, Matheson & Co, still one of the most successful companies in the world almost two centuries later.

Perhaps rather more familiar are the names of George Hudson, the 'Railway King', who had the good fortune to be there just as the train was about to revolutionise the concept of travel in the early nineteenth century, and George Cadbury, of cocoa and chocolate fame. Even better remembered, if not always for the right reasons, is the ever-controversial imperialist Cecil Rhodes, the merits and morals of whose ventures in South Africa are still fiercely debated to this day. Closer to the present day, the achievements of philanthropist William Lever, whose company later merged with two Dutch firms to become Unilever, and John Spedan Lewis, who gave his name to the huge emporium on Oxford Street, also come under the spotlight.

A concluding chapter, sub-titled 'Lessons for new world-beaters', looks at the place of today's entrepreneurs in the age of the global market. It comes as no surprise to read that Byrne has interviewed contemporaries such as Sir Richard Branson of the Virgin Group, Sir Martin Sorrell, formerly of Saatchi & Saatchi, and Duncan Bannatyne, business angel on the BBC's 'Dragon's Den'. The lesson they learnt, by and large, is that successful entrepreneurs had no fortune to begin with; they started with nothing. Even those who had the safety net of family money, and the solid grounding of a decent education, still took chances to a certain extent. As they say, who dares wins. Tomorrow's budding Bransons, take note.

It is often the case with books of a business nature that they make for rather dry reading, and this is no exception. Facts and figures about the captains of industry and the successes they engineered are all textbooks in their way, and this is really one for the student as opposed to the general reader. Yet that should not detract from the value of a superbly researched volume which examines its subject with great thoroughness, as well as providing a slightly unusual sidelight on British history.

For a different slant on the entrepreneurial world, particularly in the field of online business, may we also recommend The Curve: From Freeloaders into Superfans: The Future of Business by Nicholas Lovell, or the book which Whittington and Hudson et al never needed but you might, How to be a Social Entrepreneur: Make Money and Change the World by Robert Ashton.

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Buy Dragons: Ten Entrepreneurs Who Built Britain by Liam Byrne at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Dragons: Ten Entrepreneurs Who Built Britain by Liam Byrne at Amazon.com.


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