Growth in the British economy may have stalled, but the enterprise culture refuses to die. Our eighth annual Management Today survey of Britain's Top 100 entrepreneurs and family businesses shows that, even in 2011, there are business heroes still doggedly expanding their operations, taking on staff and steadfastly bucking the all-prevailing gloom.
Take Nick Robertson, our number one entrepreneur this year. He floated his online fashion retail business Asos (an acronym for As Seen On Screen, in honour of the TV and movie star-inspired fashions he specialises in) in the worst possible circumstances. It was early October 2001, less than a month after 9/11, world markets were traumatised and the dotcom bubble was bursting around him. Yet the listing went resolutely ahead, valuing Asos at £12.3m. Today, the business is worth £1.2bn and is one of AIM's star performers. It's also creating significant employment: a new Asos warehouse opens in Barnsley this year, creating 1,000 badly needed jobs in the area.
And others are doing well online too. Having learned hard lessons about the need to conserve cash and make decent profits during the dotcom crash, online operators are now among the most resilient and recession-proof of businesses. In last year's Top 100 there were just four internet entrepreneurs, but this year - be they retail, gaming or comparison sites - there are no fewer than 13.
The more traditional British industries are also doing their bit. It is significant that, while the economy contracted as a whole in the last quarter of 2010, British manufacturing continued to power ahead, growing by a respectable 0.9%. This counter-cyclical success is reflected in the Top 100, with a strong haul of 26 industrial entrepreneurs this year. Some are in obvious areas such as oil services firms in Aberdeen, booming on the back of high oil prices and strong export markets. But among them are other heroes such as Midlands businessman John Bloor, who has revived the British motorbike industry almost single-handed, making Triumph into a marque capable of taking on the Japanese giants for the first time in 30 years.
Overall, the Top 100 entrepreneurs are also in the vanguard of the Coalition government's efforts to rebalance the British economy towards the private sector. The figures are encouraging. Looking at two of our key measures of performance - growth in turnover and employment - it is heartening to report that our Top 100 have done themselves proud. In five years, their turnover has risen from £9.3bn to £16.7bn - a healthy 79.5% rise, which naturally means more economic activity spreading round the UK. The total number of people employed by our Top 100 has also risen in five years, by nearly 43,000 to 109,670. This represents a 64% rise and shows that in the crucial area of productivity our Top 100 are right on top of their game. They are getting more work out of their staff, with turnover growing significantly faster than the rate of employment growth.
Our ranking is of course drawn from all industries and all parts of the UK. Such diversity not only reflects the realities of modern Britain but also makes for a more stable national economic base in these exceptionally hard times. Aside from our industrialists, we have 12 retailers and a similar number in food retailing or processing. This year we have 11 women in the MT100, substantially up on last year's figure of eight and suggesting that our entrepreneurs may be doing a better job of increasing sex equality than their oppos in the nation's boardrooms, where the female headcount has remained pretty static this year. Things could be better, however - that figure is still well short of the Top 100 record of 29 women, set in 2008. Britain's burgeoning Asian enterprise culture is also well represented, with 13 names - up again from four last year - drawn from all over the country and a wide range of sectors. Among them are Ranjit and Baljinder Singh Boparan, who made waves in the City with their audacious and successful £342m bid for Northern Foods.
In geographic terms, we still see the traditional dominance of London and the south-east, with 32 of the 100 drawn from the region. This is down by six on last year, but still a long way off 2006 when the region was home to 44 of the Top 100. Perhaps the north-south divide is narrowing? Other regions doing well include Yorkshire and the south-west, with 13 apiece.
One of the measures of how well our entrepreneurs are doing comes from a valuation of their stake in their businesses and other assets, based on the stock market values, if quoted, or in line with those values if our entrepreneur is running a private company. Such valuations, of course, come with many caveats, but serve as a rough and ready guide. Collectively the Top 100 are, by our reckoning, worth just over £10bn, up slightly from £9bn last year but well down on the boom year of 2008 when the collective wealth of our high-flying 100 was a whopping £17bn.
Our entrepreneurs also have a great deal of collective wisdom and experience under their belts, with 10 of the Top 100 aged 70 or over. The oldest of all - local newspaper hero Sir Ray Tindle - is 84 and still going strong, offering inspiration for a future where retirement ages look set to be considerably higher than they are today.
The one fact that unites all MT's Top 100 Entrepreneurs - veterans and young 'uns alike - is their demonstrable record of success. But, with the travails in the world economy, they will need to draw on their resilience and experience as never before. For the rest of us, we can only pray that they succeed. They are the best hope for Britain's return to prosperity.