Start up a conversation about business start-ups and you’ll immediately grab Rob Binns’ attention. The 49-year-old serial entrepreneur is passionate about the subject.
It is a passion that has enabled him to build up a varied portfolio of ventures based in his home city of Preston, while supporting others looking to following in his path.
A well-known figure in Lancashire’s business community, Rob is managing director of Cotton Court, a stylishly converted city-centre mill that is home to a burgeoning number of young and growing enterprises.
He also has interests in tech and telecoms businesses, as well as property and energy companies.
His latest venture involves the development, manufacture and marketing of a natural hair product range for mixed race and curly hair, inspired by his three-year-old daughter Lydia.
He is excited about the potential of the business that he’s set up with two partners and which launches in September. And he stresses its manufacturing and sales operations are both Lancashire-based.
Rob has clear ideas on what is needed to encourage more people in Lancashire, particularly from its less affluent parts, to harness their entrepreneurial spirit.
That includes taking the county’s business support services out to those communities - making them more accessible to more people and creating pathways for them to begin their journey.
He also believes people can make a difference and inspire others through leading by example. “It’s not where you are from,” he says. “It is what you do”.
Rob was brought up in Deepdale, in Preston’s inner city. A son of the Windrush generation he went to school locally before leaving at 16 to become an apprentice at what is now BAE Systems.
It gave him an education that included studying mechanical and production engineering at the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) while working full time.
As a result, his aerospace career took off. He says: “I went on to work alongside some of the highest-level people across the organisation, worked with nearly every department and gained a lot of new opportunities as a result, and I got to work on some really groundbreaking projects.”
However, it wasn’t enough. “I get up early and go to bed late, there just wasn’t enough for me to do,” he says. So, he harnessed his energy setting up and running businesses in his spare-time and in the evenings. Leisure and entertainment and tech were his first sectors.
It is not where you are from. It is what you do.
When he took the final plunge to leave the security of BAE after 17 years, he started his own consultancy and has never looked back.
It is a journey that has taken him in many directions, including London’s Mansion House, where he was part of a delegation of Lancashire entrepreneurs invited to meet the Lord Mayor and then Business Secretary Greg Clark last year.
Rob describes being an entrepreneur as “having an idea and then seeing that idea happen.” He adds: “Never go at it with a pure financial goal or it doesn’t work.
“I’ve had challenging times when things weren’t going as well as I needed them to, but going back and getting a job was never on the table.
“It’s the freedom and flexibility to do what you want to do. You work more hours for less money but you get more out of it. My world is extremely varied.”
That variety becomes evident when he reels off some of his business and community interests.
There’s Cotton Court, his creation and vision, which has become a vibrant and high-profile business hub, and a telecoms business. There’s also a property project he describes as “a little apart-hotel near the university”.
On top of that Rob is director of a not-for-profit housing company with more than 100 properties across the UK and is also a director of an associated energy company with more than 85,000 customers nationally. “It is about trying to eradicate fuel poverty,” he explains. “Profits go back into buying more properties.”
Then there is the hair product venture. He says: “We’ve got a little girl aged three with frizzy curly hair and we couldn’t find any products for her that didn’t contain harsh chemicals. So, we set about creating them. I’m really excited about its potential.”
There is an intent, there is a mission and there is a plan. It could be a real catalyst for a lot more things
Away from his own enterprises, Rob is a member of the strategic board driving Preston’s Town Deal bid and is a proud Prestonian.
He says: “This is home and I am proud and very entrenched in what goes on here. When I leave a room in London, I make sure people know where I come from.
“Pre-Covid there was a real buzz here, confidence was growing and city living expanding, people have been putting their money where their mouth is.”
Cotton Court was an early development project in a historic quarter of the city centre that is now earmarked for the ambitious Stoneygate regeneration masterplan.
Rob says: “There is an intent, there is a mission and there is a plan. It could be a real catalyst for a lot more things. It’s a 15-year plan which is sensible, there are no short-term fixes anymore.”
When it comes to business development, Rob believes that the challenge to businesses in Lancashire is securing funding for growth and acquisition.
He says: “We need to up our ambition, we need to get ourselves on the radar of more private equity houses. They are unaware of Lancashire and what its businesses can deliver.”
The former runner-up in the first every UK breakdance championships, held in Morecambe, has his own personal growth ambitions, though he stresses he is driven by achievement rather than money. “My last holiday was in Scotland in a campervan,” he adds.
Instead he’d like to be involved with a successful product that has an international range and to bring forward a plc.
And his biggest piece of advice for would-be entrepreneurs? “Don’t be afraid of asking if you don’t know something,” he replies.
“I’ve got a good network. People call them mentors; I call them friends. People like to help other people, but if you don’t ask you don’t get.”
He adds: “Things that have gone wrong have done so because I’ve not trusted my instinct. Things go wrong for a reason and you learn from that.
“If there’s one thing I’d say looking back it is that I didn’t aim high enough when I was younger. I wish I’d set the bar higher.”
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