World Entrepreneur of the Year

DESPITE the gloomy economic outlook in Europe, Monte Carlo was buzzing, as Ernst and Young hosted its twelfth annual World Entrepreneur of the Year award last week.

No fewer than 59 entrepreneurs from 51 countries gathered to compete for the top prize in an atmosphere of unfettered optimism.

This year’s country winners included Reid Hoffman, founder of LinkedIn, representing the US, and Finland’s Mikael Hed, chief executive of Rovio, the company that makes Angry Birds.

No wonder they were upbeat. Even in challenging times, these people are creating jobs and wealth. Together, they employ over 300,000 people across 51 countries and are responsible for over $59bn (£38bn) in revenue in the last year alone.

Liew Kee Sin – president and chief executive of the Malaysian property development company S P Setia Berhad, which is bidding for Battersea Power Station – is enthusiastic and positive. He encourages others to start their own business: “It’s good to get away from one’s comfort zone and the downturn was a wake-up call. There is no such thing as a secure job anymore, so why not take a risk?”

Bill Buckley of BSL Buckley Systems is equally enthusiastic. Over the last 25 years he has grown his company into the largest manufacturer of precision electromagnets and ion hardware in the world. Buckley is very down to earth, with a palpable passion for what he does. He has a less than 1 per cent staff turnover and his positive attitude shows why.

His advice to upcoming entrepreneurs is: “Don’t be frightened. Have a goal and go for it. And make quick decisions. If you make a mistake you can always fix it later.”

All country level winners had already competed in regional and country-wide finals for the chance to represent their country. The World Entrepreneur of the Year was chosen after a long day of interviews held by a selection committee of past winners – including Steve Case, formerly of AOL, and Michael Spencer of Icap.

The title of World Entrepreneur of the Year went to James Mwangi, chief executive and managing director of Kenya’s Equity Bank – the largest bank by customer base in East and Central Africa, and the largest African majority owned company in the region. The bank has over

half of all bank accounts in Kenya (7m accounts). Mwangi is responsible for tuning around a failing micro-finance institution and in the process helps improve the quality of life of the poorest, by giving them access to finance for investment.

Mwangi came from a poor family and his father died in the repatriation effort at the end of the last century. The ability to mobilise trust and confidence in the business that he created was a key secret to his success. He urges everyone to look to Africa for investment in these tough economic times.

Although each entrepreneur has a different story to tell – and are involved in a wide range of industries, from food products to hospitality, to software and everything in between – they had similar ambitions to create jobs and elevate the health and welfare of the very poorest in the world. Entrepreneurs, not the government, will do the hard work of rebuilding economies. Aigboje Aig-Imoukhuede of Nigeria’s Access Bank sums it up best: “The government and central banks can’t generate jobs. A wise government makes a country fertile for entrepreneurs and then entrepreneurs create jobs.”