Maggie's disciple joins task force

25th July 1997 at 01:00
Tony Blair has asked the Joe Bloggs boss for Welfare to Work advice, reports Nicolas Barnard.

Tony Blair probably doesn't know this, but on the wall of the Legendary Joe Bloggs Incorporated's headquarters in Manchester is a picture of its boss, Shami Ahmed, shaking hands with Michael Portillo, the former defence secretary.

Portillo isn't smiling any more, but life just keeps getting better for the managing director of the jeans and clothing firm that hit the big time with the Madchester music explosion of the late 80s.

Newly-married, with a string of new franchises including sportswear Slazenger, and plans for a chain of shops, Shami (everybody calls him Shami) has been asked to join the Government's New Deal task force, advising on its Welfare to Work programme - apparently at the insistence of the Prime Minister himself.

"I'm not a politically-minded person," he says - just as well, considering he appeared at a Tory party conference only two years ago. "But if I can help in any way for people and for the Government, it would be an honour."

There's something oddly 1980s about Joe Bloggs for a business which thrives in the notoriously fast-moving fashion world. The black and chrome look of its headquarters, Shami's fervent belief in competition and the entrepreneur, belie the bang-up-to-date look of the garishly-coloured clothes.

His rise is a Thatcherite success story. In his - surprisingly modest - office, the MD with a personal fortune of Pounds 50 million and rising runs through it with practised ease: running his family's wholesale business at 15, launching Joe Bloggs at 24, the pop star endorsements, the property deals.

He admits he had a good start. His parents had, from a market stall, built up the thriving Pennywise cash-and-carry business. "They laid the foundations, " he says. And they were prepared to give their eldest son a chance.

"I joined the fashion business not because I wanted to become a success or create a brand. It was more to do with family values, carrying on the business from my father and mother and let them retire. As a good son, I took over the business."

Watching the family business grow gave him an almost compulsive addiction to doing business. He proved a fast learner and something of a natural.

His family moved to Burnley from Karachi in Pakistan when Shami was about four. By his early teens, he was travelling for an hour-and-a-half after school to Manchester to buy and sell in their growing wholesale business. When he left "at 15 or 16" without qualifications he took over that side of the firm.

"I was never really interested in school. I was always at the back of the class, not taking much notice. Teachers didn't really feel I was going to get anywhere.

"At the time I didn't realise how much you could achieve by listening and learning at school. But saying that, I always believed that the real education wasn't in the classroom; it was in the real world. You learn from practical education, practical experience, practical confrontations."

Those "confrontations" taught him early to turn situations to his advantage. "People thought I was a young kid so I didn't know what I was talking about. I used that to my advantage because I was underestimated. Sometimes you can use weaknesses as strengths."

That will be a key message he will bring to the task force when it first meets - that Labour must find a way of tapping the hidden talents of Britain's young people, of motivating them to seize the opportunities he believes are just waiting to be taken.

Shami doesn't need persuading young people have talent - "I see it all day long". His latest signing to follow Prince Naseem and New Order in modelling his clothes is national go-kart star "and future Formula One champion" Lewis Hamilton. Lewis is 12.

"Everybody has got strengths. Sometimes it's a hidden ability or quality that they haven't been able to click into. There are a lot of very talented youngsters in England who sometimes don't realise how talented they are.

"Talent doesn't come from Milan or Paris or London. It can come from Manchester or Burnley or the other side of Scotland. It comes from people."

Shami is still waiting for details of the Welfare to Work programme. But he supports its element of compulsion for those that don't perhaps have the addiction to hard work that he displays.

"You've got to make an effort," he says. "Don't wait for things to turn up. Make them turn up yourself."

It's the kind of pearl of wisdom that Shami excels at - others include "turn every negative into a positive". It's trite but true, and you'd pay a fortune to hear the same from a professional management consultant. Shami learned it himself, the hard way.

He says now that he would send his children to university, but mainly because his business is growing so large that when they come in it will be at a much higher level than he did.

"They would still need the instinct and ability that to me are known as common sense. They say common sense is instinct and enough of it is genius. Common sense is something nobody can teach you. You won't learn it doing a degree. "

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