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The Eden Project: Tim Smit

The Eden Project founder on the ‘Moses way’ of doing business

The man behind Cornwall’s Eden Project has many strings to his bow. After a degree in archaeology and anthropology Tim Smit spent a decade in the music industry where he worked as a producer for acts including Barry Manilow and, something he’s quite apologetic for, the Nolan Sisters. However, it’s the Eden Project, which followed his restoration of the Lost Gardens of Heligan, that he’s most famous for. The site had its official opening in 2001 and was built in a disused china clay quarry at Bodelva, Cornwall. The £130m project consists of several structures, designed by renowned architect Nicholas Grimshaw, including the Rainforest Biome, the world’s largest greenhouse.

As well as attracting more than 10 million visitors since its launch, Eden houses more than a million plants, but has also played host to acts such as Amy Winehouse and Snow Patrol, and most notably the Live 8 Africa Calling concert. Understandable then that Tim is loath to describe it as a tourist hotspot but rather “the world’s first rock n’ roll scientific foundation”.

Labelling is a big issue for Tim. One of his biggest bugbears is the deliberate distinction thrust between social enterprise and ‘serious’ trading. “People seem to think the rules of business were handed down on tablets to Moses himself,” he says. “The way we look at the public limited company and the structures that surround it are deemed to be perfect. They’re not. I’m not anti-wealth. I’m just anti the perception that great business implies an exploitation of a market rather than the developing of it.”

New structures

Simply put, he’s sick of people talking about social enterprise in hushed library tones, and the biggest offender of them all is government. Official definitions for social enterprise have attached a quasi not-for-profit business structure to the term which he finds counter-productive. “Because the first models of social enterprise tended to be spinoffs of public sector services, there’s a sense they need to be nurtured and protected in a way that I don’t think is helpful.

“We need new structures which combine a mixture of public and equity involvement. I think over the next decade you’ll start to see social enterprise managed by really good people, making a profit and paying the individuals that work there good salaries. Everybody expects a return. It’s just got to be moderated in a different way.”

Tim’s stance on the hollowness of financial gain without social profit is also at the heart of his reluctance to franchise the Eden concept out. The trust has resisted others “taking the project à la Disney and decanting it from one country to another” but he hasn’t ruled out the possibility of creating another Eden which reflects the culture of its location. It just can’t be a carbon copy of the Cornwall site.

The same ethos is applied to sponsorship and branding. The commercial integrity of Eden is jealously guarded by Tim. A blanket ban on any outside branding is enforced right down to the lack of Coke in the snack shops. Instead, very close long-term relationships with local suppliers have been cultivated. “We see ourselves as encouragers of local enterprise and we enable our suppliers to use their contracts with us as a degree of security in order for them to grow.” However, all of Eden’s suppliers are urged to develop connections with outside markets. While Tim prides himself on the project’s contribution to the local economy, he’s aware of wider consequences should Eden’s fortunes take a nosedive.

Tim puts Eden’s economic contribution to Cornwall to date at £930m, “on a very conservative estimate”, but the project has courted its share of resentment from some local bodies, most notably the criticism over the £3m loan it received from the council before launching. It’s a sore subject for Tim and one that leads him into a tirade. “I’ve got no time at all for people who have any objection to us getting the loan. Every other major project in the country was given land and money by their council. Cornwall didn’t give us anything. They loaned it to us at a commercial rate and they’ve done very well out of it so I wish those that are bleating on about it would stop.”

Annual revenue for the Eden Project currently stands at roughly £19m with 75% coming from visitors and the other 25% from special events like the rock concerts, commercial developments and of course, donations – the Eden Trust, which owns the project, is both a limited company and registered charity. While Tim recognises the need to be commercial in order to remain independent, and has aspirations for the project to be run solely from commercial revenue eventually, he’s aware recent events in the financial sector may make that harder.

Wet haddock

Despite the sheer dedication and perseverance it took to fund and build Eden, if there’s one business maxim Tim has no time for it’s the importance of focus. “I’m always being criticised for it but I’m the least focused guy you’ve ever met. People who talk about focus should get a slap in the face with a wet haddock.”

So if it’s not focus that breeds success how do you get a project as vast and ambitious as Eden off the ground? Simple: you just announce you’re going to do it. “I discovered a technique that revolutionised my life. It’s called lying – or rather, the telling of future truths. It’s about putting yourself in the most public jeopardy possible and saying ‘I am going to do this’, so the shame of not doing it would be so great it energises every part of your being.”

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