Tim Smit: The Eden Project
The outspoken entrepreneur behind the Eden Project reveals why he wants to rewrite the rules of business
Former archaeologist and hit record producer Tim Smit knows a thing or two about thinking big. The outspoken entrepreneur behind the Eden Project reveals why he wants to rewrite the rules of business.
It's not difficult to pin the anti-establishment label on Tim Smit. During my time with him, there's plenty of blame laid at the feet of both government and UK plc. But the Eden Project founder is far too savvy to align himself with all that “hippy nonsense”.
“I am a capitalist,” he declares, after a 10-minute rant on the UK financial sector, but I get the feeling, as far as capitalism's concerned, he's the enemy within.
Smit has had the most varied career of any entrepreneur I've met. An archaeology and anthropology degree at Durham unexpectedly led to a decade in the music industry, where he worked as a producer, collaborating with the likes of Barry Manilow and, something he's quite apologetic about, 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. Opening in 2001, it 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 has held gigs for acts, including Amy Winehouse and Snow Patrol, and most notably the Live 8 Africa Calling concert.
The site houses more than a million plants, and a variety of insects, birds and lizards. It's one of the most visited attractions outside London, although Smit is loath to describe it as a tourist hotspot, preferring “the world's first rock ‘n' roll scientific foundation”.
Labelling crops up several times during our conversations. One of his biggest bugbears is the deliberate distinction made between social enterprise and ‘serious' trading.
“People seem to think the rules of business were handed down on tablets to Moses himself,” he tells me just before his talk at the British Library – the headline event of its ethical business fortnight.
“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 against the perception that great business implies exploiting a market rather than developing it.”
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, which he finds counterproductive.
“Because the first models of social enterprise tended to be spin-offs 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,” he says.
“We need new structures that 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. Everyone expects a return. It's just got to be moderated in a different way.”
One of Smit's visions for a new breed of social enterprise involves using the securitisation model adopted by football clubs – a season ticket bought and paid for in advance, ensuring the seat earns money with every event – and applying this to the energy market.
By getting everyone in a county such as Cornwall to sign up to 20 years' worth of fuel in exchange for becoming a shareholder, this would allow the company to raise the capital needed to invest in renewable energy technologies.
It's an idea I've heard him push at several public appearances, and while its appeal is obvious, I'm not quite as sure we're ready for that kind of sea change in consumer attitude just yet.
Smit is a regular on the speaker circuit and it's easy to see why. A gifted storyteller, he manages to be controversial, often greeting his audience with direct insults, and yet remain inoffensive.
“You're all a bunch of losers,” he told this year's Institute of Directors convention after not enough of them raised their hands when he asked who had experienced failure. Probably not what delegates are used to, but when you hear him explain that those who haven't failed haven't tried very hard, you start to understand his reasoning. His musings on success are equally intriguing.
“In 1981, I had a number one hit record in France, and the song that was about to knock it off the top spot was also mine,” he says. “I was in a chauffeur-driven limo going down the Champs Elysées and suddenly I burst into tears. I'd never been so miserable in all my life.”
It sounds a little self-indulgent, but his argument was that he could live on the hope and the anticipation. The prospect of success in such a glamorous industry was electrifying, but once it arrived it was disappointing.
“I thought champagne would be running through my veins, but when I got there it felt no different,” he continues. “I was surrounded by people who couldn't care whether I lived or died. I was just a product. I realised it can never just be about the money. If there's no other value to it, you're doomed to unhappiness.”
Smit'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 “à la Disney”, but he hasn't ruled out creating something similar that reflects the culture of its location.
The same ethos is applied to branding and sponsorship. The commercial integrity of Eden is jealously guarded by Smit. A blanket ban on any outside branding is enforced right down to the lack of Coke in the snack shops – and Smit says the public adores that. Instead, very close long-term relationships with local suppliers have been cultivated.
“We see ourselves as encouragers of local enterprise and enable our suppliers to use their contracts with us as security for them to grow,” he explains.
However, all of Eden's suppliers are urged to develop connections with outside markets. While Smit prides himself on the project's contribution to the local economy, he's aware of the wider consequences should Eden's fortunes take a nose dive.
Smit puts Eden's economic contribution to Cornwall to date at £930m, but the project has courted its share of resentment from some local bodies. The most notable was criticism over the £3m loan it received from the council before launching.
It's a sore subject for Smit 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,” he says. “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 about it would stop.”
Annual revenue for the Eden Project stands at roughly £19m, with 75% coming from visitors and 25% from special events like rock gigs, commercial developments and donations – the Eden Trust, which owns the project, is both a limited company and registered charity.
While Smit 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.
Eden's fortunes have, so far, resisted the gravitational pull of the downturn, but it's hard to ignore the anger Smit feels towards the financial sector. Male vanity and the cocky, aggressive attitude systemic to the financial sector attracts a fair portion of his wrath, as does the City's so-called risk culture.
“Any fool can gamble with someone else's money,” he says. “That's not entrepreneurial. A lot of those big investment banks managed to build up a real culture of risk and machismo that's based on a falsehood.
“I feel strongly about it because a lot of the great businesses in this country have been built by people working really hard and taking a punt on themselves with assets that their family and friends have put up. The fact that banks are making more money on gambling than investing in people who are building and making things is the root of a lot of what's gone wrong.”
This mantra of people over corporation comes across very strongly during our time together.
Smit has a way of putting you at ease. By the time he arrives for our photo shoot, which was slotted in just before his speaking appearance at the British Library, he's 40 minutes late. His audience are waiting, and our photographer has started to panic, but a few shots in and they're winding each other up with equal jovial gusto. Despite having just escaped from a day-long meeting with potential investors, Smit is accommodating to a fault.
This certainly goes a long way to convincing me that his anti-hierarchical, my-door-is-always-open policy at Eden is more than just a branding exercise. In fact, Eden's management structure, which has sparked interest from several blue-chip firms, such as Unilever and BP, involves a series of rules including ‘tricky days', where senior staff take on frontline responsibilities, such as serving food or cleaning duties.
“You need to develop techniques that enable the people around you to be positively critical,” says Smit.
“A lot of novice managers think their authority is being challenged when people question it. Many of the best ideas at Eden came out of the gardener or kitchen staff saying: ‘Have you thought about doing it like that?'”
Smit says one of his proudest moments at Eden was avoiding a mass staff cull in 2003. The site was facing an awful winter, but all employees had been promised their jobs were not seasonal. Instead of going down the redundancy route, they took a big gamble and built the largest outdoor ice rink in Europe. It proved a huge hit and, as a result, not a single redundancy was made.
“We depend on people that work their socks off,” says Smit. “They have to trust you're going to protect them and they're not expendable. So many companies talk all this shit about people being their greatest asset, but who's the first to go?”
Another one of those business maxims Smit has no time for is 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,” says Smit. “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.”
In his own words
On the unlocked potential of social enterprise
“In my view, many of the great social enterprises that sit there waiting to be started involve harnessing the fire power of big corporate experience for the more personal engagement of community services”
On whether capitalism provides the best route out of poverty
“To talk about the supremacy of it over other systems is fine, but actually, since the wall came down and we had the death of communism, I think it's game on to see if capitalism can prove it has a beating heart that's actually about human values, as opposed to just distribution of capital”
On Tinkerbell Theory
“If you truly believe in something and you can get three others to believe in it too, it will happen. If you love something, provided you're not a freak, they'll be millions of others that love it too. Then, the only remaining issue is a marketing one”
On critics of the financial support Eden has received
“I have a deep seated resentment towards people who think we've had too much because there's never been such a good investment made in Cornwall”
On putting his money where his mouth is
“I have put a lot of my own money in and if we hadn't got the grant to build the Eden Project, it could have ruined me. But that, in itself, gives you a kind of credibility with the bank. They saw we were genuinely entrepreneurial as opposed to a bunch of people waiting for state support”
On getting funding
“If you have a certain amount of charm, and you won't go away, people will eventually pay you large sums of money to do so. It's worked very well for me”