Rare Talent with Ability to Do Just about Anything; Bill Gleeson Meets PROFESSOR TOM CANNON, Owner of Ideopolis International

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Byline: Bill Gleeson

PROFESSOR Tom Cannon is one of those rare talented individuals who can do pretty much anything they set their minds to. As well as having held some prestigious business-related academic posts, including visiting professorships at institutions around the world, Tom holds a number of company directorships and some trusteeships. He is also a public servant and occasional newspaper commentator.

After graduating in 1969 from the University of London with a degree in sociology, Tom joined a market research agency that used statistical techniques to analyse raw market data. He worked for Andrew Ehrenberg, a leader in the field. ``He was the king of the negative binomial distribution, '' recalls Professor Cannon.

``He was approached by Warwick University to be a professor there and he moved me from London to Warwick and I worked for him there for two years.

``Andrew was great at encouraging students and staff to publish. A lot of other academics were precious about allowing their researchers to publish with them. He would let people write and have their names go on the piece. I became quite confident and published a lot. That's the key thing about academic work. ''

After two years at Warwick, Professor Cannon was offered a post at Middlesex University teaching marketing. Three years later, he temporarily quit academia to work in the nitty-gritty world of selling vegetable sorting equipment overseas.

``Then serendipity struck. I was offered a post running the Export Studies Centre at Durham Business School.

``That's when I got my passion for small firms. They are so diverse. Small firm owners take big risks and they remember what you do for them, '' says Professor Cannon.

His big break came when he was approached to help found Stirling University Business School.

``I think it was a case of mistaken identity, '' says the Professor.

``This was starting something from scratch. It was a very big challenge. Ideally, you want a business school in a place where there is a lot of business activity: Glasgow or Manchester.

``We had a blank piece of paper and a great vice chancellor in the shape of Sir Kenneth Alexander.

He let me get on with developing the business school.

``He had a passion in the seventies for the university going out to the community. We did all sorts of wonderful things, including a community entrepreneurship scheme for the Western Isles.

``I remember we were stopped reaching one session by a school of basking sharks. The boatman would not take us because he said the sharks were so big they could turn the boat over. We launched the first graduate enterprise programme in the world. ''

Professor Cannon believes business and economic leaders in England could learn from the way the Scots pull together across political divides to get things done. He recalls how, when Stirling was in talks with US computing group Wang about taking space at its newly created science park, the Scottish Development Agency stepped in to make sure no other region of Scotland tried to snatch the deal away.

``You need a strong development agency, '' he says.

``In Scotland, they also have the Gleneagles conference. Youwould get all the heavyweights of Scottish industry there.

``I remember when Malcolm Rifkind was secretary of state for Scotland, he would attend, not just to give a speech and then go, but to stay for the night and do all the informal networking with all the leaders of Scotland. That's when the business really got done.

``That way they get to know each other on first name terms.

``It doesn't happen like that in the North West of England. …