The man behind the Great Western Railway was a true entrepreneur: ambitious, indefatigable, enthusiastic, eternally curious. And he was blessed with the technological advances of the Victorian era too! Take a stroll with Mike into the world of Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

Take a train from London to Bristol and you are riding a piece of history. While you’re in Bristol, visit the Clifton suspension bridge and the SS Great Britain. The link between all these is, of course, Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Like Edison, Brunel is one of our heroes: courageous, brilliant and visionary. He thought conceptually, the way great entrepreneurs do – the point of the great iron steamships was to ‘extend the Great Western Railway so that it ran all the way from London to New York’ (how’s that for a Victorian elevator pitch?).

Like many great visionaries, he failed to realize the vision fully. The only way the plan could have worked was to build a new port at Avonmouth, and the small elite who ran Bristol blocked this. So, the grand vision became a series of smaller visions, and Liverpool won the battle to be the great Victorian embarkation point for America (to think, if Brunel had had his way, we might never have had the Beatles…).

The railway nearly failed too. Like most entrepreneurs, Brunel was insistent on getting involved in every aspect of the business. This included the notorious decision to use his own gauge. The rest of England ran on rails the distance apart they are now, four feet 8 ½ inches. Brunel wanted his gauge seven feet wide. Again, his visionary, overall thinking was spot-on. Early Victorian railway business came from freight. Brunel understood that the future of railway transportation lay in passengers and that passengers would require speed; at the time, the standard-gauge trains ran too slowly as the engines were too dinky. Brunel would create monster engines to speed the trains along his railway at the then unimaginable speed of 50 miles per hour.

As usual, execution was the difficulty. The non-standard gauge was always a niggle, but worse, the special locos he designed were underpowered and unreliable. Brunel did not sufficiently understand steam technology. Luckily he secured the services of a brilliant young engineer, Daniel Gooch – thereby demonstrating another key entrepreneur skill: delegation. Gooch wrote to Brunel asking for a post. Brunel interviewed him, realised his ability and appointed him chief engineer. Great entrepreneurs spot good people and have no hesitation in promoting them.

Note that there are other key figures in the GWR story. Charles Saunders was Brunel’s finance cornerstone. The great entrepreneur insisted on quality (and thus expenditure); Saunders ensured that the money was there. (Other Brunel enterprises such as the SS Great Eastern lacked a finance cornerstone and duly suffered.) The business also had a mentor in Charles Russell, an influential MP who ensured that the right strings were pulled in the right places.

What can the modern entrepreneur learn from this? Firstly, the importance of vision, but also the ability to temper this with realism. It’s a difficult call: how far can you water down your vision before it becomes neutered, insipid and valueless? You have to take a stand somewhere. Brunel ended up getting this compromise dead right: the London – New York travel machine didn’t really work; the London – Bristol travel machine was a glorious winner. The key seems to be to compromise one value at a time. In this case, reduce the geographical scope but not the insistence on quality.

Second, of course, is our old friend the team. The Gooch story is illustrative. Look very honestly at your team and ask where the hole is. It may look like a small hole, but is it critical? Following the Beermat model, the GWR needed two technical cornerstones, one to handle the big picture, the other to home in on detail. The Brunel / Gooch split was actually a subtle refinement on this. Brunel was the innovation cornerstone, designing all sorts of things from tunnels to signalling systems, but he lacked the depth of skill in one particular, crucial, specialist area. He had to recruit a second innovator, what we would call a ‘critical technology cornerstone’. Had Brunel flown modern consultants back in a time machine to help him, they would probably have lectured him about the need to master ‘core competencies’. He just used common sense.

If you take the train to Bristol, enjoy the ride and think of the great entrepreneur and engineer who built the line over 150 years ago. He is a hero now, but in his time was a controversial figure and, contrary to his more hagiographical admirers, did not get everything right. Maybe that’s the most important lesson of all from this great man.


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