Innovation That Matters

Wise Words with Sir Torquil Norman

Nonprofit & Social Cause

This week we caught up with businessman, author and philanthropist Sir Torquil Norman.

Left to right: Sir Torquil Norman and Professor Gordon Murray

Sir Torquil Norman is a Cambridge and Harvard graduate who in 1973, became the Chief Executive of Berwick Timpo, beginning an extremely successful career in toy manufacturing. Seven years later he was appointed Executive Chairman of Bluebird Toys plc, which during the years from 1980 to 1995, grew from zero to sales of almost GBP 100m — introducing to the world the Big Yellow Teapot House, the Big Red Fun Bus, and the incredibly popular Polly Pocket toys.

In 1986 Torquil and his wife Anne founded the Norman Trust charity to help support children and young people. Following his retirement from Bluebird Toys plc in 1996, Sir Torquil went on to purchase the Roundhouse venue in London through the Norman Trust for GBP 3m, which he later described as an “impulse buy”. The Roundhouse Studios have since worked with around 40,000 young people, while the Roundhouse main space has become one of London’s preeminent venues for entertainment and education. After retiring from the Roundhouse in 2007 Sir Torquil began writing ‘Kick the Tyres Light the Fires’, a commentary on the British government.

Since the book’s publication in 2010, Sir Torquil’s latest project has been the Springwise-featured OX — a lightweight flatpack truck that can be assembled in a day, designed to provide African regions with cheap transportation. We caught up with Sir Torquil to discuss his working life, the OX, and his tips for the entrepreneurs of the future.

1. Where did the idea for your business come from?

My best ideas usually come while having a bath. I discovered from a book I was researching that 80 percent of the world’s population don’t have access to a vehicle. This is a crime and must be corrected.

2. Can you describe a typical working day?

I don’t have any typical working days. I get up at 6:30 am and check the computer at around 9 for previously arranged meetings etc.

3. How do you unwind or relax when you’re not working on your business?

Until recently flying vintage aircraft. Now it’s my barge, camping, reading, theatre and films.

4. What’s the most important characteristic for being an entrepreneur?


5. What drove you crazy when building your business?

Lead times and people prophesying gloom and doom!

6. What motivates you to keep going? What do you do when you hit a block?

The knowledge of how much help the OX will provide. As long as the original idea still convinces you, you must keep at it.

7. If you were to start again, what would you do differently?

Be better organised for fund-raising.

8. Do you have any habits or routines, which help you in your working life?

My grandmother had a sign above her desk that said ‘Do it Now’ – very good advice.

9. What book are you reading, or writing now?

John Grisham

10. Where do you see your business in five years, and how will you get there?

Either failed or a global success, hopefully the latter.

11. If you weren’t working on your business, what would you be doing?

Barging, writing and thinking up the next project.

12. Tell Springwise a secret

When motor vehicles are universally electric and driver-less; the streets will be empty of parked vehicles and so much quicker to move in. I fear I won’t be around then to enjoy them.

13. How did you get your initial round of funding to get your company off the ground?

A lifetime of hard work (every day enjoyable!) plus I sold our house as the children grew up and left home.

14. How do you feel about your journey ahead and do you have any wise words for aspiring entrepreneurs?

I’m very worried about the state of the country and of the world – it is more a question of how we destroy it as well as how soon. Don’t let the bastards grind you down.

You can read more about the OX here.