There’s a growing confidence in the UK’s second largest city as entrepreneurs take advantage of favourable conditions to use it as a launch pad for new ventures. Jon Card reveals why Birmingham is looking better than ever for business
No other city in the UK has seen as much change as Birmingham since the start of the 1990s. And crucially, the changes have been popular with businesses and investors alike.
Just over 20 years ago it was make or break for Birmingham. The city that was once the industrial beating heart of Britain was in serious decline. Its manufacturing base had reduced, its infrastructure was worsening and the city centre was an eyesore. Sir Albert Bore, now the city’s council leader, recalls its problems all too well. “If you had someone over for a meeting, there was nowhere to take them. You’d suggest you went to Stratford instead. There was nowhere in the city centre to go.”
Bore brought an international team to Birmingham and with the Highbury Commission created a plan to revitalise the city. More than two decades later, its strategies are still being implemented. The city centre has been expanded; the vast flyovers or ‘concrete collars’ have been demolished along with many ugly and tired brutalist buildings.
Major new developments, such as the Bullring shopping centre, have been built and more are on the way. Also, regeneration projects have focused on finding new uses for the city’s historic industrial architecture.
Retail and restaurant establishments have boomed in the city; with the emergence of three Michelin-starred restaurants, Bore and others no longer have to travel to east London to find somewhere to dine. Fuelling these higher-end premises are the professional service workers and corporate executives working in the city. Professional services firms including PwC, KPMG, Wragge & Co and Grant Thornton have large lettings in the city centre. Meanwhile, Deutsche Bank is reportedly planning to open a trading floor at its office. Business and professional services is now one of the city’s key sectors.
But it’s not just large professional services firms that are flocking to Brum: entrepreneurs have also started coming to the city to start up, taking advantage of low rents, proximity to several universities and a skilled workforce. Research from Marketing Birmingham shows that over 10,000 business were incorporated in the past year. Also, the West Midlands is holding on to a significant chunk of graduates with 56% finding employment in the region. But, most importantly, start-ups with great potential are getting backing and support.
Simon Jenner is the chief executive officer of Oxygen Enterprise Partners, which supports technology businesses in Birmingham. The company runs one of the handful of business accelerator programmes in the country, which helps start-ups get investment ready. The Oxygen Accelerator programme takes applications from businesses in 35 countries that want to come to gain advice, investment and set up offices in the city. Jenner also regularly attends business meet-ups in Birmingham and says it’s apparent that the city’s tech scene is on the move.
“Entrepreneurs, investors and skilled employees are finding it easier to take plans forward. We are reaching the tipping point for new businesses and we are seeing the groundwork that we’ve put in for new businesses take effect. We are going to see a real kick in the eco-system,” he explains.
Neil Rami, chief executive of Marketing Birmingham, a body focused on bringing investment and visitors to the city is also very positive about the future. “We want to make Birmingham the most enterprising city in Europe,” he says. It seems a somewhat audacious ambition, but less so to foreign ears than to British ones, claims Rami.
He points to statistics showing foreign direct investment in Birmingham has risen by 52% in the past year. The city is also doing considerable business with China, selling everything from Jaguars to computer games. Its diverse and multilingual population is well-placed to forge links with the emerging economies of the East and other destinations. “When I speak to people from overseas they have a much better perception of Birmingham than people living in the south east of England tend to,” he says.
Entrepreneurs looking to move into Birmingham and the West Midlands would be advised to consider its strengths and to assess whether their businesses might fit into or interact with its key sectors. The city council and partners have created a plan to focus their energies on key sectors and create economic zones or hubs for them. Professional services, digital media, advanced manufacturing, life sciences, food and drink and IT, electronics and communications (ITEC) have been cited as the city’s key sectors. These are all areas where the city already has a significant foothold but the plan gives the city more focus and enables the creation of clusters, which benefit from sharing ideas, suppliers and personnel. “It’s about getting the right kind of investment,” says Rami.
It certainly seems the next five years look promising for a city that, despite difficulties in the wider economy, is still pursuing big ambitions. The city’s main railway terminus New Street Station is now undergoing a total overhaul and Grand Central will open with a brand new John Lewis store, adding to Birmingham’s Selfridges and Harvey Nichols.
Meanwhile, Birmingham Airport, which previously couldn’t cater for larger aircraft, will complete its runway extension at the end of the year enabling flights to the Far East and the West Coast of the US. Its bullish chief executive Paul Kehoe is arguing the case for further regional airport expansion and recently published plans for an additional runway. This would give Birmingham the capacity to transport 70 million passengers, putting it on a par with Heathrow.
Finally, there is the contentious yet increasingly likely prospect of rail link HS2. For Birmingham, this is far more than merely a fast line to London. Business leaders believe it has the potential to turn the city into a ‘transport hub’, boosting growth and jobs in the process.
All in all, there’s much for businesses and investors to be taking into account when assessing the merits of investing or locating in the UK’s second largest city. And for naysayers, it may just warrant a second look.
Birmingham is home to a number of exciting tech companies aiming to shake up their respective sectors. Here are a few to keep your eye on…
Droplet makes payments free for retailers by enabling consumers to pay directly via their mobiles. Founders Will Grant and Stefan Aquarone say banking has yet to be really affected by the web. With Series A funding and FSA approval pending, Droplet aims to do just that.
Nick Holzherr’s idea was turned down on The Apprentice by Lord Sugar, but he has pushed on with development of this food/shopping app nonetheless. Whisk officially launched in January with financial backing, and has partnerships with Tesco, Waitrose and Ocado.
A graduate of the Oxygen Accelerator programme, this hobby-based social network has regularly impressed investors and pulled in £250,000 of funding in June 2012. User numbers are rapidly rising and with the launch of Hobzy Marketplace, co-founder Dan Rice and team are aiming to become a global hit.
It’s early days for this young start-up, which plans to become the TripAdvisor of car sales. Founders Lee Malcher, James Waddington and Dan Mullineux graduated from the Oxygen Accelerator last year and have amassed a major following since then.
Soshi’s Music Festivals Game allows users to create their very own Glastonbury or Reading. Initially a Facebook game, the company now has the investment and partnerships to roll out globally on tablet computers. Founder Cliff Dennett aims to merge the virtual world with the music industry, creating many potential cross-selling opportunities and partnerships.