Back in August, ANS Group chairman Scott Fletcher was becoming rather aerated about the prominence not being accorded to Manchester - as opposed to London -- by the UK’s IT industry. The Silicon Roundabout, says Fletcher, is only ever going to put investors in a spin of the downward-spiralling kind, while Manchester is truly top for tech. Is he right, and should the channel be paying more attention?
Fletcher notes that the North West region also has the second-largest “digital cluster” in Europe, with 320,000 individuals working in 32,000 businesses. “Manchester also boasts the most resilient global internet connectivity in the country, that would continue to route internet traffic if London went dark,” Fletcher says.
Paul Sweeney (pictured, right), managing director of ANS Group, confirms that the VAR, headquartered in Manchester Science Park south-west of Manchester’s city centre, is continuing to be extremely busy.
“It’s a great place to invest, and a great place for technology companies. Manchester is set to be the UK’s tech city and in 2006 was voted Britain’s best city for business,” Sweeney says. “Just look at Media City [the new location of the BBC, which has moved its headquarters north over the past two years]: it is a fantastic success story and has created a whole tech ecosystem to support it.”
He says 120 of 150 staff are based at the Manchester headquarters. The city has also, says Sweeney, rarely been at the back of the queue when it comes to any kind of advance - it saw the first operating railway in 1830, was the birthplace of Rolls-Royce in 1904, and Ernest Rutherford [though he was born in New Zealand - Ed] split the atom at Manchester University in 1919.
“In 1948 Manchester had the first computer with a stored programme and memory,” says Sweeney. “We are also the home of two great football teams.”
Kate O’Brien, marketing director at Daisy, was Manchester born and bred and she suggests the company has put down strong roots in the North. Daisy is headquartered in Nelson, Lancashire, and has been in the region since its birth in 2001.
“All investment and recruitment prior to the company’s flotation in 2009 took place in the North-West,” O’Brien says. “There are obvious benefits - not least a lower cost of living compared with the South, and that will always be an attraction to growing businesses in terms of recruitment and property prices.”
The firm can also tap into talent more easily from other northern cities, particularly Leeds and Manchester. Aside from the expansion at headquarters, its Manchester-based datacentre, acquired in 2009, has undergone a £1m investment over the past 18 months.
“Its city centre location puts it in prime territory for Manchester-based businesses that wish to co-locate their hosted services. In addition, as a former Bank of England bullion vault, its security levels and access to power and cooling make it what we believe to be the most powerful and secure data storage facility in central Manchester, if not the country,” says O’Brien (pictured, left).
Over the next 12 months Daisy is investing more in cloud and across its data estate -- and that means further expansion and development at the Manchester facility. Access to additional property, adjacent to its existing headquarters, means Daisy will be able to increase capacity without having to up sticks and relocate. This was a key factor in enabling its ongoing expansion, O’Brien suggests.
“Following the flotation, we have retained and expanded our northern presence and in the space of three years increased staff numbers in the North from 200 to 1,000,” she says.
This has also been fuelled by its ongoing acquisitions, several of which have also been in the North. Its acquired Bury, Spiritel and Outsourcery operations have been integrated into Daisy’s Nelson headquarters, says O’Brien.
Andrew Henderson, managing director of Lanway -- which is headquartered in Burnley, Lancashire -- says the region has much to offer, including a close-knit support network of other businesses as well as a better work-life balance. It might be rainy, he agrees, but transport times are minimal to some of the most beautiful parts of the UK, such as the Peak District.
“I am a member of the Bondholder Network, encouraging news about what is happening in the North. And it seems to be working, because people are saying it’s not such a bad place to work, and it’s a great place to invest because people want to work, they want to be close to things, and it’s cheaper to build here,” he says.
Henderson (pictured, right) adds that there is a range of options for any business wanting to move into the area, both in greenfield and brownfield sites for construction, or by purchasing or leasing property that already exists. Local councils are keen to attract business, with many offering funding to set up or to relocate.
People see it as a long way from London but in fact Burnley is very near the M6, with direct connections to many locations both in the UK and abroad via Manchester Airport, which is just a half-hour drive away, and the new railway.
“And it’s friendly. It is easy to do business, people are really open, and you know your local competitors,” Henderson says. “From Burnley, you can be in Preston in 15 minutes and London in two hours.”
So it would appear that it’s simply not grim up north. Even if the weather is not wonderful, there are various other advantages.
Sukh Rayat, senior EMEA vice president of Avnet, notes there is nothing preventing any business locating itself anywhere it finds most convenient and congenial these days. Technology itself, alongside the potential for more flexible working, has put paid to that old argument.
He notes that Avnet’s acquisition trail over the past five or six years has led it to make ever more investments in the North, and there is rarely a compelling reason to shift those resources south - or north, for that matter. Even when customers are in the North, it is sometimes more convenient for them to come south to do something in particular, and vice versa. Avnet has facilities in London and Bracknell, as well as smaller centres in Haslingden and Macclesfield.
“[However] you have to be near your vendors, your suppliers, and your customers. It’s a triangle of three parts, if you want to be successful,” Rayat says.
“Obviously, most of our marketplace is in the South, but some of our acquisitions have had premises in the North, which has given us some extra ability to be nearer our customers there. It’s about the people and the skills.”
Furthermore, ANS’s Fletcher says, London’s five-square-mile Tech City, on the other hand, might have been busy seducing global names such as Google into setting up shop in the capital and encouraging local start-ups, but it has its own problems to solve - despite the tax breaks on offer and grants from the City.
“Isn’t it about time we took Tech City around the UK?” he asks.
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