Earlier this year, the West Midlands was hailed as the most valuable region in the UK economy.
Between 2015 and 2017, Birmingham and the surrounding areas generated more growth than any other part of the UK, according to Lloyds Bank.
Once called the “workshop of the world”, this industrial heartland is still home to many innovative manufacturing firms. But the West Midlands has also developed strong technology, creative and digital sectors.
As LDC launches its Backing Business Ambition tour, this hive of activity makes the West Midlands a natural starting point.
The mid-market private equity firm said the advantages of being based in the region are clear - it is centrally located, close to several top universities, and in possession of a robust supply chain.
And with Andy Street, previously managing director of John Lewis, now championing the West Midlands in government as the region’s Mayor, its prospects for growth look set to continue.
LDC hailed the ambitious mid-sized firms in the region who are driving innovation, export prowess and job creation.
Four such firms are RDM, Titania, Mercato, and the NEC Group, which have all become market leaders in their respective industries.
One common thread that unites them all is their ability to turn challenge into opportunity: turning the skills shortages in their sectors to their advantage, for example.
Despite pressures arising from Brexit and political upheaval, these firms attest to the continuing resilience and vibrancy of the West Midlands.
Titania: Intelligent software firm joins the fight against cyber criminals
Cyber security firm Titania has created a super-charged algorithm that can seek out software vulnerabilities and fight hackers without any human input.
Developed by founder Ian Whiting – a former “ethical hacker” – from his bedroom, it now exports its technology to 80 countries, growing 400pc last year.
Despite employing just 50 people, it helps giants such as PayPal, BT, and the FBI keep their data safe.
“There aren’t enough skilled people in the cyber security industry so by using automation to take care of certain processes, you free up the human beings,” says Whiting.
“Our software is lightning fast, and totally accurate. Our next move is to help protect smaller businesses from the bad guys too.”
RDM: The carmaker driving innovation in autonomous vehicles
The West Midlands may seem an unlikely home for the world’s most advanced autonomous vehicle technology, but hi-tech engineering firm RDM has put it on the map.
The business has built a self-driving pod, which is currently used for carrying people and cargo short distances in city centres, and helping those with mobility issues.
It has customers as far afield as Australia and governments around the world are vying to use its technology to help their citizens, while retail giants are eyeing up the technology to transport goods around their vast warehouses.
“This industry is hotting up, and it’s hard to keep up with all the enquiries coming in worldwide,” says RDM boss David Keene.
“By the end of this year, we’ll have autonomous cars out on the roads and we’re already looking at new applications, like vehicles to go into hazardous areas.”
Mercato: IT problem solver helps clients of all sizes adapt to the digital age
Birmingham-based technology firm Mercato works with clients such as IBM and Transport for London to modernise old-fashioned processes and bring them online.
“Wherever there’s a system that involves a person, a clipboard, and a spreadsheet, we can turn that into software that can be accessed anywhere, any time,” explains boss Peter Robbins.
The business has tapped into global demand, generating 40pc of its revenues from exports, and growing significantly over the past three years.
The skills shortage in the IT sector has created a huge opportunity for Mercato, which adapted by creating applications for its customers that are easily used by a layman.
It also found a work around for the shortage of skilled developers, hiring non-technical staff and training them up in house.
Today, it is a major employer in Birmingham, with 110 staff.
NEC Group: Vision to Value - Bringing the music hall into the 21st century
From pop star Ed Sheeran to darts tournaments and dog-lovers’ favourite Crufts, the NEC Group’s range of venues across the UK offer something for everyone.
The business welcomes almost seven million people each year across all of its sites.
And a new deal with entertainment giant Merlin - which will see a LEGOLAND Discovery Centre open at the Barclaycard Arena in 2018 and another Merlin attraction at the NEC - will significantly increase the total number of visitors to the NEC Group’s two Birmingham venue locations.
In 2015, LDC backed the management buyout of the venue management company from Birmingham City Council in a deal which valued the business at more than £300 millon.
“LDC’s investment allowed us to realise our business plan and provided the freedom we needed as a privately held business to move quickly, invest in our staff, products and services, customer reach and offer,” says chief executive Paul Thandi, who has increased revenues and profit steadily since the deal.
“It has brought a real singularity of purpose.”
One of the great plays for the NEC is now in data, Thandi reveals.
“We know who our visitors are, where they come from and what they want,” he says.
The result: many areas of the company have seen as much as a 30pc uplift in customer spend.
“LDC is an active investor that is always interested in ways we can develop the business, customer offer and staff,” adds Thandi.
“We’ve got renewed energy which in itself has led to double digit efficiency gains.”
Andy Lyndon, head of LDC in the Midlands, gives an insight into the firm’s work with businesses in the region
“This year, LDC celebrates 30 years’ supporting businesses across the Midlands.
“Over that time, we’ve invested a total of £1.2bn in 150 ambitious and innovative firms.
“Being local to the businesses we back is very important to the team here. It means we can go out and see business owners, and they can visit us, which makes us part of the fabric of this entrepreneurial community.
“While the Midlands is home to many different types of business operating across a wide spread of industries, it certainly hasn’t lost its heritage as the “workshop of the world”.
“We’ve backed a lot of companies in the manufacturing and engineering sectors. But the fast-growing knowledge economy in the region has also created many fast-growing IT businesses, and innovative consumer brands.
“Ultimately, we are looking for ambitious management teams who want our support to meet their growth goals.
“Be that through opening up international expansion opportunities, helping to buy and integrate complementary businesses or providing investment tounlock growth potential.
“Our model is firmly a partnership – we don’t want to take over, and we aren’t looking for control. The NEC Group is one such example of ambition and partnership, but we have many more across our portfolio.
"The region really is a hotbed of entrepreneurship, full of hidden gems that are poised to become the big successes of tomorrow.”