Birmingham Post Editor Alun Thorne spoke to city’s new inward investment manager on his first thoughts on Birmingham and how he plans to get investors to sit up and take note.
Wouter Schuitemaker may not be a name that easily trips off the tongue but it is a name that we are likely to be a hearing a fair bit of in the future.
The 37-year-old has recently been appointed to head up Business Birmingham – the newly created inward investment arm of Marketing Birmingham – and he has a track record suggesting he could be just what this city needs.
His most recent post was as head of Asia Pacific for London’s inward investment agency and his career before that saw him living and working in Japan for almost a decade with some of the biggest names in marketing like WPP Group and Interbrand. But for all his worldly experience, he likes what he has found since his appointment here.
“My first impression was that in terms of sheer volume and quality of assets that this city has to take to market either abroad or in the UK is quite staggering,” he said.
“I come from a background in London which has assets like the Olympic developments whereas in Birmingham there is £18 billion of investment into infrastructure and the really exciting thing is it is a variety of projects, it’s transport infrastructure and social infrastructure and lots more.
"There is lots happening for investors to get involved in, be it capital investors or investors using the city as a location for their business.”
Mr Schuitemaker’s appointment as investment director for Business Birmingham and the assembly of his team of three investment managers is the final piece of the jigsaw in a process that started more than a year ago when Marketing Birmingham boss Neil Rami decided to restructure the whole organisation and bring the city’s inward investment function into the fold while changing its emphasis.
From Locate in Birmingham, a more streamlined and sales-focused Business Birmingham was born. The next step was to bring in IBM-PLI to examine where the “low hanging fruit” could be found from an inward investment point of view.
Its conclusions were that Birmingham’s best opportunities came in financial services, shared services, transport technologies, digital media and medical technologies. Mr Schuitemaker’s job is now to take this information and try and make things happen.
“The next phase of this is to take the IBM piece and not just say that we are strong in these broad sectors and we are going to promote these but to actually understand on three points how we are going to do that,” he said.
“First we have to ask what are we good at. If you take something like digital media, is it medical apps for health and diagnostics, something as specific as that?
“It is that level of granularity that will help us. I don’t think we have the luxury to say we have a great creative hub because we have Rare or great financial services because we have people like Deutsche Bank.
“Secondly we have to understand what are the market opportunities for these companies. It is all well and good having a cluster of these companies but why have they come here and how have they done it and what are the opportunities for companies from the US or India? If they are involved in retrofit then what are the value of the contracts they can pitch for?
“Then thirdly, how does that all stack up on a competitive front? It is good to say we are strong and there are contracts, but if in Germany the value is ten times the value here then we are up against it, so what is our competitive proposition?
"We need a market opportunity piece which allows us to target more specifically who, say, are the top 10 retrofit operations and pinpoint the opportunities and provide in-depth business solutions for these people, tell them why we feel Birmingham is right for their next step.
"We need to signpost these opportunities because, at the end of the day, they are in the US and they don’t necessarily understand the opportunity and can’t afford to keep ferrying to and fro across the Atlantic – it is about mitigating their risk.”
Earlier this month Mr Schuitemaker and Mr Rami headed to New York while their colleagues from Marketing Birmingham headed to MIPIM, but according to the investment director it was well worth missing the annual sojourn to the Cannes.
“The New York trip galvanised us and roadtested the Birmingham proposition – it was about putting the relevant business case in front of the right people,” he said. “It is not about reinventing the wheel but Birmingham needs to be better at showing willing – we need to show major investors that we want them in our city.”
He said that talking to potential investors he had found that many felt Birmingham worked strategically for their business as well as ticking most of the quality of life boxes. So why, he asked, hadn’t they relocated to Birmingham? It certainly wasn’t an issue of perception.
“There is a lot going on in Birmingham, it doesn’t seem to have been articulated but I don’t think there is a perception problem outside the UK. My background is Asia Pacific talking with Chinese investors or Australian investors and so on and you don’t hear those negative perceptions – I think that is a chain we hang around our own necks.”
He added: “The answer in a surprising number of cases was the Birmingham didn’t seem to want the business, it didn’t seem like it would go the extra mile. But speaking to businesses we know they are behind this but they just need to be galvanised to act as an interface with a client or investor. We are the glue so that the process looks joined up and makes sense.
“Going to the US was not about fighting perceptions but getting Birmingham on the map. Talking to people in New York, the UK is one of the main markets they are considering and at the moment it is danger of being less competitive for a number of reasons so our biggest challenge is to promote the market opportunity for whatever sector.”
Mr Schuitemaker has now recruited two of his new team – Sarah Darch from the Manchester inward investment arm Midas and Advantage West Midlands’ automotive specialist Martyn Mangan – with interviews currently taking place for a third investment manager.
As far as he’s concerned, their roles are as much about facilitating others to spread Birmingham’s message as it is to win inward investment themselves.
“We have approached this process very carefully and haven’t just rushed in to try and prove that something is happening,” he said. “We’ve been very careful and not just looked at the individuals but also thought very much about the team.
"We don’t see ourselves working in isolation as part of their job will be to get people on board to sell this city as an extended sales force – we don’t have a large amount of people to get the message out to a global audience.
“We need businesses on their international trips to be talking about Birmingham.
“What we need to do here is put in place the building blocks that will sell the city and help the city to sell itself. These building blocks are not just talking about buildings, it’s much more about how we package up what we’ve got to offer.
“My background in a previous life is marketing and branding and I’m very much of the school of thought that if you package something up that is easy to understand and easily accessible then you are much more likely to get the buy in from companies who will see the value in a city.
"We are in a really strong and unique position and what we are doing is part of a process of the city coming together rather than just the agency selling the city.
“The secret to success will not be all guns blazing against places like Leeds or Manchester but will be by picking our battles and being confident in the areas in which we excel.
"We don’t need to make excuses about the level of how we have performed in the past, what we need to do is arm the business community and with that in mind we have developed an online toolkit to give them the messages so that they can go out there and sell Birmingham.”