Boosting enterprise is often prescribed as the magic cure to pull the region well and truly out of recession, a turn of phrase that is just as likely to be heard in the coffee houses that adorn Colmore Row as it in the offices of the city council and Advantage West Midlands.
It may be empty rhetoric from some, but when the chief executive of one of the UK’s most progressive science parks singles it out for special attention it is probably time to start listening.
David Rowe is no stranger to the world of enterprise after transforming a piece of waste land in Warwick into a supportive environment for more than 150 high-tech companies, generating in excess of £100 million for the West Midlands economy.
“All I had back in 1982 was an idea, some decent plans, a part-time PA and some open land,” he said.
To make matters worse there was some rather fierce bramble bushes that needed to be taken care of.
“Getting to where we are now was a million miles away. But I’m an ideas man and I like to make things happen.”
And happen they have. At the last count, the University of Warwick Science Park was the biggest in the West Midlands and seen by many domestic and international institutions as a role model for excellence.
The 20 acres of original land has been turned into 40 acres, three satellite centres have been established in Binley, Warwick and Shirley and a raft of services introduced that make it much more than just a base for its companies. It is also home to more than 2,000 jobs.
“From the outset we have tried to do things differently,” explained Mr Rowe, who has just been appointed new chair of Advantage West Midlands’ Enterprise Board.
“Straight away we teamed up with Barclays to help secure a £1.25 million investment for the development of the first phase and this was quickly followed by a second cash injection to extend the original facility.
“This was not a loan from the bank, it was an investment. We were fortunate that Anthony Rudge, the then Birmingham regional director, was firmly committed to developing high-tech businesses locally and, like Coventry City Council, quickly bought into what we were looking to do.”
Mr Rowe, who cites slim-line electronic calculator inventor Clive Sinclair as one of his main business inspirations, is adamant that the Science Park is more than just bricks and mortar.
He quickly points to research carried out in the last six years indicating that between 50 and 70 per cent of the fastest growing companies in Coventry and Warwickshire have been based at the University of Warwick Science Park.
“We’ve tried hard to develop systems and services that help young businesses secure funding, find investment, develop markets, source graduate placements and access one-to-one mentoring.”
The 56 year-old admits he knows all about the pressures that come with being an entrepreneur, comparing the creation of the science park as being similar to the ‘early throes’ of a start-up.
“I was running around trying to do everything and had hundreds of ideas causing chaos with my planning. Just like any new company I was also in a position where I needed to find finance to turn the vision into reality – a hurdle many people don’t overcome.”
Any suggestions that Mr Rowe’s career had been shaped by an enterprising childhood are met with a shake of the head.
His father was an experienced RAF navigator and the only example of entrepreneurship in the family tree was an ancestor who held and exploited a patent for tile drains well over a century ago.
Enterprise was apparently never on the agenda in his hometown of Exeter, although he reluctantly admits to being a founder member of a local electronics club – a decision that quickly turned into an electronics engineering degree at Bangor University.
From there Rowe started his working life in the research labs at Marconi, before the telecommunications specialist sponsored him to attend business school to learn about computer-based management systems.
Developing corporate procedures and systems at Chrysler UK’s massive Whitley operation was the next challenge followed by a spell at the UK Atomic Energy Authority where he was responsible for drafting an energy research and development strategy highlighting renewables and energy conservation.
“I took something from each of the different roles,” said Mr Rowe, who outside of work enjoys badminton, diving and a good non-fiction book.
“And I’ve used all of these skills in developing the University of Warwick Science Park, something I still feel is my greatest business achievement to date.”
A new challenge has entered the field of play this month, with him taking the reins as chairman of Advantage West Midlands’ Enterprise Board, which helps to shape and lead on innovative new business support and enterprise policies.
Following in the footsteps of popular industrialist Norman Price is never an easy task, especially when the expected cuts in public sector expenditure will ultimately impact on available budget and resources.
As you would expect, the self-confessed ideas man already has an action plan drawn up.
“It would be foolish to suggest it will be business as usual and there is no doubt we will have to work smarter, in order to make sure we deliver the right support to as many businesses as possible,” he said.
“The good news is we are starting from a very strong position, both from the quality of people on the board and the policy implementations already in place, such as the hugely successful centres of expertise covering women, social enterprise, young people and the minority ethnic communities.”
Having been a dedicated lead on the start-up sub group, he knows what is needed to turn around an under-performing West Midlands.
“We’re just below the UK average when it comes to number of start-ups,” acknowledged Mr Rowe, who became the first person in the West Midlands to be awarded the Queen’s Award for Enterprise Promotion in 2006.
“Getting more companies to launch is not necessarily the solution to the problem.
“I’d prefer to look at the situation differently and to increase the survival chances of new starts, so we have younger businesses growing and providing sustainable employment opportunities.”
A new paper released by the Government – New Industries New Jobs – takes up the next part of the conversation and reveals the careful balancing act faced by business support agencies looking to embrace growth sectors without neglecting traditional industries.
It has already received the backing of all political parties so looks set to be the roadmap for the foreseeable future.
He insists there’s no secret recipe, just a focus on making sure maximum impact for the funding available.
“Digital communications, healthcare technologies, environmental technologies, including advanced greener manufacturing technologies and the creative industry are all seen as major growth areas and where the majority of new job generation will be found.
“We need to make sure we support this development, but, rather than trying to reinvent the wheel, why not look at supporting our existing businesses to move towards these new areas.
“Focusing on our weaknesses is going to get us nowhere. I prefer a different stance, which looks to capitalise on our many strengths – call me an optimist if you will.
“One of those strengths is the academic expertise present in the West Midlands and the initial work undertaken in developing the ‘triple helix’ where government, universities and businesses work together to secure competitive advantage.
“Knowledge partnerships and technology collaborations are prevalent in the region and provide local businesses with an attractive differential when trying to compete with the emerging powerhouses of Brazil, China, India and Russia.”
And finally, how could a possible change in Government impact on enterprise activity?
“Regardless of who is in charge, cultivating enterprise is absolutely critical and it is my opinion that Advantage West Midlands, in particular, has made great strides in delivering expert support.
“Hopefully I can keep up this good work in my new role so that individuals have the opportunities to start businesses and that companies are able to access the assistance they need to help them grow, create jobs and generate wealth for the West Midlands.”