With a new chief executive, a new chairman and a new home, is it the start of a new era for Birmingham Forward? Alun Thorne reports.
Birmingham Forward’s 20th anniversary celebrations could have gone better. The lobbying organisation for the city’s professionals, which was launched as City 2000 by Roger Dickens in 1990, reached the milestone last year and must have hoped to be able to sit back and bask in its successes over the previous two decades.
Instead, the organisation had to deal with the untimely death of its high profile chief executive, the resignation of its new chairman after two months because of work commitments, key staff moving to pastures new and the ongoing challenges for all membership organisations during economic downturns.
Following the death of Richard Brennan and the resignation of Graham Nicoll, KPMG partner Jackie Hendley stepped up to take over the chairmanship while city lawyer Mary Daunt became interim chief executive and between them they conducted a thorough review of the business from its staff to its processes to ultimately its rationale for existing.
Now, 18 months down the road and Forward is back on its feet again. Ms Daunt has now stepped aside and Peter Rees-Steer has been appointed as its new chief executive while Gary Cardin – head of Drivers Jonas Deloitte in Birmingham and also chair of the Colmore Business District – has been anointed as the new chair.
In his day job Mr Cardin has helped put Drivers Jonas at the top table of the city’s property companies during the past decade and under his chairmanship the Colmore Business District BID has been one of the most active of any in the city so he is quite clear that he would not have entertained chairing Forward if he didn’t feel it was an organisation heading in he right direction.
He said: “There have been some changes recently which means the board of Forward is now stronger. It’s more energised and I’m pleased because in any walk of life you are only as successful as the people around you and they have the will to get on board and get things done. It is one of the reasons I am happy to be the chair.”
As is often the case with membership organisations during challenging economic times, maintaining the members and patrons that are the economic lifeblood of groups like Forward – and also a barometer of their relevance – has been a huge challenge.
But it is a challenge that Forward is meeting head on with membership holding steady and Mr Cardin believes that the body has a crucial part to play in the city as it enters a crucial phase of its history.
He said: “It is critically important that Birmingham Forward and other representative organisations have a voice and get involved and I include Birmingham Future in that. The organisation is now much stronger and seen as the representative voice of the professional sector when dealing with industry, business, LEPs, politicians – whoever it is we need to engage with.
“However, I think in some respects it is still work in progress. We still need to work on the continuity of business voice and develop a process of more engagement and dialogue and ensure we focus on what the key messages are – we can still have debates but they need to be at the right place and at the right time.
Business needs to get together and have strength in the singularity of its case whereas before we gave out mixed messages. Do we have too many business organisations and clubs? Either way we need to join all these voices together and go back in many ways to how it used to be. The way that the political, geographical and economic landscape has shifted so violently in recent years, I think there is a natural gap for Birmingham Forward to fill.”
Last month it was announced that Birmingham Forward was one of seven organisations – the others being Aston Reinvestment Trust, the Birmingham Chamber Group, the Great Birmingham Local Enterprise Partnership, Finance Birmingham, the city council’s economic development department and Marketing Birmingham – moving into Baskerville House to create a new Birmingham Business Hub, a move that will help realise one of the changes of approach that Mr Cardin is trying to implement for Forward.
He said: “Part of the big changes will be process. We are independent but need to be much more engaged and we will see this through the new office at Baskerville House where we will have more immediate links and be able to capitalise on a message or a statement – it’s perhaps less about the underlying message at the moment rather than making sure we have our stamp on it.”
“A second theme is to challenge the business community to actually really start to populate the business agenda with facts. We need to complete the circle where big firms are helping SMEs – it’s not as yet a complete circle as in tougher times people tend to retreat into their own service lines and business arenas.
“Some of that connectivity has been lost and we need to bring it back as soon as possible and Birmingham Forward has the best network to bring it back.”
Another theme where Mr Cardin believes Forward has a key role to play is solving the acute skills crisis that is the bane of many city employers, although he is clear that there is much to do to solve arguably the most serious issue facing the city and wider region’s business community.
“If I am honest I don’t have a solution, but I don’t think we’ve paid anything more than lip service to this massive issue and my key challenge is to get out there and ask, not what Birmingham Forward can do but what its members can do,” he said.
“There are many individuals and businesses that are good in this area and doing their own thing in a small but important way – if we can join this up then we can harness a far greater power. It is almost a moral responsibility for business to get involved.
"It is not about taking a few work experience placements twice a year but something much more joined up. We’ve got the best platform to do this but how it is done I don’t know but we do need a much more focused debate rather than thinking it’s somebody else’s problem.”
One area that will also be at the forefront of Mr Cardin’s mind during his tenure will be the relationship between Forward and Future, its junior arm representing the city’s young professionals.
Future itself has had to rise to the challenges presented by the economic downturn and has managed to remain in he city’s consciousness with its successful Birmingham Young Professional of the Year (BYPY) contest – won this year by Davis Langdon’s Hilary Allen – but for all this Mr Cardin thinks it is important that Forward and Future are a much tighter partnership.
“I want to bring Forward and Future together on a much broader platform,” he said. “There is a perception that the organisations operate separately – it is wrong constitutionally and wrong in terms of how it should be.
"The issues that affect the city affect people at either ends of their careers. Future gives the city a massive strength if it has a fully engaged, youthful and energised membership while we need to be imparting a little more sage wisdom to give them the right tools to succeed. There appears to be a lot less handing down than there used to be so I am trying to make sure we are on the same platform.”
And Mr Cardin will find little opposition to that view from the new chair of Birmingham Future, Gareth Morgan.
Mr Morgan, who originally hails from North Wales but has been in the city since 2004, is trying to fill the large shoes of his predecessor Darren Walker and he feels there are five key areas that Future needs to focus on going forward.
They were engaging with the city, developing mentoring for its members, networking with its members through events, being the voice of its members and inspiring its members and potential new members through events like BYPY.
“I think as chair there are a couple of things I want to achieve. Firstly I want to leave Future in a better position than when I started in terms of membership and finance. I want to focus on what we do well as well as being flexible and making sure we are responding to the wider environment.”
In terms of engaging better with the city, Mr Morgan said there were things taking place in the background. He said: “I think we are going in the right direction in terms of engaging with people and come the New Year I think we will be sending out a strong message that will make sure that we are as relevant as we ever were.
“We are trying to push this year as one with a theme of collaboration where we want to offer more value to our members by networking more externally and learning with other organisations – there are organisations that are sector specific and I would like to crystallise these relationships.
“There’s obviously things we could do better but Forward moving to Baskerville House with Marketing Birmingham is a good move. It is often said that Birmingham is not good at shouting about itself but working together under one roof for a more efficient and joined up message comes back to that theme of collaboration.
“When I got involved I could see real value having a closer working relationship with Forward which we are achieving, particularly through things like joint events.
"I sit across both organisations, being on the board of Forward, and Peter Rees Steer gets it and Gary Cardin gets it, being big advocates of what we are trying to achieve.”