Securing Suffolk’s economic future
PUBLISHED: 16:13 06 February 2017 | UPDATED: 16:13 06 February 2017
The age-old challenge of retaining our brightest and best young people in the county hasn’t gone away. Paul Simon talks to James Brown, partner at Grant Thornton, about harnessing local talent and securing Suffolk’s economic future
As regional managing partner of the Central and Eastern Region of Grant Thornton UK LLP, the accounting and professional services consultancy, James Brown is responsible for nine counties as far westwards as Milton Keynes. But Suffolk remains very close to his heart.
“I love intellectual stimulation and having good fun and it’s very nice at the age of 49 to be this enthused to get up in the morning and come to work. Ipswich was the first office I led and we grew a team that is the most vibrant I’ve come across.” Brown is the product of two farming families, one from Norfolk and one from Suffolk.
“I now live in Diss, went away for years and it was a chance phone call that meant I came back eastwards, and now I’ve been back home for the last 10 years.” But such emotional understanding of Suffolk doesn’t blunt his professional evaluation of the county.
“A lot of my knowledge is based on what we’ve done with Suffolk Ltd – an annual report where we take the largest 100 independent businesses in Suffolk and put the results from their balance sheets and accounts all together to try to come up with some meaningful economic bellweather.
“Firstly, the ports. The fact we are next to the sea and Felixstowe accounts for 40% of the country’s container traffic is a major factor in the economic development of our county. Secondly, there is a disproportionate number of long established – probably started as family-owned - robust businesses that have been here for many, many years, and can withstand the peaks and troughs of the economic cycle. They also think in the longer term rather than about tomorrow’s share price.
“Thirdly, we have a very diverse economy with the largest in terms of turnover - transport and major retail – accounting for only 29% of the total. Having a broad portfolio is something of a great benefit given the usual economic trials and tribulations.
“Finally, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that, even with Essex in the way, we have a proximity to London, which is a good thing as we are in an economically vibrant area. The biggest challenge is the competition in losing the best people to the journey down to London, or along the A14 to Cambridge. How do we develop our youngsters with the right skills and, when we do, how do we enthuse them to stay locally?”
Brown believes the existence and successes of the University of Suffolk on the Ipswich Waterfront has certainly helped to stem the local brain drain. But he is clear that retaining all good employees and not just graduates must be a priority for the business community and the public sector.
“Some of our best people coming through our Ipswich office have been school leavers. I say that as a celebration of the fact that there are so very many bright and capable people who decide not to go to university. Any employer who only looks at graduates is limiting themselves.”
Whose responsibility is it to ensure that local young people consider building their careers here in Suffolk, and that the potential of the local workforce is properly recognised?
“I don’t think any one organisation can do it alone. Bodies like the Suffolk Chamber of Commerce and the New Anglia LEP have a role, but then so do schools and further education colleges, all employers and the public sector. We must make sure that businesses are talking to school pupils before they’ve left to make them realise there’s a lot of talent here before looking further afield. We must all be presenting a vibrant brand for Suffolk. “
At the same time, Brown is aware that more needs to be done to ensure that more school leavers have more of the right skills and aptitudes to get noticed by Suffolk-based employers. Will the county’s Raising The Bar initiative have an major impact?
“I think it will. Everybody in the private and public sectors realises it’s a fundamental piece of the jigsaw and there’s enough acceptance that when such initiatives are launched people do want to buy in.”
He also makes the point that one of the county’s real challenges is actually believing in itself.
“Suffolk is nine parts substance and only one part spin, and there is an awful lot of substance there that we don’t shout about enough. We need a greater identity for Suffolk and what it stands for. We can’t think in isolation, but it would be good for the county to have a slightly more vibrant brand. Look at the counties around us. Norfolk has Norwich and a big historic identity. Cambridgeshire obviously has Cambridge and everything that goes with that city. We must continue to build on the brand that is Ipswich and Suffolk more generally.
“If you use the horse as the analogy, we are like the Suffolk Punch. We’re solid, we’re strong, we’re hardworking and we’re steeped in history. What I would love to happen is that we crossbreed what we are now with a Newmarket thoroughbred, equally relevant to Suffolk being vibrant and a winner, exciting and something to aspire to be.”
A key element in this ‘breeding’ programme appears to be the need for Suffolk’s private and public sectors to work more collaboratively.
“It does feel to me, as both an independent observer and as a business man, that figures in the public sector see themselves more as leaders of a place rather than just a deliverer of public services. It does mean the public sector is more inclined and more able to work in a dynamic way with the private sector.
“I do feel public sector leaders are broader in their vision for what their place can be, and if we are really going to create a vibrant economy, the public and private sectors are going to have to come together far more. But I do feel more openness to it on both sides.” Brown is also clear that Suffolk needs to be even more open to the rest of the world.
“I want us to think more internationally. The last recession was all about an export-led recovery and so we can’t succeed unless we look worldwide not only for our supply chains but also for markets.” Brown is confident that Suffolk has the right elements for future prosperity and what is needed is a little more self-belief.
“I would dearly love a county that was deservingly more proud of what it has achieved.” And that would be something to sing about.