Swindon enjoys a buoyant private sector economy, with a good mix of sectors, corporate head offices and SMEs; indeed, with a ratio of four private to one public sector job, it has one of the highest ratios of private to public employment in the country.
- Project: Business retention and expansion programme
- Objectives: To retain existing local businesses and encourage business growth
- Timescale: 2012 – present
- Cost to authority: £91,000 per year (cost of employing account managers)
- Number of staff working on project: 20
- Outcomes: Preventing businesses relocating; mitigating effects of redundancies from local businesses; encouraging local businesses to grow
- Officer contact details: G.Jones@Swindon.gov.uk
However, Swindon competes with other towns and cities in the UK and abroad, all of which are hungry to secure jobs for their localities. In response, we established a business retention and expansion (BR&E) programme in 2012, providing face-to-face, personalised support to businesses by allocating account managers to each firm. It has enabled us to not only retain jobs that may have gone elsewhere but also, by working closely with growing businesses, we have been able to help companies expand in Swindon.
How did we do it?
Swindon Borough Council owns an inward investment and economic development company called Forward Swindon, which runs the BR&E programme. This could be have done from within the council directly, but our experience tells us that business leaders prefer to work through such a vehicle.
Although the programme is run and coordinated through Forward Swindon, it is senior council officers who are designated as the account managers. We wanted to create a much more business friendly culture within the council, where officers understood the issues and opportunities from a business perspective and would therefore be much more solution focused.
Over the past two years we have trained nearly 20 existing senior officers in the basics of account management so that they are credible and professional. Each account manager is responsible for about 8-10 accounts. The meetings are initially coordinated through Forward Swindon but, once a relationship has been formed, it is up to the account manager to sustain and develop the relationship. As with any form of account management, we encourage a dialogue in which we seek to understand business drivers and how we can support them, while giving the council the opportunity to keep business leaders updated on Swindon’s progress. The key discussions and arising actions are logged so we have a case history to refer to.
We aim to get in front of the most senior decision maker in the organisation. This can take some time but, as the chief executive of the local authority, I can usually get to meet the top people pretty early on. I see many of these people at various network events locally, such as chamber of commerce meetings, but the difference here is that we see them on a one-to-one basis on their home turf and talk specifically about their business. I believe that this approach has been an essential part of the programme’s success. In relation to one of our most high-profile recent projects, the programmes played a major role in securing the highest business patronage of any university technical college in the country.
The visits will typically identify two types of issue: those that are company specific with issues such as planning, local transport and recruitment; and broader issues relating to skills and, in Swindon’s case, its image as a place to live and work.
The success of the programme can best be demonstrated with the brief examples below.
In my early days as an account manager in the telecoms industry. I learned that it costs five times as much to attract a new customer than to retain an existing one, and a 5% increase in customer retention can increase a company’s profitability by 75%.
At a BR&E meeting with a major company, headquartered in Swindon, we became aware that the company was holding a strategic review of its location arrangements. Forward Swindon and the council were able to respond with a carefully constructed proposal to retain the company.
In another case, a distribution company was seeking to expand but this was impeded by a protected tree on their land. The company was actively considering transferring their operation to another of their sites elsewhere in the UK. Forward Swindon’s involvement over many months helped broker a compromise solution which allowed the company to achieve its objectives and secured 80 jobs in Swindon.
Not all of the work in the programme is about retention. Increasingly, it’s about how we can help businesses grow in Swindon.
It emerged from a BR&E visit that a major financial services company wished to consolidate some of its treasury function in Swindon. Its reservation was the number of senior staff they could potentially lose. Forward Swindon and the council organised a presentation day for affected staff to promote the benefits of Swindon as a place to live and work. The move went ahead successfully and brought 130 high value (average £50,000 pa salary) jobs to the town.
The company expressed its gratitude for our support and reported that several senior staff who had originally intended to leave had relocated to Swindon, saving the company around £500,000 in recruitment costs. The company has also stated that it would consider further consolidation in Swindon.
Mitigating economic shock
The BR&E programme has been instrumental in enabling us to respond swiftly to significant changes that major companies make in their workforce. When Honda announced its intention to reduce its workforce, resulting in approximately 1,600 Honda and supply chain redundancies, we quickly set up a Honda task force.
Forward Swindon chaired the task force, which was comprised of local MPs, the council, the Department for Work and Pensions and a range of other public sector agencies. It put in place a range of measures and support for Honda’s redundant workers. As a result, the number of redundant workers from Honda and its supply chain who registered for jobseeker’s allowance was just 15% against the DWP’s estimate of 35% based on similar industrial redundancies. This equates to around 300 workers avoiding registering as unemployed. Apart from the social benefit of this action, it has created a substantial saving to the public purse.
Gavin Jones is the chief executive of Swindon BC