“Do you know how many people Germany’s Chambers of Commerce have working for them out in China?” I don’t, but I have a feeling that Jerry Blackett is about to answer his own question. “200,” he declares.
“And do you know how many people British Chambers of Commerce employ in China?” I think I know what’s coming next: “None!” Jerry, chief executive of Birmingham Chamber of Commerce since 2006, is in an expansive mood about how Chambers could help to transform the economy – if they could have extra funding and power to provide better, more bespoke services.
His enthusiasm comes from a new partnership he is forming with Tory grandee Michael Heseltine, author of the recent industrial policy review ‘No Stone Unturned’.
Heseltine’s recommendations are now being reviewed by the Greater Birmingham and Solihull Local Enterprise Partnership, with the results to be unveiled this spring. Jerry believes this will lead to a West Midlands model for regional government funding that could soon be duplicated across the UK.
The plans are wide-ranging, but Jerry is particularly excited by a focus on strengthening Chambers. “What Lord Heseltine is saying,” says Jerry, “is that one of the things holding Britain back is the third of businesses that are underperforming.
"Findings show that only 50% of businesses seek advice, but those that do are twice as likely to grow as those that do not. The latter are put off because where you go for advice is currently so confusing and duplicating. They just don’t know where to go for help so they don’t bother looking.
“By contrast, in countries like Germany, Sweden and France, their Chambers are the ‘go-to’ business organisations for help. Lord Heseltine says that we should be doing the same. The Chamber is a global brand, and if we invest in our Chambers as the ‘go-to’ organisation for helping businesses, then we can start to compete with the Germanys of this world.
“If you are in business in Germany,” Jerry points out, “it’s a legal requirement to be a member of the Chamber. Lord Heseltine would like the same, a fee, almost a tax to join the Chamber. But I’ve been talking closely to him about that because I’m not sure that would work in the UK.
“We currently have 8% of businesses as members in the Birmingham Chamber. If I tax the other 92%, I’m just not sure that’s a great place to be. We would be seen as an arm of government, a tax collector. On the other hand, if the Government were to use the Chamber to deliver great services for businesses, it could make us compelling to join.
“That’s what I’ve been putting to Lord Heseltine,” confides Jerry. “If you use the Chamber to deliver great services, you’d get private business contributions voluntarily, and then Chambers would become more sustainable, recycling this into more support services.
"And I think I’m convincing him that this is what we need – to increase our attraction for businesses by increasing the relevance of our services.” Jerry is forthright about the type of services needed: support and advice in the form of understanding human beings, not just another bland website with forms to fill in, links to click and forums to join.
“Our services have to be unique,” he explains. “A personal, face-to-face service is our strength. I’m not going to create a Chamber heavily reliant on electronics and online. We need to be ‘good enough’ online, but brilliant on a personal basis.
"The Birmingham Chamber celebrates its 200th anniversary this year, and we’ll be here another 200 years if we really, deeply understand that businesses value a personal service.”
But what is the Chamber’s advice for businesses as the region tries to lift itself out of recession?
“We need to believe in the potential of training,” says Jerry. “We still have not got that apprentice culture. Too many smaller businesses just don’t believe in it. ‘If I train someone they’ll leave’, is the attitude of too many SMEs.
“For example, the 800 jobs recently announced by JLR have created what many SMEs feel is a talent drain, and this seems to be frustrating smaller businesses in the supply chain, caught between the ‘of course it’s good’ and ‘we’ll lose our best people’.
“But the long term potential for any company is their people, and therefore a good supply of people. Because then, when one leaves, they are not as exposed. So businesses need to invest in training, in their people, and therefore in their own futures. Rather than being frustrated, they should be more confident because of the success of ‘canopy’ companies like JLR.”
‘Canopy companies’? Jerry quickly explains: “They are analogous to the great trees of tropical forests – they allow the jungle floor to flourish. But if they are diseased, the harsh sunshine kills off the eco-system.
There are large businesses that provide a canopy for smaller businesses... if they don’t do well, others suffer. If they do well, others prosper. In the West Midlands, I’m talking about the likes of JLR, Toyota, JCB, IMI and GKN.”
We’re halfway through our steaks now at Marco Pierre White’s, on the 25th floor of The Cube in Birmingham, and perhaps it’s our view of the region around us that drives Jerry towards a wider, more futuristic sound bite. “The future belongs to cities,” he says with feeling.
“Do you know, 55% to 60% of us live within a city environment today? By 2020, they estimate 65% to 70% will live in cities, and by 2040, 80% to 90% will be city dwellers. “Greater Birmingham will only grow, and the future belongs to cities.
“If you look at the USA, it’s possible to become American in five years – from migrant to American citizen. In California’s Silicon Valley, most people are immigrants who brought ideas with them. Google was formed by two former Russian students.
“Now Birmingham’s a relatively young city, less than 200 years old, and most of us are economic migrants – coming to the city because of jobs, businesses and so on. That American sense of being able to plug and play your ideas. My proposition is that Birmingham should display similar characteristics: bring your ideas here and get them commercialised. That potential is a reason to be confident about Birmingham. We’re very welcoming to enterprise and new ideas.”
But, Jerry warns, Birmingham currently lacks the international connectivity to become that sort of city. “Birmingham is a great physical location but the airport can’t reach India, China and South America.
"I meet business people every day who say they want to fly straight to these destinations. The current runway extension is looking to do that, but the Government needs to incentivise airlines... there’s far too cosy a Heathrow environment at the moment.”
This echoes evidence Jerry recently gave to the House of Commons’ transport select committee, arguing that the UK economy was held back by poor aviation links to regions outside England’s southeast. It’s not all gloom, however, and Jerry stresses the “good stories” the region has to tell to FDIs – foreign direct investors.
“There is a great pipeline of development in Birmingham and the surrounding region. Not only the extension of Birmingham’s runway, but also the redevelopment of New Street Station, the new Library of Birmingham opening this year, and increased motorway capacity with more fourth lanes around the region.
“The prospect of HS2 [high speed train lines] also gives a feeling of long-term confidence, and that’s what businesses want more than anything – stability and long-term confidence. To know where we’re going with rail for the next 30 years is an important part of that.”
Transport, travel and connecting people are obviously important to Jerry, who enjoyed an international career in banking with Barclays before joining the Chamber.
He was in Toronto for a number of years and his youngest son, Andrew, was born there in the late 1980s.
At 17 and with a Canadian passport, Andrew begged his parents to let him return to Toronto to study. Now aged 24, he still works there in marketing for The Keg restaurant chain. Jerry’s eldest son Tom, 28, lives in New York after marrying a girl from Queens, working as a social media marketing expert for the Visa Bureau.
This means Jerry, 56, and his wife Flora, 58, regularly leave the family home in Dorridge, Solihull, to cross the Atlantic visiting their ex-pat sons. And Jerry is heartened by what he calls the “confidence” of the region’s younger generation, one he feels is “far less obsessed” with pay, pensions and security, because they “just want to do what they love doing”.
He’s talking about new start-ups and youthful entrepreneurs now, which sounds good – but is it practical not worrying about the future? Jerry gives me the example of his middle son, Harry, who graduated with a first class honours degree in Fine Art. The recession meant Harry couldn’t find full-time employment and so in 2009 he set up his own design studio, An Endless Supply, in Birmingham.
Today, this start-up continues to provide a successful livelihood for Harry, now 26. “If you’re doing what you love,” says Jerry, “you’re probably doing it really well and so you’ll be successful and things will work out. I’ve got confidence in that human condition – innovation, enterprise, the get up and go that humans have. The West Midlands has more 18-24 year olds in economic activity than other regions.”
All those new and growing companies require expert advice and support, of course, which over coffee brings the conversation back to Jerry’s main point – the need for better-funded Chambers, providing reliable one-stop shops for businesses.
It’s hardly surprising that Jerry is keen on Heseltine’s plan for the greater involvement of Chambers. A few years ago, Birmingham Chamber had around 4,000 business members.
Today, thanks largely to the recession and partly to the fragmentation of state support agencies like Business Link, membership is down to just 2,800. And that’s from a larger pool of businesses, as the group now not only includes Birmingham and Solihull, but also partner Chambers in Burton, Cannock, Tamworth and Lichfield, plus members of the British American Business Council, the Institute of Asian Businesses and the Future Faces and Chamber Executive Clubs.
But if Chambers receive new government funding to become the main body assisting companies, won’t other business membership bodies have their noses put out of joint? Aren’t the bosses of the Institute of Directors, the CBI, Marketing Birmingham and the various Business Improvement Districts, to name just a few organisations charging for membership, getting cheesed off at Jerry palling up with Heseltine?
“That might seem threatening,” says Jerry, “but the evidence is when Chambers play this role they stimulate demand for more services from other membership bodies. So what I’d say to bosses of other bodies is: ‘Don’t regard this as a threat, because if the Chamber is better resourced and contracted to play a larger role, you will benefit.’”
Heseltine will unveil the detailed findings of the LEP’s review of his recommendations on 18 April, at Birmingham Chamber’s annual dinner. And it’s this prospect that keeps a spring in Jerry’s step as he approaches his 10th anniversary with the Chamber, his 7th as chief executive – with no plans to stop until retirement.
“The next few years will be too exciting to even think about doing anything else,” he adds.
Great food to match impressive views
However many times you visit the Marco Pierre White Steakhouse Bar and Grill in Birmingham, you’ll never tire of the views from its location on The Cube’s 25th floor.
Birmingham’s horizons can be seen in all directions, and this certainly made it the right place to discuss the performance of business and industry across the city with Jerry. I smile as the big Chamber man – he’s over six foot four – chooses the prettiest dish to start, bright purple beetroot slices with crumbly chunks of goat’s cheese, which with its walnut and herb dressing looks just like a giant pond flower in full bloom.
“The sweet and savoury just sets my appetite off,” says Jerry, “and this is even nicer than the first time I had it.” I stick with something that had once lived, quickly polishing off a plate of crispy fried calamari, served with tartare sauce and fresh lemon to squeeze.
We then both select the poshest dish in the house – an 8oz fillet steak served with grilled beef tomato, onion rings and chips cooked in beef dripping. Jerry adds sauce au poivre, whereas I ask for mine to be drenched in garlic butter.
They both come medium rare and create a pleasant silence as we enjoy a tender chew. It feels good to be tucking into the best part of a cow that the menu promises is “native” and “aged for 28 days”.
We add creamed spinach as a side dish to make sure we are being healthy. Though both big men, we have no room for dessert, and instead order Americano coffees with hot, skimmed milk – you’ve got to watch the waistline. A single rose jelly – a mini Turkish delight – keeps us happy.
The MPW Steakhouse Birmingham is an experience, and the Midland business community seems to be gradually finding and enjoying it – you nearly always bump into someone you know. Our lunch being on the city’s snowiest Friday means we don’t see many fellow diners at all, but as we leave we feel well-primed to trudge home.
For more information ring 0121 634 3433 or visit www.mpwsteakhousebirmingham.co.uk