Mike Hughes meets Kathy Slack, director of the Enterprise M3 LEP and hears about her hopes for the region and a vision of long-term success.
Kathy Slack has a calming role at the centre of the South East’s business whirlwind. As businesses are created and expanded at a dizzying rate, she unites this cluster of clusters into a powerful force as director of the Enterprise M3 LEP. Through years of experience, first in policy development with the Government Office for the South East, then with the South East England Development Agency and now at Enterprise M3, Kathy knows the area and its economy better than most and places business relationships at the core of her strategies.
She sums up her work now as: “Translating and signposting opportunities for business and other partners, and bringing people, business, public and not-for-profit sectors together to share our insights and data and make Enterprise M3 the place for them to do business”.
“It is about creating the environment in which businesses can flourish,” Kathy told me. “We are working with a series of elements, whether they are businesses or organisations, to get that mix just right and then be able to tackle a number of issues, from transport to schools, enterprise or innovation.
“When we came here we knew we were building on what was already here, some really strong partnership and business groups, but we needed to line everybody up and point them in the same direction, which can sometimes be difficult when there is not a big crisis that needs fixing.
“But that just means you have to work even harder to make sure that we are always about generating growth. I think the impetus we all still have is for continuous improvement, because businesses here know it is quite dangerous to say ‘it’s alright here - let’s go and fix other places’ because we can’t be complacent and have to continually work hard improving what is on offer here.”
‘Why do you need to bother?’ is a question you will hear a lot about this region – but never from the people who live and work in it. It is only when you are here that you realise how important it is that this mighty regional economy keeps growing and being the lure it is for investor and new companies. It is the engine of a powerhouse with impact far beyond its geographical boundaries.
“We certainly can’t sit back on our successes,” agreed Kathy. “The danger is that companies can always up and go or decide they don’t want their next expansion to be here. We have set the bar really high already and we have to continually push that because we deliver a lot for the rest of the country, whether that is money back into the Exchequer or the fact that our key sectors down here then develop opportunities that go right across the rest of the country.
“We are also experienced enough to know that we need to look at housing and infrastructure congestion at the same time because we need homes for our local workforce and that means we need to look at how we can support some of our smaller housebuilders. The other thing we have to do is make sure our talent pool is getting the best possible jobs with the best possible salaries which then allow them to buy the housing they want.”
With such a vast brief - in terms of geography, demographics and responsibilities - relationships are key to the Enterprise M3 team’s philosophy. They don’t need to actually set up every industry group or cluster network themselves, but are always aware of what is already working on the ground, encouraging and supporting it, adding their own input and then knitting the whole region together.
This is where the strategic masterplan is important. Drawn up in 2014 and guiding the region through to 2020. It takes in the whole Enterprise M3 region, approximately 4,400 km2 and stretching 75 miles from the hinterland of London, along the lines of the M3 motorway to the New Forest and south coast.
To the north and neighbouring London and the M25, the economy has strong links to London and the Thames Valley and includes a large number of international headquarters and technology-based businesses. The breathtaking landscapes of the New Forest and South Downs national parks cover another quarter of the LEP’s area.
“The masterplan developed only a couple of years ago involved a lot of work with partners to identify the priorities and know what the next steps should be,” said Kathy. “Some of that is about being really clear about who your deliverers are. We are largely a facilities body which comes together to identify what the strategic priorities are and then looks for others to help develop them. We will then work with our board and our partners to pinpoint those particular areas where we can put funding in to make things happen.
“The funding we get through the Local Growth Fund or the Growing Places Fund is for capital investment like buildings and equipment, and you need to constantly assess where that injection of money will make the most difference.
“There has been a really good response to the idea of partnership and collaboration as the way forward. We have to have that support for a common cause from a lot of organisations and businesses and I know that, for us, the collaborative way of working has been our great strength because you cannot go off and decide these things on your own, you have to work with others and earn their respect.”
Kathy has been described as a “persuasive influencer” and that seems to suit her very well. Such relationships with busy and focused businesses, local authorities, educators and network groups can be the first stumbling block for a LEP if they are not handled with confidence and empathy. But Kathy has built her team carefully and knows she can get precisely the right person in place to deal with each project.
“At the end of the day, this LEP has to deliver and have an eye constantly on the future and what needs to happen to get us there. From the start, the response from within the Enterprise M3 region has been outstanding, and our board has certainly matched that. We have a team from the private and public sectors which is there because its members are really committed to their particular area and know that we are dependent on the people we work alongside.
“Those people can come from any sections. It is about getting that mix right and then forming a view on what they each need. Often there will be bodies already in place to take those things forward, so we don’t want to duplicate that good work, but look at how they are organised and how they work together and how we can help.
“To that end, we work very closely with the universities and FE colleges because they are very important to us and we have built a strong link to those on our patch and in neighbouring areas. This not only respects the research they do, but also the talent that is coming through from them and the crucial experience they have in the commercialisation of ideas.
“This relationship will be more critical as we move forwards because one thing businesses are telling us is that they need to have that access to talent in order for them to grow.
“Our 5G technology is a good example of what we can do here. When we started a lot of people did not understand what it was and saw it very much as a research exercise. But what we are now funding is about how we can take the message out to businesses and how we can highlight the opportunities for their own sector.
“The interesting thing that we found is that as we have been communicating out the information, those businesses have been attracted in very rapidly, rather than us having to go out and identify them. That is very rewarding and very good news for the Enterprise M3 region. “So we are having success, and we need to continue that agenda alongside our work on other long-term programmes, particularly transport, which will take a long time to deliver because of its sheer scale. I think we are about sustaining the things that we have already started and making sure they have an impact and that everything dovetails together – that is really critical for us.”
“Now we can all sense this coming together, along with an acceptance that this is not a quick fix and you can’t just throw money at the issue, this is about lots of people working really hard together to gain a much better understanding of business requirements.
“Things move so quickly around here that we have to get those messages across quickly and efficiently so that we can bring young people through the system and into work. Through the Careers and Enterprise Company that we run, we are also looking at the other side of that picture and making sure that young people are aware of the marvellous opportunities here and what career paths there are, should they be taking up apprenticeships or heading to university, and then how we keep them and their skills in this economy. “We hope that some of them will be our next entrepreneurs because they will be an essential part of that Enterprise M3 mix we are always striving for. We need the diversity in terms of sectors and clusters, but we also balance the large corporates and the smaller supply chain enterprises they are dependent on.
“It is really important that you get that entrepreneurial spirit running all the way through, from deep within the corporate as well as the start-up companies where we are seeing so much growth and innovation across the South East.
“The gaming group is a particularly entrepreneurial one here. They have had some knocks, but they get themselves up and it is such a supportive community that helps each other out and really pulls people together.
“The predictions for growth are huge and the links into other sectors are important because visualisation techniques are being used across the board, so it is not just about gaming, it could also be areas like defence. It is really exciting when you come across these groups because we are always thinking about how we can tell aspirational people where they can get the help they need now as start-ups and then where to go when they start growing and take on staff.”
Her long experience in the region means Kathy has seen it grow at a phenomenal rate, absorbing new technologies and changing its shape to accommodate previously unheard-of breakthroughs that have the world’s leading companies beating a path to its doors.
“I think the changes I have seen have also been in attitudes, which is very reassuring,” she tells me. “Everyone now has to be a lot more fleet of foot, a lot more active and a lot more aware of the economy, with a greater understanding of the importance of business and the growth that then sustains an economy in the longer term. I certainly don’t see places and industries standing still around here, I see businesses that don’t need any great monoliths to help them succeed, but which can be helped enormously by organisations like the LEPs where you can achieve a lot as part of a network of support and advice.”
Kathy sees an exciting future for her organisation and for the region as whole because as she rightly says: “Change is constant. There will always be work to do here, attracting, stabilising, supporting and growing some of the most ground-breaking firms in the country.
“You have to keep on your toes – and it will be challenging.”
“But it is exciting and I am certainly in no way despondent about the amount of work to be done here because I am a very pragmatic person and although businesses are quite wary about what the future might bring, I also sense a mood that people just want to get stuck in. We have to work hard to make sure that view is maintained, but certainly we are urging people to keep moving ahead and we are keeping an ‘eyes and ears’ role working with the Growth Hub, the Chambers and the IoD testing what is happening on the ground so that we can pick up any particular concerns and address them as early as possible so businesses can get on with their work.
“These issues will include how companies can get moving back into exporting again after the Brexit vote and how they can continually access the talent they need, because we are very dependent on EU nationals throughout this area. It is something we need to keep looking at as we keep developing our own workforce into some of those skills pools.
“This is all going to mean change, and we have to keep our businesses constantly informed about the situation and not have people sitting on their hands and waiting for something to be sorted – that is dangerous.
“One way we can keep that forward momentum is with our Growth Hub Champions, which is one of our greatest strengths. They are a very impressive group with loads of character, talent and experience they can pass on and we are getting great feedback from the companies they have been working with.
“I can see that approach growing all the time and having an expanding impact because of a real desire to help those companies make a difference and grow the economy. They are a real part of the Enterprise M3 family now, and we reinforce each other’s messages for the good of the firms we want to help.”
The message from Kathy Slack, the Enterprise M3 LEP and its Growth Hub couldn’t be clearer – that this is the natural home for innovative firms who want to invest, expand and make a positive contribution to the region and its economy.