“No, no, you’ve got that idea quite wrong,” Lurene Joseph says, and then lets out a characteristic bellyful of a laugh. “The private sector is not like that at all.”
We are having lunch at the City Café at the Leeds DoubleTree by Hilton hotel and I have just suggested to the chief executive of Leeds and Partners that, having started her career in the private sector working for Shell, an organisation with just one board that has the final say, she must find it hard having to juggle the many differing interests that now take up Leeds and Partners’ time – not just marketing interest, but also financial, inward investment, and much more.
“You really think the private sector is just one voice?” she says, and fixes me with one beady eye. She then goes on to explain how when she was at Shell she was chiefly involved in marketing and developing a new type of “cleaner” petrol mainly aimed at developing countries – a petrol which still exists today.
“But Shell is not an organisation with just one boss,” she says. “It’s the most complex organisation, and in fact it was at Shell that I learned about the importance of stakeholder relations.
"Because when you are working in an international firm, you have country managers, section heads and leads, business heads and leads, then global representatives, and finally of course the board.
"I reported to all of those. And believe you me, the country managers have a big weight of authority – just as much as the board.”
If that is indeed the case then she should be well equipped to take on the different voices that make up the Leeds city region. Because many commentators will tell you that the one thing that may have held the region back in the past few decades is the infighting that has gone on about what the most important city in the region really is.
Leeds people says it’s Leeds, but Bradfordians say they are just as important, and York and Wakefield want to do their own thing. When you compare such debate with the focus that the Manchester city region has given to Manchester it can seem quite depressing.
Seven and a half months into her job, and having come to Leeds from Shell by way of the London Development Agency (LDA) first, Joseph says she thinks these antagonisms have been overplayed.
“I haven’t seen much in-fighting,” she says. “In any case we are not saying that Leeds is the centre of everything in the region, but saying instead that the city region needs to work much more closely together. I think most of our stakeholders have now accepted that where there is benefit and there are critical mass points of distinction, that is where we should focus.”
Providing such focus is what she sees as one of the major roles of her organisation. She says she was not at all surprised by the wealth of economic talent that Leeds as a city has to offer.
“I did my homework before I came,” she says, with another laugh. What has surprised her, she says, is how relatively unconnected these different spheres of excellence sometimes are. If they worked together more effectively, she says, the city region would really be steaming.
“I have found there was a lot of good will, but limited sense of direction before,” she says. “The city is, after all, very compact. We need to get it much more focused.”
Such work should become easier now that Leeds and Partners has taken on a much wider role.
Joseph is at pains to point out that the new organisation is not just a successor to Marketing Leeds, the city marketing organisation set up with much fanfare and not a little amount of criticism in 2005.
The new organisation now includes other capabilities as well, such as tourism, the work of Invest in Leeds, Conference Leeds and, if a current proposal is approved, the inward investment operations of the whole Leeds city region.
The change of name, she says, has been prompted by demands from businesses within Leeds, but in any case it is not a city brand. “Leeds and Partners” will not be appearing on any banners around the city any time soon, and she certainly does not look at it as a replacement for the “Live It Love It” tagline that has been festooned in a striking purple font across many buildings in the city centre in the last decade.
She clearly has little enthusiasm for such ventures, saying they have become jaded in recent years.
“New York did that branding thing very well with ‘I heart NY’,” she says, “but that was back in the 1970s when they had other issues to move forward on – issues that I am glad to say Leeds has never had to contend with – and were looking for everybody to be on that page. But advertising alone is not going to do anything for you.
"Putting a logo at the top of your letterhead is not going to get you inward investment. We are not about a colour or a tagline. We are about having one voice and one ambition in terms of how we position the city. We will be working around our key sectors, and working back with the council in terms of making it the best city in the UK by 2030.”
She says her track record in achieving this can be seen in the work she did at the LDA, where she was chief executive, in developing the Enterprise Zone in the East End that builds out from the Olympics site.
“The LDA was the grass roots foundation for the London ambassadors at the Olympics,” she says. “That project came from us.”
As it happens, she got to know a lot about what Leeds is like as a city from the large number of Leeds people who she says made up her finance team at the LDA. Having migrated down to London, she says, a lot of them are now back in Leeds, although working for another organisation.
The key collaborative work that her organisation will be working on focuses around key sectors “where we have a clear point of differentiation”. Perhaps the most important one of these is the city’s health innovation sector.
Partly as a result of having one of the largest teaching hospitals in Europe, with an annual budget of £1bn and 15,000 staff, as well as two universities with over 12,000 students and 1,900 staff involved in health-related teaching, and the second largest adult social care service in England, the city and wider region have indeed built up a formidable profile in the healthcare industry.
In business terms this includes companies as diverse as Surgical Innovations, which specialises in supplying disposable surgical devices, and Tissue Regenix, a York-based company specialising in tissue cell restoration, to more IT-based companies such as EMIS and TPP, whose software is used by GP practices up and down the country.
Leeds and Partners is currently helping to develop a Leeds Innovation Health Hub. A report produced by Ernst & Young in December looking at this as an idea suggested that, yes, there were many “centres of excellence” in the city region, but “these are often too disconnected and fragmented to realise the full benefit for the city.”
A familiar story, but one Leeds and Partners is aiming to ensure is relegated to the past. The report suggests that all interested parties – not just businesses and the private sector but also local communities who might provide a “living lab” for research – should come together to work.
It envisages the creation of a virtual network initially, but in the end the development of a Leeds Advanced Health Park, providing a place where innovative businesses can come together and collaborate. The model is based on similar programmes that are going on in Cambridge and in Cork in Ireland, and a more established hub that has been running since 1960 in North Carolina in the USA.
“Our biggest role is to help shape that strategy where there wasn’t a collective one before,” says Joseph.
“We see ourselves as being the facilitator for this type of work, working back with clinicians and academia, and also being the face to sell these messages.” Financial and professional services is also a key sector.
Joseph is keen to point out that Leeds is now recognised as the second biggest financial centre in the UK, and because of that there are opportunities to be had. “We know that London is overheating in that sector,” she says.
“We are not looking at taking jobs away from London, but saying that if they are looking to expand we don’t want jobs to go overseas but to come to Leeds. We have the right talent to deliver those jobs.”
In discussions with TheCityUK, a promotional body for the UK financial services industry, she has also been keen to stress that these jobs should not just be back office jobs.
“What we are looking for is decision makers. KPMG, for example already has its key tax partner here, and we expect to see more of that. We will take back offices jobs, because we have a skill in that, but also decision makers.”
Another focus is on digital industries. Just about every regeneration strategy in the UK regions involves some nod to the digital sector, but Joseph insists that in Leeds’ case it is an important sector.
“It’s a key anchor because of the infrastructure we have here, and the types of companies we have here,” she says.
“We also have critical mass with DLA Piper having its global IT operations stationed here. Then there’s AQL and Freeserve, plus smaller companies who are niche.”
That’s not forgetting tourism either. Leeds and Partners has just unveiled an advertising programme aimed at encouraging more “independent” visitors to discover the city. Joseph also has high hopes for Leeds in 2013 with the opening of the new Leeds Arena – “positioning itself to be number five in the world”, she says – and the new Trinity Leeds shopping centre.
“I like the way [the centre’s owner] Land Securities has been developing that shopping centre in a very different way,” she says.
“They have reached out to the entire city. They are not just saying: ‘Let’s make Trinity good’, but looking at the whole of the shopping experience. They have also engaged with young bands, young artists, and street food merchants, and are working with small organisations and entrepreneurs to get them in.”
But while the remit of Joseph’s organisation has increased, it is surprising to discover that the money behind it has not.
“Our budget has not increased, although we have had an injection of new people to make the organisation fit for purpose,” she says.
On top of that, she has also disbanded the old Marketing Leeds “champions” programme, essentially a form of getting local sponsors. She says the businesses who had become champions did not see any value in what they were doing, and claims that as a result the total amount of money left in the champions’ kitty when she arrived was just £11,000.
But there has still been great progress on getting private money, she says. This year’s delegation to MIPIM, a key property trade show in Cannes, has been significantly privately funded.
“In the last three months, the money we have raised from just going to MIPIM alone is a huge increase on what was there at the beginning of this year before I took the job.”
She is also hoping to raise more money by working with partners to develop “collateral that we can commercialise”, such as a Leeds city app. But she says the focus on money can sometimes be distracting. The work of an organisation like Leeds and Partners needs to be much more than that. “There is now a lot of mood music in how one positions cities,” she says.
“It is no longer only around putting money on the table. Investors only want to come if there is a clear proposition and talent and skills. We have a very good story there.”