Business Birmingham: Midland powerhouse - Wouter Schuitemaker




High-tech manufacturers, banks and startups are flocking to Birmingham. Finance Director Europe talks to Wouter Schuitemaker, investment director for Business Birmingham, about how the city is attracting businesses to set up shop in the city.


An exemplar of Victorian civic planning and a manufacturing giant, the UK's second city fell on hard times after the Second World War. The Distribution of Industry Act 1945 and the Control of Office Employment Act 1965 declared the growth in population and employment in Birmingham to be a 'threatening situation', and the resulting policies, which artificially constrained growth, created a dangerous dependence on the listing fortunes of the automotive industry. Now, regenerated with an economy valued at over £110 billion, the midland metropolis has left that all behind.

A career spent immersed in the world of FDI and spanning both the public and private sectors has ensured that Business Birmingham's investment director Wouter Schuitemaker is well-versed in attracting new businesses to the city, then keeping them there. "In an increasingly crowded marketplace, you just have to be tactical in your presentation of what your city can offer," he explains.

"Don't just talk about how many companies are there already: use that information to create a commercial opportunity. What we have here is a real growth story."

Business Birmingham has recently been recognised as one of the best inward investment bodies in Europe by international trade title, Site Selection. As part of the magazine's Best to Invest 2015 awards, Business Birmingham was named as one of the two top regional Investment Promotion Agencies (IPAs) for Western Europe, alongside Invest in Saxony-Anhalt, Germany.

Boom in the middle

It's one that begins with location. "Birmingham is in a very strong position geographically, with the M40, M5, M6 and M42 corridors in striking distance," says Schuitemaker. "That will be enhanced by the arrival of HS2 and the £200-million expansion of Birmingham Airport, where new routes to the Middle East and China are being added. In the city itself, transport links are being upgraded and previously aging infrastructure is being ripped out to transform the city centre into a single, contiguous commercial district."

This accessibility has helped create a retail landscape that is second only to London's in terms of scale and value, with John Lewis, Harvey Nichols and Selfridges choosing to invest heavily. It's also welcomed a stream of young professionals and SMEs disenfranchised by the capital's rising property prices and drawn to Birmingham's lifestyle offering.

"Last year, close to 8,000 people moved to Birmingham and Coventry from London and more than 18,000 startups chose to base themselves in Birmingham," says Schuitemaker.

This, as well as the launch of six dedicated economic zones targeting distinct sectors to diversify the local economy, has helped Birmingham experience a productivity boom.

"Take our life sciences campus in Edgbaston," says Schuitemaker. "Generally, success of such a cluster is ependent on having academics, clinicians and a relevant supply chain within a 45-minute radius. We have all of that within 15 minutes, with new tenants able to draw upon existing expertise available at University Hospital Birmingham and the Institute of Translational Medicine, as well as the University of Birmingham on its doorstep."

The situation is mirrored in the city's thriving manufacturing base in rail, aerospace and computing, sectors that enjoy access to the top-class research facilities of the city's five universities and a burgeoning graduate workforce. With 4.5% growth, Birmingham is the leading regional city for knowledge economy employment.

Expansion opportunities are funded by a banking industry increasingly eager to nearshore operations to the Midlands, with Deutsche Bank now managing 600 of its client accounts previously managed in London out of Birmingham, and HSBC recently announcing the relocation of their retail banking head office to Birmingham, shifting 1,200 roles to the city from Canary Wharf.

The only way is up

Fittingly, there's also been a revival in the city's automotive industry. More than 600,000 cars roll off Birmingham's assembly lines each year, with brands such as Aston Martin, Jaguar Land-Rover, BMW and Geely all within an hour of the city centre.

"Since 2012, we've seen at least a 40% increase in investment, year on year," says Schuitemaker. For him, the direction in which the city's economy is heading is unambiguous. "We're really experiencing the positive legacy of Birmingham's industrial heritage," he says. "All of the ingredients for growth are in Birmingham, including a strong skills base, a diversified supply chain, and a unique location at the heart of the UK, and now we have the momentum."

Wouter Schuitemaker, investment director for Business Birmingham.