Written by Mark Chillingworth Photographed by Matt Gore
Has the Northern Powerhouse run out of power under the government of Theresa May? The coalition government and the short lived Conservative government of David Cameron focused on Manchester as a beacon for the reinvention of the North of the UK and former Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne was a vocal supporter of the initiative and in particular Manchester as its hub. But the demise of the Cameron government following the EU referendum of 2016 and the forming of a new minority government by Theresa May has seen the limelight dim on the North and Manchester as Brexit negotiations lurch from one problem to the next.
For this week’s Horizon CIO podcast we brought together a leading CIO, Graham Benson of rentalcars.com, one of Manchester’s main technology recruiters Alec Laurie of Laudale and Tim Newns, CEO of MIDAS, the Manchester investment body to discuss whether the powerhouse has lost its charge.
Manchester can lay claim to being the home of technology in the UK, the city has the oldest academic department devoted to technology in the UK, Baby a small scale one tonne computer took 25 minutes to run a programme, code breaker Alan Turing made Manchester his home after the second world war and developed Baby 2, the successor computer. Manchester composed the first computerised music in 1951 and in recent years the city has become a hub for startup, scale up and major technology focused organisations.
Graham Benson has been CIO at rental cars.com since February 2015 having joined the online business from retailer M and M Direct. Benson joined the Horizon CIO podcast with two hats on his head, alongside his CIO role Benson was Chairman of the Board of Manchester Digital, a role he has stepped down from in recent weeks.
“Rentalcars.com has been based in Manchester since its inception,” Benson says. “We were a startup looking to really disrupt the car rental business and we have grown considerably over the last 12 years. We were acquired by Priceline Group who are the largest online travel business in the world with brands like booking.com, Open Table and Kayak amongst others,” Benson says of the scale of technology business in Manchester.
“Manchester Digital is a trade association oriented around startups all the way through to large corporates and we have key areas of focus: talent, promotion and profile of digital business, infrastructure such as 5G and really targeting a healthy digital eco-system that embraces the education and universities, internships, apprenticeships and a healthy graduate programme,” Benson says of the industry body he was involved with for just over two years.
MIDAS has a wider remit than Manchester Digital and is working across all sectors to bring new investment into the city that creates jobs, Newns says. It is also involved in ensuring Manchester regenerates its housing. “We look at key sectors and we go out internationally and nationally that we feel would do well here and there is a huge story around technology here and there is a large pool of talent coming out of the universities here and talent that is attracted to live here for the quality of life,” Newns says.
Laurie of Laudale, which he has led since 2013, says his organisation is a barometer for the health of Manchester that both Newns and Benson espouse, year-on-year the organisation has grown by 20% as demand for technology talent rises across both Manchester and the North.
Does it help a city or region to have a wealthy politician now editor of a tabloid newspaper give it some marketing spin?
“In terms of profile Northern Powerhouse is both good and bad,” Newns says. “Manchester has a brand internationally. And Liverpool is strong as well and football does us no harm at all, so Northern Powerhouse is a weaker brand at one level. In areas where it is positive is in countries like China where the president visited over two years ago and he chose the Northern Powerhouse as a project he wanted to work with and he described Manchester as the capital of the Northern powerhouse, in Europe Manchester brand is stronger.
“It puts a focus on the North and that was positive, particularly around infrastructure,” Newns says, adding that plans to build a rail line, to connect the major cities of the North. “Connecting the four cities is absolutely critical,” he says.
“On an anecdotal level, we have seen more focus from career focused individuals,” Laurie says, but he adds that the regeneration of the North and its five main cities is a “complex set of ideas” especially around major developments such as infrastructure. “It has allowed leaders to work more collaboratively and our objective is to connect talent to the North and we have seen more people consider relocating here and we have seen more people who have perhaps moved to London for a career and are considering moving back here, so these are notable and helpful.”
Newns agrees with Laurie that the people are talking collectively again and this had not happened for a number of years.
“It has been both, in the North it raised a lot of expectations and given the time it has taken to deliver major developments, a level of cynicism has kept in and it has been quite divisive as it is about not just Manchester, but it has often been seen as a purely Manchester thing and that has created some tension,” Benson adds. “As a marketing vehicle it has been helpful, when you are going down south to attract talent and for inward investment it has given the North a great story, there’s some inaccuracies told, but that is life.
“To me it is over as a moniker and we need something to succeed it, I am biased I live in Manchester but I am from Sheffield, but the concept that there is a lot of things happening in the North was important,” Benson says of the need for a reboot or rebranding.
Last year Manchester was one of a series of regions that voted for regional mayors. The North western city voted in former Labour health minister Andy Burnham, who Laurie cites as important for the city as “is strongly behind the digital agenda. Politics to one side, on a day to day I see there is evidence to improve productivity in Manchester and the North”.
Osborne’s sacking from the cabinet by the beleaguered Theresa May has damaged the momentum of the Northern Powerhouse movement, Newns says, but not Manchester, all three believe the city now has a momentum to continue its digital journey.
“There is more activity in the midlands and you look at the number of cabinet MPs from that area of the country and that is important that we have a strong midlands,” Newns says.
“Whilst there has been a slow down of momentum from central government, what we have done here is sustain that impetus without the need for central government,” Benson adds. “I think we have a force of nature and a significant momentum that is self fulfilling. I have seen a quantum shift in how the city feels about its tech industry and we are now in that wonderful position of being in a virtuous circle and so it has given us a head start on other parts of the country and we now have the internal momentum to keep that going.”
“I think one of the big factors is the attractiveness of the place to attract a good talent supply. There is almost 25,000 people in the metropolitan area studying areas close to tech such as maths. There are eight to 9000 graduates every year and there are 22 universities very close to here like Lancaster, which is really strong on cyber security, and that plays really well for e-commerce companies and Liverpool, John Moores, Leeds Metropolitan universities, these are very vocationally focused universities that are turning out some good graduates,” Newns says.
“In all the other cities you find complementary industries competing for talent and you get this talent merry go round of wage inflation, so it is a vicious circle rather than a virtuous circle,” Benson says. “One of the keys to Manchester’s success is where businesses work together for the greater good on the talent gaps and it is the way the Manchester community works together and the spirit of collaboration and I’m proud to work here.”
“The biggest asset by a country mile is the willingness of citizens and businesses to collaborate and connect and the whole region feels like an incubator, you have startups to large businesses all working together to create growth. It is about the people and the collaboration,” adds Laurie.
“Technology talent is tight throughout the UK and we have good supply here, it is still tight, and the mayor has announced a £2m skills fund,” Newns says. “There are more agile things we can do with secondary schools, we have 200 code clubs, we can add more computing teachers, so there are things we can do tweak it rather than throwing the whole thing up in the air,” Newns says of the benefits of devolution that enable communities to ensure they don’t rely on immigration for example.
“The challenges are short, medium and long term, just like any business and any business runs those concurrently, but focuses on them at the appropriate time,” Benson says. “Medium to long term I am encouraged by the initiatives, in the short term the challenge is the supply and how we address that, and if anything overheats Manchester it’s a sudden increase in demand. We must market the region more proudly and less on the back foot, as companies grow you need people with five or 10 or even 30 years of experience, you need people with middle and senior management experience,” the CIO says of ensuring management potential move back to Manchester.
“It is great to fill the bottom end of the supply chain but you still have to be able to fill the others and typically we are on the back foot, we must not take our eye off the ball and we need to be a global city to bring the best people in and there are some Brexit issues around that,” Benson says. ”We will know when are successful when we bring people in from outside of Europe, from a personal point of view we have brought in two senior people from the US, one from Seattle and one from Hawaii and that is a litmus test.”
Newns at MIDAS believes the city is already rising to Benson’s challenge: “We have seen that in financial services in recent years. Roles that were once only in London and New York like heads of EMEA roles are sat here in Manchester and we can see that transition into the tech space”.
“It is the next level down that we need to attract, there are not so many CIO roles, but the 500 to 1500 size organisation need a CTO and we need to work with the CIO community to raise the profile of the North,” Laurie says of how the next generation of CIO should be looking at Manchester and the roles with the fast growing businesses the city has.
As Benson says, it is the perceptions that are the challenge, Newns says when the BBC moved back to Manchester media talent worried that the only job options in Manchester was the BBC. The MIDAS director believes Manchester needs to tell the story of the wide number of career paths on offer. He adds that for technologists Manchester is home to organisations that are at the forefront of change such as The Hut Group health and fitness organisation, AO the online white goods company, used car specialists Trader Media and fashion retailers Boohoo and MissGuided.
Laurie says technologists and leaders looking to work in a more diverse environment should head up the M6 too. He cites the Northern Powerwomen association, Girl Geek and that Trader Media has a staff ratio of 37% women “and they don’t struggle to recruit”. Laurie adds that Manchester is home to Rachel Dunscombe, digital director of the Salford Royal Group NHS trust and recently described as “the most disruptive CIO in Europe”.
As Ian Cohen, CIO of Addison Lee recently wrote for this title, its up to the CIOs to ensure diversity and talent gravitate to an organisation and Benson agrees: “As employers we have to take it upon ourselves, part of the talent gap is that we have a responsibility to make ourselves a great place to work. Facebook and Google have an aura about working there and Manchester needs to use its brand. Employment is a two-way street.”
The fuel line from Westminster may have come loose, but the city that proudly associates itself with the humble bee insect remains a hive of activity. The bee was chosen as the symbol of Manchester because of its association with hard work at a time when the smoke and hammers of industry defined Manchester. Today the city is not the dark brooding city of Charles Dickens’ Hard Times novel, it is working towards a digital powerhouse.